Breaking Down Cultural Appropriation in Pop Music and More

by Gwen Berumen

White people everywhere are tired of hearing about “cultural appropriation.” So what if my favorite pop star Katy Perry is wearing cornrows in her new video?! The only thing that is keeping racism alive is people of color talking about racism!

Well, I’m here to debunk all of the whitesplained myths about cultural appropriation, and to tell you why it is indeed racist for Katy Perry to dress up as a geisha or to have large butt mummies dancing around her during a live performance. 

Now – I’ll start off by saying that Katy Perry is not alone in her actions, nor was she the first. Cultural appropriation has had a long and tenuous history, from black face to the appropriation of the original cowboys “vaqueros,” whom were often Indigenous men (who we now know as Native American or Mexican).

However, there’s been an ongoing trend in the music industry of appropriating cultures. What started with Miley Cyrus twerking, Australian Iggy Azalea rapping with the fakest southern-black accent I’ve ever heard, and Vanessa Hudgens wearing bindis to Coachella has now become a trend that doesn’t look like it has an ending-point. If we were all equal and that culture’s members were not mocked, ostracized and objectified for wearing the same things, then it would be okay. But, unfortunately, that’s not the case.

The people of these adapted cultures are homogenized when someone not from that culture pettily embraces various elements from it. The history and significance of those elements are stripped away, leaving something that popular chain stores make in mass-production. No one is appreciating the culture by wearing this stuff; in fact they are doing anything but.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Katy Perry seemed annoyed that young people of color are calling her out instead of just enjoying her music. When asked particularly about her mummy-backup dancers booty’s, Perry scoffed at the idea of being racist. Keep in mind, the models look like a Western-idea of blackness (models have accentuated hips and butt, not to mention they are wearing mummy costumes). KP says the following on this issue, “As far as the mummy thing, I based it on plastic surgery,” she says. “Look at someone like Kim Kardashian or Ice-T’s wife, Coco. Those girls aren’t African-American. But it’s actually a representation of our culture wanting to be plastic, and that’s why there’s bandages and it’s mummies. I thought that would really correlate well together… It came from an honest place. If there was any inkling of anything bad, then it wouldn’t be there, because I’m very sensitive to people.”

Seems a bit odd that she is comparing the pre-conceived notions of black women to “ideals,” when we all know that beauty standards don’t really work in any women of color’s favor, particularly black women. Ayesha Siddiqi of the New Inquiry best summarizes this by saying acts like these “[exemplify] the white impulse to shake the stigma its mainstream status affords while simultaneously exercising the power of whiteness to define blackness.” Frankly KP, it doesn’t matter what your intention was; it matters how you executed it and what it insinuates. 

“I guess I’ll just stick to baseball and hot dogs, and that’s it,” she says afterwards. “…can’t you appreciate a culture? I guess, like, everybody has to stay in their lane? I don’t know.” Funny because “stay in your lane” is also a phrase that is pretty unique to AAVE (African-American Vernacular English).

But brown people participate in our culture! Brown people play baseball! Yeah, sure. But it’s much different when the colonized participate in the colonizer’s culture than vice-versa. In fact, the entire purpose of colonization (and later concepts known as imperialism and globalization) was to “advance” the cultures of the colonized. You see, colonizers wanted to spread their culture because they believed that they just knew it all (see the history of the world). Marginalized and racialized people had to assimilate into the dominant (Western) culture to be taken seriously. This meant speaking the language, dressing like a “Westerner,” and following societal guidelines put in place to properly impose cultural control. We are not at fault with what our ancestors did, but we are still all living under the reign that they created – certain people just happen to benefit and others don’t. 

Another common counterargument: Why can a brown person do this and not me? Gee whiz, you probably think that you deserve to say the n-word, because of freedom of speech or whatever you decide to tell yourself. Like, sure, the state is on your side, but you should know that just because the government says you could say something, doesn’t make it not racist.

I know what you’re thinking: YOU DON’T OWN THE CULTURE. You are right. I don’t own it, but I suppose we all own some of this stock? Something about free market, am I right? Capitalism makes it easy to take something that is spiritually and culturally significant to a group of people and make it available for widespread production because “it’s pretty” and it will “sell well.” Go ahead and spend your money on Urban Outfitter’s Bindis. Don’t get mad you’re called out for being a little racist. 

So many pop stars are accessorizing themselves with what me and so many other people of color cannot –our own culture. We are seen as perpetual immigrants if we wear what they wear, but for them it’s cool. In order to understand cultural appropriation, you must understand that we are not all equal. We have to assimilate in order to be taken even a little bit seriously. Thinking that Katy Perry’s actions are okay but condemning the people whose culture is being used as an aesthetic choice is racist. Cultural appropriation is not cultural appreciation; it’s theft. And if you really appreciated the culture, you would know not to participate. 

Photos via VEVO, Pacific Coast News, and 

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