‘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.


4 thoughts on “‘Black’, not just a label

  1. Chris Lemoh

    Thank you, Natasha. I am glad that you have both broadened and deepened this conversation about race, colour and identity in relation to non-indigenous Black Australians. As I have said before, I respect both you and your ideas, despite some points of difference. I certainly have no quarrel with your conclusion that the ambiguity of the term “Black” in Australia “is not an issue to be resolved by the continued censorship and elimination of non-indigenous Black identity in Australia.”

    Having said that, I must also say that I chose my words very carefully in saying that “I do not choose to identify PRIMARILY as Black IN THIS COUNTRY.” I sometimes identify as “Black”, at particular places and times, for specific purposes, and I do not reject the label or description when others apply it to me – I just pay close attention to their intent – whether benign, curious or hostile – and respond accordingly. A label is not a trivial thing: it marks a line of discrimination between This and That. It is a focus for attention and action. I therefore like to qualify my labels to keep them fit for purpose, rather than risk being shackled to an rigid system of categories that becomes a self-imposed, inflexible constraint.

    Maybe my personal reflections don’t count as a “serious” engagement with the social dimensions of race and racism”, but I am not a social scientist. I wrote about part of my own engagement with race and racism in Australia – the part that underlies my choices about self-identity.

    I have explained the reasons for this at length and will not go into them again in detail here. Suffice to say: the political use of “Black” identity by Aboriginal people in Australia has played a major part in my choice. That choice is a personal one, based on my own history and privileges of birth, nationality, education and relationships. I do not prescribe that choice for anyone else, nor do I condemn you or any other African Australian (or other non-white, non-indigenous people here) who choose being “Black” as their primary identity. I merely offer my own perspective as one among many, which may be of interest or some use to people of mixed cultural heritage and ancestry who might be pondering these questions – particularly in these times, when an aggressive, Anglocentric, assimilationist nationalism seems to dominate mainstream politics and mass media in Australia. I also urge consideration of the effect that strong assertion of non-indigenous Black identity may have on Aboriginal people who are fighting for recognition, respect and survival, for whom “Black” identity has proven to be one useful means for unifying their far-flung and diverse communities against their political, cultural and physical erasure from their country.

    I would like to take issue with your assertion that despite noting “the occurrence of structural racism”, I failed to acknowledge that it is an occurrence. That seems contradictory. I did not describe instances of racialised control and damage of groups of people, because I was discussing my personal experience and had not personally experienced such control and damage associated with “Blackness” in my early childhood in Australia, nor in my later childhood in West Africa, when the foundations for my personal identity were laid. That is not to say I never experienced racism or objectification by colour in Australia: of course I did. My resistance to this took the form of challenging stereotypes and demanding to be recognised as an individual, rather than an instance of a category. My mention of the “specific localities arising from specific historical events” was intended to point out the plasticity of the social category of “race” – not to deny the ubiquity of racism. Far from keeping the “social reality of Blackness in Australia” invisible, my whole essay was about nothing else. I am sorry if I could not offer a neat description of this “general phenomenon”, but I do not understand it sufficiently well to do so. Not am I alone: this ongoing conversation seems to indicate a need for more questions, not categorical answers.

    My intention certainly was not to say that non-indigenous Black Australians are not subjected to racism. It is true that I did not go into detail about this in the essay, although my responses to some comments should give an indication of my knowledge and opinions about such matters. In particular, the experiences of boys and young men from the Sudanese and the Horn of African communities, who have been subjected to racial police profiling and racist abuse (in community settings and in the media) are very important, as are those of other African Australians who have experienced discrimination on the basis of colour… or religion… or ethnicity… or age… or sexuality… the list goes on.

    I will not touch upon your points about Maxine Beneba-Clarke, as she is more than capable of speaking on her own behalf. I am glad that this discussion is taking place, though.

    I appreciate your mention of the non-indigenous Black people in the early colonial history of Australia. The name of John “Black” Caesar, the first Australian bushranger, who arrived with the First Fleet in 1788, is not new to me – and indeed is quite ironic, given his clash with the Eora warrior Pemulwuy, an early leader of Aboriginal resistance to British invasion. I hope that the discussions between you and me, other African Australians and non-indigenous Australians (of whatever hue) are also respectful discussions with Aboriginal people in Australia, so that we can give each other space and time to fight the real enemy – because the people (in Australia and abroad) who are fostering divisions by colour, nationality, ethnicity, religion, education and wealth are the same people who support the continued corrupt exploitation of Africa, Asia and South America and are driving the ongoing dispossession, assimilation and erasure of Aboriginal people in Australia and other indigenous people around the world.

  2. guantai5 Post author

    Chris Lemoh states:

    ‘Black: your label, not mine’

    However, when pressed, Lemoh gives a revised:

    ‘I sometimes identify as “Black”, at particular places and times, for specific purposes, and I do not reject the label or description when others apply it to me…’

    Maxine Beneba Clarke says:

    ‘I identify as black when I am in the UK (or would in the US), but circumstances in Australia are different… 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.’

    However, when pressed, Clarke gives a revised:

    ‘…my above comment contains nothing other than the explanation that, for specific historical and practical reasons, in the Australian context, that the use of ‘black’ MUST be qualified, and that I make a personal decision to steer away from using it where practical.’

    (Clarke does not reply to the request for an explanation as to why she refers to Heritier Lumumba as ‘Black Australian’ without qualification of his Blackness.)

    So, it turns out that – despite original claims – both Lemoh and Clarke now admit that they do refer to themselves as Black in the Australian context – albeit tentatively and with reservation.

    Lemoh also says to me:

    “…nor do I condemn you or any other African Australian (or other non-white, non-indigenous people here) who choose being “Black” as their primary identity.”

    I do not choose being Black as my primary identity. I am Black. This is not a choice. What exactly is it that Lemoh does not condemn me for? For being Black? Or for calling myself what I am?

    Lemoh compares contemporary discussions on Blackness in Australia with a clash between Black Caesar and Pemulwuy – a comparison that would benefit from revisiting Cassandra Pybus’ observations on the nature of Blackness in Australia during early colonisation: https://guantai5.wordpress.com/2014/06/23/the-origins-of-black-australia-and-the-erasure-of-non-indigenous-black/.

    Neither Lemoh nor Clarke provide any evidence that non-Indigenous claims to being Black in Australia have impeded Aboriginal claims or action, or will impede them in the future.


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