A Kōrero on Cancel Culture and Cultural Appropriation
By Rebecca Zhong | Illustration by Yi Jong
A cutie has just matched with you on Tinder, and after two days of chatting you notice a follow request sitting in your notifications. You scroll through your feed, making sure your photos show that you’re just the right mix of hot, social and chill before you accept. Thankfully your feed is perfect, curated with all the right filters. Everything is good to go, you then tap onto the dreaded ‘tagged’ photos.
It’s 2013, Cotton On is still hot and so is Jason in his ‘Tail Tee.’ You and your girls have invited all your crushes over to Ella’s for Halloween, and you’re about to get lit on three cans of Smirnoff Ice. Sitting on your head, a Native American headdress. You’re doing a duck face, and Jason has commented“cute x” on Ella’s picture of you. You quickly untag yourself and scope out any further pictures that give off the impression that you’re not woke. It’s now 2020, you’re 40k in debt thanks to your arts degree, and the only thing you can show for it is your extensive podcast recommendations.
Okay, well the above was an example of call out culture (namely on myself) which I’m also not a fan of. But we’re here to tackle another beast, cancel culture in relation to cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is the act of adopting elements of an outside, often minority culture without understanding or respecting the original culture and context. We see examples of cultural appropriation almost every day, but I want to point particular attention towards non-Māori artists using Māori narratives and bodies in their work.
This issue was first brought to my attention in my final year of study when I was conducting an independent research project on Lester Hall’s artwork. Lester Hall is a Pākehā artist who has been met with scrutiny for his sexualisation of indigenous women in his artwork. Furthermore, Lester Hall has claimed he feels ostracised and marginalised as a white male by Māori academics and advocates. Hall has effectively founded a career off of rebranding and on selling the narratives and lived experiences of Māori. And despite the overt criticism he has received over the years, he argues that he is simply respecting the culture and his work is an attempt to “find space and respect for each other.” However, if we are taking proactive measures to reconcile and move forward from the hardship we have imposed onto Māori,
shouldn’t we also take active responsibility by providing avenues to empower Māori? How does occupying the position of ‘storyteller’ and ignoring criticism by Māori allow us to empower those that have been subjugated for generations? More than anything, Hall seems to be asserting his post-colonial privilege. I am not discrediting Hall’s ability or license to produce art, rather I am saying if you were truly an advocate for reconciliation you would allow Māori artists to occupy this space and share their own stories, instead of what you might perceive that story to be.
Lester Hall is not simply a Pākehā who is not versed with the nuances of Te Ao Māori. He actively engages in these dialogues, but also implies that tikanga is sexist and that he has his own set of core values that he chooses to embrace instead. When I initially began engaging with commentary around the ethics of Hall’s artwork, I was taken aback by the sheer volume of individuals that supported and stood behind his artwork. Like many of my friends, I had made the move to ‘cancel’ Hall and any of his supportive allies.
When I told my mum about the conversations I had regarding Lester Hall’s art she responded with “maybe these people just don’t know about the impact. No one has ever been patient enough to explain this to me.” My mum is a Chinese immigrant who left school at 14, she has not received any additional education and has been working ever since.
Cancel culture has become a reliable way to achieve upward mobility, and identify both allies and enemies through isolating people who have violated rules around a whole number of issues, namely sex, gender and race. I agree that there should be no exception to homophobic, sexist or racist behaviour, and it is vital to keep people accountable for their
However, I would argue that cancel culture has also become the breeding ground for toxicity for those who are simply misinformed. As I scroll through the comments of Hall’s artwork, I notice a number of individuals from all kinds of backgrounds praising Hall for his work. Unlike Hall,some of them are oblivious towards the harm that his art imposes on Māori, and simply value his work for the artistry. However these supporters also face the same scrutiny as Hall himself endures. They are met with judgement from strangers who hold degrees or exposure into other environments and culture that not everyone gets.
cancel culture has also become the breeding ground for toxicity for those who are simply misinformed.
I am a non-Māori who is passionate about learning more about Te Ao Māori, and my initial gateway into accessing this information was through tertiary education. Prior to entering university, I was not well versed on the implications of cultural appropriation on indigenous narratives, and while I may be embarrassed about my prior ignorance, I am also aware that it did not come from a place of malice or hate. Cancel culture has seen us dig through decade-old homophobic (in the case of Kevin Hart) and racist-tweets, and hold people accountable at present for actions they did in the past. But what if they haven’t made any mistakes since? What if they have since started engaging in conversation regarding these issues? Do they deserve to be shamed in such a vocal and public way?
It takes a lot of energy to unpack your own internalised racism, bias and privilege. And fortunately, I was able to start my journey during my studies. But not everyone has this opportunity. Unlike Lester Hall, many of his supporters are simply unaware of how damaging supporting his artwork can be. Hall deserves to be kept accountable for his use of cultural appropriation in his art, but his supporters often do not deserve the same level of criticism. My 40k student loan means I won’t be able to buy a house in Auckland ever, but it does enable me to think more critically and holistically about how my actions or in actions impact wider groups. I sit in a very privileged position. And rather than sitting on that privilege and choosing to ‘cancel’others for what simply could be ignorance, I encourage us to think about how damaging this act can be. Cancel culture has created some amazing and much needed
outcomes, in the case of outing celebrities like Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein. However, it has also created toxic online spaces that are not conducive with learning.It assumes that individuals are born either woke or not. It fails to recognise that people are able to, and routinely do,develop new ideologies over time and shed ones they’ve outgrown. Imagine waking up one day and finding out that your Native American headdress photo from 2013 is the reason your political career is in turmoil. I’m not saying that all past actions should be forgiven, but before we cancel people we should take into account the trajectory they have taken since and whether they have had the opportunity to learn. Furthermore, many people in low socio-economic environments simply do not have the opportunity to ponder the nuances of race, gender and culture. Rather than contributing to an environment where we shame, we should take active measures to create online environments that are conducive towards growth.