I’m writing this as an open letter to NZHRC and Maori Television in relation to Maori TVs decision to air the series “Jonah From Tonga”. It will also be submitted to the Human Rights Commission as a formal complaint.
Dear Human Rights Commission,
I’m writing to formally complain about Maori Television’s decision to broadcast the program “Jonah from Tonga”. It is my position that the programme discriminates on the grounds of race. I also wish to express my disappointment at your own current response to this issue, and call upon you to reconsider this issue, and take a stronger public position on racist forms of humour.
The programme “Jonah From Tonga” is no stranger to controversy. It has been widely criticised by Tongan, and international, communities for its racism.
The Tonga Herald has covered the problems with this show extensively:
Chris Lilley on Causing Harm: “That’s the fun bit for me”
“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!’ … 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.”
Air New Zealand Pulls Jonah from Tonga from In-Flight Entertainment
Major US Civil Rights Organizations Slam ABC/HBO’s Jonah From Tonga
“As ABC’s show Jonah from Tonga airs on HBO in the US and Canada, enormous support has been voiced for Tonga and Tongans. A range of major American civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, National Hispanic Media Coalition, American Indians in Film/TV, Empowering Pacific Islander Communities and The Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (which itself includes the Asian American Justice Center, Asian Pacific American Advocates, Japanese American Citizens League, Media Action Network for Asian Americans, National Federation of Filipino American Associations, and more) have written to HBO expressing their “deep concern” about the show.
This groundbreaking show of solidarity with Tonga and Tongans has been an important counter to the show’s racism.”
Japanese Americans urge HBO to pull “racist” ‘Jonah from Tonga’
As mentioned by the Tonga Herald, the show has also been decried as racist from a raft of minority organisations, and Tongan communities overseas. Air New Zealand received so many complaints that they were forced to pull it from their entertainment system. Tongan communities began a an online campaign headed by the hashtag #IAmNotJonah. A petition to HBO calling for the programme to be taken down gathered over eleven thousand signatures. A simple internet search on the controversy this programme has caused outlines its clear problems. The racism has been repeatedly, and articulately, identified.
So it therefore came as some surprise that your position on this was to call upon Maori Television to simply consult Tongan communities on this. Of course the Tongan community should be consulted on all matters that impact upon them – but to leave it at this rests your position upon the dangerous logic that racism is a matter of opinion. Painting your face brown and mocking races is racist, and it is your job to take a position on racism, not abdicate that decision to the community at hand. That is problematic for a number of reasons:
1. This type of humour, if permitted, sends the wrong message to NZers about accepting racist stereotypes. This is completely at odds with your own campaign to “Give nothing to racism” that urges us to take racism seriously and, specifically, to challenge racist humour. This does not just impact upon the Tongan community but all marginalised communities who have to deal with bigoted humour.
2. The racism is also directed at other groups. During this series racial slurs feature as humour devices including “fobs” “wogs” “curries” and “ching chongs”. I cannot believe that I am even having to write to you to ask you to call this type of humour out, given your current campaign.
3. These discussions, if they are to be fully informed, should not just be held with the communities at hand, but should be held within the context of racist humour, its history, and its impacts. To not do that is to expect communities to be experts on the impacts of racism simply by virtue of being of a particular race themselves – which is, in and of itself, a problematic and racist assumption.
4. Furthermore, given the earlier points about the broader impacts upon marginalised communities, the opinions of marginalised communities should also be taken into account.
5. This recommendation clearly overlooks the already significant history of opposition to this program, both from Tongan communities and marginalised groups at large.
I expect so much more of you than to simply recommend that the Tongan community be consulted. If we cannot rely upon you to demonstrate leadership in identifying racist humour then what is the POINT of your “Give Nothing To Racism” campaign? If we cannot look to yourselves, and Maori Television, for racial acuity, then how can you possibly expect it from others?
Already, even as those of us who model the behaviour you encourage in your campaign, refuse to laugh at this humour, we are being told we simply don’t get the joke, and lack humour, and need to “lighten up”. Well I think Maori Television have “lightened up” plenty enough for all of us…. And ironically I would also say that your own lack of action on this issue has compounded the problem for us who choose to take the issue of race seriously.
I therefore ask that you reconsider your position on this, and formally request that Maori Television reconsider their decision to continue airing this program.