‘Black’, not just a label

Chris Lemoh, an Australian of African and European descent, wrote a response to my essay Are there Black people in Australia? Lemoh rejects the description of himself as ‘Black’, saying ‘It’s your label, not mine.’ Pivotal to this rejection is his characterisation of ‘Black’ as a label.

Lemoh begins his essay with a (sound and perfectly orthodox) denunciation of biological racism, and identifies Blackness as ‘political’, not ‘racial’. What is missing from his analysis is a serious engagement with the social dimensions of race and racism. While he notes the occurrence of structural racism – he refers to the use of racialisation ‘to control and damage groups of people’– he does not acknowledge that this is an occurrence. The general phenomenon – the social reality of Blackness in Australia – remains invisible in his essay.

This invisibility is reinforced by the way that Lemoh’s essay skirts about its edges. Lemoh discusses his own experiences, which feature people around him being racist towards various non-whites with the exception of non-Indigenous Blacks. When he acknowledges racialisation he limits it to ‘specific localities arising from specific historical events’: slavery in the Americas, apartheid in South Africa and colonisation in Africa and Australia.

Whatever his intention, Lemoh ends up reproducing the standard Australian perspective on race: that non-Indigenous Black Australians are not subjected to racism, at least not in any significant structural sense, and that we should reject the notion of race as an analytical tool.

Lemoh’s only substantial departure from this standard view seems to be an allowance that race, as well as being a pejorative notion to be used by racists, is also useful as a political tool. He concedes that there are racialised people who have successfully used ‘Black’ as a political label. But, as an African Australian, he does not feel justified in doing so for himself.

This combination of the standard view with a recognition of race-based political activism makes it unsurprising that Lemoh’s essay has attracted praise. What is surprising is that amongst the admirers is Maxine Beneba Clarke– an author whose work gives testimony to the social reality of the racialisation of non-Indigenous Blacks. Clarke writes:

Thank you Chris for such an articulate and eloquent article. I identify as black when I am in the UK (or would in the US), but circumstances in Australia are different. Eg in the States and the UK – even in the Caribbean, there is not a black indigenous population (but Arawak Indians / Native Americans).

This distinction is becoming increasingly important.

Yes, I consider myself an ally. Yes, my skin may be the exact same tone as my indigenous neighbour. No, this is not my land. So: no, I am not going to use a label which may intimate I have equal claim to it / that I bear the same legacy of colonisation. I feel that saying that I am an ‘Australian of Afro-Caribbean descent’ as opposed to a ‘black Australian’ is a very important distinction.

If Clarke is not going to use the label ‘Black’, then how is she to describe certain aspects of non-Indigenous Australian experience?

‘We were the only black children for miles around. If we saw a black person in the street, my mum would run and get their phone number.’

‘Turning up for a job and seeing their faces, because you don’t sound black on the phone.’

May 3, 2014, http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/maxine-beneba-clarke-20140501-37iro.html#ixzz3VSeDpdAQ

‘As a non-Indigenous black Australian, the Beyond Blue advertisements are excruciating to watch. I’ve been there: in that interview room;’

Less than a week later the only other black student in the class, a friend of mine, who’s been ill and barely attended tutorials, mentions she was given 18.5 out of 20 for her class participation mark. We both agree on what’s happened.’

Black Australian footballer Heritier Lumumba (aka Harry O’Brien), also a star Collingwood player, stepped forward to condemn the words of his club president. “In my opinion race relations in this country is systematically a national disgrace…”’

October 6, 2014, http://rightnow.org.au/writing-cat/no-singular-revelation/

It’s not easy to see how the same meaning could be conveyed using other language, such as reference to place of origin.

Identifying by one’s place of origin, rather than as Black, is problematic for other reasons too. Australians who are not of white British descent are constantly identified by their place of origin – regardless of how remote that ‘origin’ is – while whites of British descent are not. The effect is to single out non-whites and non-British as being from elsewhere and therefore less Australian.

For me, ‘Black’ indicates my lived experience as a racialised person in Australia, not my ‘place of origin’, so the label ‘Australian of such-and-such non-white descent’ is even less appropriate than it might be for a migrant or the child of a migrant such as Clarke.

In the conversation that follows Lemoh’s essay, we begin to see glimpses of the reasoning behind objections to African Australians identifying as Black. Far from the stated claim that they are not Black – or not entitled to call themselves Black – the motivation seems to be a desire to avoid ambiguity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Blacks. This is consistent with Lemoh’s characterisation of ‘Black’ as a political label.

But Clarke’s call to avoid ambiguity by having non-Indigenous Blacks not refer to themselves as ‘Black’ in the Australian context makes no more sense than demanding that white women not call themselves ‘women’ for the purpose of supporting Black women’s activism. That ‘Black’ is considered synonymous with ‘Indigenous’ in Australia is only due to the erasure of non-Indigenous Blacks, and is not something that can be defended without their continued erasure.

When Lemoh writes of the marginalisation and erasure of Indigenous Blacks in his childhood history books, he makes no mention of the erasure of non-Indigenous Blacks. He overlooks non-Indigenous Blacks such as John Caesar, the first Australian bushranger; William Blue, the pioneering ferryman of Sydney Harbour; or John Joseph, the first man to stand trial following the iconic Eureka rebellion, whose Blackness was central to the rebels’ legal defence. Their absence is too complete to be noticed.

Clarke’s fear that Indigenous and non-Indigenous Blacks will homogenise – or at least be seen to be homogenous – if we refer to them by the same term is also unfounded. Black Harmony Gathering is an event in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous Blacks are referred to by the singular term ‘Black’ and yet the heterogeneity of their performances couldn’t be more evident.

As I discuss in Are there Black people in Australia? , ambiguity in the use of the term ‘Black’ is an issue. However, it is not an issue to be resolved by the continued censoring and elimination of non-Indigenous Black identity in Australia.


POSTSCRIPT: On 9 November 2017, in the comments below his essay, Chris Lemoh wrote a retraction of the main tenets of his argument.

A bit of delusion about race

In Journey to the centre of the universe, Rebecca Freeman gives an analysis of the conversation following Roxane Gay’s tweet ‘Are there Black people in Australia?’:

Granted, it was a stupid question … But what Gay probably didn’t realise, as she defended, then removed herself from the debate, is that Australians’ reaction to this is less about her ignorance of our migrant population and more about our indignation that people from other countries don’t know anything about us.

The first commenter seems to agree that Gay’s is a stupid question:

Also, it wasn’t just anybody asking that question. It was someone who clearly had an interest in race/colonisation/&c. … [M]y initial reaction that she should have known better! or should have at least known better in terms of understanding the amount of extra work people of colour have to put in to describe and explain and teach others about racist structures.

Freeman replies:

I agree, she should have known better. But that did make me wonder why she didn’t. Someone so well-versed in discussions about race and colonialism, and she asked a question like that?

Perhaps it was the assumption that the question was stupid that caused some people to be perplexed about why Gay was asking.

For those concerned with how Australia is perceived overseas, there may have been indignation. There were also those who took offense over the use of ‘Black’ to refer to Australians of African descent, rather than to Indigenous people. But there was nothing stupid or ignorant in asking the question as it was intended.

It was a throwaway line made by a tired person in the middle of the night. But it was also an apposite enquiry. There were Black tweeters who understood the question and answered appropriately. Gay thanked them.

If you’ve never wondered whether you’d be able to find a salon that styles Black hair, then you’re unlikely to appreciate the significance of someone asking whether she’s going to be the only Black person around.

Roxane Gay said that during her time in Adelaide, she didn’t see a single Black person. She didn’t see a Black person until her fourth day in Australia when she was interviewed by Maxine Beneba Clarke.

I’ve lived in Australia all my life and I also don’t know what my chances are of coming across Black people in Adelaide. I’m often the only visibly Black person in a shop or on the streets in supposedly multiracial Melbourne. Change in local demographics is recent enough that I’m still surprised when I walk down my street to find Black day trippers from outer  suburbs.

I agree with those who attribute a lack of knowledge of Black presence in Australia to whitewashing by the media and literature in general, but there is more than simply the absence of representation of non-white people in this country. The scarcity of Black people in Australia is not only the result of historical policies, but also due to ongoing racist immigration practises.

As Gay tried tactfully to point out while in Australia, ‘Maybe there is a bit of delusion about race here. Where people think that things are okay, but…things are perhaps not as okay as you wanna believe.’

‘Are there Black people in Australia?’

Here is a link to my essay, ‘Are there Black people in Australia?’, as published in Overland Journal: https://overland.org.au/2015/03/are-there-black-people-in-australia/

The essay seeks to explain why using the term ‘Black’ to refer to people of African descent risks being met with hostility in the Australian context.

Thank you to Cianan, for the great conversation in the comment section following the essay, which helps clarify some of the issues raised:


“In the dominant Australian narrative, Blacks are regarded as Aboriginal. This is a narrative with little space for non-Indigenous Black Australians.”

This seems to be the crux of the article. I don’t agree.

I don’t agree that the dominant Australian narrative around race vests Blackness exclusively within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. While it is true that Indigenous Australians are regarded as Black, there is nothing in that which precludes other forms of Blackness in the Australian context.

Indeed, I have never encountered an Indigenous person saying that Blackness is exclusively an Indigenous category.

“Neither migrant nor Indigenous, we are also Black Australians.”

Regarding the second part of the article, I’m afraid I don’t really follow.

I agree that non-Indigenous Black people in Australia have a distinct identity amongst ‘migrant’ communities. But I don’t understand how that distinct identity renders non-Indigenous Black Australians as not migrants?

Everyone in Australia who is not Indigenous, is a migrant in some sense. Also, in the same way as it is possible to be a non-Indigenous person and be Black, it is possible to be a Black Australian and a migrant.

(Full disclosure – I’m Indigenous.)


Cianan, thanks for your great comment.

It’s true that all non-Indigenous Australians are, in some sense, migrants. But there is also a distinct use of “migrant” in Australian discourse around race and identity. In this usage, migrants are a particular kind of settler, generally seen as entering Australia in the post-World War II period.

The dominant narrative that I describe draws on this usage, to contrast “migrants” with white, predominantly British, “settlers”. In this narrative, it is these white settlers who are the “default” non-Indigenous Australians. The post-war migration then becomes framed as part of a story about a latter-day change in the racial and cultural make-up of settler Australia.

In the context of non-Indigenous Australian Blackness, this same narrative then identifies this category with African migration – particularly from Sudan and the Horn of Africa – that has taken place over the past 20 to 30 years.

For instance, the government’s citizenship document describes pre-WWII Australia as a “European outpost” and talks about African migration occurring after 1975. As someone who was born in Australia before 1975 to a white Australian parent of convict ancestry, and who grew up before the large-scale migration of African people to Australia, I lived with this narrative – in Australian history books, in Australian stories, in Australian film and television – that denied that I existed. This narrative presents a racist aspiration – White Australia as a policy for migration and settlement – as if it was a reality.

The truth is that African diaspora – and hence non-Indigenous Blackness – has been part of Australia from the beginning of colonisation. In that sense, non-Indigenous Blackness in Australia is no more migrant than – and just as Australian as – those 1788 colonists who were white British.

I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that Black people encounter one another across this colonist/Indigenous divide – that the divide does not equate to Black encountering white. One way someone might think it is a bad thing is that it dilutes the political power and unity of Black Australia. One way someone might think it is a good thing is that it connects the struggle against colonisation to the world-wide Black struggle against racism (I think this was Roberta Sykes’ view).

But whether it is good or bad, my essay is trying to say that this is the reality.


Oh, I think I understand better what you’re saying – please correct me if I’m wrong or if I misconstrue your argument. And thank you for taking the time to respond :).

I agree that people commonly make a racialised distinction between migrant and settler, where migrants tend to be non-white (at some time – even if the boundaries of whiteness have shifted over time to accommodate some members of some migrant communities depending on their capacity/willingness to assimilate into white Australia) and settlers tend to be white. There is often a temporal distinction people make – where migrants are people who have come more recently, and settlers are those who did most of the displacing and dispossessing of Indigenous peoples.

I think both these distinctions blur the fact that migrants are settlers, and all settlers are migrants. And all settlers are part of the colonising force that has actively tried to strip blackness from Indigenous people.

I also agree that non-Indigenous Black people have been present since the first waves of settlement/invasion. But there have also always been non-Indigenous PoC in this country since settlement/invasion. It’s also worth noting the pre-invasion presence of non-Indigenous PoC – black and otherwise. There are long histories of PoC/Indigenous relationship that are obscured when ‘White’ settlement is taken to be the central historical moment of the continent.

But I do not think it follows from this that there is a non-migrant, non-Indigenous contemporary Black identity. It seems to me what you are seeking to claim is a settler Black identity, which you already have by virtue of being Black and a settler.

My reading of the situation is that there is an issue of narrative here, but is the narratives around migration and settlement and the way ‘we’ frame migrants and settlers – I.e new and white, respectively. I don’t think the problem narrative is the one around Blackness on this continent.

Regarding whether or not it is a good thing that Black people encounter each other across the coloniser/Indigenous intersection, I do not think it is neither good nor bad. What we do with our respective positions can be good or bad. If both groups are in solidarity with each other, and maintain an awareness of their distinct histories and positions, I do not see the need for conflict.


Hi Cianan

“There is often a temporal distinction people make – where migrants are people who have come more recently, and settlers are those who did most of the displacing and dispossessing of Indigenous peoples.

I think both these distinctions blur the fact that migrants are settlers, and all settlers are migrants. And all settlers are part of the colonising force that has actively tried to strip blackness from Indigenous people.”

Years ago, I was friends with Lisa Bellear who, as a child, did not know that she was Indigenous. Her lived experience had been similar to mine in many ways. When she found out that she was Indigenous, she discovered a sense of connection to her homeland. I don’t have an Indigenous sense of connection to the continent in which I live.

The distinction between ‘migrant’ and ‘non-migrant’ is not, for me, a distinction between who did the dispossessing and who didn’t. It is the distinction between who belongs here and who has a lesser status of belonging. A migrant is expected to obtain some of their sense of belonging from an ‘ethnic’ community, or from connections with an overseas community. I lack either of these communities.

Being told that I don’t belong here is a regular occurrence for me and one that I have had to endure for decades. It is distressing. Being told that I am migrant when I am not is therefore harmful. I am stripped of my experience as a person who was born and raised in this country to a family that goes back generations – it reinforces the stereotype that I am a foreigner simply because I am Black.

I would not be regularly referred to as ‘migrant’ were I white. When ‘migrant’ is used to refer to white settlers – as is sometimes done to protest against white settler entitlement – the word does not affect white people in the same way that it affects non-white people. When ‘migrant’ is applied to a white person of several generations Australian – the term simply accommodates their assumed Australianness.

That migrant communities are considered less Australian is a further issue. Likewise for other POC being considered less Australian. I’m just talking about my experience here.

“It seems to me what you are seeking to claim is a settler Black identity, which you already have by virtue of being Black and a settler.”

I’m not sure that any reasonable person wants to claim a settler identity, because the term ‘settler’ is associated with the notion that there were not people already settled here. It’s more like an identity that is incurred rather than claimed.

But ‘settler’, in the context of so-called settler colonies, both in its coinage and its ongoing use has a very strong association with white people, and the projection of European power in a very racialising (and racist) way. So I think there has to be caution and a degree of subtlety in applying the label ‘settler’ to Black people. I think this is an interesting discussion of the issue in a North American context: https://decolonization.wordpress.com/2014/05/26/white-settlers-and-indigenous-solidarity-confronting-white-supremacy-answering-decolonial-alliances/

I think claiming ‘Australian’ as an identity is also problematic. However, I don’t get a choice on that one if I am to be recognised as belonging in the country of my birth. By claiming it I seek to change its meaning to include all Australians – not just whites.

“I don’t think the problem narrative is the one around Blackness on this continent.”

I feel that if I were of Asian descent, no one would be outraged if I were to call myself ‘Asian Australian’. Whereas I have called myself ‘Black’ and have been vilified for it.


What about “African Australian”?


“African-Australian” can have multiple meanings (like so many other identity labels). It can mean an Australian who is also a member of the African diaspora. I’m that. It can also mean an Australian who was born in Africa or identifies as a migrant from Africa. I’m not that.

And in any event, ‘African’ is not synonymous with ‘Black’, even with respect to African diaspora.

On light-skin privilege

Here is a link to an essay I wrote on skin-colour privilege that was published in Overland Journal: https://overland.org.au/2014/09/darker-than-blue-on-light-skin-privilege/

The comments in response are also interesting. I particularly appreciate this comment from JK:

I very much appreciate Natasha Guantai’s piece exploring a salient nuance around race and racialisation. Also reflecting that part of the reactive responses from some other writers, in particular Celeste and Eugenia, is that this issue of skin colour privilege is a sort of “dirty laundry” within Aboriginal communities that it feels somewhat painful to have aired by people who are not themselves Aboriginal.

That said, there is a difference between naming an issue that cuts across community lines, and “lecturing”. It seems foolhardy to pretend that these issues DON’T exist in our communities, or that it is only my unique right as an in-group person (e.g. an Aboriginal person) to mention these topics ever, if at all. Part of the reason they are dirty laundry is because they are unresolved.

I like to remain in contact with people who are sincerely committed to being part of the solution, whether they are my “in-group” or not. All the power to Natasha for especially naming this in the context of sharing her own lived experiences with this phenomenon.

Holding one another accountable for our complicities should not involve then re-appropriating the terms of the abuse of power (e.g. “lynch mob”) in order to do so. My hope is that this conversation will bring out healing for our communities who have been scarred by racism and colonisation, for too many centuries.

POSTSCRIPT: This week, Celeste posted a response to my Overland article. In it she says:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences of blackness intersect with indigeneity within this country. Nobody else shares this experience. They may share elements of it, whether these elements are skin colour, or colonisation, or language loss and so forth; of course this is the case. But they are not also experiencing these things from the vantage point of being displaced peoples within their own country. That is a unique experience to Indigenous and it needs to be understood as such allowing for us to speak about this freely.

In our original twitter conversation, I said:

does this raise an intersectionality issue - Copy

So it seems that Celeste is now in agreement with this. And she was always free to speak about it. I only asked that the existence and the experiences of non-Indigenous Black Australians be respected.

And on the topic of agreement, I agree with this Noel Pearson quote in its entirety:

There are many ethnic minorities in Australia of equivalent or smaller size. Some of them face barriers of racism, but, I would argue, not to the degree that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do. And these minorities are not indigenous to the nation, with the particular colonial history that brought us to where we are. Indigenous people were displaced and dispossessed in the founding of British settlement and the development of the nation. Indigenous people therefore have a unique historical and legal relationship with the Australian government.

Why ‘Black’? Why not ‘Aboriginal’ Power?

The following is an extract from Black Power in Australia*, published in 1975. I don’t know what the experiences are for Black children in Australia today, but I recall that in 1975 the word ‘Black’ was directed towards me as a term of abuse. Although I was too young to realise it at the time, it is the efforts of people like prominent Black activist Bobbi Sykes that have enabled me, and other Black Australians, to embrace the term ‘Black’ with pride today. Use of the term ‘Black’, in the political sense, originated in the 1960s with African American movements such as Black Power and Black is Beautiful. These movements soon became popular in Australia.

Sykes – of African descent herself – is celebrated as the first Black Australian to graduate from an American university; she completed her doctorate at Harvard University in 1983. Incidentally, she was also instrumental in the candidacy of MaryAnn Bin-Sallik, the first Aboriginal Australian to receive a doctorate from Harvard University.


Why ‘Black’? Why not ‘Aboriginal Power?

The reasons behind calling the Black Movement ‘black’ are manifold, and not all as obvious as might at first be thought. We have been criticized as imitators of the Americans because of the usage of the word ‘black’, and in this country that imports everything from cars to Coco-cola from Americans, the criticism becomes ludicrous. However, the reason is not solely one of importation. In fact, the word ‘aborigine’ is also an ‘imported’ word to the indigenous language, brought in by the British just over 200 years ago. The indigenous people had no such national word for themselves – and why would they have, when there was no one else with whom they could compare themselves?

The word ‘aborigine’ also has no definite ‘Australian’ connotation about it, either. There are American aborigines and Canadian aborigines; in fact, the word merely means the indigenous people of any country.

Nor is the word ‘aboriginal’ (qualified perhaps by Australian Aboriginal) broad enough for the struggle which is being undertaken here. There are many blacks in this country, subjected to racism and discrimination, who are not aboriginal or indigenous. Consider the Kanaka or South Sea Islander people, brought into this country as slaves to work in the sugar-cane fields in Queensland, who were physically stolen from their own birthplaces, and forcibly implanted in Australia for purposes of slavery – an operation called ‘blackbirding’. These people, and their descendents, have a very real claim to justice from the Australian government and people. Also, consider any other blacks, Torres Strait Islanders, Pacific Islanders etc. who may be in Australia for any reason, who are accorded racist treatment because of their skin colour – are they not to be included in the broad front of struggle against racism?

While the Land Rights claim and the Cultural and Language questions remain purely indigenous issues, the whole spectrum of racist practices has been directed at anyone not bearing a white skin and it can be no surprise that on these common issues, all non-whites will be inclined to work together. On the questions such as Land Rights, for instance, might not the extra weight lent by the non-indigenous blacks assist the indigenes to achieve their just demands?

In an effort to elevate the broad black struggle being undertaken here to a Third World level, use of the word ‘black’ becomes highly desirable. Caucasian people do not call themselves pink, off-white, greyish, or mottled, even when it is very obvious that they are not white in the true sense of the colour. It can be understood from this practice that blacks also are not inclined to differentiate between black, brown, tan, high-yellow, etc but prefer – for yet another reason – to use the all-embracing term ‘black’. ‘Black’ is more than a colour, it is also a state of mind.

We can advance on the premise that Black = all blacks, and Power = power generated by action, and that this action entails any means felt necessary by blacks to achieve their just demands – basically, health, justice, and a better way of life. Not necessarily the type of life presently acceptable to the majority of whites, which would be assimilation; but a way of life which blacks deem to be better for themselves, based, if necessary, on the creation of a whole new set of practices and standards.

Bobbi Sykes, Black Power in Australia, pp 10 – 12

*Thank you to my friend MS for alerting me to, and for loaning me a copy of, Black Power in Australia.

The Origins of Black Australia and the Erasure of Non-Indigenous Black Australians

We’re often reminded that white Australia has a Black history; but it’s generally ignored that Black Australia includes a non-Indigenous history. Historian Cassandra Pybus describes the erasure of non-Indigenous Black Australians from the Australian narrative. This erasure is the reason why people today mistakenly believe that I am not Black Australian.

In 1912, a young man named Thomas Conquit was shot by police in a remote mining hamlet in the Snowy Mountains. In view of Conquit’s description as part Aboriginal, this was unremarkable. What took the case out of the ordinary was the police explanation that they were arresting Conquit for lunacy because he had declared that he was on a mission to kill the police who were part of a worldwide conspiracy to murder all black people. Putting aside the issue of whether or not this perception was dangerously paranoid, I find it astonishing that in 1912 an Aboriginal person might regard himself as part of a worldwide black community.1

The man’s distinctive name of Conquit makes his ancestry easy to trace in the colonial records. His grandfather was Thomas Conquade, a white convict transported from England to Australia in 1819, whose common-law wife, Frances Martin, was described on his death certificate as Aboriginal. However, Frances was not Aboriginal; she was the third child of John Martin and Mary Randall. Both her father and grandfather were African-American. Her grandson correctly understood himself to belong to the African diaspora, even if the authorities did not. In the year before Conquit was shot John Randall’s youngest child, Ann, died at Windsor, aged 96. She was the last survivor of the foundation generation of African-Australians. Ann Randall had only the faintest memory of her father, who must have died or disappeared when she was six, and she explained her origins as being an ‘islander’, from ‘the French Islands’, presumably exotic Tahiti. A descendant who remembered the old lady from her childhood said that she was as ‘black as the ace of spades’.2

In the early years of the new Federation of Australia there was intense racial anxiety among a majority settler population aggressively determined to define their society as inherently white. With their racial purity felt to be under threat, it was decided that ‘Kanakas’ and Chinese  workers were to be expelled, while in future non-European immigrants would be denied entry. The concept of ‘white Australia’ fashioned at the turn of the twentieth century had no capacity to encompass currency lads and lasses who were black, and no comprehension that there might exist Australians of African descent. Between 1788 and the middle of the nineteenth century, almost every convict ship carried people of the African diaspora to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. Settlers and soldiers brought African servants, while some settlers were themselves of the African diaspora. Each of the port communities of the colonies included plenty of African-American and Afro-Caribbean sailors. Yet the foundation narrative of the new nation promulgated an uncomplicated racial divide: white settlers (civilisation) displacing black Aborigines (stone-age savagery).3

In this narrative, any black individual in early colonial Australia could only be understood as the despised and excluded other. Therefore, early twentieth-century accounts of Billy Blue entirely overlooked the fact of his African heritage and black complexion, in order that a foundation legend, who lent his name to several Sydney landmarks, could be read as a white man. In the 1970s his first biographer found it impossible to ignore the evidence that Blue was not European, but still she insisted he wasn’t really black. Despite the evidence of three portraits that show Blue to be unmistakably African, she argued that he was ‘not predominantly Negro’ and was perhaps part Carib. For sure, his children must have been white because none of them ‘ever seem to be referred to as coloured’. The daughters, ‘named as among the finest young women in Sydney Town and again as two of the most attractive colonial born young women of their time’ were by implication white. In twentieth century Australia, it was unthinkable that such complimentary remarks could be made about a colonial woman unless she had a European complexion. Even the historian who fully understands Blue as an African-American man persists in reading Blue in early colonial Sydney as ‘the member of a despised and oppressed race’, albeit one who was supremely adept at destabilising his status as the excluded ‘other’.4

The tendency to read late nineteenth- and twentieth-century racial assumptions into early colonial Australia is almost universal among historians and social commentators, regardless of on what side of the history wars they fight. In any discussion of the foundation of Australia  it is a given that racialisation was at work from the beginning, with white settlers confronting black Aborigines. A recent, finely nuanced study of early settlement by Inga Clendinnen continues to read early colonial history in terms of the black/white binary. She takes an incident at Port Jackson on 29 January 1788, where a crew of marines and sailors were dancing with Aborigines, to illustrate the book’s theme that the white British invaders and black Aborigines ‘began their relationship by dancing together’. As the watching officer, William Bradley, observed ‘these people mixed with ours and all hands danced together’. The notions of ‘these’ and ‘ours’ in Bradley’s statement has automatically been read as black and white, yet a week before this incident, the same William Bradley described ‘these’ attempting to engage with ‘ours’ in the interchange between the Aborigines and a black convict who was cutting grass at Botany Bay. I would have thought this was at least as telling an interracial exchange as the dancing, although the earlier incident has never commanded attention from Australian historians. Equally, the persistent rejection of Black Caesar by Aborigines, and the almost fatal confrontation between him and the warrior Pemulwuy at the same time that several European convicts were living with the Aborigines, has been passed over without notice. A white game shooter was deliberately speared, but a black game shooter went about his business in Aboriginal territory for many years without incident. The black convicts, John Randall and William Blue, enjoyed a level of patronage and special privilege far beyond the expectation of convicts in general. There is no fixed racial binary to be discerned in any of this.5

As the stories of our black founders reveal, the settlement of Australia was a multi-racial process that took place at a time when the notion of ‘race’ was a highly malleable construct, understood in ways very different from the modern sense of innate nature, and the binary of black or white was not a reliable way of conceptualising difference. Among historians of empire, there is a common view about the elasticity of the concept of race and the prevailing uncertainty about the signifiers of difference. There is a general understanding that the decades between 1780 and 1830 – the formative decades for the colony of New South Wales – witnessed a sea change in attitudes toward race and identity that would solidify into fixed racial categories in the second half of the nineteenth century. Surely it is time that we jettisoned assumptions about the fixed racial boundaries and the naturalness of racialised identities in early Australian history. Such simplification would never be tolerated, let alone go unremarked, if it were applied to class. To paraphrase Edward Thompson: race is a relationship and not a thing.6

Black Founders: The Unknown Story of Australia’s First Black Settlers, Cassandra Pybus, pp 179 – 182 (footnotes original).

Unlike Cassandra Pybus, I do not consider Thomas Conquit’s claim (that ‘the police [were] part of a worldwide conspiracy to murder all black people’) to raise an issue as to whether he was ‘dangerously paranoid’. In an Australian context at least, it is quite sane to assume that there was a conspiracy to eliminate Black people. Thomas’ death at the hands of the police is further testament to this fact.

Earlier in Black Founders, Pybus makes observations about Bradley’s positioning of Australian Blackness as he regards the interchange between the Aboriginal people and a Black convict. While the white Bradley projects his association between those whom he perceives as Black people, the Aboriginal people in question do not yet perceive themselves to be Black:

The naval officer William Bradley felt that the Aborigines were ‘much pleased’ to see a ‘man of their own complexion’ and he thought they were puzzled that the black convict failed to understand their language. This was Bradley’s fanciful rendering of the unintelligible behaviour of the indigenous people. For the Eora someone from Africa dressed in a convict uniform would have appeared no less alien than those with pale faces dressed in the same peculiar clothes.

p 88

1 I am indebted to Dr Michael Powell of the University of Tasmania for this story. In 2003, The Tracker, starring David Gulpilil, was the headline film in the African Diaspora Film Festival in New York, but this was an aberration. As a rule, Aboriginal people in Australia have not perceived any commonality with people of the African diaspora. [guantai5: This claim is open to question. I know of at least two other showings of Australian Aboriginal work in African Diaspora forums: that of Aboriginal woman, Bindi Cole, exhibiting in the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in New York; and the screening of Black Voices (1974),  an Australian Aboriginal documentary, at the Black Film Festival in Los Angeles. Aboriginal political and artistic movements have been strongly connected to the African diaspora. For example, the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association, the Freedom Rides and the foundation of the Black Panthers in Redfern; and contemporary Indigenous dance and music from Bangarra Dance through to The Sapphires.]

2 Information on Ann Randall comes from a Randall-Martin descendant, Ray Fairall, communication with author.

3 For a discussion of the Immigration Restriction Bill and the Pacific Island Laborers Bill introduced in 1901 and racial ideas at the time of Federation, see Reynolds, 85–96.

4 Swords, 19–20; Duffield, ‘Billy Blue’, 6.

5 Clendinnen, 8.

6 Recently, Wheeler argued forcefully that earlier scholars have placed too much emphasis on skin colour as encoding difference in the eighteenth century, while, as Hudson, Bayly, Drescher and Kathleen Wilson all argue, the idea of inherent racial difference was not fixed in public discourse and social behaviour until well into the second half of the nineteenth century. Thompson’s famous formulation that class is a relationship comes from the ‘Preface’ (written in 1963) to The Making of the English Working Class, 9.

Us and the Other: what the school music program teaches about ‘multiculturalism’

This morning my youngest child participated in her first assembly performance. So, like the other parents, I sat in the audience with my camera held high, trying to strike the right balance between recording the event and just enjoying watching it.

First we all stood to sing Advance Australia Fair. (So that explains why my children have been singing the national anthem at home!) Then we went straight to the opening piece, which was my daughter’s year performing a line dance. As the pre-recorded music played its typically twangy country-and-western song, I reflected that no introduction was made of the origins of the dance or the music that was playing. I was reminded of last year’s Christmas assembly with its multicultural theme. The children had sung some traditional English songs and a couple of modern US songs and even some distinctively English-descent Australian songs. But none of their origins were mentioned in the introductions to these songs. The ‘multicultural’ aspect of the assembly was the songs and dances that had their origins explained to us: the Jewish songs, the French songs and the Bollywood dances.

This morning, following my daughter’s boot-scoot, the whole school sung a couple of songs that were introduced as being African. I can’t tell you the specific origin of the first one because we weren’t told* but, to the music teacher’s credit, she identified the second one as coming from South Africa. I appreciated that she had identified a country this time. She admitted, however, that she didn’t know which language they were singing in. I was interested in this admission because to me it showed promise. It was heartening that she was aware, even to some degree, that she should have known. She hadn’t googled the song to find out, but at least there was an inkling that it might have been a good idea to know in which language you are singing a song that you’re teaching to hundreds of students.

As I sat in the audience, it bothered me that the children didn’t know what the language was that they were singing in. I wanted to tell the music teacher that it was important to me that she know what the language was of the song that she was teaching my children. But of course this would be a ludicrous thing to do. The teacher would either be offended that I’d tried to tell her what to do, or she’d feel bad that she’d been culturally insensitive. I wouldn’t blame her for thinking me petty and unreasonable. After all, we live in Australia and one can’t be expected to know everything about everyone in the world. She is a music teacher, not a geography teacher. I should be grateful that she is teaching international music – all that cultural inclusion is an improvement on what had been taught when I was at school.

After the performance, the music teacher made some announcements. When she began talking about the African drumming classes, I knew what she was going to say – it was the same spiel that regularly accompanies the school newsletter: the African drumming teacher is from West Africa! We are told that the drumming is ‘African’, because if we were told that it was simply ‘drumming’, we’d have taken it to be US drumming: white English-speaking US.

The violin teacher who is from France doesn’t have his national origin introduced each time violin lessons are announced. Why do we have to be constantly reminded that this Black man is of foreign origin? I am also uncomfortable that a Black man has somehow become part of the commodity that is for sale – not just his music, but himself, is being spruiked as African.

There is a reason why we are told where the drumming teacher is from: we are being told that he learnt his drumming in Africa. Having learned in Guinea, presumably from other Guineans, is part of the value of his tuition. Being identified by his national origin is his mark of authenticity. This is a stereotyping, even dehumanising, version of a white teacher being recommended on the basis of their school or instructor. I wonder what changes society will have to undergo before this man is introduced as the drumming teacher of unspecified national origin, whose branch of music, or particular instrument, is recognisable to the audience.

*I have since asked my children the lyrics to the songs, which I googled to find that they are both sung in Zulu.

Black in white spaces: racial segregation in Melbourne and Manhattan

Again the oboist played an A, and this time the woodwinds tuned, and they were joined by a flurry of strings. At last a signal came from the stage, and a hush fell on the hall. Almost everyone, as almost always at such concerts, was white. It is something I can’t help noticing; I notice it each time, and try to see past it. Part of that is a quick, complex series of negotiations: chiding myself for even seeing it, lamenting the reminders of how divided our life still remains, being annoyed that these thoughts can be counted on to pass through my mind at some point in the evening. Most of the people around me yesterday were middle-aged or old. I am used to it, but it never ceases to surprise me how easy it is to leave the hybridity of the city, and enter into all-white spaces, the homogeneity of which, as far as I can tell, causes no discomfort to the whites in them. The only thing odd, to some of them, is seeing me, young and black, in my seat or at the concession stand. At times, standing in line for the bathroom during intermission, I get looks that make me feel like Ota Benga, the Mbutu man who was put on display in the monkey House at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. I weary of such thoughts, but I am habituated to them. But Mahler’s music is not white, or black, not old or young, and whether it is even specifically human, rather than in accord with more universal vibrations, is open to question. Simon Rattle, smiling, his curly hair bouncing, came onstage to applause. He acknowledged the orchestra, and then the lights dimmed further. The silence became total and, after a moment of anticipation, Rattle gave the downbeat, and the music began.

Open City, Teju Cole, pp 251–252


Teju’s fiction is set in Manhattan, but it may as well have been my Melbourne life. Even these days when I am fortunate enough to live in a neighbourhood that is racially diverse, enclaves of racial homogeneity appear, as a result of family income required to participate in activities.

I wanted to write about the daily experience I have walking into my children’s school. But Teju Cole has written the experience already: the whiteness around; noticing the whiteness; the energy used trying not to notice the whiteness; the energy used pretending not to notice the whiteness; no sign of the white people being hindered by, or even noticing, the whiteness of the space. Periodically, a stray comment will betray someone’s stereotype of me, reminding me that I am not white.

I don’t get looks that make me feel like Ota Benga. But I do recall a childhood friend who once confided that she was glad to know me because knowing a Black girl had shown her what Black people are like. The implication being that I had been educational for her and that she was less racist than she would otherwise have been. I am educational. Being Black is educational for me also, but there is a cost.

NITV and Black TV in Australia

I recall the thrill in 1980 of discovering SBS television. I was captivated by the station’s ident, promising to ‘bring the world back home’. I still appreciate the diversity that SBS television offers, but it was clear even from early on that it was not the entire world being brought back home. (Although there were some good European documentaries that brought home a wider portion of the world than solely English speaking ones, albeit from a European perspective.) It was clear from the beginning that the SBS television world consisted of non-English Europe and Asia.

More recently, in 2007*, NITV was launched. Once again this was a cause for celebration – not only for finally having Indigenous presence (apparently Indigenous programming had previously averaged at about two hours per week), but for me as a Black person to finally see Black-made programs for a Black audience!

Of particular resonance for me is the presence of Indigenous African productions. NITV offers more than just white reporters or white film makers setting their African themed stories in Africa. For the first time, I find myself able to turn on the television and see an African program for an African audience.

At other times I turn on NITV and see Black American documentaries. I also discover Black produced US  drama and comedy made for a Black audience. The nature of these shows is different from those produced from a white perspective. Black characters aren’t limited to supporting or decorative roles. The stories aren’t restricted to how white people see Black stories. They don’t merely depict Blacks in relation to white people. And they aren’t created to conform to white sensibilities. In these productions the Black characters are central, the perspectives are Black, the voices are Black, and the audience is expected to understand Black experiences.

It is also interesting to note that the Blacks in these NITV shows are neither Indigenous American nor Indigenous Australian. What these productions have in common with Australian Indigenous experience is the experience of Blackness. For me this affirms the important relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Blackness in this country. Regardless of whether that history begins in America, Africa, Australia or some other place, the colonisation of Black people creates a continuity of experience. In NITV, Indigenous people make choices for Indigenous television. These Indigenous people are valuing the visibility of non-Indigenous Black representation more than the programmers of any other Australian television station.

I am grateful to NITV for including non-Indigenous Black people’s voices. If not for NITV, where would people such as myself find racial representation on free-to-air television?

*I first received NITV in 2012, when it began broadcasting on SBS.

Who can be Black (Part 2)?

Celeste Liddle has a published article as well as a highly-endorsed blogpost (including endorsement by high profile media and internationally recognised race commentators) that gives an account of a twitter conversation between us. Last week I replied. I explained how her piece mischaracterises a Black woman who genuinely has no voice in the media, either personally or by racial representation. It is an attack, not only on my group membership as a Black person, but on the very existence of my category of Black. And all because I opened dialogue with Celeste, in good faith and respectfully, expressing the concern that her words were erasing my Blackness in the public sphere.

Celeste has replied that she has seen my reply and won’t be responding. She (together with her supporters) is letting her claims about me, and about Blackness in Australia, stand.

In initiating conversation with Celeste I sought to find out what she had meant by ‘Black’ in certain comments she made about the nature of Blackness. It is not relevant that she understood herself to be talking only of Aboriginal people. Celeste needed to make clear to her readers that her points about the nature of Blackness were not transferable to other instances of Blackness; a point which I would have gladly discussed with her had she not shut down the conversation between us.

In my first tweet to Celeste, I pointed out the consequences of what appeared to be her characterisation of Blackness: namely, shadism blindness and erasure of skin colour Blackness. This conversation was presented in her blog, and now in the Aboriginal press, as me wishing to force my ideas on skin colour privilege down her throat.

In fact Celeste agreed with my point on skin colour right from her first tweets in our discussion:

Agreement tweets

She agreed again in her blogpost:


The issue of skin colour was therefore never in contention between us. It is unfortunate that Celeste has my comment about skin colour – with which she agreed! – as a rallying point for support of her attack against me.

The problem between us was always our conflicting meanings of the word ‘Black’ and the intersection of our identities in attempting to converse on the topic. This was the point that I sought to clarify in our original twitter exchange:





I can understand how mischaracterisation of our conversation (namely, the claim that I was arguing about skin colour relative to Indigenous identity, rather than about my exclusion as a Black person from the term ‘Black’) has won Celeste a lot of support. Of course people wish to support an Indigenous person whose Indigeneity they take to be under attack. But that is not what happened in this case.

I am particularly concerned about the effect of Celeste’s words on non-Indigenous Black communities. As has been seen in the responses to Celeste’s blogpost, many people have taken her words at face value and are participating in discussions which promulgate stereotypes about ignorant Black migrants who need to get on board and learn about Australia. Some of these discussions have been well-intentioned but condescending, others hostile. Non-Indigenous Black people are great supporters of the rights of First Peoples and it is harmful to accuse us of being otherwise.

There are non-Indigenous Black people who are personally affected by Celeste’s words. Some are withdrawing from discussions on race because we no longer feel safe to appear as Black people. While it might have been a romp for non-Black POC and white commentators who have joined in this discussion, Celeste’s words have a real impact on the lives of Black people. I think that it speaks to the racism against Blacks in this country that we can be attacked in the name of supporting First Peoples, when we were never a threat to and make no claims on First Peoples. People who have none of their identity being questioned are the loudest supporters of the claim that my very identity as a Black person is somehow harmful to First Peoples. While those people move on to the next bun-fight, non-Indigenous Black people are left with another aspect of hostility directed towards us, as if there weren’t already enough racial issues for us to deal with in this country.