Speaking in tongues: Is it ever OK to do a foreign accent for laughs?

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This was published 1 year ago

Speaking in tongues: Is it ever OK to do a foreign accent for laughs?

By Karl Quinn

In a case that could echo well beyond the courtroom, Sydney radio presenter Erin Molan has been accused of being racist because she has, more than once, put on accents.

The fact the Daily Mail has dug up multiple pieces of audio, articles and tweets that it claims prove Molan's racism as part of its defence against her defamation action (brought because the site called her a racist) should be enough to send a shiver down the spine of office clowns and professional comedians everywhere.

Diana Nguyen in character as her mother.

Diana Nguyen in character as her mother.Credit:Gary Sissons

"We are relying on, in our defence, things like the applicant putting on Japanese accents, Chinese accents, Indonesian accents, mocking Fijian players' names," said the Daily Mail’s lawyer, Paul Svilans, in the Federal Court on Friday. "That's the key issue in the case: is she racist through that behaviour or not?"

It's a question we might all reflect on. Is doing an accent inherently racist? Can you do some accents with impunity, or have you crossed the line the second you step outside the parameters of your own cultural-linguistic neighbourhood?

"It has to be about ownership and intention, and that's the question anyone needs to ask themselves: why are you using the accent?" says Diana Nguyen, who uses a heavy accent when she performs as her Vietnamese mother in the stage show turned web series, Phi and Me.

"I would never do my mother's accent to have her laughed at. It's a question of representation. Asian cultures have been mocked a lot, for other people's gain. When white people used Asian accents in the past, it was punching down. You don't have the permission to do that."

In Australia, Mark Mitchell's Con the Fruiterer is the stand-out example of performing outside your cultural comfort zone, a late-'80s portrayal of Greekness so broad it has come to be seen as the benchmark against which all transgressions are measured. And yet, Mitchell claimed to the Herald Sun in July, Con was also a character to whom Greeks gave "an enormous high approval rating", in a poll in the Greek newspaper, Neos Kosmos.

The Wogs Out of Work school of comedy was no less broad, but it was different because of who was speaking. "Anglo-Saxons pretend[ed] to be ethnic in a very stereotypical way, trying to pretend to know what our experience was like, but they had no idea," Nick Giannopoulos told the same paper in 2018. "Yet people have the gumption to ask me why I'm calling myself a wog. Mate, I am calling myself a wog because you called me a wog. I can guarantee you, no-one ever called Mark Mitchell a wog."

That was then, you might say. But more recently, the work of Chris Lilley has traded in accents (Asian, South African, Tongan) as well as the more egregiously problematic black (and yellow and brown) face. For a time, that made him the most popular comedian in Australia; lately, not so much.


The mood of the nation has turned, as issues around diversity and authenticity come to the fore. A YouGov survey of perceptions of racism found the mood has inexorably shifted on the question of whether doing an accent outside your own cultural zone is racist. Of the 1314 people surveyed — a sample that included a "significant" number of people from non-white backgrounds — 50 per cent reported that "imitating an accent associated with another racial group" was either always or usually racist. Yet 40 per cent said it was never or usually not.

Simon Hall, centre, with Scott Edgar and Steven Gates from Tripod.

Simon Hall, centre, with Scott Edgar and Steven Gates from Tripod.Credit:Rohan Thomson

Simon Hall, part of the musical comedy troupe Tripod, understands why accents are so appealing to comedic performers, but acknowledges they can also be highly problematic.

"I think they still can be funny, it's just about the context really. Intent is important, too, but it can be easy to misinterpret."

Who's performing the accent matters, as does the power dynamic between the performer and the performed; punching up is very different to punching down.

A white Australian guy doing an Indian accent, for instance, "feels mean in the context of the world as it is", says Hall. "If the world was equal, then everyone could do everyone's accent and it would all be funny."

It's not just race or ethnicity though. Hall has performed as a hillbilly American, and it's a characterisation that draws on shared understandings around poverty, lack of education, and a proclivity for Deliverance-style violence. On reflection, he says, "it feels a bit off, and maybe it is".

I was reared on a diet of English comedy in which accents — usually performed by white men — were key: The Two Ronnies, Benny Hill, The Dick Emery Show, Mind Your Language, even Fawlty Towers (Andrew Sachs, who played Manuel "from Barcelona", was in fact a German-born Englishman).

I prided myself on my ability to do passable impressions of everything from one of Monty Python's four Yorkshiremen to Dave Allen's Irish raconteur and, yes, Rowan Atkinson's Indian waiter. I've never shied from an "I'll be back" either.

I got laughs, and I always thought of myself as an equal-opportunity mimic. But when a colleague called me out one day for doing an accent well outside my ethnic and cultural origin, it pulled me up. I meant only to imitate, not to denigrate, but I stopped doing it anyway. Ultimately, no matter what the intentions might be, it's the impact that matters.

"When white people use accents, and particularly Asian, the question has to be why," says Diana Nguyen. "It's a universal human right to have respect, and I think that's a language we're still learning."

Email the author at kquinn@theage.com.au, or follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin

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