Monthly Archives: April 2014

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.

 

*I mention wealth as a determiner of racial segregation because that is what I witness most frequently. Teju’s observations about white culture also hold in Melbourne.

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:

Don'tdenyskincolour

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:

communication1

communication2

communication3

communication4

I can understand how mischaracterisation of our conversation (namely 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.

Who can be Black?

‘It’s not uncommon for people to ask me what term I prefer to use when describing my background from my father’s side of the family. In most instances, my answer is plainly and simply “Black”.

In the past when I have stated this to non-Indigenous people, some have shifted uncomfortably. This is because they make the wrongful assumption that the term ‘black’ focuses on outward appearance and is therefore offensive.’

Celeste Liddle, Why I prefer the term ‘black’ (February 27, 2014)

‘One of the ways that our voices as Black writers are always denigrated is because we’re from dual heritage.… [W]e’ve got things like the Bolt court case or we’ve got shows like Insight which will question identity, look at all the old-fashioned markers like skin colour or – you know – language. They won’t look at things like shared cultural experience, shared historical experience …’

Celeste Liddle, speaking in Minority Support: Indigenous and Minority Writers Online (February 21, 2014) at 55:20–55:46

‘[M]y article, which was completely about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity … was interpreted … to have impact for non-Indigenous communities of colour. I never set out to represent these viewpoints in my piece…. I expect that people would recognise that I am coming from the perspective of an educated Arrernte woman of the hard-left persuasion who lives in the city, recognise how rare those voices are in the media, and not contribute to the silencing…

[T]he dissenting voices referred to themselves as “Black Australians” and I feel the need to claim sovereignty here. To me this was no different than seeing Andrew Bolt referring to himself as an “indigenous Australian”. It diminishes our importance as First Peoples of this country. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are the “Black Australians”. Migrants of colour are black people who have made Australia their home and have become “Australians” therefore accepting this country as it stands: a place which was wrongfully declared Terra Nullius and was taken without the consent of the First Peoples. There is a difference. We use “black” as a way of highlighting our experiences as a result of, or in contrast to “White Australia”. The lack of general population knowledge due to national denial when it comes to our unique struggles is why I feel that this distinction is sometimes unknown and needs to be explained….

[This blogpost] is written for [those] who, sometimes through no fault of their own, do not possess this knowledge. Who would make comments such as [the dissenters] without realising just how limited and uneducated on the plight of First Peoples these comments are. Who accept this country as their home with a dominant power to struggle against for recognition yet fail to delve into intricacies of the experiences of First Peoples.’

Celeste Liddle, Fair-skin privilege? I’m sorry, but things are much more complicated than that (March 22, 2014)

I am one of those ‘dissenting voices’ mentioned by Celeste Liddle. Her remarks did, and do, have implications for non-Indigenous Blacks in Australia.

There are countless different ways to be Black. Not all of them are visible. Some are. To say that Blackness includes skin colour is not to say that Blackness is limited to skin colour. It is to make the point – what one might have thought is an obvious point – that some people’s experiences are the result of their colour. In my own case, for instance, before I knew anything of my father’s history, or of his Meru culture, I knew I was Black because I was treated as such. And I was treated as such because I looked Black.

To say that my colour makes me Black is not to question anybody else’s Blackness. Nor is it to say that colour is the marker, even a marker, for others. I do not dispute the description of colour as an ‘old fashioned’ marker of Indigenous Blackness. But there are other Black people in Australia whose experiences are different. The fact that the term ‘Black’ is used to refer to Aboriginal people does not, and cannot, prevent that term from applying to non-Indigenous people. African Americans commonly use the word ‘Black’ to refer only to themselves and their shared experiences, but this does not mean that they necessarily object to use of the word to refer to other Black people; and people who generally use the word ‘Black’ to refer to African Americans will acknowledge that the word includes Aboriginal Australians in the context of discussions about those people.

Celeste is right that Indigenous Black voices are rare. However, non-Indigenous Black voices are virtually absent. Non-Indigenous Black celebrities occasionally catch the Australian media’s attention, but non-Indigenous Black people have no regular representation in such mainstream publications as Guardian Australia or Daily Life. The fact that there are so few Black voices in the media produces the curious effect that each one of those voices has greater weight than it would otherwise have, were there a larger and more diverse pool of Black voices. As one of the few Black voices, Celeste is taken by the public to be authoritative on Blackness. This can be seen by the tremendous support for her blogpost from non-Indigenous POC and white people. It seems to underpin anti-racism campaigners’ surprising endorsement of her insistence that Black migrants should simply fit into  Australian society with regard to this issue.*

It is Celeste’s media presence that provoked me to comment. I did not comment when I first read Why I prefer “black” on her blog some months prior to its appearance in Daily Life. But if I do not question others’ representations of Blackness in the mainstream media, then discussions on Blackness will be the sole preserve of people who are not of my non-Indigenous Black identity. It is my absence of representation that forces me to speak out about what others are saying on Blackness: especially, Black voices on Blackness. It is also because Celeste follows me on Twitter that I felt encouraged to speak to her, as a Black woman, on the topic of Blackness.

My speaking out does not question anyone’s sovereignty. (And to be compared to Andrew Bolt is facile and insulting.) To describe myself as Black, and Black because of my colour, is just to point to a basic social reality. The attack on her ‘sovereignty’ that Celeste accuses me of is none other than my being Black. The affirmation of terra nullius of which Celeste accuses me is nothing more than my existence as a Black person and my defence of a Blackness that includes me.

I fully support the self-determination efforts of Aboriginal people. (Unlike my white classmates, I felt a personal connection to Aboriginal suffering from a young age, because I recognised in the racist texts that I encountered that hostility to Blackness that I myself experienced.) But I don’t accept that, as an Australian of African descent, I am obliged to deny my own identity, and my own existence as a Black person in Australia, in the pursuit of that goal. No one else is asked to deny her own existence as contradictory to Aboriginal self-determination – least of all white Australians, who are left with an unchallenged monopoly on (non-Indigenous) Australian identity.

I refuse to tell lies about myself and my experience, to render myself invisible, to deny that I am real.

 

* Celeste condescends to educate me, the stereotype migrant ignorant of Australia, whom she contrasts with her friends, the good migrants who know their place. Celeste has also endorsed a reposter’s commentary that characterises “new migrants” as having “racist perspectives” – although the author attempts to validate this generalisation by putting it in the mouth of another, approved of and much-loved, Brown migrant. Celeste assumes that because I am Black, I must be a member of “the migrant community” – a community which she differentiates from the wider non-Indigenous population. This assumption is at odds with the fact that settler Australia includes non-Indigenous Blacks who are no more migrants than Celeste’s own Australian mother. Non-Indigenous people have been racialised in Australia for as long as Indigenous peoples; consequentially, non-Indigenous identification as Black Australian cannot – contrary to Celeste’s claims – be the “misappropriation of descriptive terms from First Peoples”. Celeste also characterises ‘migrants’ with their experiences of ‘racism’, in contrast to ‘whites’. This belies the fact that most migrants to Australia are white. See Multiculturalism: What are we afraid of?