I am African Australian. I am literally ‘black’ by name (my surname ‘Lemoh’ means ‘black’ in the Mende language of Sierra Leone). I am brown of face, but unlike some, I do not choose to identify primarily as Black in this country. To me, ‘Black’ in Australia has meant ‘Aboriginal’ – not in the racial sense, but in the political sense.
I do not willingly accept racial categorisation. Despite its persistence in the teaching and research of my profession, medicine, the notion of biologically distinct races was scientifically discredited long ago. It has long been nonsensical for me to be classified as physiologically more similar to a ‘Black’ person living in East Africa or the US than to my own Anglo-Australian mother. This is especially the case when the last common ancestor shared with the former most likely lived several millennia ago. I do acknowledge the social reality of racial categories, in specific localities arising from specific historical events. This includes notably the trans-Atlantic slave trade between Africa, the Americas and Western Europe, but also the Dutch and British settlement of southern Africa and the racially segregated society of apartheid South Africa. I accept that I will be regarded and treated as ‘Black’ the minute I set foot in the United States. However, I also know that I would attract different labels in different contexts – ‘coloured’, ‘mulatto’, ‘black African’ – and that the opportunities and barriers I might consequently encounter will differ.
I am fortunate that my birth in Australia, my learning of English as a mother tongue and a tertiary education provide me with ample resources to make my way in this society. I am very fortunate that a loving, supportive and fair-minded family environment ensured that my early childhood in suburban Sydney was completely devoid of any racism: my first experience of this blight was at primary school in London, when I had to ask my mother the meaning of the word ‘Paki’. My conclusion, on learning that it was a term used to vilify people of South Asian origin, was that racists were idiots. No subsequent experience has challenged that judgement.
There were very few African people in Hobart, Tasmania, where I spent my later childhood. We knew them as individuals and families, rather than as groups. Within my family’s social circle, racism against Africans was not in evidence, although remarks about ‘Chinese’ did make their appearance from time to time, and one elderly couple, whom we used to visit in rural New South Wales, were shockingly hostile and contemptuous of Aboriginal people. This was shocking because they literally treated my father as a son, and had longstanding, warm relationships with many people from Papua New Guinea. I found it impossible to reconcile their warm embrace of some people of very different appearance and culture with their attitude toward Indigenous Australians.
My knowledge of Indigenous Australia was virtually nil throughout my childhood. I read a few fantasy novels written by non-Indigenous authors based on Indigenous mythology with as much pleasure as I did those based on European mythology. However, my school learning of Australian history seemed to concentrate on European men with big beards exploring a vast, empty land, with a few scattered Indigenous characters providing support to their heroic deaths in the desert. Not in Tasmania though: we were repeatedly told that the ‘last full-blooded Tasmanian Aborigine’ – Truganini – died tragically in 1876. The implication was that the Tasmanian Aboriginal people were no more. This called into question the existence – or at least, the legitimacy – of the contemporary Tasmanian Aboriginal communities who remain very much alive to this day.
I took note of Indigenous Australia in my late twenties. My work in the Alice Springs hospital brought me face to face with the dire state of contemporary Indigenous Australia, where the physical, mental and social state of Aboriginal people seemed worse than anything I had seen in my later childhood living in Sierra Leone. It also showed me the vitality, intelligence and political sophistication of Indigenous people who had fought for their rights and were continuing to do so. Importantly, my experiences, conversations and reading during that period, and subsequent periods in Alice Springs, taught me the importance of the historical background to the suffering, struggles and achievements of Indigenous Australians. It turned my accusing gaze away from those experiencing the brunt of colonisation, toward those people who had participated in that dispossession and their descendants who benefited from it – including my family and me. This matched well with my existing understanding, gained in West Africa, of the reality of the colonial experience and its ongoing aftermath.
I could see that a simple colour-coded ‘good guys vs bad guys’ framework was not going to be adequate to explain the persisting problems faced by Indigenous Australians, or the processes keeping millions of people in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere locked in poverty and violence. Such a simple framework would be inadequate even to explain my own life and existence. I am a privileged, middle-class professional child of a well-educated African father whose family had been ruled by an occupying British Crown, the agents of which were colonising Africans recaptured from slaving vessels and Black American loyalists fleeing the American War of Independence. These were Black colonists whose own revolt against the Crown in Sierra Leone had been suppressed by a force of recently defeated rebellious escaped slaves from Jamaica, lured by promises of land in West Africa. I am also the child of an Anglo-Irish Australian mother whose ancestors had been incarcerated and transported from Europe, at the behest of a ruling elite that oppressed the lower classes in England, subdued Ireland and sent its convicts and rebels to occupy Indigenous land.
Today, I am the result of a tangled web of migrations, conflicts, intimacies and influences that resist simplification. My professional work involves providing health-care to many of the most marginalised people in Australian society, including asylum-seekers released from a cynically punitive immigration detention system; temporary migrants from a huge range of countries; and Australians of all backgrounds who bear the physical and psychological brunt of decades of hard labour and ruthless marketing of legal and illegal substances of addiction.
Yes, there is racism in Australia. Racialised identities have been used to control and damage groups of people. Racialised identities have also been used to mobilise groups of people for collective action to challenge the inequities perpetuating their suffering. I strongly believe in self-determination. Despite the derision of some well-known blots on the Australian media landscape, I believe the working definition of ‘Aboriginal identity’ is a good one: it includes both self-identification and the recognition and acceptance of a community.
If Aboriginal people claim the term ‘Black’ as an identity to summarise the complexity of both history and current circumstance, and to declare solidarity with other liberation movements elsewhere, so be it. It seems to be working. I am ready to stand as an ally. However, I choose not to claim for myself this identity that serves such a useful purpose for others when I have the privilege of acting in common cause from any number of personal and professional positions of advantage. I am Australian. I am African. If you call me ‘Black’, I’ll listen (carefully), but it’s your label, not mine.