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.
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.’