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Racism 101 Asked And Answered: Mugs, Cocktails And Statues -- Is Tiki A Form Of Cultural Appropriation?

(Sam Howzit/Flickr Creative Commons)
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The country erupted into protests, unrest and a renewed dialogue about systemic racism following George Floyd's killing. We held the first round of a virtual conversation event series, Unheard LA: A Deeper Listen, with a tie-in to Race In LA. The discussion repeatedly returned to how Black and Brown people were being asked for their opinion, for resources and to answer questions on racial issues -- and how exhausting it can be.

In response, we created Racism 101 to help our audience facilitate their own thought-provoking talks around race, with a conversation "starter kit," and extensive anti-racism resource guides to inform and educate.

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We also solicited questions from our audience -- awkward, silly, tough-to-ask questions -- that they've perhaps wanted to ask people unlike themselves, but have been too shy, embarrassed or afraid to ask. We assembled a panel of Angelenos willing to answer these questions so folks didn't have to ask their friends, or even strangers.


Q: In terms of appropriation, is tiki culture a problem?

Tiki culture has been a big part of SoCal life for decades, with few people questioning the cultural appropriation and colonialism that lies behind it. Started by two white men, one of whom spent some time in the Caribbean and Pacific Islands and came back with a fantasy to sell, tiki includes cherry-picked imagery and a sexualization of indigenous women that made for a much needed -- if wildly problematic -- escapism in post-war America. Its recent resurgence in craft cocktail culture has some questioning more publicly what place tiki has in society anymore.

June 21, 1963: "Walt Disney opened his Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland, a $1 million, 10-years-in-the-making fantasy featuring 225 mechanical birds, singing flowers and tom-tomming wooden Tiki gods." (Valley Times Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)
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The term "tiki" itself refers to both carved statues and the first man in M�?ori creation stories. Many indigenous peoples would like to reclaim the sacred term, pivoting to "tropical" instead. Groups like Pasifika Project have come out of this latest resurgence to raise awareness about "Oceania," their preferred term for the Pacific Islands, and to give indigenous peoples a voice in what has been a predominantly white movement. Their goal? To ask those who collect mugs and other tiki paraphernalia to think about the people who inhabit those islands -- how they're affected by climate change, how they've been affected by colonialism and the attempts to erase their culture. Their mission is help tiki enthusiasts who aren't part of the culture consider the ugly history that belies their sugary cocktail.

Mike, from our LAist newsroom, describes himself as mixed race. Born in Hawaii, he says that he identifies most closely with his maternal Native Hawaiian roots. Here's his take on tiki culture:


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Do you have a question that you'd like to ask as part of Racism 101? Tell us.