News National Is ‘Jonah from Tonga’ making us look racist?
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Is ‘Jonah from Tonga’ making us look racist?

Chris Lilley
Jonah from Tonga has been axed by New Zealand television. Photo: ABC Photo: ABC
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Despite disappointing ratings on the ABC in Australia, HBO plans to screen ‘Jonah from Tonga’ in the United States. The move has attracted the ire of Huffington Post contributor Cleo Paskall, who suggests Lilley’s antics may create a “new form of racism” in America.

Paskall tears apart just about everything in the show, from the spectacle of a 39-year-old white male donning brownface and a permed wig to the portrayal of the Jonah character as a homophobic, sexist bully, a representation she says provides a misleading impression of what Tongan people are like.

The viewpoint is echoed by many experts along with members of the Tongan community in Australia, with Facebook community My name is NOT Jonah attracting over 1000 supporters in reaction to the show.

Jonah from Tonga has to go: Huffington Post
Academic slams Lilley over ‘deeply offensive’ Jonah

What should particularly concern Australians however is that more than attacking just Lilley, Paskall addresses what she describes as a “peculiar sort of deep Australian racism” that she doesn’t want to see exported to the States.

The Huffpost is by no means the first prominent American outlet to call out Australia for racism.

Lilley himself would probably appreciate the irony that through his aggressive envelope-pushing when it comes to stereotypes, he might just help fuel an American stereotype of white Australians being a bunch of racist rednecks.

Just two weeks ago, a little newspaper called the New York Times (you might have heard of them) ran an Op Ed on Australia’s approach to asylum seekers, quoting United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, who said that “something strange happens” in the minds of Australians when people arrive by boat without a visa.

thenewdaily_abc_080514_jonah_1
HBO is set to air Chris Lilley’s ‘Jonah from Tonga’.

While Australians might argue until we’re a patriotic shade of blue in the face against the idea that we’re particularly racist by world standards, what is becoming abundantly clear is that Americans are starting to develop that impression.

From the US-based British comedian John Oliver’s description of us as the most “comfortably racist” nation on earth to the furore around the Australian KFC ad aired during the West Indies Cricket World Cup American media are all over Australia the moment we say anything a little iffy.

The latter in particular is a good example of a cultural misunderstanding born out of a lack of context.

The ad depicted an Australian silencing a boisterous Caribbean crowd by passing around a tub of fried chicken. In Australia, the ad was playing off the perception of Caribbean cricket crowds as particularly noisy, but in America it was interpreted as a reference to a uniquely Yankee stereotype that Afro-Americans love to pig out on fried chicken.

Chris Lilley likewise would argue that Americans don’t get the Australian context in which his humour is based, with our particular fondness for irreverence and disdain for political correctness.

But why then is he, and specifically HBO, choosing to screen Jonah From Tonga over in America?

Surely it is a pointless exercise to satirically make fun of a racist stereotype if it doesn’t exist in the country the show is being beamed into.

Lilley himself would probably appreciate the irony that through his aggressive envelope-pushing when it comes to stereotypes, he might just help fuel an American stereotype of white Australians being a bunch of racist rednecks.

If there is one thing you can count on in the media anywhere in the world, it’s that when a story comes up that validates a stereotype, they’ll be reporting on it.

It is only a mild taste of the stereotyping that ethnic minorities – including Tongans – in Australia cop every day, but nonetheless, in the reaction to Jonah From Tonga, Lilley and Australia at large might just be copping a taste of their own medicine.

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