Cancel culture: Statue toppling looks at white slavers, ignoring historical black leaders

[by Jack Wilkie-Jans]

Image: supplied

The late, great Dr. Toni Morrison coined the term ‘white gaze’. This, essentially, is a term used to describe not so much the paradigms of whiteness, but the paradigm of black interests and how they relate to concepts or conventions of so-called whiteness.


Morrison used the term to describe how her literary work is done about and for black audiences and is hence removed from the ‘white gaze’—she’s not responding to it or finding allusions of empowerment within it. Her activism, consciousness and work was and stands truly liberated; free from preconceived notions of race and stereotyped expectations. It’s a lesson I’d desperately love to see learned, or practiced at least, amongst the current crew of Statue Topplers on the wave of Cancel Culture.


To me (being of both Aboriginal and British heritage) I can’t get behind this movement of Cancel Culture spurring on statue toppling. Disclaimer: I did attend the Cairns #BlackLivesMatter protest and did so to show support to our American cousins and for the issue of stopping deaths in custody. I’d hope my attendance and support of those two specific movements against racism shouldn’t be confused with support for Cancel Culture—especially when in regards to editing the long-winding and muddy waters of history.


I’m affected by, but not at risk because of historical racism. Asserting anti-racist sentiment on inanimate objects and presuming to bring about any sort of tangible change because of it is folly. It’s easy activism which serves the spectators only, not the lives of those touched daily by racism. Tearing down statues is not even something I would class as reclaiming narratives. It’s actually ignoring narratives of generations. If we can’t bear to look the history of racism in the eye, then how shall we expect to truly face the injustices of today or tomorrow with real strength? What is the obsession with tearing down statues anyway? Is it a polite dance on the outskirts of anarchy by members of society who ultimately benefit from modern standards in more ways than not and who will quickly retreat back as the media frenzy passes?


Aside from it’s utter pointlessness, the crux of my disagreement with toppling statues is that it’s action which promotes itself under the guise of liberation and yet exists very much within the ‘white gaze’. It’s looking at history as yesterday’s victim and not as today’s/tomorrow’s victor. Almost as though you can’t have a conversation about black empowerment without needing a white enemy to frame ourselves. That’s not emancipation. It’s not empowering leadership. Nor does it prescribe pathways for future race relations. It’s a perspective I and other peoples of colour ultimately have no use for.


Calling out racism is a needed thing, but in such a fashion it begins to pose risks to the overdue promotion of non-racists. Why are Statue Topplers not Statue Erectors; people who could lobby or fundraise for the erection of new statues of black leaders and civil rights allies? Why has race activism limited itself these days to the peripheral of change, of being anti, but void of alternatives?


Of Toni Morrison’s ilk is Professor Angela Davis—a civil rights activist and black academic from the United States of America. She surmised in a recent interview that calls and moves to defund and dismantle police forces is not a means to an ends, but rather should be seen as an opportunity to discuss new modes of public safety. A seasoned activist, Davis’ platform highlights the difference between thinking leaders and those otherwise motivated. The difference is that Angela Davis seeks ongoing deliberation and sees what’s occurring globally as an opportunity for collaboration, rather than a passing media moment.


Can our troublesome past not exist with our present? Would calling to honour and erect statues of black leaders not be more empowering than tearing down statues of dead racists? …Now that would really would be something important to tomorrow. But, sadly, for now it seems that honouring black leaders is harder work than hating on white racists.


Jack Wilkie-Jans is an Aboriginal affairs advocate, artist and writer from Cape York Peninsula.


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