Rangatahi Māori creatives and social media influencers discuss the darker aspects of social media, cultural appropriation and cancel culture.
Social media has created a rather messy and complex space for creatives to navigate. And when it comes to art and protest, there’s not just one perspective. What some consider activism, others call bullying, what some call art, others see as cultural appropriation. Cancel culture may hold some wrongdoers to account, but it can also stop others from feeling safe to share.
Kawakawa tea is a traditional rongoā used to aid digestion. And neither cultural appropriation nor cancel culture seem to sit right in the puku. So what’s the medicine? Kōrero. Rangatahi Māori creatives and social media influencers Ana McAllister (Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki), Johnny Wana (Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāi Tai, Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Awa) and Essa May Ranapiri (Waikato-Tainui) delve into the messy darkness of this space with Jessica Thompson-Carr (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Ruanui, Ngāruahine).
Every morning I wake up and check my phone. I’m usually greeted by the gorgeous mahi of the many talented artists I follow, updates on friends who have achieved new exciting things, fresh tā moko designs by artists I aspire to get ink from, and thoughtful pātai by activists who see potential for a healthier world.
This is what I like to call the virtual marae. We tautoko each other, send messages, share posts, buy each other’s creations. We discuss complicated topics, help each other get in touch with hidden aspects of our whakapapa, challenge each other on our own understandings of tikanga. We enter each other’s spaces either when we are called on or have announced ourselves and been welcomed appropriately.
At the same time, along my regular scrolling, I get to see posts informing me of yet another artist, influencer or business being exposed for abuse, racism, cultural appropriation, preaching conspiracy theories or saying something a bit stupid. It’s become routine for me to check the comments, have a stalk, and every now and then I’ll post on my story to raise awareness of something that needs to be changed. I mean, I’ve only written around 200 words here and I’ve stopped twice already to check Twitter. It’s all very The Social Dilemma.
I scanned the comments with a shameful greed
Something that has really affected us, particularly in group settings, is cancel culture. The year 2020 saw the cancelling of celebrities, influencers and creatives, from Ellen to J K Rowling, Lea Michelle to Shane Dawson, Dollskill to Doja Cat. When Lana Del Rey released her weird statement asking to be permitted to do the things she had actually always been allowed to do, and named several artists of colour as though they held more privilege than her, I scanned the comments with a shameful greed. “Canceled”, “I’m sorry Lana but this ain’t it”, “delete this”, “BYE”, etc.
But was this ignorance worthy of cancellation? I don’t believe so. Worthy of critique and a good telling off, more like. But there is something morbidly fascinating about seeing your favs (particularly the ones with privilege) digitally obliterated by society. Acknowledging this is fine, but it is important to recognise the dangers of this slippery slope known as cancel culture. People make mistakes and deserve a moment or two to learn from them, don’t they?
Kawakawa tea is a traditional rongoā used to aid digestion. And neither cancel culture nor cultural appropriation sit quite right in the puku. There’s almost a feeling of slight nausea. But sharing kōrero within our communities can be a medicine, like kawakawa tea. However, beyond this, beyond the kawakawa tea, there are darker things. There are the appropriators we encounter every day, the abusers we ignore. So many slip under our radar, and get away with the harm they have imposed upon others, simply because they have a large online platform. These are the people we need to talk about.
Whenever I enter online spaces of controversy (mostly through Instagram), it is usually to educate and inform. I like to spread awareness of important issues in general, but more often than not I am involved in the exposing and discussion of cultural appropriation of Māori because I am Māori. Seeing non-Māori take, use and, more often than not, alter for art, our birthrights, HURTS. And when they get paid and celebrated for their appropriation, this tells me that I will never be good enough. So I fight that shit on Instagram, alongside other Māori, as well as offline.
Cancel culture means that some Māori and other Indigenous artists feel too scared to put their own work out there
It can be a frustrating and sloppy dance across data, a tired and at times degrading effort to nudge non-Māori to empathise with us. It’s become harder and harder to keep my cool throughout these encounters, and I’ll admit I’ve become sharper tongued online than I’ll ever be offline. When non-Māori blatantly refuse to listen and learn that their tribal-inspired tattoo designs are, in fact, not tā moko, or that, no, they cannot just sell painted-over images of our tīpuna, I can’t help but want to call them out publicly.
I have noticed, however, alongside this seemingly black and white issue, cancel culture has meant that some Māori and other Indigenous artists feel too scared to put their own work out there for fear of being wrong (this has happened to me before). This begs the question: is creating a culture of fear even amongst the people you're trying to uplift ever okay?
Rangatahi Māori creatives and social media influencers Ana McAllister (@nope.thank.you.very.much on Instagram and @nopethanku on Twitter), Johnny Wana (@johnnywanaa on Instagram) and Essa May Ranapiri (@ired0mi on Instagram and Twitter) recently shared their thoughts with me (@maori_mermaid) on the pros and cons of social media, and the idea of cancel culture.
Ana is an artist and her Instagram page is culturally rich, visually aesthetic and informative. Johnny is Takatāpui and a social media activist. His Instagram is stylish and vocal, with a highlight section abundant in protest. Essa is a Takatāpui poet. Their Instagram and Twitter are safe spaces for critical thought, gothic charm and Māori writers. These three people represent immense passion and activism in the social media community of Aotearoa, and they use their platforms to inform and challenge.
Ana McAllister: I like to say, “I am somewhat known in very specific circles.” I mainly occupy space within the often fatphobic, racist app known as Instagram, carving out some room for fat BBIPOC Takatāpui like me. I do a lot of things on my insta, I explore body sovereignty, maybe that’s the key kupu. Tino rangatiratanga, over my body, my art, my words, my story, my culture. My desired ‘output’ is just to do what I love, regardless of whether people want to engage with it. I'm not so much there to ‘influence’ as I am ‘to express’.
Instagram has shadow banned Ana before, as well as several of our friends. It has proven itself to be an incredibly fatphobic, racist space, failing to remove posts supporting white and thin bodies, but quickly removing pictures of diverse and fat bodies.
Essa May Ranapiri: I’m a poet that shitposts and shares memes and political views online, and I spend way too much time on Twitter, haha.
Jonny Wana: I don’t know if I could describe my online presence as a collective, but I would say that it is unique to my personal experiences in life. I tend to have quite a strong and bold approach to things I am involved in and I’ve learnt that if I’m being respectful then then I can also be opinionated. A few years ago, my presence was so different and, I would say now, quite meaningless. I was just very uninspired and following too much popular culture and not enough issues around politics and Indigenous/BIPOC movements. Now I do not hesitate to use my voice when it comes to speaking on these matters. I believe social media is one of the most important tools that activists have today. I say this because everything moves so quickly and social media helps a lot of us, who can’t be on the ground at certain times and places, to stay involved.
Jessica Thompson Carr: So many people complain about the toxicity of social media, and how harmful it is to our mental health… What are the pros and cons of occupying space on the internet?
EMR: Pros are that it can provide connection and community, like I know most of my Takataapui friends from exchanges through the internet. There are so many cons; how it can cultivate an ‘us vs them’ mentality, how social media websites like Twitter and Facebook are run and owned by amoral actors driven by the profit motive, how they use social media as a tool of gathering information about you, and have no care for our sovereignty over our own information and bodies. In short, the cons of social media are that it recreates capitalist society and the pros are the glimpses it gives us beyond it.
AM: The sheer vastness of social media is both a pro and con. I can have endless reach to share my whakaaro, but at the same time, the appropriation is endless. And that is exhausting. Also, people feel entitled to my time. A few months ago I had a run-in with a girl who wanted me to convince her why something I posted about was appropriation. I said no, and she then sent her friends to yell at me in my DMs.
One of the fun little quirks of playing the online game. People have people and people protect. We find our online village and we thrive within it. When our village is attacked, we send out our warriors. Sometimes it’s necessary, other times it’s fucking stupid.
AM: Because of this experience I started setting up boundaries on my page, mainly my DMs. I no longer educate in my DMs, that's just not my job. They can educate themselves, I am not putting emotional labour into those who hide behind a tourist-store-bought pounamu and one uni paper in cultural relations. I also started sending out my rates for cultural education, which start at $150. No one has taken me up on that one yet lol.
JW: There are so many pros and cons, but for me a pro would be the privilege of being able to stay in contact with loved ones and also the access to resources through some of the awesome accounts I follow that have honestly educated me so much in the last few years. A con would be the fact that things can so easily become misconstrued and blown out of proportion, because there are missing elements to communication that I believe are vital to fully engaging in something as we would in person.
Despite the challenges, they still vibe with the positives of online engagement.
JW: On this journey I have learnt heaps, but one thing that is apparent is the fact that not everyone is going to agree with me and what I stand for, and sometimes you have to take a moment away from it all to recharge. Overall though, I am way more politically charged than I ever have been and that is because my journey on social media has allowed me the privilege of engaging with activists, politicians and people in general.
AM: I feel like social media has replaced the wānanga in some aspects. Or like the heated call-outs that I imagine would have happened on the paepae or in the kitchen back in the day. Our communities now traverse land and space, mediated through the cables under our feet. So naturally social media becomes a space of conflict.
EMR: I think social media has huge potential for Māori and Indigenous resistance; it can provide access to culture and enable connections between people. There are huge issues with social media though, in that it doesn’t respect tino rangatiratanga or our sovereignty over our mātauranga, and that it’s powered and owned by a lot of basically amoral rich white dudes who seem like they don’t care about the damages that have been done through their platforms (for example the rise of the Alt-Right). It has created whole movements across the political spectrum. The next revolution will have social media to thank in whatever capacity.
JTC: And when it comes to cancel culture?
EMR: Cancel culture is a mechanism by which a certain form of justice is meted out, usually through social media. It involves de-platforming people and ostracising them, or attempting to ostracise them, from a group or groups. It is often informed by a carceral mindset of throwing people away rather than helping them to change their behaviours – something I don’t think cancel culture is equipped to do. However, it’s really important to keep in mind that cancel culture was formed to address a lack, as a way of holding people accountable who wouldn’t otherwise face justice.
The harm from cancel culture most often finds its way to those people who are already disadvantaged in some way
AM: I think that cancel culture is a really complex issue. I most often hear it used by people to deflect from being held accountable, so I think it's important to differentiate between accountability and cancel culture. I also think that de-platforming someone is a totally valid way of holding people to account. Being ‘famous’ or having ‘influence’ or a platform is not a right, it’s an honour. And if you fuck up, then maybe you don’t deserve to have that platform.
JW: I approach these situations on a case-by-case basis – I have little to no tolerance for ignorance claimed by influencers, they literally have all the resources and information at their fingertips. In the past, I have tried to be as respectful as possible to influencers when it comes to educating them, but, as I said, there is a missing element of communication that is vital to engaging as we would in person and sometimes things don’t get through as we would like them to, but it’s all a part of learning and growing.
EMR: I’m very conflicted in regards to the harm of cancel culture. I definitely believe there are people who deserve the treatment they get from these campaigns but often those people are wealthy and powerful individuals who won’t actually face any repercussions from cancel culture. The harm from cancel culture most often finds its way to those people who are already disadvantaged in some way, and that is very real and very serious and we should do our best to avoid it. Of course, we have to look at cancel culture’s existence as a failure of our justice system in general.
AM: I feel like platforms come with responsibility, and in the context of Aotearoa you have a responsibility to tangata whēnua. So educate yourself. In regards to my social media, I love it, I love carving out space and sharing whakaaro that resonates with so many others. Tino rangatiratanga all day, every day.
A lot of influencers subject to online education claim it is bullying, and revert to tone policing to counteract. There are also moments when those attempting to educate will do so in a way that is merely repeating what others have said. A lot of the time people coming for others online tend to do so because their community is also doing so, reacting rather than assessing, blindly supporting those they are loyal to, without using critical thinking. There is peer pressure. Sometimes it can actually become cyber-bullying.
AM: I try to do everything with whakawhanaungatanga. Sometimes I fail at this. I personally rarely interact with appropriators directly, I find that doesn't get results. It’s the public accountability that does. But I am never mean for the sake of it. I always keep to the truth and don’t make personal attacks.
JTC: I think it depends on the situation – sometimes I would say call-outs might seem like bullying, but they also can be educational and beneficial to how people interact on social media and the things they put out on the internet. Everything we experience is an opportunity to learn and grow.
EMR: One really important thing I’ve learnt in my interactions within te ao Maaori is that we often hold distinct and different opinions about many things. There isn’t one tikanga or kaupapa, so this culture of fear seems antithetical to open, thoughtful and challenging discussions, which I think have always been a part of our culture.
AM: Yeah so calling people out is holding people to account, it’s saying, “This behaviour of yours is shitty, here’s why.” But bullying is saying, “You’re shitty.” I think that sometimes people say that calling out is bullying when our tone sounds more negative or pissed off. This is when you’ll hear responses like, “I would be more responsive if you weren’t so mean” or “This isn’t the way to start a conversation.” But that has been identified as tone policing. And it happens A LOT to BBIPOC woman, or femme-identifying people. What these people don't understand is that this may be their one interaction around cultural appropriation, but for us, it's our fifth THIS WEEK. We are having to have this EXACT conversation over and over again, and that shit is fuckn exhausting.
EMR: I think it’s so important to celebrate each other, there are so many institutions that are behind on celebrating our shit since we live within the settler-colonial state of New Zealand. When it comes to critiquing each other, I think reaching out for a face-to-face korero, if someone has done something wrong, is a good way to go about it. I’ve seen things escalate due to the way social media informs how we treat each other. The language of Twitter, for example, doesn’t exactly encourage nuance, and makes it harder to hold up each other’s mana. I think sometimes people should just go outside and take a few breaths before responding/posting/tweeting or whatever. Sometimes the trouble isn’t worth it.
I always marvel at the lack of nuance in social media, as well as what kōrero goes on behind the screen
And that’s the kawakawa tea – the end of our kōrero on cultural appropriation and cancel culture. Still, the kōrero can stretch further and further. My head races with thoughts and questions on the various situations I pass by on my little iPhone screen. Last year, for example, the Auckland art gallery Mercy Pictures was torn to pieces by activists for holding an exhibition titled People of Colour. The show involved an array of worldwide flags – significantly Pride and Indigenous flags – mixed in with swastika and white supremacist flags, all hung together on the wall. Instagram went OFF.
What was the problem? Essa May puts it like this: “I think hosting an exhibition that uncritically utilises many different symbols of white supremacy is hugely inappropriate. How hard is it to run a gallery without accidentally endorsing neo-Nazis?” As a result, the gallery was called on to take responsibility, apologise and listen to the people. Instead of doing this, Mercy Pictures decided to poke fun at those they upset, complain about the state of the ‘fragile’ New Zealand art world, and appropriate images and videos of Indigenous sovereignty to gaslight those hurt by their show. It is cases like this in which those who choose to remain wilfully ignorant do more harm than good to the wider community, taking from it rather than adding to it.
The brand of cancel culture we see daily on social media does not commonly allow for change, but as a free-thinking individual I believe you should be allowed to cancel certain figures in your life. What interests me beyond incidents like this is when people fear to speak out against problematic and violent behaviour. There was criticism of the Auckland art community for those who only spoke out after the show blew up.But there is also no way of knowing who spoke up because they were jumping on the bandwagon, and who just missed the pānui. I always marvel at the lack of nuance in social media, as well as what kōrero goes on behind the screen.
For example, my partner and I were recently visiting a tapu space where a lot of tourists are encouraged to swim, but local iwi forbid it. We saw some people stripping down to their togs. As we walked past we weren’t going to say anything because we were angry and initially assumed they were being disrespectful. But my partner had a second thought and went back to tell them that the water was tapu. The group listened and immediately dressed and left the space. It was unexpected but quite cool. In cases like this, if you have the capacity, offer up what you know to those who don’t. Information grants choice.
There is, of course, no guidebook. Who decides what is right?
There is, of course, no guidebook. Who decides what is right? Who dictates when and when not to let things slide? And how can we tell if those who are not posting about popular issues are being active offline? Who are we to say who is doing the least and who is doing the most? Who keeps tabs on these people’s actions outside Instagram or Twitter? Do we see the same energy brought to the Mercy Pictures travesty as we do the Save Canal Road Native Trees protests?
Is your social media ‘wokeness’ actually contributing to tangible change or are you just clout collecting? Are you calling people out because you actually believe in that action and want to see change or because your friend called them out? What do you actually believe? Do you need to put your phone down and think for a second before you post? These are some questions that cannot be answered in a single article. Just some kai for thought.
We’re gonna keep playing the game. We’re gonna keep indulging in celebrity drama. We’re gonna keep calling out those who enforce colonial trauma. We’re gonna keep composing pānui and DMs calling out cultural appropriation and socially accepted violence. We will always opt to educate, but if you come into our DMs wanting to attack, we will send you packing.
I might not share your name on my story, but you will be cancelled to me. Thank the gods for the block button. It comes down to this, your own personal autonomy, and having the right to sever those from your space who only take and hurt. You have your login, you have your password, therefore, you have your space. If people want to invade without being called on, then it is your right to boot them out.
In doing all of this, don’t forget that we must maintain a healthy offline reality full of just as much protest and self-care. Try to exist primarily in the non-digital world, so that when everything online collapses, you feel little to no loss. The goal will forever be, for my community online as well as offline, for the health and wellbeing of my friends and whānau. In our virtual marae we wānanga and we exercise our critical-thinking skills. No one is morally absolute. Check your intentions, kōrero with your council, and do what is best for the people.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.