To be Asian-American today is to expect cultural appropriation -- and unabashed, openly celebrated Orientalism -- from a greater, whiter America with little apology or concern. In 2013, Katy Perry opened the American Music Awards with a performance filled with “East-Asia inspired” caricatures of Taiko drums, paper umbrellas, qipao dresses and powder-white Geisha faces. Never mind that qipao dresses come from China or that Taiko drums are Japanese, Katy Perry provided America with an age-old, dehumanizing caricature of Asia -- a region of diverse, deep and distinct cultures and histories -- for the purpose of exotic, perceived “edginess.”
So you can imagine my disappointment last night when I discovered that the most recent participant in the unchecked cultural appropriation of Asian cultures was not Katy Perry, nor Gwen Stefani or Iggy Azalea -- but Fat Joe, Remy Ma and French Montana during their performance of “All The Way Up” at the BET (Black Entertainment Television) Awards show. Performing their song against the backdrop of Japanese Geishas, Samurai swords and French Montana’s “Chinese-inspired” costume, the artists willingly participated in the ongoing trend of non-Asian American artists using Asian culture as an Orientalist stage prop. At an awards show meant to celebrate Blackness -- an identity that has often been appropriated, dehumanized, and utilized at the expense of black people and artists -- I saw an enthusiastic audience cheering on a performance that was premised on the very form of cultural appropriation that white artists have historically used to profit from black culture.
The irony of their performance -- of Black America perpetuating anti-Asian racism and caricatures -- was part of a trend that I’ve been growing uncomfortably familiar with as someone of both Japanese and Black heritage. Earlier this year, Chris Rock made a seemingly harmless joke about Asian-Americans (and Jewish-Americans) being smart and “hard working,” when he brought three Asian-American children to the stage as bankers from a finance firm. “If anybody’s upset about that joke," Rock said, "just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids.” A joke made all the more disturbing when one realizes that Asian-American children are increasingly becoming the target of violence and harassment because of this stereotype.
It has lately become clear for Asian-Americans, in light of Chris Rock’s statements and the BET’s approval of Fat Joe, Remy Ma and French Montana’s performance, that this cavalier attitude towards anti-Asian racism and cultural appropriation coming from Black artists reflects the perpetual “otherness” of Asian-Americans in a greater American society. Asian-Americans, who now face racism and cultural appropriation from both white and Black America, are faced with a predicament that is as old as the Japanese internment camps in World War II: Are we doomed to be perceived as perpetual outsiders, as “Oriental invaders” with dual loyalties in America? Will Asian-Americans, as evident through the exoticized, cultural appropriation of Asian culture, continue to be told that our concerns are “overblown” while we watch our cultures and peoples be treated as bizarre, foreign stage props to be gawked at?
What is implied by the usage of Asian culture by Katy Perry, Madonna, Nicki Minaj, and now the likes of Fat Joe and the BET, is simply yes. Just as Iggy Azalea and Katy Perry have made performances profiting and building off of grossly Orientalist and racist perceptions of Asian culture, so too can Fat Joe, Remy Ma and French Montana.
Orientalism, or the wholesale perception of Asia (and the Middle East) as an exotic land of silk, kimonos, bindis and paper fans, is repackaged through these performances implying, as Edward Said wrote in his 1978 book Orientalism, that “the Orient...is a system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later, Western empire...A line is drawn between two continents. Europe is powerful and articulate; Asia is defeated and distant.”
The implication here is that non-Asian people are able to appropriate and perpetuate Orientalism because Asia is foreign and contrary to Western values and culture -- an idea of “otherness” that uniquely applies to Asian-Americans who are depicted as such. As pointed out by Said, “no matter how deep the specific exception, no matter how much a single Oriental can escape the fences placed around him, he is first an Oriental, second a human being, and last again an Oriental.” When performers portray wholesale, racist perceptions of Asian culture to exoticize their performances, they imply that Asia, and the people that come from it, are alien, foreign cultures that can be used for one's own purposes.
This sense of “otherness” in the Asian-American community is something that has recently become all the more apparent. This year, CBS 60 Minutes investigated a case in which a Chinese-American physics professor at Temple University, Xiaoxing Xi, was falsely accused by the FBI of being a Chinese spy. According to a statement by Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-CA), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, within the past two years Chinese-Americans are increasingly being singled out and falsely accused of espionage. She said, “Their lives were turned upside down simply because they were emailing while being Asian American. The public is still being denied any investigation explaining why there appears to be a pattern of singling out Asian-Americans by federal law enforcement.”
It is a narrative of “otherness” that has continued since Japanese-Americans were accused of similar dual loyalties and unjustly imprisoned in internment camps, and it is a narrative that culminated in Chinese-American, Vincent Chin’s violent lynching at the hands of anti-Japanese racists who allegedly shouted "It's because of you little motherfuckers that we're out of work!"
We are not Asian-Americans with distinct, rich cultures and histories; we are Orientals, whose identities are defined by foreign chopsticks, paper fans and Geisha makeup. It is a narrative that has been packaged and repackaged by this country, a narrative that was handed to the thousands of viewers watching the BET Awards last night.
But we cannot forget, that the narrative of “otherness” is not one that is exclusive to Asian-Americans. When President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, a poll showed that a quarter of all Americans believed that Obama was not born in the United States, thereby disqualifying his presidency. As Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out in his essay, The Fear of a Black President, “If Obama is not truly American, then America has still never had a black president.”
America has often operated on the paradox that while diversity is a facet of what makes our country great, minorities in America have traditionally been barred from positions and rights that white America has historically enjoyed. Cultural appropriation is an exercise of this unjust dynamic, and it is a method in which minorities are defined as inferior by having their cultures defined as "foreign" by others. If Asian culture and Black culture can be superficially used as a prop and portrayed as foreign and exotic, then they are not truly American, deserving neither of the spaces and positions offered to whites in America.
What makes the BET’s endorsement of that particular performance so irritating and frustrating is exactly that.
The BET Awards are a powerful rebuke to those who try to dehumanize black culture and bodies. It was a show where Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar celebrated blackness and black liberation through “Freedom,” and where Jesse Williams asserted, "We’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment...ghetto-lyzing and demeaning our creations, then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is — just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real."
But, Williams' moment of empowerment was lined with the subtle hint of hypocrisy -- one I felt deeply as both a Japanese and Black-American. It is an irony that must be pointed out and be discussed between the two communities who know too well what it’s like to have one’s culture defined and exoticized. It is a discussion that must happen now, before it is too late.