Reading Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir filled me with dread at times, particularly in the prologue where she is subject to hateful overt racism. Not thirty odd years ago, but in recent times. It is disgraceful that this is still going on.
My son is not my biological child. He is Aboriginal with dark skin, and I am of British descent. When he saw The Hate Race on my bedside table he asked what it was about. I said it was about a woman in Australia and then paused, thinking how can I explain this to an eight-year-old, who fortunately has not been exposed to much racism. Then he asked if it was about someone who hates racing. I took the easy way out and said yes. ‘I knew it’ he said. Tough conversation averted.
Maxine was born in Australia to Afro-Caribbean parents, who moved to Australia from London in 1976. They settle in Kellyville, an outer suburb of Sydney. Their three children. Cecilia, Maxine and Bronson were born from 1978-1982.
Preschool was Maxine’s first experience of racism. Carlita (real names were generally not used) was her main tormentor. ‘You … are brown. She knew this to be fact, but hadn’t until then known any relevance to it. But she could see that there was ‘an implied deficiency. I was in no doubt that there was something wrong with being brown, that being brown was not a very desirable thing at all’. Carlita’s mother’s response was ‘Children are so honest, aren’t they?’
And so began the pattern of racist behaviour and comments being made, justified, minimised and left for a child to internalise. From waiting to be served, as if invisible at shops, the name-calling ‘Blackie. Monkey girl. Golliwog’, the lack of response or action taken by school staff and parents, sometimes turning it back on her, making her responsible for the bullying, being told it was just ‘a little bit of teasing’.
After learning about Indigenous Australians she identified with them. She thought ‘if brown people owned the country, that would change everything’. Although she came to realise the inequities for Aboriginal people she still ‘felt the knowledge of it – of the certain blackness of the country I was born in and raised on – fundamentally alter something inside me’.
She at one stage was delighted when she started getting lighter patches on her skin, thinking she was turning white, only because she wanted to be less different, to fit in.
Later in life she became aware of Pauline Hanson and thought she sounded like the bully, ‘Greg Adams at my school: only grown up, a little more tactful, and with a broader reach’.
Like her book of short stories, Foreign Soil, this is incredibly powerful writing, which had me furious, shameful, at times in tears, and wanting to protect the child that she was from such horrors. She dedicates the book to the children of Australia. ‘May all your classrooms and playgrounds be kept safe’. I wholeheartedly agree.