I read this article by Trish Tupou about Jonah From Tonga. I read it after I wrote my first post about this show. I disliked her argument and have thought about why for a week. Let’s go through it point by point because talking about race is often avoided at all cost, and – when it manages to get to the mainstream – is talked about in a really emotive way.
[on Facebook] 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.
I think I am an older pālangi man, but hopefully I can still have an opinion despite my skin colour and genitals. I’m always wary of the “freedom of speech” line because it is usually used to defend the right of real class A arseholes to be, well, arseholes. No one can say what they want. That’s ridiculous. My argument was, in part, to do with: “actually Tongans find this funny too”. Which is an important point as long as we broaden it out to “actually a lot of young people, especially from Pasifika and Māori groups, find this funny too.”
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.
I get that. It could be really problematic, but it seems like Moana has been really successful with many people in the Polynesian community. Some of those people LOVE it. I guess because Polynesian people, like pālangi people, have a wide range of opinions.
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.
A sample of 40 sounds pretty big I think, and – no – I don’t think consulting to see if something is offensive necessarily means it’s offensive. That line changes. Challenging and offensive are related.
It hurts more when it’s your own blood.
This worries me. This idea about blood. My experience is that different groups with the Pasifika community can be very racist to each other. Unfortunately. Like British people can be racist about the Irish. It sucks. Pretending there is some kind of blood brother ship suggests what?
Take a look around and familiarise yourself with the notion that it’s probably about time we let people tell their own damn stories.
Definitely. Go do that. I totally support that. I also, however, don’t like the idea that we are totally restricted to the stories of our own identity and that no artist may cross outside their own race, religion, gender, sexuality, economic class. If they do it right then they do it right. If they do it wrong they get booed off stage. There are always exceptions. 99% of the time a white man in brown make up would be a sick joke. This is the other 1%. Sometimes the outsider can do things the insider can’t. Sometimes.
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.
That makes the writer sad? What, that people say that or that the conditions exist that make these statements true? It’s the fact that the conditions exist that make this comedy so powerful and rich.
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.
Yes, let’s demand those things (well, except better comedy, this is very good comedy so that’s a tall order). Also, though, let’s not take away another thing from people, young Pasifika people, who identify with Jonah and see their experiences in him, because some people, who claim to speak for a cultural group, find it distasteful. He, Jonah, represents a group of people who are struggling in society. Neither Tongan nor Australian, neither accepted by Australia or Tongans, failed and failing in school, desperate for belonging: Jonah’s desperation to belong, and hyper-defensiveness about his identity are his most touching qualities. His constant use of homophobic language is something else that is pretty challenging, and offensive, but – then – this is another issue for many Pasifika youth who try to balance two sets of ideas: one they hear in the generally liberal school system, and one they hear in church.
It’s difficult. Very difficult. And I resent the simplistic, strident calls to silence those difficulties.