• It’s over a decade since Summer Heights High, and Australia is no better at talking about race. (Getty Images )
Watching Chris Lilley in Summer Heights High as a teen, I felt as if something was very off, and very wrong, even though I couldn’t really articulate what or why.
By
Yen-Rong Wong

18 Apr 2019 - 1:59 PM  UPDATED 19 Apr 2019 - 1:10 PM

Dear teenage Yen-Rong,

I barely believe it myself – but it’s over a decade since Summer Heights High has come out, and Chris Lilley is about to launch yet another of his shows. I have no doubt it will be as insensitive as ever, and I also have no doubt many Australians will fawn over the show and declare its humour lies in its satire, and those of us who are criticising him for being racist are just being oversensitive snowflakes.

The barrage of tweets I see once I click on that little blue bird bring back memories. I am 13, attending a private all girls’ school. It is diverse, for sure, but a far cry from the truly multicultural public primary school I had come from. I don’t know this, and I won’t know this for a while, but the school itself is steeped in a tradition of whiteness and elitism. This doesn’t manifest itself in any overt way, but rather, in a slow burn. It’s something I won’t really understand for many years – at least, not until I get involved in discussions of privilege and critically analysing my place in the world.

It’s over a decade since Summer Heights High, and Australia is no better at talking about race.

I am only starting to learn that different types of racism exist. I’m used to the big stuff, the jokes about my name, people sneering “ni hao” at me, people asking where I’m really from. But in the last couple of years, I feel like there’s something else – something under the surface. Maybe Australia isn’t really the multicultural country everyone tells me it is.

Lilley and Summer Heights High were something of a turning point for me. When it came out, it was all anyone at school is talking about – how it was hilarious, how Lilley was so funny, how good he was at playing multiple characters. I didn’t know what black-face or brown-face or yellow-face was, but  I felt as if something was very off, and very wrong, even though I couldn’t really articulate what or why.

I wanted to talk about it, but I felt like I couldn’t, because I’d probably be shut down immediately – and by the popular girls, no less. Everyone else thought it was amazing, so I told myself I must have been wrong. Maybe I’d only watched the unfunny parts. 

 Everyone else thought it was amazing, so I told myself I must have been wrong.

In the ensuing years, I watch as Lilley continues to be given platform after platform, and is even lauded in mainstream media for his work. I squirm whenever someone brings up any of his shows, or whenever mentions they think he is funny. There is a small part of me that still thinks his work is racist, but I hadn’t read anything about it or seen anyone call him out on it, so I convince myself to stay quiet. I don’t want to be wrong, and I don’t like confrontation, so I keep your mouth shut.

It isn’t until I read Winnie Dunn’s article outlining the dangerous trope of brown-face that I realise I was right all along. I feel relieved, and almost vindicated, but I am also angry it has taken so long for this day to arrive. 

It’s over a decade since Summer Heights High, and Australia is no better at talking about race. In fact, in some areas, we may have gotten worse. There are more people talking about racism and classism and its intersections, for sure, but xenophobia is still well and truly alive. 

Lilley’s new show is coming out soon. I’m going to be honest, I don’t even know what it’s called. I probably won’t watch it, but if I had to, I think I would be better equipped to detect the issues that lie within, and to also hopefully critically assess the ways in which they contribute to or augment the current political landscape. I hope I’d be able to convince other young people of colour to see this sort of behaviour is not okay.

I won’t be fooled again. I know what racism looks like. I know what it feels like and what it sounds like. I won’t let anyone else – least of all white people – tell me otherwise.

Yen-Rong Wong is a freelance writer. You can follow Yen-Rong at @inexorablist. 

This article has been updated from its original version.

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