All the Unfunny Things You Hear as a Non-White Comedian in New Zealand
“Some people are just flat out racist.”
This article originally appeared on VICE New Zealand
Not a week went by during my primary and intermediate school years in New Zealand that someone didn't shout "andale!" at me because my surname was the same as Speedy Gonzalez. And every time it happened, I'd spend ten minutes lecturing the eight-year-old who did it about the cultural and geographical differences between Mexico and my birthplace of Santiago, Chile. Of course, this did nothing, so for the first part of my schooling, I was the "Mexican" kid. All because of a fucking cartoon mouse.
Although in 20 years it's got easier to explain to someone where I'm from, people are still pretty keen to assume my ethnicity from a first impression. It mainly happens when I'm on stage, or right after I've finished doing a comedy show.
Most people are pretty polite and will just say they're surprised I'm from Chile. Those with a bit more confidence will give backhanded compliments about my supposed race. "You're pretty funny, for a Pakistani", a really cool dude told me at a corporate gig a few weeks ago. Some people are just flat out racist. Over the years I've been told: "Go back to the Middle East", "Please don't blow us up!" A lady sitting next to me on a plane asked the flight attendant if she could move seats because I made her nervous.
One of the weirder moments was when my gig in Petone was advertised as Cori "Gonzalez" Macuer. I asked the guy from the venue why he'd put my name in speech quotes and he said he thought "Gonzalez" was the name of the Mexican character I did.
My mates on the comedy circuit, Pax Assadi, Angella Dravid and James Roque, all have similar experiences. For Pax, it was as recently as a few days ago. As George FM's new breakfast host, he got a message at the studio calling him a "coon". Instead of getting upset, the Kiwi-born comic decided to roast the guy on air: "Oh, hey guys. Looks like we've just received a message from the 1900s…" The guy messaged back to commend him on his response.
Born in New Zealand to Iranian and Pakistani parents, Pax has dealt with people assuming his identity his whole life. Pax went to a Hamilton high school on a basketball scholarship. "It was a pretty white school," he says. "There were brown people there, there was diversity, but not enough for me to not be a novelty. I was the token, to the point where they called me "The Black Guy", and to fit in, I had to adopt that".
When I started comedy all my jokes were centred on being ethnic looking. I rarely specified where I was from, and like Pax at high school, would play to the crowd and their assumptions. I did jokes saying I was Middle Eastern, Indian and other Latino nationalities. Over the years I've learnt that —apart from those jokes being unintentionally racist—I can now mention where I'm from without doing a whole hour about the way I look.
James remembers just how acceptable it was to be casually racist growing up. "It used to be a compliment in high school when people were like, you're Asian, but you're not that Asian—because I didn't have an accent and stuff—and I'd be like, "oh, thanks guys!" But now, after leaving high school and going out into the real world, it's like, man, that's a real shit thing to say to someone".
Angella was born in Oman to Indian and Samoan parents, and stayed only two days before moving on with her family, which makes it pretty confusing when people ask her their favourite question: "Where are you from?" When she was a teenager Angella lived in Australia. She recalls being on a bus and laughing at a joke someone made about Aborigines. "I probably shouldn't have laughed at it, but the bus stopped, and people were like, Why are you laughing at that when you're an Aborigine?"
Since moving to New Zealand Angella gets mistaken for Māori a lot. Even when she spells out her heritage on stage she gets some weird reactions. "I did a joke where I say, "I'm half Indian, half Samoan, which makes me diabetic", and a woman in the front row yelled, "That's not funny, I work with you people". Neither Angella, or anyone at that show, had any idea what that lady's job was.
All four of us are constantly mistaken for different nationalities, and as a result get awkwardly lumped with a bunch of unspoken preconceptions. But despite coming from completely disparate backgrounds, I discovered there's one label we all get—"half white". Whatever that means.
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