If you’ve ever wondered whether Australia actually is a deeply racist nation, then this powerful memoir is for you. It leaves no doubt that answer is yes, all the time, and from almost everyone.
From the nasty little girl at Clarke’s kindergarten who wouldn’t play with the brown girl, to the primary school children who constantly taunted, threatened and mocked, to the teachers and school counselors who told the teenager that it was ‘only teasing’, Clarke’s anger about her treatment lends her prose a searing heat.
Maxine Beneba Clarke is an award-winning Australian fiction writer and poet of Afro-Caribbean descent. Born in Sydney in 1979, her memoir doesn’t describe some terrible, distant past where things were different – the racism she encountered as a child and teen was (and is) part of contemporary, suburban, middle-class Australian culture. Her story is book-ended with the racist outbursts that she still encounters when merely walking down the street, or popping into a shop to buy a bottle of water for her little boy, while carrying her baby girl in a sling.
‘She’s sooo adorable! the attendant coos. She walks around me in a circle, looking at the stretchy piece of material knotted at my back and wound over both my shoulders. ‘It’s amazing, how you people carry your babies. It just seems to be, like, instinctive!’ You people. Suddenly, there’s that chest tightening feeling. That hear-in-my-throat, pulse-in-my temples fear. The dry tongue. The gasping for breath. The remembering how it can happen anywhere, at any time. That can’t-think freeze. I am four years old, on my first day of pre-school, standing underneath the mulberry tree watching Carmelita Allen’s lip curl up with disgust as she stares at me. I am slouched down on the high school bus, head bowed, pretending not to notice the whispered name-calling. I take a deep breath in, smile, and hustle my son out of the petrol station.
The litany of the abuses and humiliations heaped upon Clarke over the years would have been damning enough, but she also unflinchingly explores the way the racism changed her. How she began to hate and harm herself. How she cruelly lashed out at others. And how she learned how not to let it crush her.
Clarke, always a bookish child, became a high achieving student. It was her way of showing her tormentors that she was better than them. She found friends, not many, but ones who were steadfast and true. She dated gorgeous teenage boyfriends who loved her for herself. As a senior high school student – and displaying an extraordinary strength of character – she began to report every incidence of racism, every time. Her high school signally failed in its duty of care towards her but each time she reported, she forced them to do something (albeit while suffering the inevitable backlash from the tormentors). Best of all, as she got older and smarter, she subverted the system, including a glorious, hilarious episode of ‘tribal dancing’.
It doesn’t do, however, to dwell on the positives. This is not a memoir of redemption, of overcoming adversity. Instead it is an indictment of Australian society. The anger that underpins this excellent memoir delivers prose that is dynamic, piercing and damning. In that sense, this memoir bears comparison to Roxane Gay’s Hunger (which I reviewed here).
Clarke doesn’t say so, but the Hate Race is, in my view, the white race. It is me. It is probably you too. After reading this book I found myself feeling a weird empathy for all those men who profess themselves shocked when they are shown the extent of sexism. ‘I didn’t know,’ they say. ‘I wasn’t aware,’ they say. ‘It’s not me,’ they say. I, too, struggled with the impulse to claim that racism was #NotAllWhitePeople. Except that, of course, it is. And it’s incumbent upon all of us to do something about it.
Don’t know where to start? Begin by reading this. Now.
But don’t just take my word for it.
- Whispering Gums thought it was essential reading too.
- While writing the manuscript, Clarke was awarded the Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship (2014) and an Australia Council grant.
- The Hate Race won the 2017 Multicultural NSW Award ($20,000), as part of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards