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:
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 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.