‘Against anything I had ever been told was possible, I was turning white. On the surface of my skin, a miracle was quietly brewing . . .’
Suburban Australia. Sweltering heat. Three bedroom blonde-brick. Family of five. Beat-up Ford Falcon. Vegemite on toast. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s life is just like all the other Aussie kids on her street.
Except for this one, glaring, inescapably obvious thing.
The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke
Published: August 9 2016 by Hachette Australia
Source: Borrowed but later acquired own copy
The Hate Race delves into Clarke’s experiences as a youth with Afro-Caribbean heritage in Australia during the 80s and 90s. The writing vividly evokes memories of boiling school playgrounds in summer, tenuous friendships, and the music of that time. Clarke draws an immersive memoir that explores how both casual and institutionalised racism sits side by side these experiences of Australian school life.
This harmful norm manifests itself in various ways. The bullying, neglect and silent complicity are enacted by Clarke’s friends, classmates and teachers. The impact of these anti-black slurs upon her sense of self are viscerally recollected here – (content warning)
“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.”
“I learned to stay quiet. I learned that nobody much cared. I learned that it was probably my fault anyway, and that what they were doing to me was perfectly okay. This is how it alters us. This is how we change.”
Aside from her family, almost everyone Clarke knew was white. Though there is also flashback to a South-Asian classmate being badly bullied due to her appearance as well. This memory shares another aspect to racism.
Chemical hair straightening as a part of the rejection of one’s body and self-harm are some of the ways that racism can affect an individual’s sense of being too. Clarke also shares that the first images she found of bodies like her own were in historical books about slavery. As a youth, she started to read more about history and form questions from there.
These questions also led her to learn more about Indigenous Australian history, which was barely taught to children at school during that time. I was disturbed to learn about this lack of classroom education around Indigenous history in the past, which contributes to the racism Indigenous people experience today.
The Hate Race does much to raise the social awareness of racism in Australia as it enables many people to finally talk about these experiences. Clarke’s book is an engrossing memoir that I wish was standard reading across all schools here. There needs to be more support for diverse literature and media, so that this sense of isolation and prejudice can be dismantled for all the generations to come.
- Voices from the Intersection is one recent publishing initiative for more own voices YA writers of diverse stories in Australia.
- For US readers, Clarke’s Foreign Soil: And Other Stories is to be published there in 2017. It is one of the previous Australian releases I need to catch up on reading soon. Foreign Soil has also been recently added to the 2018 VCE syllabus in Australia.