Non-fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 272 pages; 2016.
Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian writer of Afro-Caribbean descent. Her memoir, The Hate Race, tells the story of what it is like to grow up black in white middle-class Australia. It has recently been shortlisted for the 2017 Stella Prize.
This unflinching account charts Clarke’s experiences at school, where she was routinely bullied for the colour of her skin and where teachers and other people in authority turned a blind eye. “It’s just a bit of teasing,” the school counsellor tells Clarke, who, by the time she was a teenager, had been subjected to endless “teasing” for almost a decade. The ongoing verbal abuse had manifested itself in a rather alarming physical way: Clarke would scratch her face in her sleep, a psychological attempt to claw her way out of her skin, a form of self-harm that would leave her with nasty facial bruises.
At five and a half, racism had already changed me.
After a while you start to breath it. Another kid’s parents stare over at your family on the first day of school with that look on their faces. You make a mental note to stay away from that kid. When you have to choose working partners in numbers, you discreetly shuffle over to the opposite side of the room. You tell a teacher someone is calling you names. Blackie. Monkey girl. Golliwog. The teacher stares at you, exasperated, as if to say: Do you really expect me to do something about it? The next time you have a grievance, you look for a different teacher. This is how it changes us. This is how we’re altered.
Clarke and her two siblings — an older sister and a younger brother — were born in Australia. Her dad was born in Jamaica but emigrated to the UK in the late 1950s, where he gained a PhD in mathematics. Her mother, from Guyana in the West Indies, was a stage actress living in London. The married couple emigrated to Australia after Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech made them want to live somewhere more welcoming. They chose Australia on the basis Clarke’s dad had worked alongside a young Australian couple at Nottingham University who had recently returned home.
But from the get-go Clarke admits that her family were the only black people in the community and were regarded with a mixture of fascination and suspicion. It is only when Clarke goes to school and learns about Australian aboriginals that she realises the country has a long-established black community that has been usurped (and often massacred) by the whites.
Every day racism
A large part of the book documents Clarke’s experience of casual and not-so-casual racism, mainly in the classroom but also out in the real world, where less talented peers were often granted privileges for which she was overlooked.
In one instance, Clarke relates the story of how she missed out on winning a top award for a public speaking competition. The prize went to a less confident white girl whose father was greatly respected within the community. The father, to his credit, tells Clarke that she was the best speaker in the room — but he does nothing to change the outcome.
That’s one of the messages that runs throughout this story: that standing on the sidelines and saying nothing when wrong is being done makes you complicit in the act. This realisation comes early to Clarke, when her and her younger brother are confronted on their new bikes by a gang who call them names and start throwing stones at them. Clarke’s friends don’t help or defend them — they simply run away:
But the scene at the bike park just kept looping in my head. Her silence. The way they’d suddenly disappeared. I knew they were scared. I knew they were just kids. But so were we. My friend’s silence hurt more than the names we’d been called — more than seeing my brother’s bloody, grazed knee.
While The Hate Race is essentially a collection of anecdotes from Clarke’s childhood, all told in an entertaining and forthright style (and not without a smidgen of humour to lighten the despair), this catalogue of abuse makes for a damning indictment on Australian society in the 1980s and 1990s. Is it any better now, I wonder?
In her acknowledgements, Clarke states that she loves Australia but believes people could be kinder to one another:
I wrote this book because I believe stories like these need to be written into Australian letters. Stories like mine need to be heard, and seen, both by those outside of them and those with similar tales. I wanted to show the lasting impact of living in a brown body in Australia in the eighties and nineties on one child. I want to show the extreme toll that casual, overt and institutionalised racism can take: the way it erodes us all.
This is my third book for #AWW2017.
If you liked this, you might also like:
- Talking to my Country by Stan Grant: a heartrending account of what it is like to be an indigenous person in Australia.
- Black and Proud: The Story of an Iconic AFL Photo by Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond (not reviewed on this site, but I read it in 2014): an eye-opening read about racism in sport.