In 2017, I moved out of the two-bedroom fibro shack in Belmore that I shared with five family members to stay with my white boyfriend and his two white housemates in the Shire.
We took a break from unpacking everything and, on a cream-coloured leather couch that matched the tiles, celebrated our move by watching the footy. The couch stuck to my thick brown thighs and my boyfriend’s blood-orange hair itched my knees as he lay across my legs.
On the curved flatscreen, muscular, sweaty and majority brown bodies in tight jerseys tore up the green field and dented sponsor logos in the grass with fluro spiked-boots. The commentators rattled off Pacific Islander names like Jason Taumololo, Andrew Fifita, John Hopoate, Martin Taupau, Braden Hamlin-Uele, Eloni Vunakece, Brad Takairangi, Josh Papalii, Jamayne Isaako, David Fusitu’a, Junior Roqica, and Suaia Matagi. This wasn’t surprising to anyone as players with Pasifika backgrounds make 45 per cent of players in Australia’s National Rugby League.
As one player sprinted down the field, a ribbon of information including his name: Yee-Huang ‘Young’ Tonumaipea flashed up on the bottom of the screen. The commentators stumbled. They made snorting noises imitating pigs, they laughed and then they gave up. The commentators began to call Tonumaipea ‘Mr. Paragraph’ for the rest of the match. My boyfriend sat up, pointing at the screen with a pudgy, pale finger and laughed too. His housemates wiped away tears from their blue eyes with their faces pink like the inside of a raw taro from laughing. I sat silently and tucked my bare feet under my dress.
When NRL commentator Erin Molan’s comments about Pacific Islander names became news this week, I had the choice to ignore it, to tuck my bare feet under my dress again and just watch.
When NRL commentator Erin Molan’s comments, which I believe are racist, about Pacific Islander names became news this week, I had the choice to ignore it, to tuck my bare feet under my dress again and just watch.
My own last name is four letters long but many people have mispronounced these four letters all my life. My grandfather was a High Chief who possessed three Matai titles: Leauanae Mumu Afoa and it was his third Matai title, the one bestowed upon him by my grandmother’s family, that became my last name.
Matai titles have been handed down within aiga (family) from generation to generation enduring missionary influence and colonisation. The Matai system even exists alongside Western-style politics within government where only those holding Matai may stand for election.
With every suafa (name) is the responsibility of serving our aiga and honouring the legacies of our ancestors.
With three titles, the tinkling rainbow wind-chimes on our doorstep cut through the Pacific breeze as aiga sought Papa’s counsel at all hours of the day. He would sit on a large wooden bench by the door, a cigarette hanging off his fingers that were large and wizened like frangipani roots. Visitors sitting cross-legged presented matters ranging from domestic disputes to land titles. He listened to them all and was revered as a wise elder. I am the legacy of Leauanae Mumu Afoa Ite.
For many Pacific Islanders, racist microaggressions are nothing new. When white people mispronounce our names and do not bother to try and learn them, they enforce white supremacy – where white is deemed superior and people of colour are made inferior by default. In that enforcement, they tell us that we are foreign, we are other, we are not worthy of their time and we are lesser than them. They negate and erase our heritage in favour of their own.
The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted how the act of naming can be a force for change.
There is power in names and in naming. The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted how the act of naming can be a force for change.
“Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice – they’re household names now, but people had no idea whatsoever that Black women and girls were also killed by the police,” says AAPF Executive Director, Kimberlé Crenshaw.
“We have to exercise agency; we have to actually look for the stories of Black women and girls. Once we see them, we cannot unsee them. If you say the name, you’re prompted to learn the story, and if you know the story, then you have a broader sense of all the ways Black bodies are made vulnerable to police violence.”
It is also no coincidence that on May 25th, the New York Times printed the names of the 1000 people who had died of COVID-19 in the United States with the preface, “They Were Not Simply Names on a List, They Were Us."
As we see Netflix Australia’s boycotting of Chris Lilley with the removal of some his programs such as Summer Heights High and Jonah from Tonga, I have always wondered if some of Lilley’s success stemmed from his use of the fictional name “Jonah Takalua” and that by evoking the similar sounds of a Pacific name, he was able to receive a free pass because of all the self-professed research he did before taking on the brownface role.
Names and naming evoke a sense of character, it is a humanising act.
Names and naming evoke a sense of character, it is a humanising act. Essentially, to name someone is to identify them as human. When the simple act of naming is taken away from Pacific Islanders, just as Molan has done, it is our humanity that is being stripped from us for the sake of white ease.
John Hopoate is a testament to this. Hours after Molan’s “hooka looka mooka hooka fooka” comment, Hopoate went to Instagram to outline how Molan’s “gaffe” is a racist mockery of our names and at the very least an act of bullying.
He was then ridiculed by Studio 10’s Kerri-Anne Kennerley as nothing but a “boofhead” who suggests violence against women, with no consideration as to why Hopoate would be upset.
Whilst I agree that violence against women needs to be addressed, it is equally important to consider who is addressing it and how.
As a white woman in a position of authority, Kennerley’s comments are dangerous as they perpetuate the stereotype that brown and black men are violent and stupid – another act of dehumanistion. These stereotypes are having real life consequences for the men in my community, especially when we consider that in Victoria alone, Pacific islander juveniles account for 14 per cent of all those sentenced to periods of detention, yet they make up less than one percent of the state's youth population.
As a white woman in a position of authority, Kennerley’s comments are dangerous as they perpetuate the stereotype that Brown and Black men are violent and stupid – another act of dehumanistion.
In 2018, my grandfather passed away. He is buried by the entrance of our home in Lalomalava, as is Samoan tradition, and lies where a frangipani tree once was. The rainbow wind-chimes have been replaced with solar-powered lights to always guide our aiga home and his Matai titles are carved into a tombstone that glistens in the Samoan sun. Back in Australia, I broke up with my white boyfriend and returned home to Belmore. All I had left was a bag of my clothes, $32 and my name. Even though it is foreign to so many, everyone must take the time to learn and say our names. My name carries my ancestors’ history, my grandparents’ dedication to our aiga and is the way I honour my people every day.
This article has been published in partnership with Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement.