Posted by on Nov 26, 2013 in Featured

Geishas, Cowboys, Indians, and Skinning People for the Sake of Fashion: Katy Perry’s Racism Knows No Bounds, By Ruth Hopkins

Geishas, Cowboys, Indians, and Skinning People for the Sake of Fashion: Katy Perry’s Racism Knows No Bounds, By Ruth Hopkins

Apparently if you have no problem appropriating the culture of one group of people, you’ll have no qualms with appropriating from another. Proof? Katy Perry donning traditional Japanese Geisha dress during her AMA performance last night and the fact that she threw a “Cowboys and Indians” Birthday soiree with her ex-fiance Russell Brand back in 2011.

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Russell Brand and Katy Perry at her “Cowboys and Indians” 2011 Birthday Bash

Much like Gwen Stefani, who pretended she was latina in her music video “Luxurious,” used Japanese Harajuku girls as props for years, and then proceeded to prance around seductively in one of the cheapest, most stereotypical “Indian” costumes ever in the universally panned Native Appropriation extravaganza that was No Doubt’s “Looking Hot” music video, Ms. Perry is a repeat cultural appropriation offender. The difference? Gwen had the sense to apologize for the latter.

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Gwen Stefani in an “Indian” costume for No Doubt’s original “Looking Hot” music video

We’ve yet to hear a peep from Katy Perry in reference to her Geisha act last night, nor her offensive “Cowboys and Indians” birthday party. On the American Music Awards last night, Katy Perry started off the show by performing her latest single, “Unconditionally,” in a geisha costume. Dancers waved fans while playing drums in front of rice paper screens.   While fans and celebrity gurus say her performance “honored” Japanese culture, especially since she kept all her clothes on (although I’ve yet to see actual traditional geisha dresses with slits up the side), the fact is, Katy Perry is not Japanese, and their culture is not hers for the taking.

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Katy Perry performing in a Japanese geisha costume at the 2013 AMAs

Geisha are traditional Japanese entertainers. The literal translation of geisha is “artist.”  Today, women who become geisha train for at least a year to become one. In ancient times, geisha training was a lifelong process that began as young as 3 years old. Geisha apprenticed as maiko before becoming full geisha. The art of being a geisha is well over a thousand years old. There are still traditional geisha, who wear elaborate kimonos and entertain, working today. These skill female performers hold a place of honor in Japanese society.

What’s wrong with Katy Perry performing while dressed as another race? The identity and culture of distinct groups of people is not trivial. Cultural items, dress, customs, and rituals have specific meaning, constructed over millenia. It belongs to that group of people; it is their birthright. We are not commodities to be bought and sold. We are not toys, props, masks, pets, costumes, or slaves, and to behave as though we are such is dehumanizing. Whether it’s blackface, redface or yellowface, make no mistake, appropriating the traditional culture of another race of people is wrong.

Appropriation is a weapon of assimilation and is born of a conqueror’s mentality. Colonial empires express dominion over people by conversion. First they defeat the people militarily. Their lands and resources are taken. The people are made to assimilate or face termination. Then they try to break the spirit of the people by re-educating them, and forcing their religion upon them. Eventually, they come for what the people consider most sacred, and try to destroy it by making it illegal or making a mockery of it. Ultimately, whether consciously or unconsciously, they attempt to exercise control over the very identity of that group and cry foul when a member of that group dares to protest the offense. Only the voice of privilege has the arrogance to assume ownership over all things, even the spirit of a people.

So what’s the big deal? It’s just a kimono. It’s not like Americans killed Japanese before, right? Cut to 1945- when approximately 100,000-150,000 Japanese citizens were killed instantly when an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and another 60,000-80,000 perished from a bomb dropped on Nagasaki, at the culmination of World War II. An undetermined number of people died later from burns, injuries, and radiation sickness.

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Victims of the Hiroshima bombing

Besides the wave of genocide that started in 1492 with the arrival of Columbus that killed millions of Indigenous, the U.S. declared war on my people too. We were hunted down and killed during the Dakota Conflict in 1862, and eventually exiled from our homelands. The Governor of Minnesota put a bounty on our scalps. Later, hundreds were massacred at Whitestone Hill and Wounded Knee.

Even loyal Japanese were placed in internment camps. Natives were places on reservations. Many of us still reside there.

Some say Katy Perry’s geisha performance doesn’t mean she’s racist. Well how about this…in an interview on Jimmy Kimmel in the summer of 2012, Katy Perry said the following about Japanese people: “I’m so obsessed with you I want to skin you and wear you like Versace!”

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Katy Perry on Jimmy Kimmel in 2012

Katy, I may not be Japanese, but I know what it’s like to be called a redskin. We’re not animals. You cannot skin us and wear us. Cracking a racist joke about filleting people and wearing them like a jacket is despicable and absolutely mortifying.  You’re part of everything that’s wrong with pop culture in America. Refusing to apologize for last night’s geisha act and your “Cowboys and Indians” party reveals that these offenses were intentional. I hope you’ll prove me wrong.

Ruth Hopkins is a writer, blogger, and judge. She’s a founding writer with Lastrealindians.com.