Today, I was talking to my freshmen composition students about doing close textual analysis and using textual examples to support a thesis-driven claim. To illustrate, I asked them to give me a song they liked that we could use to make an argument. They chose Katy Perry feat. Kanye West's "ET," a song I hadn't heard. Here's the video:
After a little analyzing, my students decided they would argue Perry might be making a statement about interracial relationships. My interest lies in trying to figure out just what that argument is.
From the first lines (sung by Kanye West), the stereotypical view of black males as sex-driven and dangerous is in full force. West says "I got a dirty mind/I got filfthy ways/I'm tryna bathe my ape in your milky way." Aside from calling up the deragatory reference of ape for black man and playing on the imagery of whiteness and purity in "milky," these opening lines are a direct response to stereotypical fears about black men's predatory lust for white women. West ackowledges the way some view this relationship, but he goes on to explain "I be so far up, we don't give a f-f-fuck." And surely, celebrity status (and wealth) grant a level of comfort that extends to interracial relationships.
A direct defiance of societal norms that discourage interracial relationships is a great message, but I'm not sure how I feel about the song as a whole. Some of the lyrics (both West's and Perry's) suggest an exoticism that leaves me uncomfortable.
West invites Perry to "Step into the fantasy"--the fantasy of sexual encounters with an exotic other. The song compares black men to the most exotic other of all: aliens. The lyrics could be viewed as drawing attention to this kind of exoticism in order to illustrate its absurdity, but then Perry sings "Take me, ta-ta-take me/Wanna be a victim/Ready for abduction."
It reminded me a little too much of the scene in Ellison's Invisible Man where a white woman, Sybil, begs the black protagonist to rape her: "You can do it, it'll be easy for you, beautiful. Threaten to kill me if I don't give in. You know, talk rough to me, beautiful" (518).
In a related, though less disturbing, observation, I went to a talk on interracial relationships at the university I work for this week. During the presentation, there was a video of local college students answering the question "Would you date someone outside of your race? Why?" Almost all of them (except one) said yes. But several of them elaborated with some variation of "because I like to learn about other cultures." This reduces their partners to cultural representatives--tour guides in a trip on cultural diversity--and denies them the complexity of real human beings.
Interracial relationships are becoming more common, and they are certainly more acceptable, but they might not always be a progressive step toward eradicating racism. I hope that "ET" is designed to call attention to some of these problematic aspects of exoticizing people for sexual pleasure, not to further them.