Before we dive in here, please please, pretty please, take a moment to read my article from last year, The Real and the Fake: Polynesian Culture and How We Perceive It. It lays a pretty important foundation for what I’m about to write about, and I don’t want to duplicate it all here. I mean it! Go read it, please! We’ll wait.
A couple of articles about cultural appropriation and tiki have made the rounds in the last couple of days. Each seems to put forward the idea that tiki, and the people who love tiki, aren’t introspecting about how tiki plays in the greater world. As someone well into tiki, I want to share that this is not my lived experience, by a long shot. Tikiphiles—and tiki bartenders, and tiki bar owners—are absolutely thinking about, and talking about, these things. These conversations are becoming more frequent, deeper, more thoughtful, and more interesting. There are yahoos who get super defensive and shouty and want it all to go away, of course, but they don’t seem to be very representative. The articles floating around are a bit behind, or perhaps happened to have bad luck in their research and didn’t see what I see.
This doesn’t mean we all have to turn in our tikis, of course not. Goodness, no. Everyone has problematic faves, this is ours, and I’m happy to report that plenty of folks are looking and learning, not shoving it under a rug.
Tiki seems to attract folks who are intellectually curious, and they also tend to be very focused on hospitality, on making sure people are having a good time in their space. That means they take other people’s feelings into consideration. They may front that they don’t, because so much of hospitality is making it all seem easy and effortless, no worries, no cares. That’s the image… but don’t let it fool you. These beachbums put a whole lot of care into being carefree.
In particular, this is something that comes up often when I’m talking with tiki bar owners and managers. I delve into Polynesian history and the way our western culture has imported and warped these cultures in my tiki talk for bartenders. It’s important that bar owners understand what they’re selling, and in my experience, bar owners are interested in being thoughtful about how they’re positioning and representing tiki, and they’re willing to seek help in doing that.
When the question of whether tiki bars are harmful comes up, a comparison that people often bring up is religious kitsch. I had a friend ages ago who owned a coffee shop in Seattle called Coffee Messiah. It was cheekily Catholic-themed, with pews, lots of religious iconography, and a hell-themed bathroom. I loved that place. There are a few differences here, though. The most important one is that humorously poking at the Catholic church, one of the most powerful organizations on the planet, one that many people have a complicated personal history with, that is punching up. Tweaking the powerful. Presidents don’t make it a priority to meet with the leaders of the varied Oceanic nations, after all. The cultures of Oceania aren’t imposing rules and structure on your daily life. Quite the contrary: white explorers, missionaries, businessmen, governments have all taken their turns stomping on Oceanic cultures, before importing selected bits in a form distorted for general consumption. It’s a very different relationship.
Another key difference is respect: for the most part, tiki bars aren’t punching at all, they’re glorifying, idealizing. That sounds lovely, doesn’t it? But being glorified and idealized isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Humans have full, rich experiences, and deserve to be seen as they truly are, not as someone wants them to be. Polynesian women, in particular, deserve to be seen as real people, with real goals, dreams, flaws, traits, and desires. Stereotypes, including positive ones, can stifle people’s ability to be given the room and opportunity to be recognized as a fully-realized human.
What is it like, to be Polynesian today? Where are you in our popular culture? Where are your stories being told, where are you reflected, where are you able to see people like you? As they say, representation matters, and there’s not much to work with for these folks. So when one of the few bits of what is ostensibly derived from your culture is really just a funhouse mirror reflection, an abstracted fake, distorted and adapted into something false… how does that make you feel? Where does that leave you? I can’t say—I’m not Polynesian—but it would not surprise me to hear that it sometimes hurts and kind of sucks.
I don’t think, though, that the answer has to be to “abolish all tiki bars.” I’ve said this before, and it’s worth revisiting: despite a deep passion for Hawaiian culture and history when I was younger, I did not truly understand how my perception of Oceanic culture had been twisted until I delved into tiki. It was only by diving into the fake that I truly came to appreciate the real. Take a moment to watch this illuminating video of Hawaiian high school students (some of them native Hawaiian) who are quizzed on some key pieces of Hawaii’s post-contact history. It’s pretty horrible stuff, honestly. This test covers the things I knew about when I was younger, in my pre-tiki Hawaii-history-loving days. Tiki is what took my education even farther, into understanding the later echoes we see in our lives today. I believe tiki has its own incredible, rich art form that is worth celebrating and exploring, and learning from.
What I would love to see is better, truer representation of Polynesian people in our shared culture. Moana, though an amalgamation of Oceanic cultural concepts, was a good start. I want more. More of Taika Waititi, of Dwayne Johnson. I want modern stories. The Samoan woman who works at the coffee shop in the neighborhood—what is her experience? What are her loves, her dreams, her stories? That’s missing in our culture, and I feel that hole. We have a long way to go on that front: much larger segments of our population are similarly left out of our storytelling. It’s getting better, and I want it to get better, faster. Dear Hollywood: as a middle-upper class white woman, please stop trying to sell me stories about people who look like me. We’ve covered that. Give me the stories of my neighbors.
In the meantime, as we are creating these spaces that are not-but-not-not Polynesian, I think it’s worth pausing to consider what we’re putting out there, and what is the broader impact. My personal filter: if a Polynesian person steps into this space, how will they feel? It’s easy for us to imagine that they’d just find it all a bit silly. As a Norwegian, when I walk into a goofy Viking-themed space, I find it fun. But our world is made for me. I am centered in our culture. The almighty dollar-spending white woman. I am the target audience. So a Polynesian person stepping into a tiki bar, they are simultaneously centered, because the space is “about” them, and yet a bit sidelined, they are not the primary target audience. Doesn’t that seem like it could be uncomfortable, unsettling? And these are hospitality spaces, no one is supposed to feel uncomfortable, least of all the person whose background is being leveraged. Don’t get me wrong, I know more than a few Polynesians who love these spaces, but also, I don’t think it’d be weird to feel unsettled about that experience.
Let’s check ourselves here: almost all of the hand-wringing about tiki and cultural appropriation has come from white people, or at least from people who are not Pacific Islanders. The Pacific Islanders I know—an admittedly self-selected bunch—aren’t up in arms about this. I think taking a moment to think about this stuff is just a decent thing to do, though.
So, what does this all mean for tiki? Hell, I don’t know. As I’ve said before, I’m a white lady with a fake tiki bar in her basement, maybe don’t look to me for answers about cultural sensitivity. For those of us creating our own private corners of tiki in our homes, we each are building what makes sense to us, and you have to find your own path.
In public tiki bars and restaurants, the responsibility is a bit greater. Maybe eschewing stereotyped human representations, or reworking some evocative descriptions, or perhaps partnering with a local Polynesian organization for input. It’s not uncommon for halaus and hula troupes, which tend to maintain a much closer relationship to true Polynesian cultures, to work with Polynesian restaurants. A little recognition that there’s a history of importing these things by and for white folks, but that the impacted audience is not just white folks. Making sure everyone involved in creating the space (and its branding) has some basic education about Oceanic cultures. I don’t think we’re talking about massive changes here, it’s just another factor to consider. If you can take a moment to plot out your electrical outlet placement, you can take a moment to think about this stuff, eh?
We’re all intelligent here, we’re all capable of nuance and understanding. We can love tiki while also seeing clearly the problems with where it came from. Approached with the right attitude, considering these things is actually fun, and adds a beautiful richness to the experience. I’m thrilled to see more people asking these questions in a genuinely engaging way.