Asian Cultural Sensitivity 101: Why is Katy Perry’s “Geisha” performance considered racist?

I know no one asked me to weigh in on this, but what the heck. I am the resident East Eurasian here. Seriously though my social media is awash in East Asian outrage and also cultural insensitivity over Perry’s performance yesterday at the AMAs dressed in modified,sexy geisha apparel.

perry geisha

It is a Kimono mixed with a Chinese Cheongsam, so manages to neatly appropriate 2 different cultures.

There are a number of comments on the story that ask why is this performance racist and/or offensive?

Like these:

Oh I see, she shouldn’t sexualize geishas who were “Just entertainers”? Wrong. Geishas hairstyles were designed to sexually entice and attract men to spend time with them, who do these twits think WOMEN were entertaining in Japan during this era? Other women?? They were appealing and “forbidden fruit”. Not to mention that a young geishas virginity was sold to the highest bidder in a tradition called “mizuage”. Nope. No sexuality there.

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They should just stop and not try to explain someone else’s culture to them when they barely understand it themselves. At least this person has been to Japan, but they still don’t get it…

I agree. I have been to Japan, and I thought it was beautiful. I think a lot of western people don’t get the folklore, and mysticism, and traditions that Japanese hold dear. Most of them don’t even know about the many festivals in Japan , like “The Cherry Blossom”, or Tsukimi.

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At least this person claims to have a Japanese step-mom, so they must get it right?

I agree. Being offended by everything and making uninformed, false accusations about people is classless and a waist of time. I find it ironic that this is considered “racist”. My stepmother is Japanese and she’s laughing as she reads the posts that call Perry out for racism. “I thought it was beautiful and artistic. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it’s cultural take on things.”

Read more:

Nope. It’s the old “I have a/an (insert ethnic relationship here)”, so therefore it can’t be racist as if you can adopt authority by proxy.

Hannah at afternoonsnoozebutton has already done a pretty good job of breaking down what people found offensive about the performance. If you are really interested in why people find it offensive, read her thorough explanation there. Here are her 5 key points that she nailed…

1. Katy Perry’s “geisha” performance tonight was culturally appropriative.

2. There is a long history of mistreatment and ill-will towards Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans.

3. Western culture “otherizes” Asians by assigning all Asians certain characteristics.

4. Asian women in particular are fetishized. This sexualization of Asian women causes increased sexual violence against Asian-American women.

5. Racism against Asians is often swept under the rug because of the model minority myth, and that won’t change until we start to address racist acts head-on.

Point 4 is particularly powerful as she supports here…

This fetishization has been empirically proven to hurt Asian women. 41-61% of Asian women experience physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime, the highest rate for any ethnic group. Between 5,000-8,000 Asian women are trafficked into the US each year for sex slavery, also the largest amount for any ethnic group.

This is one more perspective on it from Jeff Yang on The Wall Street Journal Blog

The thing is, while a bucket of toner can strip the geisha makeup off of Perry’s face, nothing can remove the demeaning and harmful iconography of the lotus blossom from the West’s perception of Asian women — a stereotype that presents them as servile, passive, and as Perry would have it, “unconditional” worshippers of their men, willing to pay any price and weather any kind of abuse in order to keep him happy.

So basically Perry’s performance appropriates Japanese culture in a way that perpetuates harmful stereotypes. The Asian submissive, hypersexual stereotype is particularly damaging to Asian women. I’ve been involved with people, who I didn’t understand at the time had no interest in me other than an Asian fetish. No interest at all in my intellect or talents. No human woman neatly fits into a stereotype, and this stereotype is demeaning and dehumanizing.

What bothers me is how unquestioned these stereotypes are and how uncritically they are accepted. Otherwise enlightened friends post stories like this one about Korean beauty contestants that supposedly had plastic surgery and looked freakishly alike from Jezebel to social media. To date there is no retraction that the photos were photoshopped to intensify the similarity. The stereotype that Asians are weird in this case obsessed with looking white is uncritically accepted.

And if you think the stereotypes of Asian women are bad, Asian men are stereotyped as sexually unattractive, dorks in American culture. Despite kick ass examples of Asian male masculinity like Bruce Lee, the stereotype of the Asian male as a lesser male persists.

Bruce Lee JudgingThe stereotype such as perpetuated in movies like Sixteen Candles have been so damaging that Asian men are thought of as undateable by women of other ethnicities. long duck dong


Asian men’s supposed lack of virility is still comedy fodder today. In this Guardian article which manages to combine all three negative stereotypes: Asians are weird, Asian men as unattractive dorks, and includes a former Asian prostitute as sex expert to boot. The story is about how the Japanese are having less sex based on falling marriage rates, which is a trend here too as Salon points out.

In fact this story became comedy fodder for Bill Maher, he facetiously used the story to propose posters to encourage the Japanese to have sex. Among the punchlines were the same old tired tropes like… “He’s Japanese it’s not like it’s gonna hurt.” In the same breath he bemoans progressive causes like overpopulation, yet there is the same old stab at Asian males’ dignity, that has gone on ever since American colonialism. Many in his audience don’t take a minute while they’re laughing at the expense of the Japanese to question the stereotypes.

The more things change the more things stay the same. I grew up not feeling proud of my Asian heritage. Years of having my hair pulled as a kid, being mistaken for the Japanese exchange student, having people ask where I am from and the doubtful looks when I say I am American add up. I am raising my daughter to be proud of her Asian ancestry. She even wants to start a Japanese appreciation club at her school. Japanese culture is becoming more acknowledged and popular here.

But there is a difference between appreciation and appropriation and reinforcing stereotypes. The comments on this story have been more offensive than the performance itself. They reveal how little these commenters actually question how the media portrays East Asians in this case. For all the declaring about wanting to know why people find this offensive; the comments show and unwillingness to listen to the reason why. Most offensive is in place of listening these commenters seek to tell East Asians in this case what their experiences are and how they should feel about them.  As for Ms. Perry herself if you are still wondering if she has some of the same unquestioned cultural insensitivity there is this quote about how she feels about the Japanese…

 “I’m so obsessed I want to skin you and wear you like Versace,”

I hope that this helps people to understand why Asians are tired of being portrayed in American media in the same predictable and stereotypical ways.


[important]Much of the ideas in this article were discussed first in The Secular Asian Community facebook discussion group. If you are looking for secular Asian support or to support secular Asians, they are a great group. We are putting something together for the next FtBCon, so watch out for that. [/important]

Do we live in a post-racial society in the secular community?

People of Color Beyond Belief is hosting a webcast to debunk the notion that we live in a post-racial society. It is starting right now, and is moderated by Sikivu Hutchinson.  The panelists are Kimberly Veal, Black Freethinkers & Black Skeptics Chicago Donald Wright, Houston Black Non-Believers Raina Roades: Black Freethinkers – The RSS Feed & Rhoades to Reality.  They are having some technical issues, whicj I think may be related to a feedback loop with the speakers and the microphones. Hopefully, they can figure the problem out.

We finally pulled in to Skepticon

Only to be told we have been bumped from The University Plaza to the Holiday Inn because the event hotel is overbooked.  It is 2:00 AM local time here, and Aron is still fussing over his speech about Pterosaurs for tomorrow at 10:00 AM. Normally freethinking events are a respite for me from problems that come with being an Atheist Texan.

But this time, I feel a little bit of dread. Admittedly, PZ had more reason to feel dread with people threatening a walkout of his speech. The reason is I’ve gotten so many hateful youtube comments from anti-feminist atheists on the discussion I did about rape culture. I feel a little anxious that I might run into someone like that here.

Every year, Skepticon has been a welcoming haven to me, so the anxiety is probably misplaced. I always try so hard to be decent to people nearly to a fault, so I am a bit flummoxed by hostility. Even from people I know are going to be hostile like Ken Ham. Hostility within the community that has always been a safe haven to me is much harder to get a handle on.

Can we agree that an education is a basic human right?

In an information based society, undereducated children are at a disadvantage. Besides a mind is a terrible thing to waste, right? Here is my speech at The Houston Museum of Science hosted by Houston Atheists in defense of accurate science education for everyone. It had a pretty good turnout of 250 which was the capacity of the room.

It was part of a weekend of anti-creationism activities as a result of Ken Ham’s bullying and obdurate determination to sell creationism as science curriculum. At a creationism conference the same weekend, he boasted to 600 people that we had gathered only a handful of supporters. As if he had gathered even 6 billion people that would make him right. He mocked me to the crowd and they had a laugh at my expense.

Despite that, I’ve come a long way in my fear of public speaking. It is important to speak out against scientific illiteracy.

Underneath it’s all the same love

I was surprised to hear a powerful song on mainstream radio about LGBT rights for one thing. But then the song is also openly anti-religious too. When I thought about it how can a song about how harsh the world is to LGBT people be anything but anti-religious in order to speak the truth?

The steady stream of hate coming from the pulpits turns more people away from the church than any advocate of atheism ever could.

Same Love Lyrics
by Macklemore (bold emphasis mine)
[Verse 1: Macklemore] When I was in the 3rd grade
I thought that I was gay
Cause I could draw, my uncle was
And I kept my room straight
I told my mom, tears rushing down my face
She’s like, “Ben you’ve loved girls since
before pre-K”
Trippin’, yeah, I guess she had a point,
didn’t she
A bunch of stereotypes all in my head
I remember doing the math like
“Yeah, I’m good a little league”
A pre-conceived idea of what it all meant
For those who like the same sex had the
The right-wing conservatives think it’s a
And you can be cured with some
treatment and religion Man-made, rewiring of a pre-disposition
Playing God
Ahh nah, here we go
America the brave
Still fears, what, we don’t know
And God loves all His children
Is somehow forgotten
But we paraphrase a book written
35 hundred years ago
I don’t know
[Hook: Mary Lambert]
And I can’t change
Even if I tried
Even if I wanted to
And I can’t change
Even if I tried
Even if I wanted to My love, my love, my love
She keeps me warm [x4]
[Verse 2: Macklemore]
If I was gay
I would think hip-hop hates me
Have you read the YouTube comments
“Man that’s gay”
Gets dropped on the daily We’ve become so numb to what we’re
Our culture founded from oppression
Yeah, we don’t have acceptance for ‘em
Call each other faggots
Behind the keys of a message board
A word routed in hate
Yet our genre still ignores it
Gay is synonymous with the lesser
It’s the same hate that’s caused wars from
Gender and skin color
Complexion of your pigment
The same fight that lead people to walkouts and sit-ins

t’s human rights for everybody
There is no difference
Live on! And be yourself! When I was in church
They taught me something else
If you preach hate at the service
Those words aren’t anointed
And that Holy Water
That you soak in
Is then poisoned When everyone else
Is more comfortable
Remaining voiceless
Rather than fighting for humans
That have had their rights stolen
I might not be the same
But that’s not important
No freedom ’til we’re equal
Damn right I support it
I don’t know
[Hook: Mary Lambert]
And I can’t change
Even if I tried
Even if I wanted to
And I can’t change
Even if I tried
Even if I wanted to My love, my love, my love
She keeps me warm [x4]
[Verse 3: Macklemore] We press play
Don’t press pause
Progress, march on! With a veil over our eyes We turn our back on the cause
‘Till the day
That my uncles can be united by law
Kids are walkin’ around the hallway
Plagued by pain in their heart
A world so hateful
Someone would rather die
Than be who they are
And a certificate on paper
Isn’t gonna solve it all
But it’s a damn good place to start
No law’s gonna change us We have to change us Whatever god you believe in We come from the same one
Strip away the fear
Underneath it’s all the same love
About time that we raised up
[Hook: Mary Lambert]
And I can’t change
Even if I tried
Even if I wanted to
And I can’t change
Even if I tried
Even if I wanted to My love, my love, my love
She keeps me warm [x4]
[Outro: Mary Lambert]
Love is patient, love is kind
Love is patient (not cryin’ on Sundays)
Love is kind (not crying on Sundays) [x5]

Some Insights from Bridgett “Bria” Crutchfield and Alix Jules on being a Black atheist

Recently I had the opportunity to listen to Bridgett “Bria” Crutchfield and Alix Jules tell their stories about growing up in the black community which can be very religious and adjusting to the atheist community. Bridgett asked me during the discussion if I understood what they go through. For video link click on the title.

I am not satisfied with the answer I gave her. As a person of color, I do understand what it feels like to be the ethnic odd man out. Growing up in Texas, I went to an upper class high school where the majority of students were white. I was often mistaken for the only other person with Asian ancestry that anybody could tell from their appearance -the Japanese exchange student. A girl once whispered in homeroom class, “she’s Chinese”. Nevermind we had the same Germanic last name because I’m Eurasian. That fact escaped her notice.

Anyways, I was basically invisible at that school invisible except for the passing curiosity about whether I was an exchange student. Again, never mind my English was sometimes more fluent than many other native speakers. I’ve also had experiences in a lower class elementary school where my ethnicity caused more overt racism like hair pulling and mock Chinese taunting in the hallways. I could go weeks without speaking to another child. Even as a young woman, a woman at a cosmetic counter told me my acne was a reason races shouldn’t mix. More often people keep their ugly thoughts hidden away like fangs behind a polite smile. If you wanted insight into what it is like to sometimes be an ethnic outcast because of being bi-racial or what it is like to be a person that doesn’t neatly fit in anywhere; I would be the person to listen to.

However, I can’t really say that I totally get what it is like to be a Black atheist. The only people, who can say what that is like are Alix and Bridgett. I haven’t had to live through many of the things they are forced to endure. I can’t say that I have ever had security called on me at an atheist conference like Alix has at a conference he was speaking at! Asians are generally not profiled as security threats by racist white people simply for their phenotype.

Although that incident is ugly it is easier to identify than being politely ignored like Bridget shared in the discussion. She told us that often when she goes to atheist conferences no one speaks to her. Then after she finishes a speech more people notice her and start talking to her. (American Atheists convention Austin was an exception she said) Cultural awkwardness like I pointed out to her can’t explain all of this behavior. It should go without saying that we are all human beings at this conference and can relate on some level. And we are all atheists, for no god sakes!

Having listened to her tell her stories and Alix’s, I have a few pieces of the puzzle to understand what black atheists go through. I genuinely want Black atheists to feel welcome in our community. Most well meaning people want the same thing. If that is going to happen a whole lot of well meaning folks need to start being better listeners.

My friend and Nones co-host Shanon Nebo just happened to finish editing the discussion yesterday. Yesterday, I also happened to notice a kerfuffle between my facebook friends some of whom are real life friends. It seems that some people are criticizing Bria for becoming angry at an insensitive question from a white person during a speech given by Mandisa Thomas. One person even labeled Bria’s reaction as “cruel” and “inappropriate” and suggested that she had the intent of shaming the person.

I have to reserve final judgment until I see the video of what happened. However, the question as posed reeks of cultural insensitivity. Why ask Mandisa about what blacks are going to do about black on black crime? That topic is a racist talking point. Let me pose this question to people, who think this person was merely ignorant and not deserving of being dressed down for it.

If a gay atheist had the podium and an audience member asked them what homosexuals were going to do about AIDS and you were homosexual too would you not be livid as well?

Would you wait and compose a calm response on your blog later, or try to calmly educate this person later in the hallway?

Would anyone expect you to?

Or more likely, wouldn’t you be stunned at the inherent stereotyping in that question that is an oft repeated homophobic talking point?

Would your shock give way to shame in a place you had thought was a social haven from prejudicial cognitive biases?

Or maybe you didn’t think that, and thought this community still had strides to make before homosexuals truly feel welcome there? Just maybe that is why you were there in the first place because you hoped that you could break through the ice and people would see a fellow human being.  A fellow human being -not a person they had prejudged and decided they wouldn’t socialize with. Only to be reminded in front of the group that you are not a human being to be judged separately, but must somehow make valiant efforts to stop the unfair stereotypes that other people perceive about your minority community? The stuff you had heard your entire life. The same stuff you have had to bite back responding to for fear of reprisal such as a loss of your job. The stuff you have had to smile politely back to, as there was no other reaction that would remedy the situation.

Would the shame give way to anger?

After you struggled to calm down through another speech would you stand up in front of the group and set the record straight or let it drop?

Even without watching the video of what happened, it needs to be said that the atheist community is just going to have to do the work of actively listening to the stories of Black atheists if they want to understand what makes them feel welcome and unwelcome.




I can’t believe I shook Eric Hovind’s hand

I also thanked him for being polite, while he interviewed the group. Evolution supporters had gathered to demonstrate in Houston against creationism being taught as science. I consented to Hovind interviewing me on the condition he didn’t cut the video. However, he weaseled out of his promise by posting the entire interview and then cutting my part of the interview in a separate video in such a way to make it look like I was saying something I wasn’t.

This is the cut interview (click on the title of this post if you can’t see the video links)…

He asked me if truth is the same as real or reality. I said I don’t know if truth equals real. He cut it there before I explained that truth is an umbrella term meaning it can’t be simply interchanged with the term real. He then added a part where I said that I am a science teacher.

This is the full interview with what I said about truth in context in the last few minutes of the video…

The way he misrepresented what I said ironically shows that the truth is not really important to him. How about bearing false witness as well?


The only minority Juror B29 leaves justice for Trayvon up to god.

As if the George Zimmerman acquittal is not galling enough already. I wonder if there was a secular jury, if we would have had the same result? At least they wouldn’t be pointing to an invisible deity hoping to absolve themselves of responsibility for justice for Trayvon Martin. And I quote

“George Zimmerman got away with murder, but you can’t get away from God. And at the end of the day, he’s going to have a lot of questions and answers he has to deal with,” Maddy said. “[But] the law couldn’t prove it.”

Get your barf bags ready if there is a book deal.

Get your barf bags ready if there is a book deal.

That’s right lady pawn your responsibility for justice for Travyon Martin, and his family, and the community off on your god. I want to yell at the screen.

“You don’t really know if anything will actually happen to Zimmerman after he dies. No one does!”

Let’s play Devil’s Advocate here, what if there is a god?

1. If that god was concerned about justice then it wouldn’t have an excuse for why people are still dying because of the color of their skin. While we are at it; how about the millions, who have died because of religion?

2. But if we can conveniently forget what we don’t want to know, let’s just say that this god does care about justice. How do you think it would feel about someone that might have done something just, but pawned responsibility for that on the afterlife? How do you think that god will feel, if it cares about justice, not just about how many more blacks have died without justice, but how many more will die as a result of this ruling and further abuse of Stand your Ground Laws?

• Defendants claiming “stand your ground” are more likely to prevail if the victim is black. Seventy-three percent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white.


• The number of cases is increasing, largely because defense attorneys are using “stand your ground” in ways state legislators never envisioned. The defense has been invoked in dozens of cases with minor or no injuries. It has also been used by a self-described “vampire” in Pinellas County, a Miami manarrested with a single marijuana cigarette, a Fort Myershomeowner who shot a bear and a West Palm Beach jogger who beat a Jack Russell terrier.

If I still felt any sort of sympathy for her being on the jury in a tough case, it’s gone after reading this (Bold emphasis mine)

“It’s hard for me to sleep, it’s hard for me to eat because I feel I was forcefully included in Trayvon Martin’s death. And as I carry him on my back, I’m hurting as much [as] Trayvon’s Martin’s mother because there’s no way that any mother should feel that pain,” she said.

At least your child is still alive, don’t thank god or the state of Florida for that.

The Asian Panel at FTBCon has spawned a group for Secular Asian Americans

Our panel was composed of East and South Asians, and Hemant Mehta joked we were the only Asian freethinkers. We wondered why we didn’t see more Asian faces active in the freethinking movement. Yau Man Chan‘s theory is that culturally many Asians don’t want to rock the boat, and prefer to keep their heads down. Many may not want to clash publically, and put themselves out there opposing theism.  It was a great discussion, we had a great panel in addition to the people we already mentioned with Vic Wang, Cindy Cooper, Razib Khan. Shanon Nebo joined me as a fellow Nones co-host, which was brave of her. Some might be intimidated being the odd person out with that many Asians. It is so easy to make a misstep, and inadvertently offend on sensitive cultural topics.

Speaking of that I can’t resist saying that I was actually correct on one of the points of contention with Razib Khan. A viewer asked a question about women’s issues getting more Asians involved in secularism. My response was that Asians tended to vote Republican due to financial issues until relatively recently. Khan disagreed. He did add a lot of interesting points about the history of secularism in East Asian governments like China. Many Asian governments don’t have the entanglements of theocracy, for good reasons. The major Eastern religions don’t tend to be as dogmatic as Abrahamic religions can be. It was an interesting discussion, Damian Torres Reinhard of Background Probability did a fair review of the panel,other panels, and FTBCon’s room for improvement.

Some Asian freethinkers were interested in starting a group to continue the discussion. You can join the Secular Asian Americans even if you are not an Asian American in solidarity with what they face trying to have a voice in a society dominated by religion. There were people, who aren’t Asian, but curious about Asian freethinking issues and culture who joined too.