Tag Archives: identity

‘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.

‘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.

On light-skin privilege

Here is a link to an essay I wrote on skin-colour privilege that was published in Overland Journal: https://overland.org.au/2014/09/darker-than-blue-on-light-skin-privilege/

The comments in response are also interesting. I particularly appreciate this comment from JK:

I very much appreciate Natasha Guantai’s piece exploring a salient nuance around race and racialisation. Also reflecting that part of the reactive responses from some other writers, in particular Celeste and Eugenia, is that this issue of skin colour privilege is a sort of “dirty laundry” within Aboriginal communities that it feels somewhat painful to have aired by people who are not themselves Aboriginal.

That said, there is a difference between naming an issue that cuts across community lines, and “lecturing”. It seems foolhardy to pretend that these issues DON’T exist in our communities, or that it is only my unique right as an in-group person (e.g. an Aboriginal person) to mention these topics ever, if at all. Part of the reason they are dirty laundry is because they are unresolved.

I like to remain in contact with people who are sincerely committed to being part of the solution, whether they are my “in-group” or not. All the power to Natasha for especially naming this in the context of sharing her own lived experiences with this phenomenon.

Holding one another accountable for our complicities should not involve then re-appropriating the terms of the abuse of power (e.g. “lynch mob”) in order to do so. My hope is that this conversation will bring out healing for our communities who have been scarred by racism and colonisation, for too many centuries.

POSTSCRIPT: This week, Celeste posted a response to my Overland article. In it she says:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences of blackness intersect with indigeneity within this country. Nobody else shares this experience. They may share elements of it, whether these elements are skin colour, or colonisation, or language loss and so forth; of course this is the case. But they are not also experiencing these things from the vantage point of being displaced peoples within their own country. That is a unique experience to Indigenous and it needs to be understood as such allowing for us to speak about this freely.

In our original twitter conversation, I said:

does this raise an intersectionality issue - Copy

So it seems that Celeste is now in agreement with this. And she was always free to speak about it. I only asked that the existence and the experiences of non-Indigenous Black Australians be respected.

And on the topic of agreement, I agree with this Noel Pearson quote in its entirety:

There are many ethnic minorities in Australia of equivalent or smaller size. Some of them face barriers of racism, but, I would argue, not to the degree that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do. And these minorities are not indigenous to the nation, with the particular colonial history that brought us to where we are. Indigenous people were displaced and dispossessed in the founding of British settlement and the development of the nation. Indigenous people therefore have a unique historical and legal relationship with the Australian government.

The Origins of Black Australia and the Erasure of Non-Indigenous Black Australians

We’re often reminded that white Australia has a Black history; but it’s generally ignored that Black Australia includes a non-Indigenous history. Historian Cassandra Pybus describes the erasure of non-Indigenous Black Australians from the Australian narrative. This erasure is the reason why people today mistakenly believe that I am not Black Australian.

In 1912, a young man named Thomas Conquit was shot by police in a remote mining hamlet in the Snowy Mountains. In view of Conquit’s description as part Aboriginal, this was unremarkable. What took the case out of the ordinary was the police explanation that they were arresting Conquit for lunacy because he had declared that he was on a mission to kill the police who were part of a worldwide conspiracy to murder all black people. Putting aside the issue of whether or not this perception was dangerously paranoid, I find it astonishing that in 1912 an Aboriginal person might regard himself as part of a worldwide black community.1

The man’s distinctive name of Conquit makes his ancestry easy to trace in the colonial records. His grandfather was Thomas Conquade, a white convict transported from England to Australia in 1819, whose common-law wife, Frances Martin, was described on his death certificate as Aboriginal. However, Frances was not Aboriginal; she was the third child of John Martin and Mary Randall. Both her father and grandfather were African-American. Her grandson correctly understood himself to belong to the African diaspora, even if the authorities did not. In the year before Conquit was shot John Randall’s youngest child, Ann, died at Windsor, aged 96. She was the last survivor of the foundation generation of African-Australians. Ann Randall had only the faintest memory of her father, who must have died or disappeared when she was six, and she explained her origins as being an ‘islander’, from ‘the French Islands’, presumably exotic Tahiti. A descendant who remembered the old lady from her childhood said that she was as ‘black as the ace of spades’.2

In the early years of the new Federation of Australia there was intense racial anxiety among a majority settler population aggressively determined to define their society as inherently white. With their racial purity felt to be under threat, it was decided that ‘Kanakas’ and Chinese  workers were to be expelled, while in future non-European immigrants would be denied entry. The concept of ‘white Australia’ fashioned at the turn of the twentieth century had no capacity to encompass currency lads and lasses who were black, and no comprehension that there might exist Australians of African descent. Between 1788 and the middle of the nineteenth century, almost every convict ship carried people of the African diaspora to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. Settlers and soldiers brought African servants, while some settlers were themselves of the African diaspora. Each of the port communities of the colonies included plenty of African-American and Afro-Caribbean sailors. Yet the foundation narrative of the new nation promulgated an uncomplicated racial divide: white settlers (civilisation) displacing black Aborigines (stone-age savagery).3

In this narrative, any black individual in early colonial Australia could only be understood as the despised and excluded other. Therefore, early twentieth-century accounts of Billy Blue entirely overlooked the fact of his African heritage and black complexion, in order that a foundation legend, who lent his name to several Sydney landmarks, could be read as a white man. In the 1970s his first biographer found it impossible to ignore the evidence that Blue was not European, but still she insisted he wasn’t really black. Despite the evidence of three portraits that show Blue to be unmistakably African, she argued that he was ‘not predominantly Negro’ and was perhaps part Carib. For sure, his children must have been white because none of them ‘ever seem to be referred to as coloured’. The daughters, ‘named as among the finest young women in Sydney Town and again as two of the most attractive colonial born young women of their time’ were by implication white. In twentieth century Australia, it was unthinkable that such complimentary remarks could be made about a colonial woman unless she had a European complexion. Even the historian who fully understands Blue as an African-American man persists in reading Blue in early colonial Sydney as ‘the member of a despised and oppressed race’, albeit one who was supremely adept at destabilising his status as the excluded ‘other’.4

The tendency to read late nineteenth- and twentieth-century racial assumptions into early colonial Australia is almost universal among historians and social commentators, regardless of on what side of the history wars they fight. In any discussion of the foundation of Australia  it is a given that racialisation was at work from the beginning, with white settlers confronting black Aborigines. A recent, finely nuanced study of early settlement by Inga Clendinnen continues to read early colonial history in terms of the black/white binary. She takes an incident at Port Jackson on 29 January 1788, where a crew of marines and sailors were dancing with Aborigines, to illustrate the book’s theme that the white British invaders and black Aborigines ‘began their relationship by dancing together’. As the watching officer, William Bradley, observed ‘these people mixed with ours and all hands danced together’. The notions of ‘these’ and ‘ours’ in Bradley’s statement has automatically been read as black and white, yet a week before this incident, the same William Bradley described ‘these’ attempting to engage with ‘ours’ in the interchange between the Aborigines and a black convict who was cutting grass at Botany Bay. I would have thought this was at least as telling an interracial exchange as the dancing, although the earlier incident has never commanded attention from Australian historians. Equally, the persistent rejection of Black Caesar by Aborigines, and the almost fatal confrontation between him and the warrior Pemulwuy at the same time that several European convicts were living with the Aborigines, has been passed over without notice. A white game shooter was deliberately speared, but a black game shooter went about his business in Aboriginal territory for many years without incident. The black convicts, John Randall and William Blue, enjoyed a level of patronage and special privilege far beyond the expectation of convicts in general. There is no fixed racial binary to be discerned in any of this.5

As the stories of our black founders reveal, the settlement of Australia was a multi-racial process that took place at a time when the notion of ‘race’ was a highly malleable construct, understood in ways very different from the modern sense of innate nature, and the binary of black or white was not a reliable way of conceptualising difference. Among historians of empire, there is a common view about the elasticity of the concept of race and the prevailing uncertainty about the signifiers of difference. There is a general understanding that the decades between 1780 and 1830 – the formative decades for the colony of New South Wales – witnessed a sea change in attitudes toward race and identity that would solidify into fixed racial categories in the second half of the nineteenth century. Surely it is time that we jettisoned assumptions about the fixed racial boundaries and the naturalness of racialised identities in early Australian history. Such simplification would never be tolerated, let alone go unremarked, if it were applied to class. To paraphrase Edward Thompson: race is a relationship and not a thing.6

Black Founders: The Unknown Story of Australia’s First Black Settlers, Cassandra Pybus, pp 179 – 182 (footnotes original).

Unlike Cassandra Pybus, I do not consider Thomas Conquit’s claim (that ‘the police [were] part of a worldwide conspiracy to murder all black people’) to raise an issue as to whether he was ‘dangerously paranoid’. In an Australian context at least, it is quite sane to assume that there was a conspiracy to eliminate Black people. Thomas’ death at the hands of the police is further testament to this fact.

Earlier in Black Founders, Pybus makes observations about Bradley’s positioning of Australian Blackness as he regards the interchange between the Aboriginal people and a Black convict. While the white Bradley projects his association between those whom he perceives as Black people, the Aboriginal people in question do not yet perceive themselves to be Black:

The naval officer William Bradley felt that the Aborigines were ‘much pleased’ to see a ‘man of their own complexion’ and he thought they were puzzled that the black convict failed to understand their language. This was Bradley’s fanciful rendering of the unintelligible behaviour of the indigenous people. For the Eora someone from Africa dressed in a convict uniform would have appeared no less alien than those with pale faces dressed in the same peculiar clothes.

p 88

1 I am indebted to Dr Michael Powell of the University of Tasmania for this story. In 2003, The Tracker, starring David Gulpilil, was the headline film in the African Diaspora Film Festival in New York, but this was an aberration. As a rule, Aboriginal people in Australia have not perceived any commonality with people of the African diaspora. [guantai5: This claim is open to question. I know of at least two other showings of Australian Aboriginal work in African Diaspora forums: that of Aboriginal woman, Bindi Cole, exhibiting in the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in New York; and the screening of Black Voices (1974),  an Australian Aboriginal documentary, at the Black Film Festival in Los Angeles. Aboriginal political and artistic movements have been strongly connected to the African diaspora. For example, the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association, the Freedom Rides and the foundation of the Black Panthers in Redfern; and contemporary Indigenous dance and music from Bangarra Dance through to The Sapphires.]

2 Information on Ann Randall comes from a Randall-Martin descendant, Ray Fairall, communication with author.

3 For a discussion of the Immigration Restriction Bill and the Pacific Island Laborers Bill introduced in 1901 and racial ideas at the time of Federation, see Reynolds, 85–96.

4 Swords, 19–20; Duffield, ‘Billy Blue’, 6.

5 Clendinnen, 8.

6 Recently, Wheeler argued forcefully that earlier scholars have placed too much emphasis on skin colour as encoding difference in the eighteenth century, while, as Hudson, Bayly, Drescher and Kathleen Wilson all argue, the idea of inherent racial difference was not fixed in public discourse and social behaviour until well into the second half of the nineteenth century. Thompson’s famous formulation that class is a relationship comes from the ‘Preface’ (written in 1963) to The Making of the English Working Class, 9.

Us and the Other: what the school music program teaches about ‘multiculturalism’

This morning my youngest child participated in her first assembly performance. So, like the other parents, I sat in the audience with my camera held high, trying to strike the right balance between recording the event and just enjoying watching it.

First we all stood to sing Advance Australia Fair. (So that explains why my children have been singing the national anthem at home!) Then we went straight to the opening piece, which was my daughter’s year performing a line dance. As the pre-recorded music played its typically twangy country-and-western song, I reflected that no introduction was made of the origins of the dance or the music that was playing. I was reminded of last year’s Christmas assembly with its multicultural theme. The children had sung some traditional English songs and a couple of modern US songs and even some distinctively English-descent Australian songs. But none of their origins were mentioned in the introductions to these songs. The ‘multicultural’ aspect of the assembly was the songs and dances that had their origins explained to us: the Jewish songs, the French songs and the Bollywood dances.

This morning, following my daughter’s boot-scoot, the whole school sung a couple of African songs. I can’t tell you the origin of the first one because we weren’t told* but, to the music teacher’s credit, she identified the second one as coming from South Africa. I appreciated that she had identified a country this time. She admitted, however, that she didn’t know which language they were singing in. I was interested in this admission because to me it showed promise. It was heartening that she was aware, even to some degree, that she should have known. She hadn’t googled the song to find out, but at least there was an inkling that it might have been a good idea to know in which language you are singing a song that you’re teaching to hundreds of students.

As I sat in the audience, it bothered me that the children didn’t know what the language was that they were singing in. I wanted to tell the music teacher that it was important to me that she know what the language was of the song that she was teaching my children. But of course this would be a ludicrous thing to do. The teacher would either be offended that I’d tried to tell her what to do, or she’d feel bad that she’d been culturally insensitive. I wouldn’t blame her for thinking me petty and unreasonable. After all, we live in Australia and one can’t be expected to know everything about everyone in the world. She is a music teacher, not a geography teacher. I should be grateful that she is teaching international music – all that cultural inclusion is an improvement on what had been taught when I was at school.

After the performance, the music teacher made some announcements. When she began talking about the African drumming classes, I knew what she was going to say – it was the same spiel that regularly accompanies the school newsletter: the African drumming teacher is from West Africa! We are told that the drumming is ‘African’, because if we were told that it was simply ‘drumming’, we’d have taken it to be US drumming: white English-speaking US.

The violin teacher who is obviously from France doesn’t have his national origin introduced each time violin lessons are announced. Why do we have to be constantly reminded that this Black man is of foreign origin? I am also uncomfortable that a Black man has somehow become part of the commodity that is for sale – not just his music, but himself, is being spruiked as African.

There is a reason why we are told where the drumming teacher is from: we are being told that he learnt his drumming in Africa. Having learned in Guinea, presumably from other Guineans, is part of the value of his tuition. Being identified by his national origin is his mark of authenticity. This is a stereotyping, even dehumanising, version of a white teacher being recommended on the basis of their school or instructor. I wonder what changes society will have to undergo before this man is introduced as the drumming teacher of unspecified national origin, whose branch of music, or particular instrument, is recognisable to the audience.

*I have since asked my children the lyrics to the songs, which I googled to find that they are both sung in Zulu.

Who can be Black (Part 2)?

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:

Agreement tweets

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.

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….

[This blogpost] is written for [those] who, sometimes through no fault of their own, do not possess this knowledge. Who would make comments such as [the dissenters] without realising just how limited and uneducated on the plight of First Peoples these comments are. Who accept this country as their home with a dominant power to struggle against for recognition yet fail to delve into intricacies of the experiences of First Peoples.’

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.*

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.


* Celeste condescends to educate me, the stereotype migrant ignorant of Australia, whom she contrasts with her friends, the good migrants who know their place. Celeste has also endorsed a reposter’s commentary that characterises “new migrants” as having “racist perspectives” – although the author attempts to validate this generalisation by putting it in the mouth of another, approved of and much-loved, Brown migrant. Celeste assumes that because I am Black, I must be a member of “the migrant community” – a community which she differentiates from the wider non-Indigenous population. This assumption is at odds with the fact that settler Australia includes 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?