Tag Archives: colonisation

‘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.

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.

In the unpublished version of ‘Are there Black people in Australia?’ (prior to editing by Overland Journal), I stated that the dominant Australian narrative leaves ‘no place’ for non-Indigenous Black identity. My point is that equating Black with Aboriginal, a priori, leaves no room for non-Indigenous Black Australian identity.

The view that Indigenous Australians are the Black Australians results in comments such as that made by blogger Celeste Liddle:

I encountered what I can only describe as an unexpected and actually quite upsetting response via Twitter. It was unexpected because it came from members of the migrant community; a community which, on the most part, I have experienced as strong allies…  [T]he dissenting voices [ie Guantai5] 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” …

In a subsequent email, Liddle restated this point more directly:

Guantai referred to herself as “Black Australian”, which she is not. Only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are…I don’t see any differentiation based on whether someone is a black migrant or a POC migrant…This was about misappropriation of descriptive terms from First Peoples and then the refusal to understand when things were explained.

According to this narrative: I am Black in a less-than-fully Australian way (as a ‘member of the migrant community’ and a ‘migrant of colour’); I am Australian in a less-than-fully Black way (because colonial settlers are, per se, white); but I am not Black in an Australian way (as a ‘Black Australian’). This is the narrative that I reject.

*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.