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.

WTF 2016?!: peak celebrity


Endings are a good opportunity for reflection aren’t they? The Ignatians make a practise of taking time to reflect on the whole day each evening, but even those of us who are less disciplined tend to get reflective at the end of the year. It probably helps that there’s often a bit of time of away from work between Christmas and New Year.

We also tend to get reflective at the end of someone’s life, and as many have stated, it seems like so many people have been dying this year. I don’t think that this is because 2016 has been a particularly bad year, but more about our historical relationship with the mass media. It was in the 1950s that television became the dominant form of media, making it so easy to become familiar with the faces of celebrity. My guess is that 2017 may not be much different, as celebrities from the second half of the 20th Century continue to pass away. I wonder whether we will continue to hear about every public figure that passes away, but I also wonder whether we might take these occassions as opportunties for reflection?

When David Bowie passed away earlier in the year we invited a couple of neighbours around and watched a DVD of one of his concerts to reminisce about the impact his songs and person had made on us. I wonder whether we might take each news of death as an opportunity to reflect on our own lives, and how we want to spend them? The truth is we never know which will be our last day.

The other question I have is about whether we are attentive to the deaths of so many less celebrated people? Over the Christmas break another asylum seeker, Faysal Ahmed, has died while illegally detained by the Australian government on Manus Island. Others will die if this policy doesn’t change, so we need to be telling our federal MPs that we are attentive to these deaths and the ill treatment of asylum seekers generally.