‘Are there Black people in Australia?’

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.

Natasha Guantai

Natasha Guantai is a teacher of English, History and Philosophy at a secondary college in northern Melbourne. She blogs on issues of race, identity and colonialism at guantai5.wordpress.com.

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  1. “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.)

    1. Being Black in America is hard.Economic and otherwise. I ask about aborigines all the time on social media. The response i get is silence.Is as though the pain and misery.of the past is.overlooked. We have black people in in AMerica using skin bleaching cream to wipe away their black skin.Like Michael JAckson, Sammy Sosa and lately Lil Kim. Who are the aborigines who are the blacks(not Africans)? I posed this question in USSR and the stories were sad. The abuse that were reported in USSR were ignored.Africans living in Russia are going hell..like in Australia. The blacks fear reprisals in this country and whites act as if the aborigines dont exist. They would rather talk about Kangaroos. The history of the aborigines is well documented. The history of the so called native Americans is well documented. Im a black man in America and im afraid of my brother the police and im afraid the world.

  2. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. We all are PoCs. I just happen to be off colour blotchy brown-pink-white. This external marker isolated rather than integrates humans from each other

        1. “The best way to dehumanize someone while claiming you’re not is to believe you are just the same. You erase their experiences and perspective, their struggles and obstacles, their unique way of having to deal with those things in a world that also erases them. With the words, ‘but humans are humans’ or the bullshit dramatics of ‘we all bleed red’ normal people can simply pretend that if we all did things the way they did, then everything would work out okay. But, yes, we all bleed red but you don’t treat a papercut the same way you treat a gash, you don’t treat an infected wound the same way you treat one that isn’t, you don’t treat a wound to the leg the same way you treat a wound to the gut. You are not acknowledging someone’s personhood when you ignore the very things that make their lives different than yours, and when you refuse to understand that their circumstances have given them their own perspective that is just as valid as yours. More valid in fact – their perspective about their experiences that you haven’t been through is far more valid than anything you could ever think about it.”


          Until you can acknowledge that there is a difference between White and not-white, I’m afraid you’re not ready to understand the importance of this conversation.

          1. Cianan, and what about the populations of South America: are they non-white?
            There is no one, definitive ‘truth’ of race.

            My Brazilian partner’s grandmother is indigenous. If my partner was Australian, she may well identify as Aboriginal, based on having 1 grandparent.

            In Brazil, people usually only identify/are identified as indigenous if they live in remote communities.

            So, as we can see, constructions of white and non-white/ indigenous and non-indigenous are very varied.

            There is no one definition, and blanket statements like:
            “Until you can acknowledge that there is a difference between White and not-white, I’m afraid you’re not ready to understand the importance of this conversation”, are not particularly useful.

      2. Well said, the article also confused me with what might be a semantic issue: the characterisation of African Australians as non-migrant? All peoples in Australian who are not Indigenous are from migrant stock, including white people. There are 2 narratives of blackness in Australia because African Australians have a very different narrative from Indigenous Australians. Lumping all Black Australians together would be somewhat disrespectful to the unique Indigenous narrative, in that it swallows them into a migrant experience which is not relative to them.

    2. I enjoyed your story.It made me realize how diffult it was being a black intellectual in white america.
      Dr.WEB DuBious experienced this problem while living in Atlanta Georgia in the late 1800’s.He moved to Africa and died a King..totally respected and honored. Booker T.Washington was accepted in the white world because of his condescending ways around white people.He was the highest ranking negro in America at that time.He raised a lot of money build a lot of schools,but Booker T.was biggest sell out in black AMerican history. He succeeded because white America needed someone to forgive them of their rascist past. Despite his successes negros were still being lynched,raped and marginalised in every way. Black Americans had to fight every step of the way.We either fight or die.Todays blacks cant comprehend the movement of the 60’s70’s because they dont dont believe in sacrifice. They believe in sex drugs and lies.The history of our people extends far and wide its time we honor the millions who came before us and endured unspeakable horrors.We owe it to them to define ourselves by our own definitions.

  3. Identity one would think is something that is happening between one’s ears. Not an external marker. So if external markers define the conversation of these types of people then there are going to be barriers between people.

  4. 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.

      1. Your suggestions for naming OUR black identities were not solicited. Humbly retreat.

        I disagree with a few points Natasha Guantai makes and Cianan when it comes to African black identity in Australia but if you had read Guantai’s piece properly, she clearly states why African-Australian does not match her experience.

      2. “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.

  5. Soooo…What is the answer? Are there black people in Australia? I am black and thinking of taking our family vacation in Australia. I would like to know the answer.

  6. I can relate somewhat to this. I think however that being black is not a one label fits all. I am black British and I stayed in Australia for a little over a year. I was correctly deemed a migrant however I did find that my blackness lacked any form of representation. Yes I am a part of the African diaspora but I also feel just as British as I do African. This was a great mystery to the many white Australians I met, who could only think if black non indigenous as being african migrants or african American. I did not fall into any of these groups, as I do not share the same experiences. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for you Natasha.

      1. Hey Natasha, as an African and a dark skinned African at that, I’m quite glad that for the first time, you Blacks can be honest that “African is not synonymous with Black” I will add that it is vice versa as well. I am African and I have always maintained that Africans are not Black, Africans are Africans as Black is a culture, not a race. The African diaspora you refer to encompasses people all over the world, even in Europe because Europeans left Africa

  7. We just visited Australia and walked miles without seeing a single black person. We were fortunate to meet a black female at Central station in Sydney who told us that we should try Blacktown. We visited the new parliament in Caberra and did not find a single black employee. Is there apartheid in Australia or unwritten
    segregation. We felt treated differently
    in places we visited. Why Australia
    For goodness sake this is 2016. We are grateful to God for Canada,USA and UK inspite those countries are still imperfect but they are centuries ahead of Australia
    We may be wrong but at least that is the impression we walked away with

    1. If you’re referring to indigenous Australians in Parliament House, Canberra, there are certainly parliamentarians, advisers and staff. There is an indigenous affairs unit within the building. The Dept of Parliament house states the number of indigenous Australians in its annual report, and it has Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment Strategy to make sure numbers are higher than the population ratio. Today, 19-April-2017, the first African born senator was elected.

      Australia has strict rules against racism and racial discrimination since 1975.

      Unlike the US, the Australia govt does not classify people into random racial groups. Under the official US system (called Directive 15) an Iranian is not Asian, an Egyptian is white, a Maori is not black, and it is unstated what was intended for Australians. No system of racial classification can ever make sense, because racism is and always has been utter nonsense – a cruelty informed only by ignorance and superficiality. The inventors of racism, US and Britain, are not models to follow.

      Canada does have strong anti-discrimination and multicultural policies plus a good record. That’s true.

      I don’t know what “treated differently” means. You are different, just as I am different. My reaction to our new senator was to treat her differently. I thought how she adds to the diversity of the senate. I thought, maybe people will have more chance to learn directly about life in Kenya, but maybe she will not focus on that. If you were treated poorly or unfairly, then that’s contemptible.

      Impressions can be misleading. People marry and have children with partners of very different backgrounds. There’s no taboo about this, my 70 year old aunt married someone from Africa. So it’s just not appropriate to look at someone in the street and jump to conclusions about them. If you talk to 100 unrelated people in any city street in Australia, you’ll hear 100 different stories of heritage and culture.

    2. What a strange perception, that you walked around Central Station and did not notice the huge Asian/Middle Eastern Australian population, and drew a conclusion of apartheid based simply on the lack of black prescence, and completely blind to other people of colour? There are less black people in Australia simply because unlike North America, slaves were not brought to Australia from Africa. Your ‘godsend’ black population in North America is simply a consequence of human trafficking.
      Australia undoubtedly has racism problems which all people of colour experience. Black is not the only colour.

      1. Ann, Abiola was talking about blackness. Why do you only refer to America when Abiola also spoke about the UK and Canada? How do you think black people migrated there over CENTURIES? Many Australians are so ignorant about racism and migration in other countries, think they are experts on America and then expect everyone here with a migrant background to only have an Australian lens.

        1. I think Ann was referring to North America, not just the United States, in her comment. And AFAIK, the migration of Black people to both the UK and Canada was also largely (though somewhat indirectly) a result of colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade over centuries, just as it was in the United States.

          No one here is denying Australia’s horrible history of racism towards people of colour (well, at the very least, I’m certainly not) and its continued racism towards communities of colour, and I think it’s important that Australians are held to account over their attitudes towards race and other kinds of diversity.

          However, like Ann I am reminded of being confronted with questions from UK/American/Canadian etc. people about “why Australia has no Black people?” (the implication being that UK/US/Canada are better because they have large Black communities), and I have to remind them that their Black communities are, in large part, a direct consequence of the trans-Atlantic slave trade or imperial colonialism, both of which we were not directly involved in.

          That, again, is not to ignore our racist history (cf. White Australia Policy) and our own slavery and colonial past here in the South Pacific, but merely to point out that these UK/US/CA communities are also based upon ultimately tragic foundations.

    3. Abiola, you are absolutely right in your 2016 impressions. David and Ann would do well to educate themselves on White Australia Policy and its profound effects on Black Australians, including Indigenous Australians, rather than attempting to whitewash our history as Australia rapidly changes.

  8. I am not suprised by your revelation. I also sought out black people in Australia over the internet. No one could geive me definitive answers. I am looking at Moscow and St.Petersburg. I found out that that there many struggling Africans and a few successful ones. Some. who are there are undocumented refugees. Many are attacked,robbed by skinheads and low levels whites who know they wont be prosecuted by Russian law.Incredible stories. Stay in touch. You can reach me at Areyoumanenuff78@gmail.com.

  9. The best definition for black migrants is country than citizenship. So a person from Nigeria would be Nigerian Australia and a Black person from America would be African Australian. Indigenous Australians could be call just Aborigine, Aborigine Australian or simply Black Australian. I like Aborigine best, because whites are not Aboriginal anywhere.

    1. I am African and this is soooooo offensive. Do you realize that Black Americans are NOT African? Why they call themselves African, Idk, especially since more than half of them think Africa is a country. That being said, our identity is our identity and a Nigerian Australian, Kenyan Australian, Zimbabwean Australian etc are all African Australians. Black Americans in Australia can call themselves Black Australian American but not African Australian because they are not!

  10. WOW! Thanks for the good read, everyone! I appreciate the wisdom, and the manner which you all chose to speak to each other. Different point of views, different experiences, etc. I have also been wondering what is the stance of black people in Australia because I want to visit. I think it would be safer to just take a cruise down the western coast and across Tasmania then on to Auckland, then fly back to the US…
    Tweet me via @TinkerMazell

  11. Southern europeans and middle eastern peoples were not considered white in the context of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 but were for a long time, well into considered semi-coloured.

  12. Where do I begin?!

    As a mixed race woman born and raised in Australia by a white mother (with Scottish and French decent) and my immigrant Mexican-Black American father, I can tell you that I’ve experienced some racism from both Indigenous and non Indigenous Australians.

    I was raised with the mindset that being a mixed race woman… that using the word black to describe myself was highly inappropriate.
    And I was extremely confused as to why because I was blessed with a deep caramel skin tone.
    As far as I was aware… the best description for someone like myself is ‘Chicana’.

    Chicana/Chicano is somewhat of an offensive kinda name to be given with the wrong perspective about its meaning. Chicano culture was a birthed subculture of proud mixed (predominantly white and black) Mexican-American’s who were equally white and black.

    I’ve spent 34yrs of my life being asked if I’m Aboriginal and I feel as though I share a part of their collective struggle.

    I’m always not white enough or I’m not black enough.

    I don’t share the migrant perspective because I’m 7th generation on my caucasian (convict white slaves) side of the family that raised me yet I’m 1st generation on my father’s side.

    I was raised by a single white mother who did her best to raise me understanding my heritage all while my abusive father was drowning his trauma at the local pub. It has taken me years to understand why he chose alcohol but his trauma was generational… he too experienced the violence that is being not black (in American terms) enough in a country where land was ripped away from Indigenous people. All while he is the token local black guy down at the local pub.
    Confusing much!!!

    My point is……
    I struggle to call mixed race light skin Aboriginal people “Black”.
    Yes, there are blak Aboriginal people… they’re not given the platform to discuss lateral violence within their community because either there’s a white Aboriginal on the platform talking about their struggles being black or they aren’t given the microphone at all.

    Lateral violence is huge within the Indigenous community and they refuse to recognize it.

    And if that’s not bad enough…..

    I now witness my own Chicana culture (my only connection to my heritage) being picked apart by the younger generation of mixed race Aboriginal people. From beading, to makeup, to jewelry, clothing, sacred art… all being pulled apart by a bunch of POC who are so desperate to be black that they’re appropriating my culture on their journey.

    There is a huge difference in the word BLACK and BLAK….. and a completely different mindset between African Americans and Aboriginals.

    I understand why there are so many people in our Australian society who actively avoid these black conversations because they too are confused by the lack of respect for the word black.

  13. That out Africa theory holds no weight. The same evidence that was use to spark the out of Africa theory can be use to say Into Africa theory.

    The Out Of Africa theory has holes and the evolution has holes.

    People need to stop Africanizing people who were all around this continent

  14. This is such an interesting conversation and I hope commenting 5 years on from the original post will re-activate the discussion. Roxane Gay’s comment touched on what we have all experienced, that Australia remains a hugely misunderstood space in the imagination of most other extra-Australian people ESPECIALLY when it comes to understand Australia’s Black history. As someone who learnt realtively late in life that I had both African-american and Indigenous ancestors, along with Irish/Scottish/English, I carry the trans-genrational trauma of the cruelty of the forced assimilation policies that Indigenous people have experienced. My father simply did not know his full cultural heritage for years. Flayling around in life without these vital markers is not fun and if Ive learnt anything it’s that only I can define who I am. The question Roxanne Gay posed is painful because it attests to a “success” from the Australian government in supressing physically and in the global imaginary, the existence of First Nations and other BIOPC populations in Australia. Using the term “Black Australia” for me is a form of resistance because it simply defies all the lies that we have been asked to be complicit to.

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