Katy Perry's "performative wokeness"

Kathleen Posted by Kathleen at June 13, 2017 14:22:17 June 13, 2017 14:22:17

In support of her new album Witness and its upcoming tour, Katy Perry is doing a lot of talking.  She talked about her exes. She talked about Taylor Swift. She talked about religion and sex and cooking and oh yeah, she talked about a few of the times she put on other people’s cultures like they were costumes. Katy Perry livestreamed her every move all weekend and of all the topics she covered, her thoughts on her past instances of cultural appropriation have been the most divisive. 

Katy’s comments were given during an interview with Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson. I can’t find the entire episode online yet but a 2-minute snippet of their conversation has gone viral:


“I’ve made several mistakes – even in the This is How We Do video about how I wore my hair and having a hard conversation with one of my empowered angels Cleo about what does it mean? Why can’t I wear my hair that way? What is the history behind wearing the hair that way? And she told me about the power in black women’s hair, and how beautiful it is, and the struggle… I listened. And I heard. And I didn’t know. And I won’t ever understand some of those things because of who I am — I will never understand, but I can educate myself, and that’s what I’m trying to do along the way.”

OK. Here is where I refer to the two most important words Duana has ever taught me: “Yes... and?” Yes, Katy Perry ignorantly appropriated black culture by wearing her hair in cornrows and yes, she did all the other stereotypical BS packed into the This is How We Do video. Yes, she acknowledged her ignorance. Yes, she was right when she said she will never understand the plight of the black women whose culture she appropriated.

And?

What has Katy Perry done with this penitence? She continued to be problematic after that video and she has done little to show that she truly understands her privilege and that she’s not just saying this sh-t to sell records.

Many Twitter users were quick to applaud Perry’s comments. They said it was brave for her to “apologize.” Where were the words, “I’m sorry,” though? They said that it was great that she was trying to do better. April Reign, the creator of #OscarsSoWhite, was not one of those Twitter users.


Janet Jackson’s career has still never recovered from a goddamn wardrobe malfunction and yet, Katy Perry can perform in a full Geisha costume, not even acknowledge how f-cked up it was until years later and suffer no career setbacks? This is why many black women writers are refusing to let Katy off the hook. She gets all the chances with no repercussions. This is why they are also calling out DeRay McKesson for serving softballs at Katy instead of asking the hard questions like, “IF you are so woke now, how do you explain your performance with Migos on SNL last month? IF you’re so woke now, why do your comments still make you out to be the victim?” (I should note that DeRay has since responded to the negative reaction to his interview here.)

Re: victimhood, here are Katy’s full remarks on that now infamous performance at the 2013 Billboard awards: 

Even in my intention to appreciate Japanese culture, I did it wrong with a performance, and I didn’t know that I did it wrong until I heard people saying I did it wrong...Sometimes that’s what it takes, is it takes someone to say — out of compassion, out of love — ‘This is where the origin is, do you understand?’ And not just like, a clapback. Because it’s hard to hear those clapbacks sometimes. And your ego just wants to turn from them. I’ve been so grateful to have great teachers and great friends who will really hold me accountable…”

Katy is calling for “compassion” and “love” instead of clapbacks because they are “hard to hear.” I’m sure it was hard for Katy’s Japanese fans to watch her use their culture as a prop. Performative Allyship is a term I was first introduced to a few years ago – probably through the comments in a Jezebel article, you know, where I learn most of my progressive buzzwords. It’s the idea that people of the dominant group only act in solidarity with minorities when there's an audience to acknowledge their actions and that they act as allies only with the promise of being celebrated for it. I saw a tweet (forgive me for forgetting who actually posted it) that called the Katy Perry/ DeRay McKesson interview “performative wokeness.” Remember when Katy tried to sell us that her music was “purposeful pop” and instead of being purposeful, Witness is just another mediocre pop album? What does it mean that I literally see "whiteness" every time I read the title of her album? Anyway, it's not our job to hold Katy Perry's hand through her white guilt. It gets exhausting to always be the one explaining to white people when they say or do problematic sh-t. I would know. There should be no prize or praise that comes with the recognition and ownership of a mistake if a) there are no consequences and b) that person continues to profit off of the people they appropriated in the first place. This thread by white writer Abraham Gutman nails all of these points.


I understand how this could all be confusing. But Kathleen, you might say, you're always calling on white celebrities to own up to their mistakes and listen to the people of colour around them. Isn’t that what Katy is doing? Of course, celebrities cannot be right all the time. We all f-ck up. Owning and acknowledging mistakes is something I write about often when I write about cultural appropriation. I’ve called on Miley Cyrus and on Justin Bieber to listen to some of the criticism they receive instead of just dismissing it. Recognition of wrongdoing is something I've commended Lena Dunham for. So how are Katy’s comments different than Lena Dunham’s apologies for her own problematic history? My issue with Katy is that so far, it's just words. Lena Dunham started Lenny Letter, a place for women of colour to share their own voices. She hired actors of colour to appear on Girls (not that this gives the show a pass). Lena Dunham acted on her contrition. Katy Perry is on a promotional tour. It’s hard to feel like this is genuine remorse when it happened during a 3 day live-stream that The New Yorker called, “heavy with promotional intention, and low on spontaneity or frankness.
I’ll be impressed when Katy talks less and does more. 

Attached- Katy Perry performing a free show in LA yesterday to promote Witness. 

Photos:
Amanda Edwards/ Getty Images

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