I’ve refrained from saying anything about Auckland’s infamous Ya Ya Club – the high society banquet club – because it wasn’t worth an evening at the pub typing over several pints. However, this week social media crusade has flared up, this time over the ‘Bal Du Monde’ event featuring ethnic world-influenced fashion costumes which many have denounced as racism and cultural appropriation. Far from me to defend this group, I find some of our broader motivations in our sneer and dislike somewhat misguided.

Our existing hatred towards the Ya Ya Club reflects a common problem among modern leftists in imbuing individuals and groups with a power and mythology they lack, and this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve complained. John Cleese, in an excellent 1980’s political party broadcast, suggests we often justify our righteous anger at individuals and groups because they are the source of evil. In this case, the Ya Ya Club is treated as the cause of socioeconomic inequality rather than a symptom. They provide a proxy through which to express our hatred towards John Key and the ‘rich pricks’, like similar social media snark towards son Max and daughter Stephanie. Rather than focusing our time and energy on the complex task of how to reduce inequality, it’s easier and more instantly gratifying to play a perpetual game of political whack-a-mole. Ironically, Ya Ya Club members behaviour is more simply explained as the predictably behavior of many children who were raised wealthy. They have more access to money and spend it on luxury items in which they flaunt. As I have written in the past, a common affliction among the modern left is, living in a free market democracy, we treat all decisions – whether fashion tastes or political opinions as consumer ones and a matter of personal choice rather than the result of class and/ or cultural upbringing. We treat Ya Ya Club members as making the wrong political and luxury consumer choices compared with our superior ones without a consideration of class culture.

Us politically engaged left leaners are hardly immune to the flaunting of our exquisite tastes either. Politically, our Facebook posts and tweets against the Ya Ya Club too often contain an underlying narrative of “I am against bigotry and I need as many people to know this as possible.” – itself a branding exercise. There’s also a hypocrisy from many critics’ anger at Ya Ya’s glamourising consumer wealth. Consider how many of us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook celebrate our consumer choices: the bottles of Bollinger, the food selfie from an expensive restaurant, and the exotic beach holiday. To an extent, Ya Ya Club is not dissimilar to one of our Instagrammed potlucks, but with more money and therefore a better venue, more famous guests, and more likes.

The claims of racism and cultural appropriation also run a huge risk that potentially ensnares ourselves – something I’ve been concerned about social media calling out for some time. High fashion photo shoots and runway fashion commonly feature exotic influenced designs and costumes, which themselves only become a problem when public sensibilities deem individual instances cultural appropriation, like in this case and with Stephanie Key’s Native American headdress before it. However, the difference between what is acceptable and what is bigoted can change overnight. I recall friends wearing Native American headdresses a few years ago when it was considered perfectly acceptable, with most of them likely embarrassed about it now. Changing cultural mores are unpredictable. Soon it may be Asian peasant hats from the Auckland Lantern Festival, yoga pants, or dressing as a cholo/ chola for a costume party. The well meaning among us may be caught out by shifting social mores.

If anything, those who oppose the Ya Ya Club would be better served considering it as satirical fodder. A youthful version of the silver-haired Toorak Liberal Ladies who lunch and fundraise for charity. An removed experience but mostly harmless, earnest, and at worst needlessly provocative. The Ya Ya Club are not the cause of inequality or racism and make poor substitutes for John Key, the National Party, and the ‘rich pricks’ and cannot heal our wounds of seven years of political disappointment. Unless the Ya Ya Club sends out a press release inciting a race war or merges with the Taxpayers Union, then it means little to me beyond an amusing curiosity.



  1. Leah

    It was also once acceptable for men to beat his wife as long as what ever he beat her with was no thicker than his thumb. That’s just how social progress works. And the wearing of sacred/tapu items like Native American war bonnets has NEVER been acceptable, but the objection to them has only become more widespread recently as social media has grown and provided a larger and more accessible platform for people of colour to finally start being heard. We’re used to being shrugged off as something ‘leftist’ or ‘ radical’, because heaven forbid we value something in a way that is priceless and that you don’t understand. People don’t take kindly to being criticised and even less so to be told that something they’re doing is racist, so it’s really difficult to break barriers like racial stereotypes and cultural appropriation. Very rarely do these people try to consider the view of the cultures whose traditions are exploited and realise that maybe you just don’t understand the value we place in those ceremonial garments. Instead we’re patronised and the things we consider tapu are compared to things like yoga pants and peasant hats.

  2. finetoothcolumn

    I think my point has been missed. I was arguing broader public attitudes change once a tipping point is reached where the public no longer finds something like a Native American headdress as acceptable – whether or not it was ever ethically acceptable. To be clear, I’ve never found it acceptable. With regards to the calling out of the Ya Ya Club, though I find calling out a perfectly legitimate approach, I personally don’t find it a very effective tool for change. Growing up gay and half Chinese, I’ve seen my fair share of homophobia and racism, often from otherwise decent people. People are complex, and treating all individuals who we believe hold negative views simply as demons to be slayed misses the point as it comes at the expense of challenging institutional power structures that perpetuate forms of injustice. Having worked in the asylum seeker sector – including community engagement – I learned very fast that individuals and their misconceptions were far less important than mainstream politicians and media corporates who colluded and helped perpetrate actual violence. Ya Ya Club isn’t the source of bigotry or real power, more a group of rich, indulgent socialites whom I find a bit comical and, if anything, removed. Even still, real bigotry is something far more deep and entrenched and won’t be solved through picking off famous targets. I think you may have also confused me as someone ridiculing people on the left – far from it. It’s a critique of my contemporaries, both that 1) Criticism of the Ya Ya Club is a misguided proxy of all the things and people we loathe in a country we feel that doesn’t reflect our political and cultural values and 2) To many who would rail against such symbolism may very easily to be called out over constantly and fast changing public mores about what is culturally appropriate. Otherwise, this just has us in perpetual checking of our own behaviour based on fear rather than the gradual growth through experience which is how people really change. Here’s similar sentiments I’ve expressed in the past.

    We seem pretty much on the same side of these issues. Though we have different styles, I find your approach perfectly valid and admire your passionate and deep insights.

  3. Leah

    Thanks, that first comment didn’t make much sense, my hands are usually full with a 1-year old. But I do get what you mean and it probably is just a different approach to the way we critically analyse these issues. I haven’t been comfortable with how a lot of the discourse around this particular event has turned out – if anything it’s only drawn out the obvious racism in some other people (i.e. the people jumping out to defend the use of Phoebe Loloma’s North West blackface). And I realise what you’re saying that real change is through policy and the flow of the media, and I do agree with that. But I definitely don’t think there’s an issue with challenging social norms among the ordinary citizen (or the uber wealthy), and getting people to question what we “think” isn’t racist because it’s been normalised. I think one of the most detrimental things we could do is exclude the wider population from these discussions, because eventually these are the attitudes that will build the social environment around our youth and of course, will vote for or potentially become future governments. There’s definitely cause for addressing the issues of racism, poverty and the cross-relationships between those and other related issues through more diplomatic levels of social structure, but it’s totally okay to encourage a greater voice in the public that says – hey, that’s not cool.

  4. Pingback: MAX POWER | Fine Tooth Column

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