Blackface in a white nation

Australia has a comedy problem if a guy who dresses in blackface, brownface and yellowface is considered a ‘genius’. In what other country could a comedian earn a pass, let alone praise, for resurrecting minstrelsy? Not many, if any.

That’s what Chris Lilley does: racial cross-dressing. In Jonah from Tonga, Lilley’s latest mockumentary, he wears brown makeup, fake curls, a phoney tatatau, and uses a fob accent and Polynesian mannerisms. Lilley appropriates the Polynesian appearance and experience to make an obvious point about racism in Australia: Polynesians are marginalised.

I should offer the customary acknowledgement here: Lilley is a good satirist. In Summer Heights High and Jonah from Tonga Lilley reveals that Jonah, a complex and endearing bigot, is a product of his bigoted environment – Australia. But there’s a basic danger in Lilley’s satire: he risks reinscribing the very stereotypes he is acting out. Jonah Takalua operates on two levels: confirmation and critique. For some Jonah will confirm Polynesian stereotypes, for others he will critique Polynesian stereotypes.

Prominent Tongan community member Meliama Fifita believes the former is true. So do I (as I have argued in the Guardian). As a Polynesian – my mother is Maori and my father is Samoan – I think Lilley does more harm than good to our struggle. To ridicule Australian racism Lilley has to show it. The method – brownface – overcomes the message about Australian racism.

A white man in brownface is too loaded to make an effective point. The makeup, the hair, the tatatau, the accent and the mannerisms retain their negative power despite Lilley’s best intentions. In the nineteenth century, brownface was used to spread the othering stereotype. In the twentieth century brownface was used as a casting practice to keep actors of colour out of lead roles. In twenty-first century Australia a white man in brownface is the primary depiction of Polynesians in popular culture. I can’t be the only person who sees a problem there.

I doubt Lilley asked himself why he needed to be the person telling the story. That question is doubly important given the history of brownface as a tool of exclusion and marginalisation. It’s more important still given recent accusations from Lebanese actor Firass Dirani and Samoan actor Jay Laga’aia of a ‘White Australia’ policy in Australian television.

But perhaps it’s me who is missing the point. The fact that Lilley can win praise for racial cross-dressing might be the best satire of Australian racism. Yet I’m not aware of anything that points to this being Lilley’s purpose. And even if it were, the negative power of brownface – or blackface, yellowface and redface – remains.

The ease with which the Polynesian appearance and experience is appropriated is quite disturbing. I, for one, am sick of been told it’s ‘just a joke’, ‘you’re too sensitive’ and ‘get off your PC high horse’. The implication is that being offended is something disadvantaged people do while joking around is something that people with privilege do.

We talk past each other because we perceive racism differently. Many white Australians would think a charge of racism requires an intention to be a racist. However, many people of colour look at racist impact. On the first view Lilley can’t be perpetuating racism because he doesn’t intend to be racist. On the second view Lilley is perpetuating racism because brownface has an impact that is racist.

When I was at school mimicking Jonah Takalua was ‘a thing’. He was an outlet for everything that wasn’t acceptable in a white body. My mates didn’t sit around discussing the finer points of racial oppression and the Polynesian diaspora. They just wanted to say ‘puck you, miss’. A white guy in brownface had socialised a new generation of kids into the world of race relations. In what other country could a comedian do that?

Morgan Godfery

Morgan Godfery (Te Pahipoto, Sāmoa) is a writer and trade unionist. He lives in Dunedin and works at the University of Otago.

More by Morgan Godfery ›

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  1. Somebody stop him. Think of the children!
    I wish for a world where nobody can make fun of each other, and we all uniformly go to work and enjoy our recreational time in a safe and non offending manner.

    1. @Kyle… Yeah Kyle, think of the children!! Ever been called a ‘c**n’, ‘ni**er’ or ‘b**ng’ in the schoolyard?!
      I wish for a world where the privileged don’t have ‘a specific colour’ but not all that offends is equal, wake up mate, you don’t always get to have it ‘the white’ way!

  2. It’s not about political correctness, Kyle. Did you even read Morgan’s articulation of his fear of being too PC? Lilley’s characters are great, and broad in scope, but you just can’t offend people who are still traumatised, as the Chaser found out with their kids with cancer sketch.

  3. That’s some clever sarcasm, Kyle. Personally, I wish for a world where institutional racism and structural oppression against people of colour doesn’t exist, but to each their own. Hopefully your future children won’t have to experience the horrible life of not being able to make fun of people on the basis of their skin colour.

  4. Morgan, can you please clarify if all or some of the mates you refer to in the statement below are Polynesian? Seems relevant but is unclear in article. Cheers
    “My mates didn’t sit around discussing the finer points of racial oppression and the Polynesian diaspora. They just wanted to say ‘puck you, miss’”

  5. “In what other country…” Well the UK, where Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G is a bit dodgy if you don’t know the character is meant to be a white guy pretending to be black, and where his Borat is completely dodgy. Generally there’s been a tendency among comics in recent years to think that utterly racist, or sexist, stereotypes are OK if they’re supposedly clever or ironic about such stereotypes or the stereotypes are supposedly showing up other characters’ prejudices. But it’s just educated yobs being racist or sexist.

    1. “Tropic Thunder,” I recall, had the brilliant plot device of RDJ playing a white method actor who gets pigmentising surgery to play a black character — meaning that it’s not technically RDJ in blackface but his character. (Nice escape clause.) Though the real RDJ still gets to show off his talent for mimicry. Watching him interviewed about the Sherlock Holmes films, it’s clear he takes accent coaching seriously — I assume he trained just as hard to do his African-American accent.

      Other interesting case was Gary Oldman in “True Romance.”
      I think it’s a question of whether the actor is doing it to cheaply demean people or whether they’re aiming for a more ambitious level of mimesis.

      I haven’t seen Lilley’s last two shows (though I thought clips of his African-American rapper character were shithouse). He might be losing the plot, or it might be that we’re living in a different decade with different values. PC-ness seems to go through cycles where there are uptight decades followed by cathartic periods, each new decade trying its hardest to damn the memory of its predecessor with fear or ridicule.
      Fashion designers and interior decorators probably understand this more instinctively than sociologists.

      1. An example of how rapidly the zeitgeist has changed:
        In 2010, there was a conversation on my Facebook wall where Dave Graney (yes!) praised traditional minstrel shows and claimed to be a huge fan.
        His interest, I felt, was rather innocent (and more-or-less musicological) but I’m not positive the same comment would go down well today.

  6. & getting a white Maori to write about Tongans is what? Middle class white Maori like Godfrey don’t like this because they don’t want to be associated with working class brown people. As a working class brown person I can agree, there is no association;Morgan Godfrey is nothing remotely like Jonah.

    1. White Maori? What the fvk are you on about? You seem to have a little racism problem. You are working class, brown, and dumb. Sad guy.

      1. Like Jonah eh? I’m way more insulted to be associated with idiots like Mogan Godfery than Jonah. But whatever white guys are talking its not my place to have an opinion on myself.

  7. until such time as black comics adopt whiteface blackface is blackface is blackface and tendentious rather than innocent regardless of hip ironic pose .. phew, good to get that off my face

  8. Calling people ‘PC’ has become a way of silencing them and to make them feel or look as if they are overreacting or over sensitive.

    And this always, and I mean always in my experience, comes from someone in a position of privilege.

  9. Nick Fredman: I personally think Borat was a hoot. But the joke risks backfiring on the functionally illiterate who need the joke explained to them, and it can only be taken so far before the novelty wears off.

    The Chasers crew in Australia have usually managed to pull it off, without any need to delve into race issues much. But their recent episode with the cancer patient seems to show that it’s wearing thin.

  10. Excellent comment Morgan! Lilly white boy never set out to make a deliberate comment about white racism, he set out to prove that racism still has currency [sells] comedy to white people.

  11. Kia ora

    I think there are many ways of seeing and experiencing racism or colonisation. Even the title assumes a privilege of White Australia as “dominant” therefore anything else is obviously minority.
    To counter the idea of what other country does this? I think it’s worth noting that Australia itself has a barge load of self deprecating ethnic and gender characters from Con the Fruiterer to Dame Edna Everage or Crocodile Dundee. The list goes on. The fact that Polynesian and Asians are finally deemed worthy enough to take a typical Ozzie pot shot at shows a level of acceptance maybe?

  12. When you hear that Political Correctness has gone too far, it really means that you’re finally getting through. It’s what those who don’t want to acknowledge racism and ignorance say when they can’t ignore it any more.

  13. If this guy had been pretending to be an Aboriginal there would have been an outcry and rightly so. And yet, it appears to me, there has been no such outcry from the Tongan community. Migrants in Australia, it seems, don’t want to rock the boat. Just want to fit in with white people. Aboriginal people have no such qualms and will gladly protest. Migrants, whether you’re Indian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Tongan, whatever, need to stand up and make a noise and not be concerned about upsetting a handful of white rednecks.

    1. Um what. Like imagine if Australia had sent the military to occupy the northern territory, abducted thousands of kids, tried to wipe out their cultures & steal all their land… Australia’s problem is not insufficient racism against Indigenous people.

      Migrants in Australua need to remember whose land were standing on when we’re there.

  14. Seriously….. as a half-caste who has copped racism across my whole life.. I have to say Australia needs more racism, more open honest racism. The sort that can be dealt with. This country and its not-people are experts at integrated racism, the sort that is so subtle and pervasive it is the culture.

    We need more Chris Lilley, we need to drag racism out of the closets and into the open and by doing so I do not think it will make a new generation more racist, rather it will make them revealed in their already existing racism.

    I would like to see all the aboriginal jokes that we remember from school held up, they just snuck away careful like to be never discussed, along with the good old Aussie tradition of pitching together to pick on the new immigrant.

    You cannot resolve an issue until you own it and as yet Australia has not owned its special form of racism, the one called being Australian. We still have people alive and proud of how they raped and killed abo’s or my people, the darkies and coolies and whatever. Yes these people are still alive and their children and grandchildren still see them as good people.

    More power to Chris, he isn’t taking the piss out of Tongans, he is doing what no one else is brave to do, owning being an Australian.

  15. I am in truth no fan of Lilley, but his satire is well crafted and humane. Wowsers of the “left” and right should left to create their perfect comedies and then bore each other to death.

  16. I think the whole reason Chris Lilley does what he does, writes, creates, acts and produces these shows is to create the discussion that is on this site (and in the media) – the show may be racist, or funny, non-PC or inflammatory or whatever… but the fact that people are talking about it is what matters to him. He loves that it is creating a discussion; whether he’s playing a self-absorbed gay teacher, a Polynesian teenager, a 16 year old teenager, or any of the other characters that he plays, that we’re all talking about it is what excites him.

    1. Hmmm.. that may be because black men don’t have a rather long and drawn out history of oppressing white people, of which ‘whiteface’ played a part. Or do you believe that all race-related issues have been successfully dealt with over the past 50 years?

  17. Oh please! The man has talent. Thats why he’s lasted so many seasons. Truely no other artist quite lile him. This sounds much like the opinion of uptight others and obviously not the fans that have kept him coming back to our tv’s for years. Mocke4y and stereotype are staples in the history of australian comedy. Look at dame edna for christs sake! An australian icon laden with stereotype and mockery! Its just the australian way.

  18. Too seriouse!! Lol! Islanders always mock themselves… Its not racisim uso. I think you think too much! Its racisim if your intentions are to hurt the other, its hard cause theres alot of truth to some of jonas character, lol! But if he was a real islander… Fyi: he would of got the madst fasi long time.. Lol! Backhand uppercut and the kettle cord if thats what he did a school!

  19. I don’t think it would have the same impact on the Australian audience if the main character was Polynesian. The fact that a actor portrays someone from a different cultural demographic than his own gives the intended audience a comical interpretation. It may, definatley be off the mark in an actual portrayal of Tongans, but that was its intended purpose. And those who are offended by mokumentary comedy, you are NOT the intended audience.
    As for blackface racist similarities, I think those observations are way off the mark.
    Who are we to judge what others find funny!

    1. There are so many problems with your comment. You’re saying that people who are offended are not the intended audience, even though the people who are most likely to be offended are the ones being represented in the show. So essentially their culture is being appropriated and mocked, but they are not even invited to enjoy the spectacle. You don’t think that’s a stupid thing to say? Keep in mind that this is one of the only shows on Australian TV to have Polynesian supporting cast, let alone a Tongan main character.

  20. Lilley is doing what artists have and will always do to get attention – that is to confront the tough issues. Bit like Morgan with this article.

  21. Racism was invented by Russians. To oppress and divide those they wished to conquer and ultimately destroy. Lilley is barely looking to divide nor destroy. The entire article here seems that the author is just disagreeing for disagreeing’s sake. Or that you have a big charge when it comes to black/brown/yellow face done by a white man. Cool, let’s talk about it. Maybe it’s controversial and people will be interested to hear what I have to say. When in fact nothing much was even said. Develop your points some more or keep silent. It’s a solid start though

  22. I’m a white aussie, australia truly is a racist country, in an insidious kind of way. Most don’t think of themselves racist, but hold racist views. The stereotyping also extends past race and into class. They only ok way to exist seems to be as a mid to high income earning white male. As a single mum on welfare, i often cringe when i see how women in my position are depicted in the media, its humiliating. People really do believe stereotypes. I admit i thought jonah was funny, after reading this i feel pretty ashamed of myself. I knew it wasn’t an accurate depiction and my amusement came at the cost of anothers humiliation. As far as white australia goes, i think most don’t realise how ignorant they are, it’s easy to be ignorant when you have never been seen as less than another person. It’s much more confronting to look long and hard at yourself, but it’s about time that we did.

  23. I’m a middle-aged white woman so that may probably lead to you dismiss me immediately but please let me get a word in first. I don’t see the black-face. I see a troubled boy with learning disabilities. He’s both horrific and touching as he deals with his inability to articulate his feelings. I see the problems which arise when a charismatic but disturbed leader attracts followers. I see the dynamics behind bullying behaviour. I see the difficulties the system has in dealing with troubled teens. In regard to racism – don’t forget the “Rangas”! Could all of this have been portrayed by a Polynesian actor? Of course. But I think it’s not a “Polynesian” issue. It’s all of us.

    1. I completely agree. Beyond the crude humour, which Lilley seems to have pulled off very accurately to portray 15 year olds, I can see the underpinnings of the social treatment of Jonah, the realistic portrayal of his family environment and the pressures he faces as a young second generation islander growing up in Australia. I often forget its an actor because of lilleys performance and I think his social commentary may be quite hidden but it is there.

    2. “It’s all of us?” (Jonah as Everyman?)

      The critical point being the denial of cultural specificity, in the sense that Jonah from Tonga becomes the butt of a culturally superior joke, a tv sit-com catchphrase there purely for “a bit of a laff”.


      No way does Jonah represent Tongan kids studying in schools in Australia – Aussie kids maybe (minus the voice and mannerisms) – but their not funny because too familiar, too close to home.

      1. the ‘their’ (sic) being deliberate – the possessive overcompensating for the distortion of the counter argument

  24. I’m white and have never seen Lilley as anything but a racist, sexist creep. He’s a white man, he gets life on the easiest setting, but he chooses to punch down at the less privileged in his so-called satire. At the very least, he’s completely tone-deaf to what he’s doing to marginalised people, and apparently wholly unwilling to listen to their responses about things that affect them, not him.

    I also think it’s skin-crawlingly creepy to see an adult man playing these teenagers.

  25. One of the arguments used to defend Chris Lilley is that he is trying to make deep social commentary. However Lilley himself, in at least three interviews, say there is no deeper meaning.

    “It’s not like I’m trying to make any deep social commentary,” says the 36 year old. “These are just characters and situations I find funny. Each one is like a piece of art – a painting that I have created instinctively. The strange part comes when you hand it over for people to look at and they want to pick it all apart to discover the meaning behind it. I’m not sure there is a meaning. Mostly, all I want is for it to be really entertaining.”

    “Sometimes I feel a little big guilty about the ranga thing. I get angry letters from rangas. And letters from parents whose kids are rangas. So I feel a little bit guilty, but it’s funny and that overrides everything.”

    About his blackface African-American rapper:
    “I just thought, It’s going to provoke people, it’s going to be headlined — and certainly everyone in Australia fell into that trap. It was all over the place, like, ‘Blackface! He’s doing it!’ Like, Australians definitely don’t walk around dressed up in blackface going ‘Ha-ha.’ We’re exposed to American culture and stuff, so we get it. I think I wanted to do it because I thought it was a challenging, new, interesting idea, and mostly I just thought it was a really funny character.”

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