Acclaimed author Roxane Gay is currently touring Australia. A couple of weeks back, before leaving the US, she tweeted ‘Are there Black people in Australia?’ Not an unreasonable question, you might think, considering that she is a Black woman likely to be speaking on race while in Australia.
Yet, the tweet was met with concern that she was questioning the existence of Indigenous people in Australia. Gay clarified, ‘I mean, like people of African descent’. There were plenty of people willing to share their limited knowledge of African Australians, There were also many who felt that Gay’s follow-up only compounded the offence of her first tweet, by implying that Indigenous people are not Black. Gay apologised.
This twitter exchange is the result of a collision between two narratives of Blackness. In much of the world, ‘Black’ refers to Africans, or to members of the African diaspora, often in the context of a country in which whites are dominant. Thus we have Black Americans, Black Canadians, Black British, etc.
In the dominant Australian narrative, Blacks are regarded as Aboriginal. This is a narrative with little space for non-Indigenous Black Australians. Barack Obama, who like me had an absent Kenyan father, is Black American. But, according to the main Australian narrative, I am not Black Australian.
When I was young, non-Indigenous Blacks were treated as anomalous. In recent decades, following an increase in Black migration, non-Indigenous Blacks have increasingly been cast as migrants: probationary Australians who are required to prove themselves to ‘real Australians’ through displays of gratitude and compliance, and who are judged ineligible to speak with authority on Australian experience, regardless of whether they are actually migrants.
This subsumption of non-Indigenous Blacks into the category ‘migrant’ obscures the fact that we have a distinct racial identity – as Black. I have had non-Black migrants speak on my behalf regarding my Black identity. These migrants assume to speak for me because they assume that as I am Black, I must be a migrant. But I do not share their experience of being migrant any more than they share my experience of being Black. I do not even have the same racial experience as Black migrants or their Australian-born children. Unlike many African migrants, I have not been racialised in a non-white country.
My experience of being Black in Australia is also different from that of migrants of African descent who were born in other white-dominated countries such as the US or UK. I have not been racialised as Black within the context of another country. There are Aboriginal people who tell me that they use ‘Black’ as a way of highlighting their experiences as a result of, and in contrast with, white Australia. Similarly, I am Black primarily due to my relation to white Australia. My experience, while obviously different from that of Indigenous Australians, is nevertheless of an Australian Blackness.
Gay’s critics felt that her apparent equation of Blackness with the African diaspora implied an ignorance, even an erasure, of Indigenous Australians. The dominant Australian narrative has the same effect in the opposite direction. The African diaspora has been on this continent from the beginnings of British colonisation, but the narrative that limits being Black Australian to being Aboriginal obscures this fact. Other Australians do not have their racial identity overwritten this way – least of all white people, the originators of this narrative.
As Roberta Sykes explains, ‘Black’ is inclusive of all Black people. While I understand the offence that Gay caused through her choice of language, I am also grateful that Gay asked whether I exist. She has brought attention to the fact that Black Australians of African descent have been overlooked and misrepresented in this country. Neither migrant nor Indigenous, we are also Black Australians.