The Hate Race
Maxine Beneba Clarke
Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race is a wakeup call to all Australians, an in-your-face demonstration of the ever-present racism that many face daily. For Clarke and many other Australians racism is a daily occurrence, something dealt with from childhood. The Hate Race details Clarke’s first recollections of racism, the initial misunderstandings, her feelings of difference and how all of these experiences come to change a person.
This book is a must-read. It provides the spark for some deep self-reflection. Clarke’s description of her experiences will make you anxious, upset and angry. Her account of modern racism ranges from the insensitive comments to outright brutality that have had an impact on her: instilling doubt, anger and hatred. It’s a moving and horrifying process, operating from the indifference of teachers, parents and peers to the outright discrimination that she suffers on a daily basis.
The Hate Race begins with a harrowing recollection of an event not so long ago. On a standard day walking to her young son’s school, racism rears its ugly head from nowhere. A passer-by unleashes on Clarke a racial tirade without explanation or warning. The act is heinous, and her reaction is heartbreaking. With two young boys, Clarke attempts to hide her grief and protect them from the pain she believes is inevitable.
The opening is quite shocking, difficult to read and left me with a sense of grief that is difficult to express. What follows is a series of short stories that, while often humorous and light-hearted, usually end up hitting you between the eyes. Each of these stories provides an insight to a world that many of us are ignorant of, yet often unknowingly help facilitate. From school yard bullying to subtle discrimination from teachers, friends, boyfriends and strangers, Clarke articulates the unseen, opening a window into a painful world.
Her larger journey, she explains, is the culmination of generations of hardship. It begins with chains and a long, forced journey into slavery and ends in suburban Sydney. Throughout the three-generation journey from Jamaica to Australia, different levels of cultural interaction and racism greeted Clarke’s family, friends and peers. She builds on this with a personal, deep account of the inner feelings that accompany such experiences. Throughout Clarke’s account there is a sense that even the sweetest memories and experiences can be tainted, turning bitter in a second.
For her grandparents, moving from Jamaica to England was seen as a new opportunity, a chance to make a new life in a country that they were assured would welcome and nurture them. What really greeted them was decades of upheaval, tension and riots. For Clarke’s parents, their experience and an economic downturn led to a decision to find other opportunities.
Australia was little known in their community. What was known was not good – the ‘White Australia Policy’ was infamous, as was the early colonial history that amounted to genocide. Despite this, the young family, with the help of friends and colleagues, decide to move to suburban Sydney and start again.
Australia of the 1980’s and 90’s was a place of change for Clarke. She watched as families like the Cosbys appeared on TV, and noted the rise of Play School host Trisha Goddard. Slowly, Clarke began to feel more included in pop culture, and society. Clarke recounts her ingenious ploys to ensure she either fit in or wasn’t singled out in her daily life, often with humour despite the obvious hardship she recounts. Clarke expertly crafts her narrative to ensure that the reader feels the full range of emotions, which, for me at least, culminated in an overwhelming sense of guilt.
Clarke recounts her first conscious encounter with racism at age four, an example of not only the ingrained racism of the time but the inability and unwillingness of others to intervene. This experience had a fundamental impact on her world outlook, and by “five and a half, racism had already changed” her. For Clarke and countless others, race made the school ground a battlefield where allies were sparse and her enemies often included the nonchalant teachers. Her recollections of childhood encounters with racism include stories of how even her happiest memories are tarnished by her fear of being different or excluded.
Clarke’s tale follows her childhood longing to fit in, from the toys she desperately craved to her frantic desire for straight hair and white skin. This desire to belong leads to anxiety and depression throughout her childhood, culminating in her own outward bullying of others. “This is how it changes you,” she explains, as the constant torment creates an insatiable anger that manifests itself as harsh comments and teasing.
At five and a half, her son may be already feeling these same emotions, this same anxiety, and Clarke tries to shelter him for as long as possible. Despite our best wishes, this type of systemic racism is still rampant in our schools, our streets and our workplaces. Clarke remembers clearly the racist rantings of a young Pauline Hanson who caused a stir with her anti-immigration platform. Her recent return to politics and the media highlights that across Australia, little has really changed.
Despite the grim content that comprises much of The Hate Race it is not an entirely pessimistic book. Clarke admits that despite the outright bigotry of some, she was able to maintain friendships and become close with many who could look past their differences. In these people, she found an escape from the heartache and fear that dominated much of her life. Similarly, she recounts her extracurricular exploits and academic passion, both of which became expressions of her need to be better than those who tormented her.
Clarke recalls events with the clarity of one who has had the memory seared into their very being. Intertwined with this are recollections of a fun and loving home life that perhaps allowed her to not just survive but thrive despite the incessant bullying she faced.
This is a powerful book, paving the way for a thorough consideration of race relations within Australia at a time when anti-immigration sentiments run high.