Black Is the New White

By Nakkiah Lui
Welcome to The Summer Library: selected extracts from the best new books this summer

I love Christmas. My family love Christmas. I have never missed a Christmas with my family. That would be akin to some kind of sacrilege. I love the excitement you get from putting up the tree, singing along to Christmas carols that you only know two lines of. I love wrapping presents and trying to curl the ribbon just right. I love shopping with my family in the overcrowded shopping centres with their too-cold air conditioning and getting a kebab from the food court. I love the smells of cooking all day and getting dressed up to not leave the house. I love watching Christmas movies from the northern hemisphere that are filled with snow and cosiness, whilst I sweat it out in front of a fan. I love being with my family. A family that is changing as we get older, new members and additions joining each year and sometimes, sadly, a loved one leaving.

But Christmas isn’t where the play started. That’s where the play ended up. Black is the New White started as two separate conversations. The first was about love. I was having a conversation with a cousin of mine who is this fabulous young Aboriginal woman, a gorgeous and great mum, a lover of Instagram and lycra and the hashtag #yummymummy. We were talking politics (talking politics is like talking sports in my family) and for some reason love came up, and she said that communities should try to stick together, to “get bigger and better and Blacker” … her racial/political beliefs could be seen as akin to Black separatism and I didn’t necessarily agree with her (I had dated one Aboriginal person and not had much luck – they turned out to be a cousin).

However, at the same time, both my parents are Aboriginal, same as hers, so why did she hold those beliefs and why didn’t I? I thought it was a really interesting conversation to be having with someone who, I would say, is part of this new emerging Aboriginal middle class. It was around this time that I looked at the census and discovered a surprising statistic: 74 per cent of Aboriginal people who get married marry non-Aboriginal people. We were the community most likely to marry a race outside of our own. I found this really interesting … it intrigued me as to who this 74 per cent are.

Primarily because I was one of them. I fell in love as I started writing this play. I’d got engaged by the time it had finished. To a White man. I was part of this 74 per cent … but that really bothered me, because, to me, my love was way more than a statistic. But there it was … an overwhelming statistic that was vastly different to the trends of non-aboriginal Australians.

That led me to investigate how my own family had shifted over the last two generations, and how this had affected their definition of class. I was really interested in how we identify ourselves in terms of our racial and cultural backgrounds, and how that intersects with class. What does it mean to be successful? Especially as Aboriginal people, when you come from a community that is so often politicised.

I also wanted to present a family of Aboriginal people that hasn’t been seen before, not just on stage, I would say, but within the canon of Australian artistic works. That is, an Aboriginal family who have money, who are not necessarily oppressed, but are culturally quite strong. So I had the idea of putting forth that family, because, for me, that was similar to what I’ve grown up with.

The way my family has celebrated Christmas has changed over the years: from cold meat platters at my nana’s tiny little fibro house we all crammed into before running under the sprinkler; big picnics with extended family in the local park as the kids ran around in what were called “the piddle pools”; then later, to hot meals with gourmet cuts of meat, caviar and Bellinis in the morning, swims in the pool in the afternoon; then, a “white Christmas” on the other side of the equator one year, together and loving Christmas in a foreign but familiar land.

But all still the same in the end – with your family, bickering and happy. The evolution of my family Christmas celebrations seemed to reflect a much bigger discussion I was trying to figure out: what is it to be Aboriginal and middle class? Is that even a thing?

That journey to middle class was fought for. The ability to have hope and love and celebration, in my heart, is because my parents, my grandparents and ancestors fought incredibly hard against all the odds to make sure the ones who came after them would have a good life.

And if being Aboriginal and middle class is a thing, if that’s what has happened in my family, what does it mean to have that privilege? What does it mean to be an Aboriginal person with power?

Over the last ten years I’ve watched my parents transform into serious foodies. Just watching that happen made me want to present a family of Aboriginals drinking on stage in a way that wasn’t politicised. That in and of itself then becomes a statement. I wanted to say, “Here’s a family who are like you.” I wanted to write something that didn’t come from a place of sorrow, or from death, or from oppression, where I’d have to rehash that intergenerational trauma. This was actually about something that had hope and happiness in it.

For me, having privilege gives you the power to be seen as a human and not just a racial identity. If I, as a kinda-middle-class Aboriginal person, could put an Aboriginal family on stage and have them be seen as people, individuals, and not just Aboriginal, if I could get the people in the audience to look at that family and say “they’re just like me”, then maybe that would be my way of creating hope for others.

I wrote this play as I fell in love and my life changed around me, consequently changing my family’s life as well (they love their White son). My own little love story hit all the rom-com tropes: it had the “meet cute” (the serendipitous meeting of the two “destined to fall in love”, the more unusual the better), the over-the-top romantic gestures (think John Cusack standing with a boom box outside the bedroom window), it even had the coordinated dance sequence. I wanted to write something that made me as happy as my life was. I love romantic comedies. I love falling in love with characters. I love the feeling of elation that you get when you really love a story; I call it the “Tingles”. I wanted to write a play that gives you the tingles, that makes you want to laugh and dance and leaves you with those tingles as you walk out of the theatre and into your life.

My beautiful grandmother, Joan, always used to say to me, “what can you do if you can’t laugh?” I say this to myself every day. I think laughter is the heart opening the door, and the more we can laugh, the more open and bigger our hearts get.


This extract is from Black Is the New White by Nakkiah Lui (Allen & Unwin; $24.99), published in February.

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