This is how it changes us. This is how we are altered.
Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Stella Prize short-listed memoir, The hate race, is one powerful book. I’ve been reading about racism since my teens during the Civil Rights years, and have read many moving novels and memoirs. Clarke’s book holds its own in this company.
The book chronicles Clarke’s life from early childhood through to the end of high school, but she bookends this chronological story with a prologue and epilogue which are set later, during her son’s first year of school. This approach to structuring her story is effective, because it enables her to reflect on what’s changed a generation later. And the answer is, not much, which is such an indictment on Australian society.
Before saying more, though, I need to back-pedal a bit, and make sure you know who Clarke is – besides being the writer of a well-reviewed collection of short stories, Foreign soil. She’s the Australian-born daughter of West Indian-born parents who migrated to Australia from England in 1976. As a young girl she was mystified by people asking her where she was from, and confounded when these same questioners became angry when she responded, honestly, Australia. This is, I know, a common story, but is not, I think, well-documented in our literature. However, as Clarke would say, what’s a story for, if not to tell how it went.
And that’s what she does, tells us how it went – and went, and went. The bulk of the story is, as I’ve said, told chronologically but Clarke hangs each chapter, each step in her chronology, around a specific topic, such as her involvement in sport or debating, or that transition period between primary school and high school. She captures beautifully the trajectory of thirteen years of schooling from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s. Although everyone’s experience is different, much of what she describes is universal: the first day of school, the yearning for a specific toy (like a Cabbage Patch Kid), parties, first love, getting braces, and so on. What isn’t universal, though, is her experience of being a child of colour.
This is how …
Reading her story is gut-wrenching. She faces racism – direct and indirect, intended and unintended – from her first day of pre-school to the end of high school. One high school class-mate, who ranks the girls in the class (as if that’s an acceptable thing to do anyhow), doesn’t rank her at all “because animals didn’t count. Greg Adams said that would be bestiality”. She’s called every name you could possibly think of – and more you probably couldn’t. She’s spat at and threatened. Luckily, she has friends too – otherwise it’s hard to imagine how she could have survived.
The disappointing thing is the inept handling by the schools, because it’s clear that for all the work ostensibly being done in schools to promote tolerance and harmony, only some of it is getting through*. There’s only so much schools can do, of course, given students’ main role models are their parents, but the least teachers can do is take the racist behaviour seriously and respond in a meaningful and supportive way. This, however, is not always the case: “He’s trying to wind you up. It’s just a little bit of nonsense. Don’t give him the satisfaction, Maxine”, says one high school principal, for example. That’s not good enough. Writing about her early primary school years, Clarke says this:
I knew before I started big school that, for me, the playground would always be a battlefield: a world divided into allies and enemies. At five and a half, racism had already changed me.
After a while, you start to breathe it. Another kid’s parents stare over at our family on the first day of school with that look on their faces. You make a mental note to stay away from that kid … You tell a teacher someone is calling you names. Blackie. Monkey girl. Golliwog. The teacher stares at you, exasperated, as if to say: Do you really expect me to do something about it? The next time you have a grievance, you look for a different teacher. This is how it changes us. This is how we’re altered.
Towards the end of the book, her boyfriend asks her to come to his place to swim in his family’s pool. She’s uncertain:
I had no reason to believe Marcus’ family would have an issue with the two of us, based on what I knew of them, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to put myself through the stress of finding out.
This is how we edit our lives.
How we brace against the blows.
The book isn’t unmitigated misery. Clarke mixes up the tone, sometimes using humour to make her point – it never hurts, after all, to see the absurd side of things – but the book is a memoir, not an autobiography. This means that it is not about the whole life but a part of it, and in Clarke’s case the part that she wants to share, to expose, is her experience of racism while growing up. Her goal was not vindictive. She writes in her Acknowledgements that she loves Australia, but she wanted to show “the extreme toll that casual, overt and institutionalised racism can take: the way it erodes us all”. That, she certainly does.
There are things about the book that I could quibble about, but they are petty in the face of its overall power. I don’t like to describe books as “important” or to say that everyone must read them, but for a readable and devastating understanding of how racism, in all its guises, impacts on a personal, rather than a theoretical or historical level, The hate race is essential. It’s a story that needs, as indeed Clarke aimed, to be “written into Australian letters”. It deserves the accolades it has received.
Kim (Reading Matters) also admired this book.
Maxine Beneba Clarke
The hate race
Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2016
* This is the 1980s and 1990s I know, but I use present tense here about schools because it’s pretty clear that not a lot has changed.