News Culture Comment Video

Comment

Jonah from Tonga: The imagination of a white Australian in brown face

Tuesday 4th July 2017

You know what Tongans find funny? Jokes that don't come at the expense of their entire culture! Trish Tupou writes.

Chris Lilley in Jonah from Tonga.
Chris Lilley in Jonah from Tonga.

Photo: ABC

I was more than disappointed when I heard that Māori Television would be broadcasting Jonah from Tonga. The show is a creation of Chris Lilley, the man behind Summer Heights High and Ja'mie. The show follows Jonah Takalua who, after being expelled from Summer Heights High, is sent to live in Tonga under the care of his uncle and their family. The show contains sexualised humour and on more than one occasion Jonah can be seen as disrespecting his elders in unsavoury ways. His language is generally filthy, and his actions are not much better.   

I, like many other Tangata o le Moana in Aotearoa, felt there was cause enough to share my frustration on Facebook. There I encountered all the usual suspects – my fellow "activists" who also shared their disgust, those who said "lighten up – it’s funny", others who informed me that "actually Tongans find this funny too", and worst of all, the whitesplaining (often older pālangi men) who tried their best to drown out all the naysayers with their cries of free speech and "you probably just don't understand the humour". Yeah, sure, that's it – I just don't understand humour. 

Disclaimer: I dropped out of maths when I was 15 but still, I just don't know if 40 Tongans represent the 40,000+ Tongans that actually live in New Zealand.

And just like when Disney drew up the controversial figure of Maui for Moana last year, it was left up to us (read: Polynesians) to educate others (read: mainly well-meaning pālangi) on why this could be problematic.  

This conversation was made all the more difficult when we found out that the "Tongan community" had in fact been consulted by Māori Television. A Tongan representative had surveyed the Tongan community (with a sample size of 40) and in general decided that the show was funny and non-offensive to Tongans. Disclaimer: I dropped out of maths when I was 15 but still, I just don't know if 40 Tongans represent the 40,000+ Tongans that actually live in New Zealand. And as Adrian Stevanon pointed out on Twitter: if you have to consult the community because you think something might be racist, it's probably racist.  

Consultation aside, one of the reasons this didn't sit well with many of the Pacific community was the fact that it was Māori Television who had chosen to bring the show to air. As any pālangi, or whitesplaining Kiwi may discern, often Māori and Pasifika are lumped into the same group. One may hear Māori and Pasifika as being over represented in incarceration rates, poor health outcomes, or poor educational outcomes, but before we were seen as brothers and sisters in deficiencies, we were understood as siblings of the ocean. Our shared whakapapa and journeys through Oceania connect us. We are more than stats. So yes, it was a particular jab of its own that Māori Television was behind this debacle. What's that saying? It hurts more when it's your own blood. Where was the Polynesian solidarity? The shared kaupapa?

However, this is not a standalone incident. This taps into a much broader concern of stories and representation of and about minority groups within the media. It is 2017, and if you haven't already realised – it actually matters who tells the story. In fact, the teller of the story may just be as important as the story itself.

If you're new to this reality – welcome! Take a look around and familiarise yourself with the notion that it's probably about time we let people tell their own damn stories and leave behind the colonial pretence of "Oh, but Tongans find it funny too". You know what else Tongans find funny? Jokes that don't come at the expense of their entire culture! Cheeehooo! Imagine that.   

I am glad that Māori Television have decided to pull the show, but like many, I know this is not the last fight in striving for genuine Pacific stories told by those who can tell them best: ourselves.

Most of all, this whole debacle just makes me sad. I'm sad to read comments on the various articles published about Jonah from Tonga that he provides a character that young Pasifika students can relate to, that Tongans can laugh at, and that teachers of Pasifika students can learn from and reflect on. That doesn’t offer me hope, as it seems to do for others. That makes me feel bloody sad.

Why are we relying on a white Australian in brown face to teach us that Pasifika students aren't faring as well as they could be in our classrooms? Why are we watching a white Australian in brown face to make us laugh at how other people see our culture? Why are we watching a white Australian in brown face to identify what it means to be Tongan?

I’m hoping that by repeating the facts people will wake up to what this show really is. Underneath all the rhetoric, Jonah from Tonga is a white Australian in brown face make up.

Let’s demand better for our Pasifika students, our own Jonahs from Tonga that some teachers have seen reflected in their classrooms. Let's demand better stories (and better comedy!) and better representations of our people and cultures. I am glad that Māori Television have decided to pull the show, but like many, I know this is not the last fight in striving for genuine Pacific stories told by those who can tell them best: ourselves. It seems that this is always just beyond the horizon, but hopefully not too out of reach for the generations still to come.  



Join the discussion »

“Tēnā koe Trish, I hear you.

Yes that was certainly a bad option on Māori TV’s part. I suspect it was a shortsighted idea born of reckless survival instincts. History teaches us that it is the minority voice that should be protected above all else not silenced. Do continue to speak up. I agree with you, the minority voice is needed to challenge state orthodoxy, confront complacency, and open the door to human progress.

Remaining silent did not serve us well historically anymore than it does today.
” — Ngawai Robinson


Login to post a comment

Login or Signup


Comment

In accordance with our Comments Policy, all comments are moderated before they appear on the site. This happens 7am to 7pm each weekday.

Trish is a a postgraduate student of Pacific Island Studies. She'll soon be jetting off to the shores of Hawai'i to research indigenous narratives and discover life under Trump.
Join the discussion

Discuss, comment and read comments about this article.

Share