Katy Perry is not known for her cultural sensitivity. The way the world was introduced to her was through the single “I Kissed a Girl,” a song called out by some for its use of lesbianism to get a rise out of others. On that same album, she sang a song called “Ur So Gay,” one that used stereotypes of gay men and the word “gay” to insult a straight man. Just last fall, Perry dressed up as a geisha for her American Music Awards performance, which did not go unnoticed by many. Now she has mummified dancers, with exaggerated butts, large red lips, short black hair, hoop earrings, and twerking, on tour with her. Yet they didn’t make much of a splash at all. In comparison to, say, Mileygate after the 2013 VMAs, Lily Allen’s blowback from her video for “Hard Out Here,” and the response to Perry’s own AMA performance, outside of a few corners of Twitter and Jezebel’s article on the matter, the pop star’s latest stunt has gone mostly unnoticed.
— Yung ButtascotchChip (@Awkward_Duck) June 10, 2014
For some, though, the first response is to shut down the possibility of the dancers being offensive. Yes, a cycle of outrage does exist on the internet. We are quick to turn on an artist as soon as one person gives us the go-ahead. There’s an angry snowball effect that can be gross, exaggerated, and even unnecessary, given the amount of rehashing of the same stock response to an event that can be done. Annoyance with the cycle is one thing. A blatant ignorance of where this anger stems from, who is angry about it, and their right to be upset about it, is a separate and unjust route to take.
In her Voice article yesterday, the root of Kat George’s issue with the matter seems to be less the placing of racial codes onto the mummified dancers in Perry’s concert tour but the idea that these codes are being placed by “white chicks having opinions.” To blame the outrage cycle on “white chicks” is already ignorant of the number of women of color who have been continuously speaking out on these same racial signifiers. Tressie McMillan Cottom was at the forefront of the Miley Cyrus critique, giving a powerful first-person perspective on the infatuation people have with the black female body. Ayesha Siddiqi presented the strongest case for how Lily Allen is an “anti-black feminist” in a piece that came soon after Allen’s “Hard Out Here” video debuted. In the same way that we allow Perry to continue being a prominent face of pop music who can walk away from offensive, controversial situations unscathed, we let ourselves believe that there is only one kind of person cultivating this argument just because there is only one significant article on this particular subject.
See also: It’s Hard Out Here for Lily Allen
Again, the important part of the latest Perry situation is that not many people are speaking out on it at all. “I honestly think more people haven’t been mad about this because we’re all just fatigued,” says Heben Nigatu, an associate editor at BuzzFeed. “I’m not sure what more we could say here that wasn’t already said in the Miley conversation.” The use of the black female body as a prop was not only the center of the Cyrus media cycle last year but what helped her transform her image. For Perry, this is just another attraction in her cultural appropriation circus. This is just another questionable moment in her career that will be forgotten until the next time she does something else offensive.
Yes, one white woman did write an article on how Perry’s mummified dancers were racist signifiers of black women. That does not invalidate the critique or make it any less true. The association of black women with big butts — and non-black infatuation with them — is not just another tool of our outrage economy, it’s a historical stereotype rooted in the stories of figures like Sarah Baartman. Baartman was known as the Hottentot Venus, derived from Hottentot, a name given to the Khoi people of Africa by European settlers, and Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Baartman was paraded around Europe as a main attraction at freak shows because of her body type was deemed abnormal in comparison to that of the typical white European woman.
In the early 20th century, performer Josephine Baker became the image of the new black “savage” to both American and European audiences. She famously performed in a banana skirt, to which Beyoncé famously (and controversially) paid tribute in a performance of “Deja Vu.” Baker’s dance is to many the root of today’s twerking, and her “exotic” sex appeal that emphasized the curves of her body and color of her skin, made her popular in Europe, specifically France, at a time when black culture was at its most popular. The modern, mainstream embracing of a larger butt is widely connected to the popularity of Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez, which led to a widespread desire to have a larger derriere and a subsequent rise in butt implants.
Even the large, red lips the dancers sport are minstrel codes that have plagued black performance for centuries. Exaggeratedly painted red lips were a huge part of not only live blackface performance but mid-20th-century cartoons depicting “primitive” people. The same codes exist for the accessories the mummified dancers sport. Journalist Julianne Shepherd notes, “Nail art and acrylic nails were vilified for so long as ‘black’ and ‘ghetto’ until high fashion began to co-opt it for white models. The same thing is happening with cornrows and box braids right now. Same with ‘hoop earrings,’ which were styles in black and Latino urban/hip-hop culture and seen as ‘ghetto’ until they became ‘cool,’ aka co-opted circa mass amounts of white girls getting deep into hip-hop circa 2006.”
To dismiss the recognition of Katy Perry’s behavior as being really shitty doesn’t take into account how much Perry is dismissing the narrative attached to certain dances, fashion, and language. It’s why we live in a world where we look at critiques of Perry and say “lay off” but if a black woman were to enact any of these codes we would say “tone it down.” Nolan Feeney of The Atlantic wrote an excellent piece after the geisha-inspired performance that noted why we should continue to call out behavior like this. He quoted writer Crystal Leww, who had noted of that incident, “This sort of shit is not funny or artistic to me; it just reminds me that I am still not an American to a lot of people and that someone who looks like me still cannot be a Katy Perry of the world.” There are plenty of times when the internet cries wolf, but taking offense to racism hardly tends to be one of them. “People are allowed to feel what they feel when someone does something racist,” says Nigatu. Not to allow it? “That just feels dismissive of real pain.”