The NZ International Comedy Festival is here, and last night it kicked off with its traditional opener, the NZ Comedy Gala. But this year, among the local and international comedians, there was a whole lot of racism. Julie Zhu writes.
As a Chinese woman, I’m used to surface racism. My brain has almost developed an auto-detect spam mode over the years to file out racist garbage. Still there were a few moments at last night’s Best Foods Comedy Gala, the opening show of the NZ International Comedy Festival, that made me feel horrified.
The Best Foods Comedy Gala is a three hour to-be-televised smorgasbord of international and local acts, showcasing the ‘Best of the Fest’. It was great to see new acts given space alongside comedy veterans. Comedy has the power to bring people together, and seeing newer comedians being given a shot and opportunity to perform on a national level was encouraging.
However, it was discomforting to see overt and covert racism given such a large platform.
After the showcase, many people discussed the most obvious act of racism of the night: one white comedian who impersonated a Thai masseuse halfway through her set. Broken English accent. Squinty eyes. Everything.
My white friend next to me clutched my arm in horror at what was happening on stage. I was actually spacing out in my seat and didn’t notice the horror of this. I laughed this off to my friend, because to me this was overt racism, the less dangerous kind. It’s the kind most of us can identify and know to stay away from. The kind we’re aware of in our performances and conversations.
The Asian caricaturing was the most discussed example of racism from this showcase, however it was not the only instance. The other moments were probably less obvious to those who aren’t as conscious of the everyday interplay of race and power.
Firstly, a white Irish comedian joked about the issues he faced having a Muslim partner. The intention may have been good, to point out the vile racism that Muslim women are subjected to, but these are not his jokes to make on her behalf. Why should her religion and experiences of marginalisation be fodder for his act?
I thought – hoped – this would be the last racist moment. Towards the end of the three hour long event, I was more interested in angrily messaging my POC (people of colour) friends about what had taken place. So I couldn’t believe it actually got worse. I looked up from my phone and two white men were violently acting out a brutal killing of North Koreans. I may have missed some context, but I struggle to imagine any way in which encouraging a roomful of majority Pākehā audience members to laugh while members of a single ethnic group are machine gunned down would be OK. I thought of my friend Rebekah who wrote a heartfelt article last year about the tensions between North and South Korea and her trepidation whenever anyone asked about her heritage.
With comedians like Pax Assadi and James Roque on the lineup you’d expect some woke ass comments calling out the event for the whitewashed shindig it was. And perhaps it was the publicised nature of the televised recording, or the fact that they knew the audience would be 90% white, but somehow their jokes seemed to land just edgy enough for a white audience to feel comfortable laughing at. On one hand, it felt like they were making their experiences palatable to an audience that didn’t reflect their own backgrounds. On the other, we shouldn’t expect POC to constantly carry the burden of calling out the system or for them to be always pigeonholed into doing comedy about racism.
I had friends in the Gala and I wanted them to do well. I also secretly wanted them to storm on stage when acts of blatant racism were taking place and call them out. But it’s the responsibility of the organisers to ensure the content they programme isn’t discriminatory, doesn’t actively marginalise our already marginalised groups, and (taking a note out of Comedy 101) doesn’t punch down. I also noticed there was a glaring lack of acknowledgement of indigeneity in the event, both in performers and in content. This is in contrast with Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s decision to include an acknowledgement of country, and the land they stand on, before each show.
As one of the most publicised events of the festival, the Gala will be played on national television and likely have reruns. New Zealand is once again given a pass to laugh at minorities. I can’t emphasise enough how much seemingly innocent “it’s just a joke” moments can be used to dehumanise others – a particular issue in New Zealand, which has highest youth suicide rates in the OECD, and where POC bear the brunt of this statistic.
My white friends cringed in horror at a white woman doing a Thai accent. They were far more OK about the other two moments I found insidious and unforgivable. The truth of it is that white people can afford to show despair at moments when their community commits transgressions. They can rally about it in conversation and then freely walk away from their own discomfort.
They get to go have a beer and have a laugh about the rest of the show after. As POC we carry those moments with us. They might fade, or be forgotten, but they leave an indelible mark: reminding us we will never belong. We will always be fighting this battle. We will always be doing the shaky emotional labour of calling out racism, of educating our white friends and facing the backlash of talking about this.
As an art form, stand up comedy has traditionally been heavily skewed to the white and male. Offhanded racism shouldn’t be a surprise. We’ve become used to othering comments in our mainstream media, courtesy of the likes of Duncan Garner. But comedy is also incredibly useful at pointing out the faults of society, subverting the norm, and in calling out the powerful in safe and clever ways. In this day and age we should be demanding more of the comedy we see.
These are just singular moments of racism noticed and raised. These are points in which I think these comedians, the lineup, and we as an audience can do better. This is one perspective of my own discomfort from what are doubtless many others. Taika Waititi said New Zealand was racist as fuck. We are. The moments add up. It’s not just about when a comedian mimics squinty eyes and pretends to be Asian. For me, it’s far more keenly felt in the moments you realise that this is a systemic issue and there is not one call out that will resolve it.
Note: The author did not feel comfortable naming the acts mentioned in this article at this time.
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