A Midlifer’s Guide to: Cancel Culture. Cultural Appropriation. Wokeness.
How to Navigate Cancel Culture, Cultural Appropriation, and Wokeness in Midlife
Cancel culture, cultural appropriation and wokeness are just a few of the terminologies you need to know for the cultural revolution that is happening around you. Cancelled. Woke. Triggered. We see these words constantly without knowing their real meaning and context – and least of all what to do with them. We investigate.
“People make choices. Choices make culture.” John Amaechi Obe, Basketball player.
You’re just completing your daily trawl through the depths of Twitter. Suddenly, on the “Trending” list, you see a name pop up – one of your fave celebs. Your heart sinks. Here we go again. Which ancient tweet is it this time?
The cycle is exhausting. And so, too, is the eternal conversation around cancel culture, cultural appropriation, and wokeness. As midlifers, we’ve seen these conversations bubble to the surface before (take a bow, “political correctness”) and fizzle away just as quickly.
The “political correctness” discussion happened in an age before social media, though. Now, the slightest mistake on your profile can cost you your job, friends, and networks.
Times are a-changin’
Yes, the times are indeed a-changin’ – but these new times have introduced a whole host of words and phrases, many of which are weaponized so often that their meaning becomes unclear or completely non-existent.
Even those who genuinely care about others and want to do their bit to help marginalized groups can end up stranded and disillusioned when it comes to these labels.
While many of your friends might believe that cancel culture is toxic, it’s worth understanding its roots, why cancel culture can be good for some parts of the social conversation, and how to navigate its complexities without getting sucked into petty arguments.
Everyone’s so angry about something or the other. But when we start to understand the topic, we can move past it and apply some common frickin’ sense.
Team Vippi waded into the battleground, so you don’t have to.
Cancel culture: Is it real? Or are you just facing the free consequences of free speech?
Casting a white actor as Mahatma Gandhi certainly wouldn’t fly nowadays.
If a person or organization is “canceled,” it means that thousands of social media users have declared them unacceptable. It’ll usually happen after controversial actions become exposed in the news.
Social media users will keep up the pressure until the individual loses their job or an organization loses sales or advertising spots in media. A “culture” of cancellation means that this “mob justice” has become the rule rather than the exception.
There are two main elements to consider when facing up to cancel culture: What is a cancellation, and why does it happen? And how does a chain of cancellations become a fully-fledged “culture”?
- “Cancellation,” as defined above, is the act of highlighting a person’s harmful/offensive conduct or speech (usually on social media) and shaming them publicly to the extent that they’ll lose their job or public platform. It’s considered a “social boycott” or a form of “mob justice.”
- The “culture” part comes when people moderate their speech for fear of cancellation. It’s created a social expectation that people will toe the line of acceptability regarding their online presence, personal behavior, and cultural appropriation (more on that later) or face the consequences.
Who started cancel culture?
The idea of casting out those who don’t fit cultural or social norms is no new phenomenon. The ancient Greeks and Romans called it “exile,” but it was just cancel culture under a different name. Heck, even Adam and Eve ate the wrong apple and wound up banished.
Usually, however, a governing body would cast out “bad seeds” from their societies, whether a Roman Emperor, a British King, or a God in a holy text. What often scares people about modern cancel culture is that strangers on Twitter band together and decide that one person or organization’s speech or actions make them unacceptable.
According to Vox, the modern definition of canceling has its roots in a pretty misogynistic quote from the 1991 movie New Jack City. One character dumps another with the line, “Cancel that b*tch, I’ll buy another one.”
But of all the inconspicuous starts it could’ve had, cancel culture – now something talked about in the halls of Congress – hit the mainstream in 2010 on a reality show called Love and Hip Hop. One character dumps another from a romantic relationship by saying, “you’re canceled.” And it blew up on Twitter.
Over time, people started using the phrase when it came to public figures who’d engaged in racist or discriminatory activity or committed sexual abuse.
Twitter users would team up to:
- Boycott particular products associated with controversial public figures. (e.g., Goya beans after Ivanka Trump endorsed them, potentially breaching ethics rules)
- Pressure companies into releasing or firing celebrities. (e.g., Actor Gina Carano’s firing from Disney for tweeting comparisons between Republicans and Jewish people in the Third Reich.)
- Contact the employers of people whose actions the users deemed to be racist and demand they be fired. (e.g., A woman who became known as “Central Park Karen” getting fired for calling the police on a Black birdwatcher while choking her dog and claiming she feared for her life.)
Why do people feel like cancel culture is toxic?
It’s not regulated by any central committee
It’s mob justice. And that scares the sh*t out of people – especially midlifers who grew up in a simpler time when you didn’t constantly feel the need to police your thoughts.
There’s no central authority on cancel culture (and rightfully so – that’s a one-way ticket to Orwellian thought-police tactics). An incredibly thoughtful piece in Politico by Derek Robertson laid out that this is precisely the source of friction in the broader discussion about cancellation.
It used to be institutional gatekeepers who set the boundaries for social, cultural, and political norms – your government, monarch, or religious leader would tell you what’s acceptable. What or who establishes norms now?
Well, it’s whichever idea stirs people to outrage at a grassroots level – the outcomes of which we now see all over our Twitter feeds.
New norms are being established – and they’re calling out old actions, too
Sometimes, cancellation is a natural outcome of someone’s misdeeds. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Bill Cosby got canceled due to their heinous sexual abuses. “Central Park Karen” (described above) tried to have a man arrested by police on account of his race.
But we’re watching the forced establishment of new norms unfold before our very eyes, utterly unguided by any authority we can label as “on our side” or not. That’s a scary prospect in and of itself. One side pushes, the other side pushes back, and no one wins.
Plus, we’ve now reached a stage where old tweets are being dug up and exposed as groundbreaking offenses.
Kevin Hart, for example, faced particular vitriol for some homophobic tweets from 2009 and had to step back from his spot presenting the Oscars – in 2018.
Cancel culture doesn’t permit forgiveness or leave room for maturity over time
Cancel culture doesn’t seem to allow for the notion that someone could have matured in a decade. It seems to treat people making mistakes currently as equal to people who’ve made mistakes long ago. And it seems forgiveness is not an option.
Why you should understand cancel culture as a midlifer
Midlifers are used to the world working a certain way.
Many of us became young adults as South Park was entering the cultural conversation. Discussions weren’t recorded online and wheeled out ten years later for judgment. We just… talked. And we found our own personal, common-sense boundaries around taste.
Today we not only stand a chance of being left out of the conversation if we don’t fully get to grips with cancel culture and wokeness – but we also risk being caught out by it. And by midlife, if we lose a job due to cancel culture, even off the back of something that at the time felt like an innocent mistake, we have our family’s stability to think about. The fallout can be devastating.
We must learn to navigate this completely different landscape.
Does canceling actually ruin livelihoods?
Do most people get “canceled” fully? Louis CK was back on tour 2 years after his sexual abuse allegations.
And JK Rowling, arguably the highest-profile cancel culture victim who had her fans turn on her after making transphobic statements on Twitter, still kept publishing and selling books
So if you were worried that “cancel culture” might rid the world of great art, don’t be. Katt Williams, a renowned comedian, suggests that if adjusting your comedic work to more sensitive language completely derails your ability to do comedy, you probably weren’t that great anyway.
Great artists should be able to push boundaries without going out of their way to offend people.
Never forgive, never forget: Cancel culture’s biggest irony
Cancel culture operates under the guise of improving society. But what if those who get canceled are then denied the opportunity to improve?
Every religion and culture values the power of forgiveness. On the other hand, cancel culture strips that away – in some cases, administering punishments for honest mistakes committed some time ago.
Once a society stops forgiving, it stops learning. And if it stops learning, it stops becoming. People who commit wrongs will never get an opportunity to set things right if they are banished.
Plus, not every act takes place with malicious intent. Some people make genuine mistakes. Others have made a mistake in the past but not after.
This includes Kevin Hart (who didn’t publicly make homophobic comments after the controversy over his tweets) and Alexi McCammond, who recently quit as editor of Teen Vogue after some controversial tweets around race and sexuality emerged – from when she was a teen.
There needs to be some understanding that people can mature.
Walking on eggshells: What is cultural appropriation, and when does it become a problem?
Under the banner of cancel culture also comes cultural appropriation.
Adele recently came under intense fire for wearing her hair in Bantu knots, a traditional African style, at Notting Hill Carnival. This vibrant street parade celebrates Afro-Caribbean culture in the UK.
Justin Bieber faced criticism for wearing his hair in dreadlocks.
Welcome to the cultural appropriation debate.
The controversy comes not from the act of cultural appropriation itself, which tends to be forgiven with appropriate context, respect, and credit. The issue is that these style choices tend to be frowned upon in their original contexts, but other cultures get respect, success, and admiration for mimicking them.
Examples of cultural appropriation
Let’s take the example of sage smudging, the act of burning sage to “clear negative energy” from a living space. The practice is re-entering popularity as a new-age way to relieve anxiety. But it’s a practice taken entirely from Indigenous Americans that dates back thousands of years.
Witch hunters persecuted American Indigenous people for burning sage. Sites like Sephora had to cancel a “witch starter pack” that contained sage sticks. The problem comes when U.S. culture rips directly from Indigenous culture without paying homage to these communities.
The same applies to cannabis use. Many people of color are serving extended prison sentences for possession or distribution of the drug. But (primarily white-owned) companies are making billions of dollars on legal cannabis products and stores in states that have legalized the drug.
Cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation
The difficulty with cultural appropriation is this: We live in a multicultural society. It’s one of the best things about living in America. So, where do we draw the line between showing respect to a specific culture and appropriating it to their disadvantage?
One member of Team Vippi grew up Jewish. When his non-Jewish friends wore skullcaps to his bar mitzvah ceremony while inside the synagogue, it was a mark of utmost respect. In fact, it would’ve been disrespectful not to wear a skullcap.
That’s cultural appreciation.
Suppose you’re going to your Mexican work buddy’s daughter’s quinceanera. In that case, you might end up wearing a sombrero, drinking tequila with your Mexican buddies, and learning the Mexican Spanish lyrics to some celebration songs. You’re celebrating with people from that culture.
That’s cultural appreciation, too.
Appropriation’s lines are blurry. For example, in Bieber and Adele’s cases, they likely paid a Black-owned hairdresser to do the job, investing and bringing attention to Black businesses. Would public knowledge of this factor then make it acceptable? Were they showing an affinity with Black culture or taking advantage of it?
All cultures appropriate others. Here are just a few prime examples:
- Jewish folk in New York go for Chinese meals on 25th December as a tradition.
- Americans across the U.S. eat 3 billion units every year of a type of food made famous in Naples – the immortal Pizza.
- The UK’s Indian immigrant population made the curry a revered British national dish.
- K-Pop songs from Korea use shades of African American music (i.e., Hip-Hop/R’n’B) in their production style.
- The world’s most viewed rap battle league isn’t in the U.S. – it’s based in the Philippines. They’ve appropriated one of the most American genres of entertainment.
Treating all cultural exchanges as theft risks going all the way to the other extreme – cultural uniformity. Boring.
Plus, in a world that becomes culturally uniform, we risk losing an understanding of different cultures, which could lead to ignorance and uninformed hatred of any culture that doesn’t conform to our own.
How to avoid cultural appropriation
As far as cultural appropriation is concerned, it’s such a grey area that many people in these cultures are pretty accepting of the learning curves involved.
There are, however, serious mistakes to avoid and steps you can take to be more inclusive, balanced, and understanding.
The dos and don’ts of cultural appropriation
- Pay homage to creators, artists, and ideas from a particular culture. If you give credit where it’s due and work with people from the culture to which you’re paying homage, it shines a light on creative minds from that culture.
- Accept that art and fashion don’t stay in one place. American denim has completely transformed from its roots in the original fabric. In contrast, Japanese designers have preserved the original vision of Levi Strauss by using U.S. denim culture as a springboard for their own designs. It’s appropriation as preservation. It works.
- Invest in other cultures at a deeper level. Have conversations with people from different cultures to understand their struggles and philosophies. Engaging with Black culture is fine, for example, if you also engage with the heart of their fight for social justice. Don’t cherry-pick the parts of that culture you like.
- Wear blackface. F*cking ever. Just don’t do it. If the opportunity arises to dress as an ethnic or cultural stereotype, just pick something else.
- Substitute appropriation for diversity. Some designers for Valentino premiered an African-themed clothing line in 2015, gave their all-white models cornrows and braids, yet failed to hire any models of color. Celebrate cultures by involving people from the culture.
- Accessorize sacred artifacts. If you’re going to wear items from another culture, make sure they don’t have deep ceremonial significance. That’s just asking for trouble and can seem like an insult to their most sacred customs, even if you’re only wearing it because you appreciate its beauty.
In short, if you have friends from other cultures, ask them about what’s acceptable in terms of appropriation. Use your best judgment, show genuine curiosity, and engage your common sense.
What is wokeness?
Wokeness is a state of being continually alert to social injustice. You might’ve seen Tucker Carlson throwing the term around as an insult, but the word “woke” first came to prominence on an awesome Erykah Badu tune, Master Teacher.
People who get described (or self-describe) as “woke” care or claim to care about social justice issues over and above all other things.
This term became a little warped, though. Corporations often try to appear socially engaged through well-intentioned but ultimately ineffectual social media gestures like Blackout Tuesday in 2020.
On Blackout Tuesday, people wanting to show allyship to the Black cause posted a black square accompanied by a promise not to post anything else that day. They meant well, sure. The intention was that this encouraged reflection – but it didn’t really solve anything. And using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter actually drowned out important information for activists.
Critics of wokeness
Critics of wokeness point out that practicing compassion and tolerance doesn’t match up with the not-very-compassionate actions of cancel culture. Wokeness is mainstream now. Some people kick back against that, claiming that their freedom of speech is under threat of cancellation.
The lines are blurred, the ethical areas are gray, and the conversation is ever-present and highly draining. Are you truly being an ally to these social causes, or are you virtue signaling? Do you call out harmful behaviors or bullying people online? Or are you “being racist” or simply indicating a different point of view?
Only common sense will help you navigate these areas – but more on that later.
Why these discussions are happening
Look, Team Vippi gets it. You’ve got enough to think about. You’re keeping your family afloat. Work is a nightmare. You have parents and teenagers to care for. You can’t and won’t put up with being made to feel guilty about another culture’s problem, and everyone has to run their own ship.
But it’s worth thinking about why these conversations are happening. Different viewpoints are a given – they keep the world in balance. But it’s too easy to be complacent and distracted.
Whatever end of the political spectrum you fall into, you should want the Black and Gay and Muslim and disabled friends and family in your circle to flourish and feel included. And all of these discussions around inclusive language, pronouns, and social progress are awkward growing pains through which minorities can become more integrated into society.
It seems like nitpicking. But by learning the mechanics of “woke” language, midlifers can learn to integrate better into a more complicated social arena without feeling left out of the conversation.
To do or not to do? : A midlifer’s guide
Cancel culture and wokeness are confusing and seemingly everywhere. But as midlifers, we’re not used to cross-examining our thoughts every second of the day. We have so many responsibilities. We can’t preserve everyone else’s feelings, too.
The conversation is here, whether we like it or not. So how do we work with it?
Social media tips for dealing with wokeness
Here’s how to sail the murky seas of social media without getting eaten by sharks.
- Don’t overshare on social media. If a post is going to get you canceled, it’s likely to be from 2008, back when you weren’t thinking about what you were posting. But it’s important not to share every single thought you have and every article you read on your social accounts. We can keep *some* opinions to ourselves or restrict them to dinner parties where intelligent conversation can reign supreme.
- Set your social media profiles to private. Losing a job over a social media post is far from the realms of fantasy – it happens all the time. Keep your personal social media accounts private. Use a site like LinkedIn for professional networking, and maintain a healthy distance between your Facebook and your employer. You can restrict who sees your socials in the Security and Privacy sections of the social media sites you use.
Nowadays, companies are jumping on the wokeness bandwagon more and more often. But there are still boundaries.
Leave these discussions outside the workspace.
Whatever political views you hold, they can stay outside of work. Your managers want you to make them money; their managers want them to keep you in line. So keep your personal views away from work, perform well at your job, and stand up for your values on your own time and dollar.
…But if they have progressive events to mark Pride or Black History Month, for example, get involved.
Your office will likely do something to commemorate and show respect to important events for some minority groups.
You can play as active a hand in those as you want – whether it’s helping to research and send out an email, contributing to the organization of parties or events, or simply reaching out to your more marginalized colleagues to discuss their experiences.
If you don’t want to get involved, no one’s forcing you. Your only job is not to sneer at proceedings. What’s not essential to you can be game-changing and mega-inclusive to someone else. So show some empathy.
If you’re a boss, and you get a report that a member of your team has come under fire online, don’t kneejerk.
A tweet is 280 characters long. If an edgy or potentially offensive tweet one of your employees made years ago emerges out of context, don’t rush into firing that employee to save face. It’s important to follow your usual course of disciplinary assessment and action.
If you end up as the victim of a pile-on, be open with your employers.
First of all, speak to HR about their social media policy. If you’ve not been posting about your job, you may not be in breach of it, and they might not have grounds to let you go. But companies are vicious about protecting their reputations.
It’s important to get ahead of the curve, be honest, and talk to your employers about any pending social media sh*tstorms headed your way. They might turn a kinder eye to you or see the context of a particular tweet or image if you’re the one to raise it and not some stranger online.
How to participate in “woke” discussions
By definition, any conversation around issues of social justice is a woke one. How do you sound informed and stay included? Well, it’s about recognizing when you aren’t informed and taking the backseat.
- Use wokeness as an opportunity for discussion. Don’t immediately dismiss every well-intentioned social commentary from younger relatives as “woke nonsense.” Have a discussion. Listen to new information, and avoid jumping to any conclusions before you’ve done your research.
- Know that you’re still entitled to your views. You don’t have to accept the sweeping judgments of others or pretend to believe something you don’t. You know your opinions, friendship circle, and politics. It’s just about expressing them in a constructive, compassionate, and informed way.
- Be aware of social justice issues. The conversation may be draining, but if you want to stay connected to this changing world as a midlifer, keep an ear to the ground on social issues. Talk to your friends in marginalized groups. Don’t shut out any and every conversation that makes you uncomfortable. And if you don’t know enough to have a fully-formed opinion, just listen.
- Read news from more than one source. We become “sticks in the mud” and make conversations unbearable when we only get our information from one place. So read news on both sides of the political aisle. Read news from overseas publishers, like The BBC, to get another perspective.
- Show empathy. Understand where other people are coming from. You don’t have to agree with everyone – but you do have to accept that their views come from lived-in experiences. Everyone has a reason for believing what they do.
How to apologize
We’re not going to remember every attempt at an edgy tweet we made while drunk over the course of the last decade, or every vaguely inappropriate costume we wore to a party in 2003.
Especially in this climate, this sh*t will come back to bite you, hard. We know you’re not a bad person, and you don’t want to hurt people. You have to apologize in a heartfelt way that reflects a genuine desire to grow. Then, follow it up with proactive efforts to do and be better.
That’s why we’re not going to tell you exactly what to say. How sincere would that be? Instead, follow these three steps, and demonstrate some genuine self-reflection.
Realize it’s not about you.
There have been so many celebrity apologies for prior f*ck-ups, and it comes across like a PR tactic to rescue their ailing reputation. Don’t make the same mistake. Before even attempting to say sorry, you have to get into the mindset that it’s not about preserving your reputation.
The damage has probably already been done. If your actions have been flagged to your company, fighting the outcome will be an uphill struggle anyway. So adjust your mindset. This is the first step to a deeper learning curve, not a public saving of face.
Research to improve your knowledge around why your actions were hurtful. We can all grow – but not without learning. There’s a temptation to use ignorance as a defense. “I didn’t know it was hurtful, don’t judge me.”
You need to understand why that person from that culture is hurting due to your actions. There’s a whole Internet’s worth of research out there. Put in the work. It’s not the job of anyone from an oppressed group of people to educate you. They’re already tired.
Know that it’s not about fulfilling a social contract, but genuinely learning not to make the same mistake again.
Your apology needs to mark the start of a journey that will help you build compassion, understanding, and self-education.
You may feel the reaction has been blown out of proportion and that you didn’t intend for your original actions to be offensive. Regardless, you have to make changes in your life that accommodate the feelings of others. Empty promises to “be better” help no one.
You have to actually be better.
The Roundup: Just use a little f*cking common sense.
Some people are stubborn. They see cancel culture as an opportunity to double down and get gratification from “triggering” people on public platforms. Cancel culture is painted as this lethal modern weapon, but you’re only really going to get in trouble if you’ve acted super objectionably on a public forum.
So understand that going out of your way to upset people online is just a waste of time. Go about your business. Look after your family. Disagree with others, sure, but talk it out like f*cking adults.
If you take a measured approach to every conversation, you never lose an argument – because you always learn from your interactions.
As for cultural appropriation, you know the difference between turning up to a fancy dress party in blackface and wearing traditional Indian clothes to a South Asian wedding as a nod to your loved ones’ heritage.
Overall, wokeness isn’t something to sneer at – it’s an opportunity to listen to others and come to an understanding about other cultures.
You won’t always get it right. But if you make decisions from the viewpoint of kindness and curiosity, the people you respect will retain respect for you.
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