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….

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 and remain silent on a discussion concerning their racialised identities.

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.

*In the twitter exchange referred to here, I did not actually use the phrase ‘Black Australian’, but referred to myself as ‘Black’, ‘non-Indigenous Black’ and ‘non-Aboriginal Black’. In the ensuing discussion, however, I was said to have called myself ‘Black Australian’, and was criticised for having done so.

** Celeste mistakenly identifies me as a recent migrant, condescending to educate me, the stereotype migrant ignorant of Australia. She assumes that because I am Black I must be a member of “the migrant community” – whom she identifies as being for the most part “strong allies”. This assumption is at odds with the fact that settler Australia includes, and has always included, 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?


2 thoughts on “Who can be Black?

  1. Pingback: Who can be Black (Part 2)? | guantai5

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