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Is this blackface or comedy?

Meet Jonah Takalua; a crass, weirdly endearing teenage boy from Tonga. He verbally abuses his teachers, bullies his school friends, and disrespects every figure of authority in his life. He’s the walking, talking embodiment of every Islander stereotype we have.

He’s also, incidentally, a fictional character played by a 39-year-old white guy in black make-up – or technically (according to the character’s creator Chris Lilley) a dark spray tan.

This isn’t the first controversial character Chris Lilley has created. From Summer Heights High and Angry Boys, to Ja’mie the man has made a career of risque imitation, dressing up as a black rap artist, a Japanese mother, a Chinese musical theatre enthusiast, a teenage private school girl, a middle-aged woman, a gay drama teacher, and bogan twin boys. He’s versatile, to say the least.

Lilley’s a human chameleon, and he’s brilliant. But he’s also wildly offensive, in a way that as a society we would usually condemn. ‘Blackface’ started centuries ago when people blackened their face with grease, dirt or paint to play black people – who were always portrayed as vulgar, sexually inappropriate, uneducated, or feral. Since the 1800s, it’s been recognised as a malicious, oppressive form of “entertainment” that plays up the disempowerment of black people.

So when a white man puts dark make-up on today, it invokes centuries of racism and persecution. Most comedians know it’s a no-go zone. Did Chris Lilley miss the memo, or do we let him get away with it because he’s funny?

Most importantly, is he satirising Australian racism… Or is he perpetuating it?

Here’s a little preview of Jonah from Tonga, which aired on the ABC last night.

You might fall a little bit in love, or at least sympathy, with Jonah. He’s lost and misunderstood and vulnerable. His total lack of decorum will make you want to slap him or hug him… But that’s a problem. The portrayal of Jonah encourages a potentially dangerous reaction in white Australian viewers – wanting to protect, educate, or punish a kid of Islander descent.

It also assumes that everyone who watches the show knows how satire works; that it’s about laughing at ourselves not mocking someone from a marginalised group in society.

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Morgan Godfrey argues in Overland that Lilley’s intentions might be pure but his ‘racial drag’ is deeply offensive to Polynesian people:

As a Polynesian – my mother is Maori and my father is Samoan – I think Lilley does more harm than good to our struggle. To ridicule Australian racism Lilley has to show it. The method – brownface – overcomes the message about Australian racism.

A white man in brownface is too loaded to make an effective point. The makeup, the hair, the tatatau, the accent and the mannerisms retain their negative power despite Lilley’s best intentions. In the nineteenth century, brownface was used to spread the othering stereotype.

In the twentieth century brownface was used as a casting practice to keep actors of colour out of lead roles. In twenty-first century Australia a white man in brownface is the primary depiction of Polynesians in popular culture. I can’t be the only one who sees a problem there.

Morgan’s not the only one who sees a problem.

Members of the Polynesian community in Australia object wholeheartedly with how Jonah makes their culture look. A group of young women have started a moving campaign with the hashtag #MyNameIsNotJonah to say that Jonah doesn’t speak for them. Here’s Leitu Havea:

Anthropology Professor Helen Lee from La Trobe University told Radio Australia: “I just think it’s dreadful. It’s just awful. It’s creating a terrible stereotype that’s just deeply offensive to Tongans,” she said.

“The comments to his supposed sister, calling her fatty, talking about sexual matters, swearing in front of her is absolutely taboo in Tongan culture. It’s just horrible to see that being acted out on the screen there and for people to think that’s what Tongan kids do.”

In the show’s defence, a spokesman for the ABC told news.com.au that “Jonah from Tonga plays with stereotypes, but it’s doing so to make an observation about the narrow-minded attitudes expressed by some of its characters, including Jonah’s own.”

That’s the thing – successful satire requires the audience to be in on the joke. If Jonah from Tonga is the only exposure white Aussie TV-watchers have to Polynesian culture, are they? Do they know that they’re the ones being ridiculed, or are they just openly laughing at a culture that’s not theirs?

Comedians need to have more flexible standards of morality than the rest of us, or they wouldn’t be able to make us shock-laugh. But is it really worth invoking a history of racial oppression just so we can have a laugh on a Wednesday night?

This is not exactly the first time Australians have had a debate over what constitutes racist behaviour. Remember these?