When a brown-skinned man darkens his face and jokes about being black, that’s colourism – the belief that people with dark skin are inherently inferior to those with lighter skin – in action, writes Miriama Aoake.
This is an edited version of a post which first appeared on Medium.com.
Last week Jimi Jackson (Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi), a self-professed comedian with a formidable social media presence, posted a screenshot of himself filming an upcoming skit for Māori Television. The photo showed his face darkened with bronzer and was captioned ‘Jimi Blackson’. In response to widespread criticism, he hit back with with misogynistic slurs; he refuses to acknowledge his behaviour as inappropriate and offensive.
The controversy has been funnelled through and churned by mainstream news media who were quick to condemn Jackson and emphasise his involvement with Māori Television – a somewhat hypocritical response given Māori Television have booked racist all-stars like Hosking, Henry and the late Paul Holmes in the past. The comedian has since released a video gaslighting those who were offended, half-assing a non-apology and pettifogging his behaviour as a non-event because he is Māori; as though being Māori and racist is a double negative.
On Māori Television’s own news show Te Kāea, Talisa Kupenga chose instead to emphasise the impact upon the recipient of Jackson’s verbal degradation. Jackson’s insult of one woman in particular sanctioned the onslaught of abuse from followers defending his actions. This is the tika angle to employ for a Māori audience where online bullying of rangatahi and suicide prevention is concerned. Te Kāea also held Māori Television accountable as a disciplinary body; Mike Rehu, head of content for the channel, had said they would meet with Jackson next week.
So often when gender and race collide, the latter is usurped and the narrative is constructed as a gender issue; as seen on the Herald, Stuff, Newshub and right here on The Spinoff. Though the misogyny is deplorable, for many of us it’s impossible to isolate it from the racism.
Jackson’s statement post-blackface relies on an orchestra of excuses to absolve himself of accountability for acts of racism. His cache includes but is not limited to “I didn’t know blackface was a thing”, “[The makeup] was brown not black”, “My Dad is black”, “I’m Māori’, “That wasn’t my intention”, “Those who know me know I am not racist” and the Great White Proverb, “I’m not racist – I have black friends”. Even taking Jackson at his word that he was unaware of the racism, he was quickly informed but continued to ignore and offend.
We cannot dismiss genuine concerns and co-opt blackness as a defence for internalised racism. I, like Jackson, am a fair-skinned Māori. My father, too, is brown. And his father before him. My dad will recall stories of his father being called a black c*** as a jest, ‘banter’ by his boss. I remember with bitter and violent rage the discrimination towards my father: accusatory glances that said “you didn’t pay for that watch”. I can empathise with my father, and despair at witnessing overt racism towards the man who is my reason for living. Yet I will never experience first-hand the racism and stigma attached to having brown or black skin. Having a brown whakapapa does not make you immune to perpetuating or being complicit in racism.
Particularly agonising was Jackson’s blurring of colourism, lumping together brown and black as though one were indistinguishable from the other. Colourism began as a colonial function, a ‘melanin hierarchy’: the darker your skin, the more you were dehumanised. It persists in South-East Asia, the Americas, in Africa, the Caribbean and in the Pacific. Historically, Māori and the peoples of wider Polynesia – the noble savages and the dusky maidens – were considered more civilised and easier to assimilate because our skin was fairer. Meanwhile our darker whanaunga in Melanesia and Australia were enslaved, exterminated and considered non-human and incapable of conforming to a ‘civilised’ Christian society.
I was exposed to colourism as a child. How my father was treated in Australia was contingent on whether he was thought an Aboriginal or Māori/Pacific Islander. It was subverted colonial conditioning: it is better to be brown than black. This was made abundantly clear travelling to Ghana last year. Dad was an oburoni, a white person, to the Ghanains because of his comparative fairness. The inherent ‘inferiority’ of black-skinned people was accepted and understood by both parties as something like a universal truth.
These are the sort of experiences, hiding in plain sight, that prove the existence of colourism. Jimi Jackson conflates inhabiting a black body with being a person of colour, but the two are not and should never be interchangeable. The comedian Paul Mooney springs to mind: ‘everybody wanna be black, but don’t nobody wanna be black’.
I cannot comment on being brown or black and frequently subjected to projections of ignorance. I can only speak from my experience being Māori; being reminded of something traumatic in the oppressive, collective history of a struggle under colonisation. They share similar tenets but they are not the same. It was reckless for Jackson to joke about and fetishise blackness, and to attempt to redefine how one is allowed to respond to trauma associated with blackface – trauma that he has not and will not experience. His response to the expression of outrage was paltry. It will be made irrevocably worse if the skit and the entire show are not cancelled.
The Māori coming to Jackson’s defence are concerning too. Waitangi Day will soon be upon us and already we have been treated to the annual glimpse of our story and image in someone else’s hands. Are we honestly – as the child-abusing, dole-bludging, alcoholic, drug and crime-driven Māori the Pākehā media paint us to be – comfortable removing someone else’s agency over what is and isn’t offensive?
I understand his brand of humour and the audience which supports Jackson. His series on the TVNZ show 2Kaha about iwi throughout the country was a seamless bridge for both Māori and non-Māori to engage with Te Ao Māori. He was a suitable choice for this role, weaving his wit into kōrero with iwi members that gave the audience a brief synopsis of iwi history, its defining tribal features, and how an iwi operates. It is a role I had envisaged him developing for Māori TV.
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Māori Television cannot be seen to condone this behaviour. The majority of their audience is Pākehā, and some will use Jimi’s blackface as leverage to normalise racism. The channel is known for its pan-indigeneity and should uphold its commitment to those communities as much as our own. We are not the authority on what constitutes racism to others because we are tangata whenua. But we should be the kaitiakitanga for those who are subjected to it because we know how that can feel. We should stress that it is never acceptable, Māori or non-Māori, to assume the role of the coloniser as performative comedy for a Pākehā audience. If Jackson is willing to learn, Māori TV must be his tuakana.
We need to accept, apologise and educate ourselves; to listen to those voices excluded from their own stories.
We as Māori need to purge ourselves from co-opting this kind of colonial rhetoric and becoming complacent in the oppression of others.
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