“My dad said he pinched her bum.”
These are the words of the brownface caricature called Jonah Takalua. They were part of a deleted scene from ‘Jonah From Tonga,’ which was posted on Chris Lilley’s YouTube channel on June 27.
Two weeks earlier, ‘Jonah From Tonga’ was taken off Netflix as a direct response to the global Black Lives Matter protests, following the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, as a White officer pressed a knee into his neck.
Lilley’s caricature of Pasifika people ties in with a long history of White people appropriating the skin of people of colour in art. The mainstream performance of blackface, yellowface, redface and brownface started in the United States more than 200 years ago as a form of theatrical makeup and racially stereotyped conduct. Award-winning Afro-Caribbean-Australian author Maxine Beneba Clarke writes that blackface was created when “White performers liberally applied black greasepaint or shoe polish and used distorted dialogue, exaggerated accents and grotesque movements to caricature people of African descent” in the name of ‘art’. It is an expression of White supremacy to think brownface is anything but a racist trope used to denigrate and dehumanise communities of colour for a cheap laugh.
'Woke' White boys would be dressed in tupenus, strumming on ukuleles, asking me if it was true 'Islanders hooked up with our cousins' and telling me they wanted to have my '10 Fobalicious babies'."Winnie dunn
I was in the first year of my bachelor of arts degree when Chris Lilley’s mockumentary ‘Jonah From Tonga’ aired on the ABC for the first time. During this period, I encountered many “woke” White boys mirroring Lilley’s brown-faced Afro-wigged minstrel ― they would be dressed in tupenus, strumming on ukuleles, asking me if it was true “Islanders hooked up with our cousins” and telling me they wanted to have my “ten Fobalicious babies”.
Anthropologist Ghassan Hage identifies White supremacy as “the fantasy position of cultural dominance born out of the history of European expansion”. Hage’s definition raises the question: Who in Australia decides that blackface, yellowface, redface and brownface are a problem? In 2016, ‘The Project’s’ Steve Price argued with award-winning Indigenous Affairs reporter Allan Clarke over an incident of blackface: A White team member of The Opals attended a dress-up party as Kanye West, and as part of her “costume,” she painted her face black.
In the interview, Clarke argued that blackface is always racist and offensive to Indigenous people. In response, Price told Clarke that he was “overreacting” and that, although the player’s blackface “may offend a few people [...], she’s not deliberately being racist.” Next Price argued that just because he was White, it didn’t mean that he was not entitled to have an opinion on blackface. “So people of not-colour can’t have an opinion?” he said to Clarke. “I don’t think [her blackface] is racist.”
First, it is important to note the incredible degree of White fragility and White entitlement at play here. Author of White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo, argues that “when you’re used to 100%, 98% feels like oppression.” Going off Price’s reaction, you’d think that White people are being unfairly restricted from having an opinion on a particular issue, when in reality, White people’s opinions on pretty much every Australian issue, including issues on race, are overrepresented in Australian arts, television, film and media.
This can be seen in the fact that The ABC’s ‘Insiders’ had an all-White panel discussing Black Lives Matter, that The Age newspaper has hired only one Indigenous reporter in its 166-year history, that The Sydney Morning Herald chose five arts critics who were all White for its new fellowship and that fewer than 10% of Australia’s artistic directors come from culturally diverse backgrounds as highlighted by a groundbreaking report called, Shifting the Balance, undertaken by Diversity Arts Australia.
Second, the question is not about whether White people are entitled to have an opinion on blackface but rather who is in a greater position to assess whether this issue is a problem: the group committing the act or the group affected by it? As Clarke put it, “Let the people of colour define what’s racist. Let them define what’s offensive to them.”
As a Tongan Australian, I am not asking White Australians if 'Jonah From Tonga' is racist. I am telling you it is.Winnie Dunn
As a Tongan Australian, I am not asking White Australians if ‘Jonah From Tonga’ is racist. I am telling you it is.
Lilley’s fictional representation of Tongan Australians is the dominant one in this country, and it has allowed him to maintain a successful career and accumulate significant amounts of wealth over two decades. Meanwhile, real Pasifikas struggle with employment and opportunities in the arts, the corporate sector and the media, and we are statistically invisible in politics. Successful high-profile Pasifika men have their names mocked on mainstream television while young Pasifika men from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds are overrepresented in Australian prisons ― we make up less than 1% of Victoria’s population but 14% of its juvenile detention centres. We are also underrepresented in high school senior education: Only 33.3% of Pasifika youth graduate Year 12 in comparison to their general Australian counterparts at 38.4%.
Lilley’s hypermasculine and oversexualised caricature of Pasifika men is defended by his supporters as being ironic, satirical and “just a joke”. However, when actual Pasifika men have demonstrated talent in Australian arts, such as the world renowned rap group OneFour, their music and their words have only ever been interpreted literally and seen as a public threat by White Australian police, media and politicians.
On June 28, The Sydney Morning Herald published an interview with Filipe Mahe in which he gave substantial evidence of Lilley having stolen his identity to make the brownface caricature, Jonah. Mahe outlined his appearance in a 2004 documentary titled ‘Our Boys,’ which showed him making jokes, dancing and expressing difficulty with his dyslexia within Sydney’s Canterbury Boys High. It is believed that the 2004 documentary led to Lilley visiting Canterbury Boys High as “research” to mould his own brownface caricature on Mahe and other young Tongan boys in the school. While Lilley built his wealth and fame on mocking these young Brown men from the privileged position of a straight White male, Mahe now professes to feel responsible for the stereotype of Tongan boys as “dumb, clowns, a nuisance, little shits, violent and foul-mouthed”.
It is clear from Lilley’s recent YouTube posts of multiple deleted scenes from ‘Jonah From Tonga’ that he is not interested in reflecting on the racist and White supremacist aspects of his work. Nor is he interested in making amends with the Tongan Australian community and to the various other communities he has dehumanised through his “art”, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Japanese people and African American people.
It is time White Australia breaks from its racist and colonialist history with blackface, redface, yellowface and brownface. If Mahe feels compelled to take responsibility for his small role in Lilley’s toxic body of work, then White Australia can take full responsibility for providing Lilley with an international platform to continue the racist history of minstrel comedy. You can begin the process of change by supporting actual Pasifika artists to create and share their own stories on their own terms.
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