Tag Archives: diaspora

‘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.


Why ‘Black’? Why not ‘Aboriginal’ Power?

The following is an extract from Black Power in Australia*, published in 1975. I don’t know what the experiences are for Black children in Australia today, but I recall that in 1975 the word ‘Black’ was directed towards me as a term of abuse. Although I was too young to realise it at the time, it is the efforts of people like prominent Black activist Bobbi Sykes that have enabled me, and other Black Australians, to embrace the term ‘Black’ with pride today. Use of the term ‘Black’, in the political sense, originated in the 1960s with African American movements such as Black Power and Black is Beautiful. These movements soon became popular in Australia.

Sykes – of African descent herself – is celebrated as the first Black Australian to graduate from an American university; she completed her doctorate at Harvard University in 1983. Incidentally, she was also instrumental in the candidacy of MaryAnn Bin-Sallik, the first Aboriginal Australian to receive a doctorate from Harvard University.


Why ‘Black’? Why not ‘Aboriginal Power?

The reasons behind calling the Black Movement ‘black’ are manifold, and not all as obvious as might at first be thought. We have been criticized as imitators of the Americans because of the usage of the word ‘black’, and in this country that imports everything from cars to Coco-cola from Americans, the criticism becomes ludicrous. However, the reason is not solely one of importation. In fact, the word ‘aborigine’ is also an ‘imported’ word to the indigenous language, brought in by the British just over 200 years ago. The indigenous people had no such national word for themselves – and why would they have, when there was no one else with whom they could compare themselves?

The word ‘aborigine’ also has no definite ‘Australian’ connotation about it, either. There are American aborigines and Canadian aborigines; in fact, the word merely means the indigenous people of any country.

Nor is the word ‘aboriginal’ (qualified perhaps by Australian Aboriginal) broad enough for the struggle which is being undertaken here. There are many blacks in this country, subjected to racism and discrimination, who are not aboriginal or indigenous. Consider the Kanaka or South Sea Islander people, brought into this country as slaves to work in the sugar-cane fields in Queensland, who were physically stolen from their own birthplaces, and forcibly implanted in Australia for purposes of slavery – an operation called ‘blackbirding’. These people, and their descendents, have a very real claim to justice from the Australian government and people. Also, consider any other blacks, Torres Strait Islanders, Pacific Islanders etc. who may be in Australia for any reason, who are accorded racist treatment because of their skin colour – are they not to be included in the broad front of struggle against racism?

While the Land Rights claim and the Cultural and Language questions remain purely indigenous issues, the whole spectrum of racist practices has been directed at anyone not bearing a white skin and it can be no surprise that on these common issues, all non-whites will be inclined to work together. On the questions such as Land Rights, for instance, might not the extra weight lent by the non-indigenous blacks assist the indigenes to achieve their just demands?

In an effort to elevate the broad black struggle being undertaken here to a Third World level, use of the word ‘black’ becomes highly desirable. Caucasian people do not call themselves pink, off-white, greyish, or mottled, even when it is very obvious that they are not white in the true sense of the colour. It can be understood from this practice that blacks also are not inclined to differentiate between black, brown, tan, high-yellow, etc but prefer – for yet another reason – to use the all-embracing term ‘black’. ‘Black’ is more than a colour, it is also a state of mind.

We can advance on the premise that Black = all blacks, and Power = power generated by action, and that this action entails any means felt necessary by blacks to achieve their just demands – basically, health, justice, and a better way of life. Not necessarily the type of life presently acceptable to the majority of whites, which would be assimilation; but a way of life which blacks deem to be better for themselves, based, if necessary, on the creation of a whole new set of practices and standards.

Bobbi Sykes, Black Power in Australia, pp 10 – 12

*Thank you to my friend MS for alerting me to, and for loaning me a copy of, Black Power in Australia.