The sin­is­ter racism of Aus­tralia’s sub­urbs

Max­ine Beneba Clarke lays bare the hor­rors of grow­ing up black on the out­skirts of Syd­ney, to parents of West In­dian her­itage, Lucy Sc­holes writes

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Max­ine Beneba Clarke was born and raised in the Syd­ney sub­urbs. Her parents – a math­e­ma­ti­cian and an ac­tress – em­i­grated to Aus­tralia from Eng­land in the 1970s.

Af­ter suc­cess on her school’s de­bat­ing team as a teenager, Clarke finds her­self be­ing in­ter­viewed as an en­trant for the Li­ons Club Youth of the Year com­pe­ti­tion.

“Where are you from, Max­ine?” asks one of her in­ter­view­ers, so she takes a deep, pa­tient breath and replies: Kel­lyville, Syd­ney.

“The woman smiled, as if mildly amused that I didn’t un­der­stand … ‘Where were your parents born, I mean, sweet­heart?’”

What fol­lows is like a scene from a night­mare in which one finds one­self scar­ily un­able to com­mu­ni­cate even the most sim­ple in­for­ma­tion to one’s in­ter­locu­tor.

Clarke writes: “‘My dad was born in Ja­maica, my mum’s from Guyana,’ I said curtly but po­litely. ‘You mum’s from Ghana? I have an old friend who lived there for a while.’ Frank wrote some­thing down on a notepad. ‘No, she’s from Guyana,’ I cor­rected him. ‘You must mean Ghana.’ Frank shook his head, smil­ing. ‘Guyana, in the West In­dies,’ I said. ‘You have those strik­ing African looks!’ he re­sponded. ‘I very much doubt your mum’s from In­dia.’ He and Su­san chuck­led.” want sym­pa­thy,” rails Clarke in­ter­nally when an­other mum on the school run at­tempts to com­fort her af­ter the en­counter with the man in the ute, “I want to un­hear what I just heard, un-ex­pe­ri­ence what just hap­pened. If racism is a short­com­ing of the heart, then ex­pe­ri­enc­ing it is an as­sault on the mind.”

At times, it’s an out­right at­tack on her san­ity. Those around her de­con­struct and re­con­struct her iden­tity, trap­ping her at ev­ery turn as she’s re­duced to stereo­types both neg­a­tive and pos­i­tive. “It’s in your blood. You folks are built for it,” her sports teacher tells her, con­fused by her slow times run­ning track. “What if I just needed coach­ing?” Clarke pon­ders; if she was good at run­ning she’d be do­ing some­thing “a real black per­son could do”.

One of the most in­ter­est­ing re­sponses I came across to Jor­dan Peele’s re­cent race-re­la­tions hor­ror Get Out was a black viewer ex­plain­ing how per­fectly the sus­tained ten­sion of the film repli­cated what it meant to go about one’s day-to-day busi­ness as a black man in the United States: al­ways vig­i­lant, no more than one mo­ment away from be­ing at­tacked, ver­bally or phys­i­cally.

Clarke’s ex­tra­or­di­nary mem­oir achieves some­thing sim­i­lar. As she takes pains to point out at the end, in many ways her up­bring­ing was “priv­i­leged”, but this is a book “about a very spe­cific as­pect of my child­hood: in­ter­ac­tions and mis­un­der­stand­ings around race and eth­nic­ity”, the struc­ture of which draws on oral sto­ry­telling tra­di­tions – “That folk­lore way West In­di­ans al­ways have of weav­ing a tale. This is how it hap­pened – or else what’s a story for” – which is poignantly set against the colo­nial, white his­tory of deny­ing non-white nar­ra­tives.

The only book in her school li­brary about Ja­maica con­tains a sin­gle page, “a foot­note” at the end, about the slave trade; and what the chil­dren are taught about Aus­tralia’s own in­dige­nous peo­ple is lit­tle short of lies: “Cap­tain Phillip tried hard to be friendly but the Abo­rig­ines were vi­o­lent and hos­tile,” reads their his­tory text­book.

For all the hor­rors within its pages, The Hate Race is as el­e­gantly writ­ten as its sub­ject is im­por­tant.

Clarke’s voice is rich, res­o­nant and un­com­pro­mis­ing, im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore.

Lucy Sc­holes is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist based in Lon­don. J Robert Len­non Ser­pent’s Tail, June 1

A cou­ple try to mend their bro­ken mar­riage by mov­ing to a newly ren­o­vated house in up­state New York with their 12-year-old daugh­ter. The house has been empty for a decade, the scene of a bru­tal crime. Len­non plays the bound­aries of genre here blend­ing fam­ily drama with Gothic hor­ror.

Bro­ken River

The Hate Race Max­ine Beneba Clarke Cor­sair, Dh89

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