More white privilege: Miley and the Shebeen


Actual poverty is in fact kind of shithouse.

Analysis of Miley Cyrus’ schtick at the VMAs was the glorious pinnacle of all that is grand and ghastly about the web.

I’m not sure what people expect when you take a former child star, give her no education or travel whatsoever, put her through the Disney mill, bring her up in a sex and celeb-obsessed culture, give her a smartphone, a slap on the bum and send her on her way. The next Zadie Smith?

Millions of words have already been exchanged in less than 48 hours, so I won’t dwell on it too much. I must say though that the (very justified) black lady anger has been a delight to read, and long overdue.

Another Stewart writes here on Jezebel about ‘ratchet culture and accessorising with black people’. Commenters gamely attempted to argue that ‘culture doesn’t just belong to one group – this is art’, which brought to my mind a more local, and equally troubling example of style over substance. And the lengths to which we’ll appropriate other cultures in Melbourne in the pursuit of being stylish and socially conscious.

I’m talking about the new-ish bar on the block: Shebeen. It’s been widely lauded in every local media outlet you can name as “drinking with a conscience”, and one of the first non-profit watering holes in town that gives 100 per cent of its profits to select charities in developing countries.

This is fine, thus far. Good on you aid workers-turned-bar owners. But the branding of the whole outfit has made me distinctly queasy.

With the help of well-known designers and It men Tin&Ed, the interior of Shebeen has been transformed into an art director’s dream of “The Third World”. Outside is artfully painted and distressed corrugated iron. Stools are cleverly constructed from a whole bunch of other stools, and covered in traditional African wax cloth. There are very neatly painted images of weaves and cornrows on the wall, of the sort you get in hairdressers around the globe. And there’s a feature wall of rice sacks, the international luggage of poor people.


Move along – nothing glamorous to see here.

The tagline is “we’re a little bit different.”

The menu goes to great lengths to explain what they’re about, and to encourage you to feel good about not only being there, but getting your swerve on. Local media on Shebeen has been universally gushing, and all along the lines of ‘have fun and help others’. The name ‘shebeen’ has a specific history in South Africa during apartheid. So the word, and the concept itself is widely celebrated in their culture.

The name is inapt. The feel-good angle is highly questionable. The fitout is very very bad.

However, the idea is fine. Without all this malarkey and justification I’d happily go to a bar-with-a-cause like this. I’m pretty sure I’d feel good (on my own terms – without the copy telling me to). I’m very happy to donate to good causes, so I don’t need much arm-twisting.

But I also know there are millions of places out there where the fitout comprises corrugated iron, busted chairs, and music powered by a car battery, because they have no other choice. To turn these items into a style decision, like choosing Helvetica Neue over Zapfino, or recycled pallets over Tasmanian Oak seems kind of…tasteless?

Melbourne is a hub of specialised bars and cafes– novelty bao, syphon coffee, and tacos wrapped in hamburgers wrapped in tofu. These places are ephemeral – most will be gone in a couple of years. Everyone’s seized upon Shebeen with great enthusiasm, because that’s what we do in Melbourne. Old is OK (as long as it’s updated every so often) but new and quirky is better.

I think my queasiness about Shebeen’s branding stems from the fact that poverty isn’t ‘cool’ or the latest thing. It’s not a style, nor something you can put on or take off like Miley’s gold grills and twerking. Unfortunately poverty is here for the long haul. If they were male (usually) and fancied a bev, any of the 2.6 billion people living in poverty mentioned in the Shebeen literature would go to a hole-in-the-wall bar. The sort of bar that’s damp when it rains, flaps in the breeze, is covered in flies, and uses hurricane lamps when the power goes out every night. Or runs on a generator. Or doesn’t have any power at all.


If I took these two to a bar, I’d take ’em somewhere nice like Neapoli or the Lui Bar.

Shebeen’s venue manager is apparently South African (another fact strongly touted), and I’d be interested to hear what any African Australians had to say about Shebeen – ones perhaps who’d walk past such a bar every day in their home country.

So. The concept behind Shebeen is strong. The planning that’s gone into it, and the support they’ve received has been unreal. I’ve no beef with the concept of Shebeen – nor of the honesty and open intentions of its owners.

I just wish they hadn’t turned it into a Derelicte-style branding exercise for kids with high jeans, thick specs and disposable incomes (who do aid work in their gap year because they want to ‘help poor people’). Branding it ‘poor’ says Shebeen is not about the mothers2mothers charity or Room To Read, it is about Shebeen. This makes me uncomfortable.

Like Miley, its creators have forgotten quite what privileges being white can get you. You can get in to the members’ at the MCC, because your parents signed you up when you were two. You can live in a shared flat in Brunswick if you fancy, or you can live in a huge mansion in Caroline Springs, if you want to spread out. You can cast off the vestiges of civilisation (apart from iPhone, laptop and western medicines) and ‘find yourself’ in Africa, snug in the knowledge your oldies will put you up when you get home*.

Or you can take on all the debt that a bar entails and brand it any damn way you feel. When poverty’s not trendy any more, you can take down the rice sacks and put up whatever you like.

We’ve come a long way from here in Australia, but as far as cultural sensitivity about developing nations goes, we’re still developing.

*Disclaimer: I did that in 1999-2000.