Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir is likely to precipitate the kind of conversations about racism that Australia badly needs. Clarke’s parents are Londoners of West Indian descent who make a suburban home in Australia for themselves and the three children who are born here. They lead an ostensibly normal family life. Yet this memoir reveals insulting and vindictive racism, and the emotional and physical distress of those who are subjected to it. It’s also as much about the process of telling a story, and Clarke identifies repeatedly with a West Indian tradition: “There are myriad ways of telling it. That West Indian way of unfolding a tale. This is how it sang.”
When Clarke is a small child, her best friend writes a description of her as part of a group assignment intended to affirm the qualities of each student. She is “friendly and smart … a good reader”. The overwhelming majority of her classmates simply comment on the colour of her skin. She is an assertive and observant girl, a top-scoring swot with a terrific sense of subversive humour (a quality easily found in these pages). But her extracurricular – and sometimes even her curricular – instruction is racially barbed and humiliating. There are years of slights, a frightening physical attack, disgusting nicknames and, as she grows older, a serious campaign of threats and stalking. Adults are helpless, uninterested or ineffective. She isn’t the only target. Chinese and disabled children isolate themselves, and a student picked on for his long hair and nail polish leaves school. When Clarke has white boyfriends the hostility diminishes. But she has every reason to be uneasy – the family of one, though welcoming, makes her feel like she is some “fascinating exotic thing”.
Racism is the “sport” of schoolchildren; in some cases it is seen as “teasing”. She is rightly angry “that the school did little to combat the insidious racism I dealt with on a daily basis, but was happy to … parade me and the rest of their ‘multicultural contingent’ around when the circumstances suited”.
School is a place of horrible paradoxes; hostility is internalised and the bullied child can herself become a bully. Self-assertion and self-protectiveness are hard won. Furthermore, racist hostility continues to flourish in the adult world. The book is framed by an incident in which Clarke walks behind a baby stroller while a man shouts abuse from the open window of a passing car.
Africans were transported to the Caribbean as slaves, and they went on to make homes in London and in Sydney. Clarke imagines this, poetically: “The watery tracks of my family’s unbelonging scar this great, green globe like keloid geography.” This is the big picture of racial dislocation. The Hate Race bears witness to an individual child’s experience of racism in our culture, and it should make the reader angry, too.
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