By: Staff Writer Vivian Liu
Katy Perry’s artistic license has covered everything from California girls to extraterrestrials. That’s why at the 2013 American Music Awards, it was apparently only fitting for her to choose Asian culture to emulate next. Her rendition of “Unconditionally” was complete with Chinese fan dancing, a sexualized blend of a cheongsam and a kimono, and an attempt at bowing that vaguely resembled Namaste. But there is nothing wrong with a little appreciation for Asian culture, right?
Well—if the backlash was any indication—there was. It was less cultural appreciation and more cultural appropriation, when people pick and choose elements of a different culture to adopt into their own. It is a concept often rooted in good intentions and open-mindedness. Unfortunately, when people walk such a fine line between tribute and parody, crossing that line is all too easy to do.
Perry is not an isolated case—the entertainment industry has certainly had its disproportionate share of embarrassing cases where the line was clearly crossed. Selena Gomez seemed to really want some backlash to come and get her when she began sporting a bindi during promotions for her song “Come and Get it”. While Miley Cyrus made a lot of headlines for her performance with Robin Thicke at the MTV Music Video Awards, she also prompted a smaller, equally insulted buzz about her exploitation of twerking, an actual dance form, and her usage of black back-up dancers as accessories. Another inflammatory incident arose from Lady Gaga’s gag-worthy lyrics in “Burqa”, in which Islam dress was the object of focus—”Do you wanna see me naked, lover? Do you wanna peak underneath the cover?”
At least, it’s a good sign that people cringe. The problem is that people can’t see the amount of cultural appropriation that torments others day to day on a smaller scale. Perhaps, the reason it’s so hard to recognize less flamboyant cultural appropriation is because it’s simply everywhere, to the point where it has clouded visions and stuck itself into the status quo. It’s in the crosses worn as accessories, in the dream catchers printed on clothing, and in the retailed turbans used as fashion statements. Perhaps the closest people ever come to recognizing the prevalence of cultural appropriation is when Halloween rolls around. Neighborhoods and campuses are flooded with stereotyped Cleopatras and geishas worn in jest, unknowingly offending others.
Even at MSJ, there is no escape from cultural appropriation. Before there was ever Mission Man, there was the MSJ Warrior, a mascot that, along with the rest of the Native American insignia adorning the campus, represented MSJ’s attempted salute to Native American cultures.
There may never be a solution for a problem that manifests without ill intent except general awareness. In the case of Halloween costumes, in 2011, Ohio University students launched a campaign against commercialized mockeries of cultures with the slogan, “We’re a culture, not a costume.” If Perry’s homage to Japanese culture had made a concerted effort to be even a tad bit more accurate, her performance would not have been slammed by critics as a mockery of Asian culture.
It’s only when people donate the time into educated appreciation that a melting pot of culture such as MSJ can free itself from cultural appropriation.