On the possibility of being racist


I’ve only really watched one of Chris Lilley’s shows, and it happened to be 2011’s Angry Boys. When I watched it, I felt a bit awkward about European-Australian comic Lilley portraying Japanese and African-American characters. I wondered how much Aboriginal people may have had a say in how their characters were portrayed. (During the show one of the Aboriginal actors ended up visiting our house because he had a cousin staying with us.) At the time I don’t remember hearing anyone asking these questions, and I appreciated that through the show Lilley seemed to be getting people to consider what might be going on behind what seemed to be a crisis of masculinity in our global society.

More recently, however, Lilley’s 2014 show Jonah from Tonga received a clear critique from Australia’s Tongan community. The problem was that ‘Jonah’ – a European man impersonating a stereotype of Tongan youth – had become the most recognisable public face of the Tongan community in Australia. It seems quite unfair for a member of the European majority to have power over how a relatively small cultural group is portrayed in the media. More recently the same show was axed by Māori Television in Aotearoa/New Zealand, by request from the Tongan community. It would be hard to imagine that Chris Lilley is still unaware that people feel he’s being racist by pretending to be a person of colour.

Last weekend Lilley was back in the public arena for the wrong reason. Just after a major protest related to the death of Elijah Doughty, Lilley tweeted a video clip from Angry Boys which seemed to be referring to Doughty’s death. Elijah Doughty was an Aboriginal boy who was run over by a European man in Kalgoorlie. It appears that the driver intended to run Doughty over, but he has been cleared of murder and manslaughter. In this context Lilley’s song ‘Squashed N***a’, about a black kid being run over, seemed like a pretty clear and dispicable reference to Doughty’s death. In response to the outcry about the video, Lilley deleted the tweet, then deleted his account. Later on he restored his account and posted an apology saying that he hadn’t meant to be racist.

I’ve dsaid this before, but we need to remember that we can’t be the only judges of whether we’ve been racist. If someone from another racial or cultural group suggests that we’ve been racist, we need to listen whether or not we’ve intended to be racist. If our words or behaviour are having a harmful impact on other cultural or racial groups we need to listen to that and change our behaviour. If Chris Lilley returns to television, I’ll be interested to see what he does. But Lilley’s disaster doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook. We need to be ready to listen when someone suggests that we’ve been racist.

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