Against the blinding whiteness of settler-colonial Australia’s history, Maxine Beneba Clarke, a woman with Afro-Caribbean ancestry, casts a shadow. The Hate Race, her memoir, explores the contours of this image by focusing on Clarke’s experiences of racism growing up in the outer western Sydney suburb of Kellyville. In the spirit of the philosopher Georges Gusdorf’s essay ‘The Conditions and Limits of Autobiography’, Clarke’s memoir “reveals…the effort of a creator to give the meaning of his [sic] own mythic tale. He [sic] wrestles with his [sic] shadow, certain only of never laying hold of it.” While The Hate Race chronicles this struggle towards an individualistic notion of self-hood, it also palpably aspires to write to and for a collective affected by racism. Exploring the ways in which Australian racism has distorted her image, Clarke seeks to recast and reshape her shadow into a human one.
Throughout The Hate Race, Clarke depicts acts of racism as lying on a spectrum. On one end, there is the quarter page of anti-black slurs that are easily identifiable as malicious and racist; on the other, there is a boyfriend’s mother fetishising and racialising mixed-race children (“Mixed-race babies are so adorable … you wouldn’t say half-caste anymore, would you?”), which is well-intentioned but just as racist. Somewhere in-between, there is the racism that can be accidental, such as when the same boyfriend offers Clarke scallywag/golliwog biscuits shaped as anti-black caricatures, and there is the racism that is plausibly deniable. The latter occurs when Carlita Allen declares to a preschool-aged Clarke that, “You are brown.” As Clarke reflects:
There lurked, in this small girl’s declaration, 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 [emphasis in original].
For Clarke the ill intent of this kind of declaration is always “lurking”. Here she conveys how racism can evade detection by outsiders, and how racism can appear descriptive, which is why Carlita Allen’s mother shrugs it off as being “so honest”, while Clarke alone perceives its malice. The Hate Race charts racism in all its permutations and argues that no matter the intention behind it—whether benevolent, malevolent, or non-existent—it is no less racist.
Racism, like a shadow, draws attention to the body. The Hate Race documents the ways that Clarke tries to reshape both: with chemical hair straightening, by tucking in her bottom, through sheer will. When light patches appear on a young Clarke’s face and her mother suspects vitiligo, Clarke hopes that she will, “emerge from the vitiligo white: free from golliwog jokes, ‘bad’ hair and my untuckable bottom.” Here, Clarke’s racialised body is her primary source of anguish. Where Clarke perceives herself as human, non-black others see her black body as an obstruction to her humanity – being ‘free’ of this racialisation is what she wishes for when she wishes to be ‘white’. The Hate Race is remarkable in its depiction of this antagonism between mind and body, which racism complicates by accentuating the latter.
Clarke shows that this division between mind and body is a fantasy. Racism targets the body but it also shapes the mind. In an emotionally devastating scene, a preschool classmate, “sweet pale-faced” Rebecca, asks Clarke, “Do you have normal feelings … like normal people? [emphasis in original]”, with the repetition of ‘normal’ excluding her on the basis of her skin colour. Clarke replies “I don’t know”, showing that this exclusion has sunk deep. If in this memoir Clarke wrestles with her shadow, it’s one disfigured by whiteness to the point that it isn’t recognisable to anyone as human, least of all Clarke herself.
At its crux, this tension realises itself through self-harm. Of this she writes, “My hands would flutter unthinkingly around my face, fingernails absent-mindedly peeling back layers of flesh and skin.” The modifiers “unthinkingly” and “absent-mindedly” convey that Clarke’s self-harm occurs beyond consciousness. The Hate Race is startling in this stark depiction of Clarke’s helplessness, both in the face of racism and over her own body. In Postcolonial Representations: Women, Literature, Identity Françoise Lionnet argues that self-harm in women functions as an expression of agency against a lack of social power, stemming from:
A radical dilemma, presenting us with the experience of our body both as the prison of the soul and as an object that constantly escapes the spirit’s control and must therefore be mastered. If our [Westerners’] self-image differs significantly from the one given to us by society, we will be tempted to exercise an even greater level of control over the rebellious body, to punish it through a variety of mortifications.
Clarke’s attempts to align her body with white Australian standards of respectability and to be seen as human ultimately fail. Her self-harm, according to Lionnet, indicates her failure to exert sufficient control over her body, rather than Australia’s failure to not be racist.
Far from a neutral chronicling of racist occurrences, however, The Hate Race highlights the importance of identifying racism. Clarke describes the first time that she uses the word ‘racist’ with tactile imagery:
Racist. The word felt strange in my mouth: powerful, as if now that I could name the thing that was happening to me, it had become real, not something I was imagining or being oversensitive about [emphasis in original].
Previously isolated by racism, she finds the validation provided by anti-racist language foreign. Using the word ‘racist’ also connects her experiences to collective and historical anti-racist struggles.
The Hate Race seeks to strengthen this sense of connection to a collective. In the second half of the book, a motif of first person plural pronouns invokes an imagined group of people: “This is how it changes us. This is how we’re altered”; “This is how it breaks us. / This is how we break.”; and “This is how it haunts us. / This is how it stalks.” Even when Clarke writes specifically about her life, she simultaneously writes to and for a collective made up of people who have had similar experiences of racism. Clarke’s public struggle with her shadow is intended to highlight readers’ own.
The most important work of The Hate Race, however, lies in its engagement with blacknesses. Clarke describes her ancestry:
My early ancestors were part of the Atlantic slave trade. They were dragged screaming from their homes in West Africa and chained by their necks and ankles.
Which resonates with her first conscious encounter with Aboriginal peoples:
In the centre of the red book was a photograph of eight black men. They stood side by side, staring vacantly into the camera lens. They were emaciated: collarbones and kneebones jutting out, cheeks gaunt and sunken … The black men were shackled together, a mere metre of chain separating each metal neck cuff.
The specific image of chains at the neck draws historical parallels between these two different blacknesses in Australia. While both have had different histories, both have also suffered in comparable ways under European expansionism. Clarke points out the similarities in these shadows formed against whiteness and history.
Fundamental to Clarke’s anti-racism in The Hate Race is the acknowledgement of Aboriginal sovereignty. Far from reducing her experiences of racism to intra-settler squabbling, Clarke draws strength from this knowledge:
I felt a kind of awe at knowing I was definitely on black country. Not my family’s country of origin; I knew by then that my parents had been born in a distant part of the world. But all the same I felt the knowledge of it—of the certain blackness of the country I was born in and raised on—fundamentally stir something inside me.
Clarke’s vision of blacknesses existing in Australia is neither defined by hierarchy nor of competing authenticities, but of unconditional solidarity and rapport. Wrestling unapologetically with whiteness to recast and reshape her shadow, Clarke remains conscious of the owners of the land on which she fights.
The Hate Race stresses the urgency of recognition, validation, and vocalisation when it comes to the ephemeral shadows cast by whiteness and racism. After losing a speech competition to someone who “sounded as if she had never done any public speaking before”, Clarke is sincerely congratulated by the winner, perhaps out of recognition that she’d won out of sheer nepotism. Clarke concludes the chapter with the first person plural pronoun, but this time it refers to a more ambiguous collective, an invitation, or perhaps an instruction, to any and all willing to struggle with the shadows of racism by speaking up against inequality and erasure:
This is how we shame it.
How we make it break.
Stephen Pham is a writer from Cabramatta. He has been published in Overland, The Lifted Brow, Right Now, and Seizure. He is an original member of the SWEATSHOP Writers’ Collective. Stephen will be performing at the Wollongong Writers’ Festival on 27 November 2016 alongside fellow SWEATSHOP writers Peter Polites, Shirley Le, Tamar Chnorhokian, and Monikka Eliah.