‘I am constantly resisting other people’s attempts to reduce the Pacific to one thing—I want to disturb all of that.’ —Teresia Teaiwa, E-Tangata, October 2015
‘Professional sports have constituted an alternative work arena for many black men. In that world the black male body once used and abused in a world of labor based on brute force could be transformed; elegance and grace could become the identifying signifiers of one’s labor.’ —bell hooks, ‘Gangsta Culture’, We Real Cool, 2003, p.21
I am the first person in my family to attend university. On my first day, Dad dropped me off at Western Sydney University’s Kingswood campus in our beat up white vengabus. During the car ride I stared at the long black hairs on his muscly arms, which reminded me of the Ha‘amonga ‘a Maui stone trilithon near the village of Niutōua, known to pālangi as the Burden of Maui. Dad rubbed sleep out of his eyes and scratched his goatee as he said, ‘I’m proud of you, darling. Always remember that your degree is my degree.’
My father had me at nineteen and since then has had to work full-time as a nightshift security guard so that drunk whites can gamble at Rooty Hill RSL. It made sense that whatever privileges I received were a direct result of his sacrifices.
I didn’t understand until much later what my father actually meant. Because Pasifika people participating in tertiary education are so under-represented, it was now my responsibility, upon entering such a privileged space, to create recognition for our community. This is because Tongan culture is built on the four pillars of ‘Ofa, Faka‘apa‘apa, Anga fakato ki lalo and Tuhi Va. Particularly, the pillar of faka‘apa‘apa means to give respect and honour in all I do as a Tongan.
Instead I shrugged at my dad and said, ‘It’s just Super TAFE.’ In my colloquialism was the implication that Western Sydney University has low educational standards because only povo ethnic kids with ATARs below thirty go there.
. . .
My brother Sione was not the first person in our family to give his body to the National Rugby League. Our dad had played back in the eighties and early nineties before he started a family. One of our uncles, Sione Johansson, played the U20 Premiership in 1999 with the South Sydney Rabbitohs before he got caught up raising two babies singlehandedly. Even now, my cousin Tana Fonua plays for Sydney University’s women’s rugby union team.
Back then, every Saturday morning my family of five sisters, two brothers, four aunties and Mum and Dad, would make our way in four vengabuses from Mt Druitt to the Blacktown Workers grounds so that Sione could compete.
I remember standing beside my mehekitanga, Aunty Lahi, one Saturday. She was biting down on her egg, sausage and beef sanga while watching my brother’s 9 am game progress. Out there on the field, my brother Benji-Marshall-side-stepped a big Aussie hooker who reminded me of The Hamburglar. Sione, keeping the egg-shaped ball to his chest, bolted for the try-line at his new opening. Lahi was yelling, ‘Mālie! Mālie! Mālie!’, orange egg yolk spilling onto her Blacktown Workers varsity jacket. As Sione got closer to the try-line, I watched a full Fob fullback from the Minchinbury Jets kiss my brother’s heels with the tips of his boots. The Samoan jet flew down low and grabbed my brother at his knees, taking both of them to the dirt. I had heard from my dad that although Sione was a fast winger he couldn’t take a tackle. What the heck is a winger? I thought.
After that game, we all ate in the Maccas parking lot opposite the field. Sione’s ngatu skin was covered in black and green stripes. He smiled with his lips pressed together as I gave him some of my McNuggets. I could tell he was upset about the game because he didn’t double-dip in the sweet ‘n’ sour sauce.
With a mouth full of fries I asked, ‘Bro, why do you play football?’
My brother shrugged, licking Big Mac sauce off his thumb. ‘Coz it’s like my birthday.’ Then he flashed me the corner of a fifty-dollar note in his hand. I knew he got the money from Lahi because she gave him some every game, win or lose.
. . .
During the three years it took to complete my Bachelor of Arts degree, I read literature that was considered worthy of institutional recognition taught by Doctors who studied at Oxford and Cambridge. I poured over the works of Shakespeare, Emily Brontë, Vladimir Nabokov and Sylvia Plath. I remember one academic, reading aloud from The Bell Jar, ‘I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead; I lift my eyes and all is born again.’ He taps on his worn copy with dry knuckles and says, ‘This is how literature is created.’ I can feel myself nodding.
Tyrese L. Coleman, who wrote Reading Jane Eyre While black, explains that when people of colour learn to accept the white Western literary cannon as ‘classic’ we also learn that white is the standard and black the ‘other.’ Therefore, when the academic told our class that when Esther Greenwood chooses to open or close her eyes she creates literature, he was essentially pushing the imperialist narrative that only white people can participate in the act of ‘real’ literature.
Although I am the first person in my family to attend university, I am not the first person of colour to feel ostracised in an institution that is predominately made up of white teachers and staff. Tongan poet and educator Konai Helu Thaman identifies this feeling of disconnect as the continuation of colonialism’s true purpose, which is to dominate and demolish any culture that does not reflect white Western systems. Thaman continues to argue this in her article, ‘Culture and Curriculum in the South Pacific’. When Pacific people like myself study Western curricula, we are forced to ‘transmit’ our traditional cultures ‘mostly learned informally from family’, for conflicting Western ideals. All too often, Pacific people are forcibly groomed to value white Western teachings for its alluring promise of economic gain. Imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy limits people of colour’s opportunity to see our own traditional knowledges as worthy of study. For Pacific/Pasifika people to be given space to see our cultures as worthy of study, and to study them for ourselves, would be an act of decolonisation. An act of decolonisation that would set us on a path towards finding the justice and recognition we deserve.
I started taking writing seriously when I became involved with Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. In the early months of joining Sweatshop, its Director, Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad, asked me how I was able to spend time writing and studying, while he fixed the strap of his bumbag after a meeting. At first, I was confused at his question since my parents and mehekitanga have always supported me in my pursuit of higher education. When I told Mohammed I wasn’t sure what he meant he asked again, this time in a different direction: ‘You haven’t thought to yourself why you’re the only one in your family to go to uni?’
It felt like tapa was being banged on my chest. ‘Oh, I don’t fkn know aye?’
Since that interaction, I have worked with and for Sweatshop to obtain skills that would decolonise my thinking. But before I could write I first had to commit to critical reading.
‘Read this,’ Mohammed suggested, nodding to his copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
When I finished that, Sweatshop’s Associate Director, Peter Polites, said, ‘Now read this!’ lending me copies of Cultural Criticism and Transformation and We Real Cool by bell hooks as he tied the laces of his Nikes. ‘Keep reading!’ Fellow writer Shirley Le encouraged, handing me White Nation by Ghassan Hage and Orientialism by Edward Said as she straightened her leather jacket.
These books felt like punches to the head. They made me think: white people have had hundreds of years with literature, but what about Pacific and Pasifika people, for whom literature is mostly oral storytelling?
One night after reading about how Malcolm X transcribed an entire dictionary from inside his prison cell, I wanted to know if there was a history of Pacific and Pasifika writing. ‘Oh my gawd bro,’ my sister Pesi yelled at me half asleep as I shifted around in our double bed to reach my laptop. ‘Whatever.’ I told her, pushing her head back onto her pillow. After a quick Google search I found out that in 1973, Albert Wendt was one of the first Pacific people to have a published novel. I bit the inside of my cheeks. My dad was born in 1975… so what… it’s been only forty-five years since the first novel by a Pacific person was published? I shut my laptop and tasted metal on my tongue. ‘Fuck that.’
The texts shared with me through Sweatshop taught me what it was to be a radical and politicised Pasifika, to empower my identity for the good of my community and to defend myself against the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. These texts were learned informally and they stood against everything I had been taught to think in tertiary education, where white people could make literature by closing and opening their eyes. The Sweatshop collective, armed with their essential reading list, showed me the importance of being a mixed-race Tongan-Australian woman from Mt Druitt—an experience that is worthy of literature.
From the teachings of people of colour, I learnt how to read critically and therefore became empowered.
In a 2015 interview with Dale Husband in E-Tangata, the late poet and educator Teresia Teaiwa speaks about acts of critical thinking as acts of disturbance. Throughout the interview she talks about identifying as black, having been born to an African-American mother and a Banaban and I-Kiribati father, holding accountable both Great Britain and Japan for gross acts of colonialism within the Pacific, and the intriguing relationship between tagata o le moana (people of the sea) and tangata whenau (people of the land). When asked to add anything at the end of the interview, Teaiwa says:
I’m constantly resisting other people’s attempt to reduce the Pacific to one thing—one issue. Whether it’s climate change or their relaxing holiday in Fiji I want to disturb all that. For us, it’s never one issue. We live complicated lives… That’s my job as a Pacific Studies academic… It’s to remind people of the complexity and not let them try to paint us with a single brush stroke.
Teaiwa reminds readers—especially white ones who travel to Fiji on holidays—that the Pacific is a series of complex places and identities, ones that need the nuances and knowledges of Aboriginal/Māori/Pacific and Pasifika voices. If I am to think critically, I am to resist and to resist is to disturb. Following Teaiwa’s role as an educator, I have set myself the goal to work with the purpose of uplifting Pacific communities through critical thinking, dialogue and literature. I am here to disturb Australia’s white bookshelves.
Although I am still learning, my coming to critical thinking has enabled me to speak to and about my community with honesty, emotion and conviction. Through my work, I have been able to edit Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of the anthology series The Big Black Thing. I have also been able to create a space within Sweatshop exclusively dedicated to women of colour, each of whom are on their own journey of critical thinking and writing. Now with sixty new members, three of them—Didi de Graaf, Talei Luscia and Christine Afoa—are Pasifika women. I deeply respect their presence as it shows a progression towards decolonisation in our communities.
I don’t talk about the work of Sweatshop and my role within it to ‘act all hard’ (a colloquialism in Western Sydney which means to show too much ego) but to explain that the journey to critical thinking and writing is one of the most empowering transformations towards decolonisation and towards justice.
. . .
When my brother moved back from Melbourne after being cut from the rugby team, the promise of being on national television having slipped through his fingers, I asked him again why he is so committed to rugby, especially since the game was not loving him in return. Sione, standing in our grey kitchen, more muscular than I remember him being, rubbed his eyes and then the peach fuzz on his chin. In the background, our five sisters were so loud being tangi loi over who was going to do the washing that I almost didn’t hear him.
Sione shrugged. ‘It’s all I’ve ever known.’
My brother’s response is indicative of the broader obstacles, pressures and opportunities Pasifika men face on a lifetime journey to find work outside of capitalist labour—a kind of work that is full of purpose, integrity and healing.
When searching ‘Islanders and rugby’ on Google, it is clear that white Australia addresses Pacific people as a problem needing to be fixed. In July 2006, The Sydney Morning Herald published an article titled ‘Islanders in junior leagues, it’s a really big issue’. Author Daniel Lane writes that the nineties saw a surge of Pasifka people joining the sport of rugby league in large numbers, similar to the influx of African-Americans ‘dominating’ the NBA in the seventies and eighties. Lane argues that because ‘Islanders’ have the ‘perfect body shape’ for rugby they are ‘beginning to dominate’ the field unfairly. Former rugby league player Mark Greyer agrees, lamenting the fact that a fob kid (who could very well be my cousin) in the U10s, weighing ‘96 kilos’, walked over the try-line with ‘five or six kids hanging off him.’ Geyer continues, ‘It wasn’t a contest and it can’t be fun for him or the kids playing against him. The authorities must address the issue.’
The article continues for another two pages and gives voice to some Pacific players like Olsen Filipaina, who discusses his experience of racism when joining the Balmain team in 1980. Filipaina explains that on the field he was called a ‘black bastard, a nigger and [I] had cans thrown at me. It ruined rugby league for me.’ Tellingly, the article ends with Penrith Panther trainer Paul Watson explaining that he specifically trains Pacific men with cardio because ‘their legs are massive enough as it is’ and that ‘Islanders’ have ‘a lack of skills’ because they rely ‘too heavily on their size.’
Essentially, the article furthers the racial stereotype that although Pacific men’s bodies are ‘perfect’ for rugby, they’re too stupid to be real players. The repeated use of ‘domination’ in the article is indicative of white Australia’s fear of men of colour, whose supposed size and strength is both looked upon with lust and disgust. If Pasifika men happen to be both strong and skilled their talents are usually accredited to the influence of a ‘white coach or white authority figure’.
Australia has always considered Pacific and Pasifika men and their bodies a ‘big issue’ and this country has taken an authoritative stance to subdue them throughout the years. From blackbirding in Queensland’s sugarcane fields in the 1860s to enforcing 14-hour shifts in warehouses and farmlands for ‘seasonal workers’ in the 21st century, Pasifika men and their bodies are both feared and fetishised. As Edward Said wrote in Orientialism, the West views non-Western cultures as ‘body oriented’ rather than humanity orientated. Viewing people of colour solely through our bodies is an act of colonialism that dehumanises us because it defines racial characteristics in contrast to ‘superior’ European racial characteristics and culture.
Why is it up to white Australia to comment on the size of Pacific and Pasifika men’s bodies and decide where they should go?
Western powerhouses like Australia, America and France specifically target potential Pacific and Pasifika rugby players solely for their size, and offer up citizenships to impoverished or relatively poverty-stricken Pacific and Pasifika families, under the guise of ‘freeing’ us from such circumstances. As an intimate viewer of rugby league through my father, uncles, brothers, sisters and cousins, it is hard not to see rugby league as a form of modern slavery. It wasn’t until I read bell hooks’ We Real Cool that I realised how liberating sports can be to oppressed men and women of colour.
In her chapter ‘Gangsta Culture’, hooks explains that in many ways the sporting arena provides an alternative form of labour for black men. In sports, black men’s bodies, ‘once used and abused in a world of labor’ and judged on racialised stereotypes of ‘brute force’ could be ‘transformed [into] elegance and grace.’ The money that they gain from becoming famous sportsmen is earned rightfully and with dignity—something that is difficult to find in manual labour jobs often governed by white people.
When I first read bell hooks, I thought back to why my brother felt that rugby was like his birthday. Being gifted money from our aunty, an older Tongan woman, meant that my brother was earning money rightfully and with dignity from his own community. A lot of educated white people see men in sport as expression of the patriarchy, in which large men use their bodies only to dominate. But bell hooks showed me how hard men of colour feel they have to work the field to find liberation. And there’s something beautiful in that.
The next time I saw my brother playing rugby I yelled, ‘Get your money bro!’
It is important to note that Pasifika men such as Sonny Bill Williams, Benji Marshall, Jarryd Hayne and Jason Taumalolo, as well as many other Pacific/Pasifika men and women, have found positions of some kind of liberation through rugby league. They have used their skills to liberate themselves economically and to create awareness for Pacific communities in Australia.
Sonny Bill Williams is the best example of a critically conscious rugby league player of Pacific heritage. Williams is a mixed-raced Samoan man who came to play rugby league for the sole purpose of buying his mum a house. In a 2012 interview with FRESH TV, Williams takes viewers through the streets surrounding his childhood home in Aotearoa. He remembers watching a game of rugby on TV and thinking to himself ‘Far, they must have big cars, fancy cars and big houses.’ He reiterates the struggles he went through, being asked to train in Australia at sixteen away from his family and essentially existing as an adult. Williams went from working part-time at ten dollars per hour, to training full-time, to becoming a renowned international rugby player, boxer and Olympian. In between all of that, Williams admits to struggling in his search for healing, integrity and purpose. ‘I used to be a stress head… if I went out drinking or partying, I would be searching for something the next day with a hangover, getting eaten up inside.’ Upon converting to Islam, Williams became a happier and prouder man. He was able to put his past behind him and find balance with his hectic athletic schedule and family life. In his faith and in his coming to critical thinking, Williams overcame racist Pasifika stereotypes. ‘The best book, I’ll recommend it to anybody, is Malcolm X’s autobiography, there are a lot of life traits in there. I’ve read it about four times.’
It is crucial that Pacific communities uplift Sonny Bill Williams as an example of a politicised Pasifika athlete of strength, skill and wit (bell hooks speaks similarly of Muhammed Ali, who Williams also credits as an inspiration). Williams is someone who dares to speak with honesty, emotion and conviction in order to give Pasifikas an example of the purpose, integrity and healing we find when we decolonise our thinking.
. . .
When I asked Sione what he thinks about Sonny Bill Williams, he said, ‘King. Everywhere he goes championships follow. Off the field there’s no drama around him, family man now with two kids. That’s who I want to be.’
It took a while for me to accept that although we grew up in the same environment, my brother and I work in different fields of labour. While Sione is at the gym, bench pressing four times my weight, I’m typing up words to call out Chris Lilley’s brownface show Jonah from Tonga. Every time Sione makes a pass or sets up a try, I’m trying to analyse Karlo Mila’s poem Octopus Auckland as an exceptional form of self-representation.
It took me even longer to learn that Sione and I struggle in similar ways. When white coaches benched him for a whole game because ‘he’s not as big as a real Islander’ a white academic tried to explain to me how her use of ‘nigger’ is acceptable. And even though Sione played rugby in Melbourne and Edmond Atalla gave me a shout out in Parliament, my brother works minimum wage in a warehouse and I work three jobs so that I can help my parents out.
However, it is important to note that my brother and I are much more privileged than darker skinned Pacific/Pasifika people because of our mixed-race heritage. And, I am much more privileged than my brother because of my access to higher education and thus higher paying jobs. Writing this essay is a testament to that.
bell hooks ends the introductory section to We Real Cool with her expression of love for ‘black maleness’ and the love given and received when black masculinity runs counter to the patriarchal norm. hooks reiterates that continuing dialogue with black men is to continue the work of true love. The purpose of this essay is to continue the work of true love/‘Ofa between Pacific/Pasifika men, our communities and myself. It is a covenant of mutuality, which ‘extends one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.’ This is how I have come to understand the relationship I have with my brother.
Sione and I have the same aspirations for our community. I want to be like Teresia Teaiwa just as much as my brother wants to be like Sonny Bill Williams. And in this way, we are subverting the single story of oppression placed upon our community, as we look towards Pacific leadership. Whether it’s on the footy field or in a lecture hall, Sione and I continue to open doors for ourselves and for people in our Pacific community.
Sione, love you bro.
Winnie Dunn is a Tongan-Australian writer from Mt Druitt. She is Manager and Editor at SWEATSHOP: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and a Bachelor of Arts graduate from Western Sydney University. Winnie’s work has been published in The Lifted Brow, Griffith Review, Sydney Review of Books and The Big Black Thing. She has presented at Sydney Festival, Sydney Writers’ Festival and Wollongong Writers’ Festival. Winnie was also the keynote speaker for Stella Girls Write Up 2017.