‘Black’: your label, not mine

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.

Chris Lemoh

Chris Lemoh is an African Australian physician currently living in Melbourne.

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  1. I agree with your rejection of biological conceptions of race. But I do not understand your unwillingness to “accept racial categorization”. What about social conceptions of race? Do we even have a choice to accept or reject how we are racially perceived, in a social sense? In most circumstances, we do not have control over our (social) racial identity. For this reason, I do not think many Black Australians of non-Indigenous background have the “choice” you propose you specifically (and perhaps all African Black Australians more generally) have: a choice to reject your blackness within an Australian context.

    I.e. just as one (out of many) examples, consider the reports written about how policing distinctly impacts black Australians of African descent, particularly males. For instance, see: http://www.communitylaw.org.au/flemingtonkensington/cb_pages/images/Boys%20Wanna%20Give%20Me%20Some%20Action.pdf

    Are you saying the black African men mentioned in the above study, then, have a “choice” to “reject” their blackness as a political move, even though it is their blackness and nothing else that makes them subject to such horrific, racist and racialized policing? If that’s the case, it seems to me you are recommending that black African Australians participate in a collective act of deliberate self-confusion, which is an incredibly dangerous and problematic course of action to recommend.

    Finally, I agree with you that we should all support the self-determination of all Indigenous people (including their reclaiming of blackness). But this does not mean black African Australians cannot equally share in a black Australian identity. To me, the sharing of blackness by Indigenous and non-Indigenous black Australian communities will lead, in the longer run, in much greater and more inclusive solidarity. I do not see how the sharing of Australian blackness by Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups takes away from Indigenous self-determination. This, I think, is one of Natasha Guantai’s points, and it is a persuasive one. She refers to Bobbi Sykes as an example of an activist who argued for a more inclusive blackness but she is not the only one. When Gary Foley talks about blackness, he seems to take this more inclusive approach, and he seems to strongly call for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous black communities to come together in solidarity to fight anti-blackness collectively, as this will result in a stronger movement. Sharing blackness is compatible with recognizing and acknowledging the distinct Indigenous experience of blackness in Australia: isn’t this what the intersectionality movement has taught us?

    1. I don’t recommend.I explained my own position, based on my own experiences. I cannot dictate how others see me or how they label me, but I do not feel compelled to allow them to define me in perpetuity. I feel that is like allowing the opponent to dictate the terms of engagement: a recipe for defeat.
      I am well aware of the racist police profiling but the community response to it was not a simple “them vs us” approach. It was much more sophisticated, using multiple approaches and in collaboration with many allies – including some within the police force.

      I don’t have any hostility to Natasha Guantai’s position. It’s valid. It’s just that I started from a similar (not identical) position and reached a different conclusion.

      As for intersectionality – it has been gratifying to see scholars articulate clearly ideas that had only half-formed in my growing mind. However, I do not think it is enough to describe the various ways in which we are labelled, categorised, divided and deceived. I would rather turn the gaze back and use a process of elimination to identify who it is (not “what groups”, but “who”) that is gaining from all this – and sort them out.

  2. “Today, I am the result of a tangled web of migrations, conflicts, intimacies and influences that resist simplification” writes Chris.

    This says it all, and current homogenising and dichotomous classifications just don’t address these realities and histories of contestations, connections and complicities.

    If only we could all acknowledge our multiplicities as part of decolonizing practices. For example, how and why did Southern European migrants adopt racist attitudes and practices toward Indigenous peoples in Australia? How does the “migrant worker myth” i.e “developing Australia” in mining, building railways, canefields and orchards as part of our simplistic definition of “multicultural history” fail to address the racism, misogyny, violence and oppression that accompanied such projects?

    My mother came to Australia and was taught to call Indigenous people “Abos” and “boongs” and was given a horrendous description of them. As a young migrant woman from a tiny Italian village where the only “black man” she had ever seen was an African-American soldier who the girls were kept away from, it took years for my mother to undo such fears and prejudices. And it began with local Indigenous neighbours and workmates challenging her.

    Thanx Chris for this “personal and/is political” essay. It sure resonates with my background and my work.


  3. Thank you Chris for such an articulate and eloquent article. I identify as black when I am in the UK (or would in the US), but circumstances in Australia are different. Eg in the States and the UK – even in the Caribbean, there is not a black indigenous population (but Arawak Indians / Native Americans).

    This distinction is becoming increasingly important.

    Yes, I consider myself an ally. Yes, my skin may be the exact same tone as my indigenous neighbour. No, this is not my land. So: no, I am not going to use a label which may intimate I have equal claim to it / that I bear the same legacy of colonisation. I feel that saying that I am an ‘Australian of Afro-Caribbean descent’ as opposed to a ‘black Australian’ is a very important distinction.

    1. “In the states . . . there is not a black indigenous population”.

      Perhaps a little simplistic. What about the Cherokee Freedmen, Black Seminoles and similar groups?

      Even if you don’t think that being freed from enslavement to Native Americans entitles you to membership of that Native American nation (which is a contentious theory of emancipation) many of these Black people have ancestors who were Indigenous and hence are members of their tribes even under the stricter “blood” test for membership.

  4. Thank you Maxine and congratulations Dr Lemoh on your fluently expressed thoughts concerning the label ‘black’. Labelling other human beings according to the colour of their skins denotes a puerile mentality and inadequate education on the question of difference. It is not only a distancing but a deliberate deprivation of identity.

  5. Great article, Chris. I really enjoyed (and identified with) this line: “Today, I am the result of a tangled web of migrations, conflicts, intimacies and influences that resist simplification”—it really zeroes in on how complex (racial) identity is, and how people of colour navigate heterogeneous realities.

  6. To add: I think it’s incredibly important to recognise how much of US culture (alternative politics to boot) we import and as a result mirror wholesale. This Black vs. White argument is a great example, as with the term “People of Colour” (which I use quite uncomfortably, but only because I have yet to find a substitute). Thanks for contextualising this, Chris.

  7. ‘…and ruthless marketing of legal and illegal substances of addiction.’ What an assumption. As a consumer of both I have in my four decades never run across either. Ever. I’m now on meds and that too is handled with delicacy by my psychiatrist. Even doctors re: RSI back injury were hard to convince I needed painkillers. The struggle to get enough to get through the day was enough to send me into real not imagined depression. i sought advice from my psychiatrist who was on my side. suffice it to say it took around 4 GPs till I found one who would prescribe me enough pain killers to get through the day.
    As for ‘addiction’ that is mendacious. I traveled in the NWFP of Pakistan where opium is smoked legally and was invited to partake of a few pipes and did. Twice. And that was that. End of session. Being legal there were no addicts anywhere!
    What can be proven though is that addictive types will be addicts in whatever they do.

  8. A non-Indigenous Black Australian author no longer feels able to refer to herself by her racial identity. It’s going to be difficult to convey the same meaning without using the word ‘Black’:

    ”We were the only black children for miles around. If we saw a black person in the street, my mum would run and get their phone number.”

    “Turning up for a job and seeing their faces, because you don’t sound black on the phone.”

    May 3, 2014, http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/maxine-beneba-clarke-20140501-37iro.html#ixzz3VSeDpdAQ

    “As a non-Indigenous black Australian, the Beyond Blue advertisements are excruciating to watch. I’ve been there: in that interview room;”

    “Less than a week later the only other black student in the class, a friend of mine…”

    “Black Australian footballer Heritier Lumumba (aka Harry O’Brien), also a star Collingwood player…”

    October 6, 2014, http://rightnow.org.au/writing-cat/no-singular-revelation/

  9. I don’t think this issue really comes up except on the Internet when people can’t see what you mean when you say you’re Black. South Sea Islanders & immigrants from the Pacific have been living in Australia for ages & have been called Black without co-opting Indigenous people. In Sierra Leone there are different ethnic groups as well as descendants of repatriated Africans from America does it get confusing who is Black? None of us called ourselves Black.

    It’s a problem when a few non-Indigenous people want to colonize & force Indigenous people to conform to their definition of Blackness but that mostly happens on the Internet too afaik.

  10. Thanks for your comments thus far – especially to Natasha, whose piece set my musings in motion.

    I am glad to have this conversation. As I hope I conveyed – this is a personal view, resulting from experiences growing, living and working in particular places and times. I have no doubt that my take on this differs from other people from African (or African/Black diaspora) backgrounds in Australia – and those who are born here might have different perspectives from those who migrated here from Africa, Europe, the Americas etc. Views also change over time according to the challenges we may face, the achievements we attain, the responsibilities we shoulder and the relationships we form. As long as there is mutual respect and some scope for reflection, it’s all to the good.

    I should add that there have been comments made elsewhere about who might benefit from promoting a divisive or hostile dialogue amongst people who are Black (indigenous or non-indigenous), African (Black or not), or “people of colour” (of whatever hue, race, ethnicity, nationality etc).

    I didn’t mention another strong influence on my thinking: the Brazilian folk art of capoeira – the most widely known martial art tradition of the African diaspora. The learning and practice of this art has required engagement with many questions of history, identity, power, conflict, creativity and storytelling.

    One wonderful resource exploring the family of African diaspora martial traditions is this book by TJ Desch Obi:

    One chapter deals with the art of “damyé” (ladja) in Martinique: an art that provided opportunities for (male) self-expression and catharsis – in the fighting arena created by the slave-owning class.

    In capoeira we engage with each other in a ritualised combative dance, which may include cooperative creation of aesthetic movements, or competitive testing of each others’ stability and self-control. However, whether playful, fierce or treacherous, the game in the roda (ring) is still a game and it is training – a mock-battle and theatrical performance to prepare us for the real battle outside the roda. It is with that spirit that I offer this piece up for consideration and criticism.


    1. Very interesting Chris.
      On Brazil, do you think that the rest of the world can learn something from Brazil on this specific issue? In the way that there is no one drop rule there and, indeed hyphenated identities are uncommon.
      It seems most people in Brazil are quite unaware even uninterested in their ethnic background. Nor are they labelled as anything but Brazilians by others most of the time.
      Clearly, Brazil has many issues around race, e.g. in regards to the fact that afro-descendants are significantly poorer than non afro-descendants.
      But i feel that in terms of culture being so hybridised and open, as well as the lack of labelling to be something progressive

      1. Thanks, Jacks.
        I am no expert on Brazil as a whole. My understanding is that is was a very brutal colonisation process but that the Portuguese were less into racial segregation than say, the British. This may have something to do with many Portuguese having African ancestry even before they ventured to the Americas – their early slave trading to West Africa was to rebuild their agricultural workforce in Portugal itself.
        In Brazil, there was a complex series of interactions between the indigenous peoples, the Portuguese, the African slaves and various other European invaders. When Brazil had its republican dictatorship, there was a very strong nationalistic push to erase race/colour as a social category, but it was still evident that poverty and marginalisation were colour-coded to a large degree. In the 60s and 70s, I get the impression that some activists started using the rhetoric and strategies of the American Black Civil Rights movement to challenge the established inequities (in a similar fashion to Indigenous people in Australia) – there was a revival of Afro-Brasilian culture, of which capoeira was a a part. Nevertheless, the national identity does seem very strong and able to cross other divides as long as there is respect for the other dimensions of identity. The influence of religion and spirituality may have something to do with it, since Roman Catholicism provides a different environment than Protestantism, and the interaction between Catholicism and African spiritual traditions is a strong influence on individual and cultural expression. To me, it does seem less rigid than the US-style thinking, but I am not well-informed about the details. I am sure that race politics in the US is more complex from within than it appears to an outsider, too.

  11. Natasha, I’d love you to engage intellectually or academically with my above comment, and the differences I outlined – which I don’t think you’ve ever done in your writings. Clearly in the linked pieces, my background was clearly established: in the first half of my article, by the use of the terms ‘person of colour’ and ‘Non Indigenous Australian’ etc etc etc and in the interview, by a complete survey of my background by the person interviewing me. If you had read my comment properly, instead of frantically googling in an attempt to discredit me, the very importance of this distinction is the ESSENCE of my above comment. In fact, my above comment contains nothing other than the explanation that, for specific historical and practical reasons, in the Australian context, that the use of ‘black’ MUST be qualified, and that I make a personal decision to steer away from using it where practical. This is my last comment here on the matter, as experience dictates this would be prudent.

    1. Maxine,

      A few points.

      1. I don’t think Natasha Guantai has ever *not* qualified that she is a non-Indigenous Black person, throughout her writing on race. Her work is quite consistent in that regard.

      2. How do you expect others to engage intellectually with your above comment when you can’t even address concerns that have been raised about its factual accuracy yourself?

      3. Your very “prudent” use of gaslighting to frame another non-Indigenous Black writer’s voice in Aus as some sort of troll, is disappointing.

    2. Maxine, your description of Heritier Lumumba as “Black Australian footballer” in your rightnow.org piece (“No Singular Revelation”) is “unqualified”. How do you reconcile this with what you’ve stated in your comment above? I don’t think any reliance on an ambiguous “ESSENCE” is going to help you resolve this contradiction.

  12. Maxine, I have never claimed to be Indigenous. Describing myself as Black does not intimate a claim to Indigenous sovereignty, particularly when I have clearly identified myself as non-Indigenous from my very first tweets on the topic of being Black in Australia. It asserts a claim to a certain set of experiences. What those experiences have been, and continue to be, I have written about in other places. One aspect of them is that, unlike some other members of the African diaspora in Australia, I am not an “Australian of such-and-such non-white descent” except in the crudest biological terms.

  13. Natasha, I am actually trying to engage with you on this one. Neither of your comments engage with my thesis at all. That thesis is a very simple one: that Australia is different from say, the US or the UK. because it has had, since the beginning of time, a black population (the term black being not just a recent form of self identification, but how the entire world has historically seen, and continues to see, Aboriginal people), and that because of this major difference, there may be very unique practical, historical, respectful, political and social reasons for African diaspora people to want to qualify their blackness in Australia, and indeed for Indigenous and other Australians to welcome this acknowledgement. If you would be interested in responding directly to this proposition I’d actually be interested to hear what you have to say. To state that you personally have never claimed to be Indigenous is rather beside the point.

    1. Maxine,

      In your latest comment you say “Australia is different from…the US…because it has had, since the beginning of time, a black population (the term black being used not just a recent form of self identification, but how the entire world has historically seen, and continues to see, Aboriginal people”.

      If you understand race both as a social and relational phenomenon, then “Blackness” does not exist in Australia until the arrival of the first white colonisers. I don’t think you can retrospectively attribute a social phenomenon that only emerged in 1788 to “all of time” (unless you are relying on a more biological conception of race which Lemoh is right to reject). In other words, Blackness as a social concept simply does not exist in Australia prior to 1788. This imported process of racialisation would have been true for non-Indigenous Black people in Australia: as Natasha Guantai points out and as Cassandra Pybus has documented, there have been non-Indigenous Black Australians since the arrival of the first fleet, who were also impacted by racialisation since then (and perhaps before if they were brought over by or travelled with white settlers). This is not to say Indigenous and non-Indigenous Black people experience (or experienced) racialisation in the same way – instead, just to make the point they both have been racialised as Black in Australia since 1788. This is an exploration of Blackness as a social phenomenon, where communities are racialised as Black by the white (non-Black) gaze – and not as “a recent form of self-identification” (although “Blackness” as a social phenomenon and “Blackness” employed as a mode of self-determination are probably interconnected in some ways).

      If your argument is to do with land ownership (you say “no, this is not my land. So: no, I am not going to use a label which may intimate I have equal claim to it”), it is difficult to see how that prevents one’s racialisation as Black in the Australian context? Would you argue that South Sea Islanders who were “blackbirded” to work in Australia are not Black Australians (or at least must “qualify” their Blackness and “steer away from using it “[Black as a self-identifier or as a description of the racialisation they experience] where practical”, even though their claims to land ownership may be contestable in similar ways to yours?

      Your approach results in a particularly selective memory and historicisation: one that silences and erases certain communities who have been subjected to white supremacy in Australia. How can communities be expected to come together in allyship if they are being asked to deny their experiences in this country – which will obviously include their experiences of racialisation as Black – in order for that allyship to take place? What exactly are we aiming to ally against with such partnerships? The conclusions that follow from your argument would suggest that white supremacist racism isn’t on the table.

  14. Thanks, Ally – your post covers the salient points.

    For more on the following…

    If you understand race both as a social and relational phenomenon, then “Blackness” does not exist in Australia until the arrival of the first white colonisers…This imported process of racialisation would have been true for non-Indigenous Black people in Australia:…there have been non-Indigenous Black Australians since the arrival of the first fleet, who were also impacted by racialisation since then…


    This is not to say Indigenous and non-Indigenous Black people experience (or experienced) racialisation in the same way – instead, just to make the point they both have been racialised as Black in Australia…


    Would you argue that South Sea Islanders who were “blackbirded” to work in Australia are not Black Australians…, even though their claims to land ownership may be contestable in similar ways to yours?


    Your approach results in a particularly selective memory and historicisation: one that silences and erases certain communities who have been subjected to white supremacy in Australia.


    1. Thank you, Natasha. Your work, in this area, is groundbreaking. Apologies if it wasn’t explicit that your research and writing heavily influenced this response to Maxine’s points. Thanks for providing the links.

  15. It is amusing that a bi-racial man who identifies from a white perspective that he can produce an article erasing the black identity of Africans. It is also amusing to see the number of non-black people of colour commenting as if somehow they have a say in the conversation on blackness in Australia

    Thanks to Overland’s white editorial in engaging in a conversation that belittles and erases the identity of African-Australians.

    Natasha, thank you for opening up this critical conversation on blackness. Despite the pushback, this conversation is needed. It makes no sense considering that so much of blackness in this country has been appropriated and borrowed from the African diaspora in particular the African-American diaspora for people to then deny blackness to African Australians.

    As for Maxine, whether you no longer identify as black is up to you. However we black african-australians would therefore appreciate it if you stopped writing about us in your native informant ways.

  16. In this comment stream, I’m talking about the use of the word ‘black’ as used as an unqualified indicator of descent/origin. I thought this would have been pretty clear in my initial comment, when I made the specific distinction between my chosen descriptor of ‘black Australian’ and ‘Afro Caribbean descent. (ie: the fact that I would never introduce myself as a ‘black Australian writer’ does not mean that after I’ve clearly established my background, I wouldn’t talk about having ‘black skin’).

    To me, to use ‘black’ or ‘black Australian’ as an unqualified indicator of descent (and I note that the above commentator interestingly decided to qualify their use) leads to ambiguity in the Australian context because of the different history I outlined. When we hear about Black Deaths in Custody, it’s important to understand that this is an indigenous issue. When we read the headline “Tony Abbott’s Close The Gap Report Card: A Roadmap For Destroying Black Australia” we should be able to make a distinction between African/diaspora Australians and Indigenous Australians – in my opinion.

    I’m descended from the African generation which experienced dispossession of land, stamping out of culture, stealing of children and erasure of language. As well as this, once taken from the continent my African ancestors were forcibly installed on the land of other indigenous populations who simply did not survive as a people. I’m sure this legacy greatly impacts makes my perspective, experience and viewpoint on what kind of recognition is owed to people with a more recent experience of colonisation in the country in which I was born and live – just as the personal experiences/histories of others commenting here has influences their views.

    There’s absolutely no doubt that non Indigenous Australians of colour have suffered in Australia – historically or in contemporary times. And yet, we are direct beneficiaries of the colonisation and oppression of indigenous inhabitants, in the same way that other migrants are. This is not ‘selective historical memory’. It is a fact evidenced by our very being-here.

    I agree that solidarity is key, particularly when it comes to things such as combating racism, but I feel strongly that this shouldn’t occur through a ‘black’ Australian homogeneity which does not fully take into account the indigenous experience and the linguistics around it.

    Thanks to Overland for publishing this article, and to Chris for writing it. It’s great to finally see another spin on this issue from someone in the African diaspora Australian community.

    1. What you said is that Africans in Australia shouldn’t call ourselves black because of Indigenous and First Nations claims or rights to the ‘label’. This is because of historical, practical and linguistic reasons. You did not mention qualifying black ID until challenged. Maxine, you used invidious definitions of race. Blackness and Indigenousness were separated except in Australia. Indigenous is non-black, non-Asian, non-white overseas and that foreign ‘non-black’ Indigeneity can be used as a point of comparison to Australia. When Patrick Emerton questioned your simplistic racialisation, there is no response. It behooves you to not back peddle and if you are wrong about racialisation to update your knowledge. To put it simply, there are Afroindigenous people in the Americas. There are indigenous people who are black in the Americas. Your comparison as a justification for your making the distinction here is moot.

      Aboriginal and Torres Strait Strait Islander people define their blackness and identity with no outsiders getting in the way. We define ours too. We don’t make claims to land, the same process of colonialism. We seek to understand solidarity. We can try to act on this. Some of us do. Black is not only a political identity and as black is not just a political identity, there are other ways to use it besides a simple descriptor of skin colour or as perceived bowing down to biological categories. If Aboriginal people have more claims to black as Lemoh argues, my only option is not to refer to myself as black because of black skin as you imply Maxine. Why I call myself black is more complex than that. It is for a combination of reasons (history, looks, how I am racialised, pride, political, deepest love for Black African diaspora, because I am a woman, and other reasons), and is far more nuanced than what Lemoh describes. ID how you like but do not erase people or our identities.

      The ‘person above you’ qualified black in Australia because of the practical need through language to define different groups so that readers know who is being spoken about. From my reading, they do not have the same agenda as you, which is to tell the rest of us black Africans what to call ourselves. But if you read what M said in this narrow way, I say to you that identity is not a language game. If you want to link not calling yourself black to solidarity as if solidarity can be enscapulated in language this way, then be my guest. Black is not just a ‘label’ that I can change like I change my underwear. Maxine I think you understand this element at least, but you do not want to hear how it matters for some black Africans in Australia. Lemoh, you do not understand this at all.

      Finally, it is illustrative how it is three Australian-born people who have some African heritage are the ones perceived as having the most to lose from this argument or the most definitive voices due to their deference around black. Maybe all three of you, Lemoh, Maxine and Guantai can listen to the voices of black Africans who were not born here. We have something to add to this too.

      1. I originally felt compelled to say something on this topic because I saw the effect that the denial of African Australian Blackness was having on others (as well as myself) and I felt partially responsible for causing that denial to have been declared.

        I appreciate your contribution. Thank you.

    2. I do not use ‘Black’ as an indicator of descent/origin. I use it as an indicator of my experience and who I am. Clearly Black means different things to different people depending on their experiences of racialisation. You can’t expect others to follow your dictates on race based on your personal experience/definition of race.

      I’m not really sure what point you make in telling us about the colonisation of your ancestors. That if anyone can claim Blackness you can, so if you denounce it we all should? Or simply trying to earn Black credentials? I don’t know. Yes, we all agree that non-Indigenous people benefit from the colonisation and oppression of Indigenous people. What is your point here? That we can’t be Black because people have suffered and continue to suffer for our benefit? That we can’t be Black because we have privilege? By that reasoning US Blacks are not Black either. Or rich South Africans are not Black even if they are Indigenous.

      I agree that using unqualified ‘Black’ can lead to ambiguity. This is why I qualify my use of Black. But I have used qualifiers such as ‘non-Indigenous’ Black and ‘non-Aboriginal’ Black in the past and still been met with outrage that I dared to call myself Black. And I have called myself simply ‘Black’ yet had that characterised as me referring to myself as ‘Black Australian’. So your rules of qualification are irrelevant. And frankly, they imply that I do not qualify my Blackness, although I do – as people on this page have testified.

      How does calling myself ‘Black’ fail to take into account Indigenous experience? Do you really think that people are going to be confused about who we are talking about when we refer to ‘Black Deaths in Custody’ if we also use ‘Black’ to refer to African Australians? When The Age ran the headline: ‘No one should be stopped by police just because they’re black’, it wasn’t difficult to work out that it was African Australians being racially profiled. And when Black Harmony Gathering is celebrated, ‘Black’ refers to both African Australians and Indigenous Australians together. It doesn’t mean that they homogenise into a single Blackness, performing the same dances and singing the same songs.

      Denying people the language to express their racialisation is cruelly punitive. What benefit does it give Indigenous people? Ensuring that African Australians aren’t confused with Indigenous people in a newspaper headline? According to you, if I were a South-Asian Australian it would be okay to call myself ‘Brown’. Why should non-Indigenous Black people carry the burden of compromising our racial identity when no other racial group – especially whites – need compromise their identity?

      The solution is not to deny a group of people the language for their identity. The solution is to be clear and respectful in referring to Blackness, and being mindful of when discussions of one group may have implications for others.

  17. I am interested in why Natasha’s expression of Blackness has elicited so much hostility from contributors to the discussion here and elsewhere who have gone so far as to attempt to undermine her well-considered contributions as irrational and ignorant. I wonder why she inspires such hostility in the Australian context and would like to say something about how it appears to me, as an outsider.

    In the context of shared identity in the political community, individuals demanding inclusion into a citizenship project are going to be acting from a variety of subject positions – e.g. as women, Afro-descendants, lgbt, ethnic and religious minorities – which necessitates considering expressions of difference and how these groups experience inequality as they are excluded from the common community of citizens. The argument that Afro-descendents, like white settlers accept the premise of the colonial settler state and are therefore engaged in displacement of “First Nations” indigenes – the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – when they had no say in where they happened to be born implies they must carry the blame of their predecessors, both white and black. Also implicit is a nativist argument that declares “I was here before you.”

    In the West this has contributed to the vilification of immigrants and relies on a sense of group identity based on exclusion and superiority available to white people but increasingly, previous waves of immigration resort to employing the same arguments. Thus, where I live, in the UK, Afro-Caribbean communities articulation of resentment towards Polish migrant workers for taking “our houses and our jobs” is similar to the way their families were repudiated by the white working class 40 years ago. Whereas, the extreme right parties like the BNP in Britain and Marine Le Pen’s NF describe themselves as Indigenous Caucasian people.

    In the context of Australia nativism assuming true Australian identity as white views Afrocentric notions of Blackness as ineluctably foreign. And indeed, Natasha’s work in this area increasingly elicits thoughts that such identity construction is foreign and has no place next to those being developed by people such as Celeste Liddle and Maxine which are seen as authentic and legitimate. Where nativist conceptions of authentic identity have flourished it has been in connection with the idea of white anglo culture’s superiority to the unassimilable Others whether they be Aboriginal, African, Indians, Asian, Latino. All have suffered discrimination, inferiorization, displacement and dispossession.

    In the US situation, for instance, Mexican Americans are viewed as belonging elsewhere even though they have lived on US soil longer than most Anglo-Americans. These nativist claims have led to demands for differentiating whose claims are legitimate and whose are not. Natasha’s claims to Blackness as an expression of her identity has nothing to do with such claims but is seen as both threatening and less deserving and comes under the twin pincers of Indigenes and white Australians claims to citizenship. Indigenous Aboriginal claims thus follow the white majority model in formulating Indigenous identity in its most racialised form. And in its most divisive expression requires the use of DNA testing of indigenes to determine who is authentically Aboriginal as preparation for who can lay claim to the land; in effect it is a subset of nationalistic rhetoric.

    Adopting Black identity does not involve negating some Other or even all Others but is instead a recognition of a multinational black culture concerned with discovering the grounds for shared identity that doesn’t involve racism, ethnocentrism or supremacist tenets and which also avoids essentialist constructions of identity. I see Natasha as merely affirming this connection. And I understand Lemoh’s position as an expression of liberal identity and actually see it as a retreat from the discussion opened up by Natasha’s intervention and the subsequent arguments. Lemoh’s work argument that race is not real (as it is discredited as a biological fact) fails to capture the complex ways that race operates & in my view naively assumes that by ending the use of racial concepts will somehow solve the way in race overdetermines the life chances of non-white peoples in the Anglo-sphere.

  18. This is a really interesting and thought-stimulating article.

    I am “white” in colour, but I find some automatically associate this with “anglo-ness” and I had this happen recently with a well meaning but assuming friend who’s background is Indian. The truth is, I am Australian with English (both convict and later migrant), Italian, Greek and Aboriginal heritage. The mother of three of my siblings is from Sri Lanka. My husband is Australian with a Maltese-born father. What will my kid be? I don’t know but I will let them work out their own identity.

    I don’t like to label myself or others, and if making reference to that identity in passing in their company, i would use their preference if i know what it is. If referring to a First Australian, i still use the word aboriginal out of habit and maybe personal preference of mine, but if i know that person prefers another term, i will use that term. I generally don’t use the word “black”, but may sometimes use it to describe African Americans in context of conversations with American friends (although i will usually opt for AA).

    I have long thought that “black” has a different term here. It can be a loaded term, depending on a country’s history, politics and ongoing social regard for certain groups. Not that i can speak from personal experience, but i feel this is a much more loaded term in the US, and the use of the terms “blacks” (black people or African Americans) and “whites”. I have encountered a few who have called my siblings “black” and i found it strange somehow. They are darker skinned than me, maybe light brown, but it’s not a term i have heard them identify themselves with and it’s not a term i have used to refer to them. I don’t even call them Sri Lankan, unless someone asks me about their background (noticing in appearance we are different in colour) then i will say their mum is Sri Lankan.

    Unfortunately, some labels can be socially and politically loaded terms. For some, the term black is something they identify themselves with and may be something they equate to strength and struggle against adversity and oppression and achievement in the face of that. For others, maybe it’s not carry this meaning… I find it all very interesting though.

    But i do think that self-identification is a positive move.

  19. In addition… i also have American friends who use the terms “biracial” to identify themselves or others, and “interracial relationship”. I don’t know what either term makes me or my family, but i am uncomfortable with both of these terms for myself and personally by Australians or in an Australian context?

  20. In addition… i also have American friends who use the terms “biracial” to identify themselves or others, and “interracial relationship”. I don’t know what either term makes me or my family, but i am uncomfortable with both of these terms for myself, and personally do not use them. But has anyone here heard these terms used by Australians or in an Australian context?

  21. Disclaimer. As a South African youth of the seventies I was educated in and adopted the philosophies of Black Consciousness (BC) – The genesis of Black was a way of thinking – different to that of the dominant Anglo/Saxon thinking – This Black ( pro community ) thinking was a direct challenge the White ( individualist ) thinking. So White thinking made BC more about colour/race than about how we relate to each other.
    This article exemplifies the dominance of White thinking – 🙁
    And yes – the 80/20 rule applies here as well. 80% of Black skinned people still hope for a Black thinking world.

  22. Thanks, Natasha.
    I read your essay. I don’t agree with some of what you say, but it certainly furthers the discussion in a positive way, not least by touching on some African Australian history (like John “Black” Caesar – who arrived with the First Fleet in 1788) that I did not touch upon in my writing and which may be unknown to some interested readers. There are some assumptions that are incorrect, but I will comment there.

  23. Reflections on ‘Shards of Black

    In 2015 I wrote a short essay on the place of blackness in my own identity as an African Australian. I called it, ‘Shards of Black’, although it was given a less ambiguous, more provocations title by the online magazine ‘Overland’ in which it appeared. That piece was a fair expression of my thinking at the time, but by 2017 some things have changed.

    Firstly, I have become increasingly – delightedly – aware of growing solidarity between Indigenous and African Australians in resistance to racism. The uneasy place of black migrants in relation to black Indigenous people in a settler-colonial country is being vigorously and positively discussed in a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect, rather than being glossed over as in former days.

    Secondly, I have become more starkly conscious of the white supremacist nature of Australian nationalism. Some will laugh at me for this – how could I not know? As I wrote before, I was shielded from this ugly reality: by a loving (largely White) family that did not discuss racism; by a professional social environment that does not tolerate open racial vilification; and by an attractive image of cultural pluralism – multiculturalism – that celebrated the cosmetic and consumerist aspects of cultural diversity, without addressing the underlying power structure in this country. White supremacist thinking doesn’t always reject non-white people: it accepts them (tolerates them) as long as they know their place. As long as we know our place. Some non-white people ascend in the ‘multicultural’ social hierarchy of white supremacy and are useful to it: they play by its rules and accept that they will never come first, but neither will they stay at the end of the line. There is no security there, however – as Yasmin Al Magied most horribly discovered: the minute we threaten the sustaining mythology of white supremacy, we are torn down.

    Thirdly, American cultural influence has become even stronger – thankfully not just the mass pop-culture, but also the cultures of resistance, such as Black Lives Matter, building on the Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s, plus the subsequent hip-hop Black activism of the 1980s and since.

    Fourthly, Black African kids have grown up in Australia since the late 1990s and early 2000s in Black African communities: they are now adults, having grown up seeing and facing the same ignorant racism that we did decades before – but as collectives rather than individuals. There is no doubt in their minds that Black Australia refers to them as well as Indigenous people, because finally…

    … the racism we all face has become even more overt – in its on-street personal abuse; its faux outrage about accusations of racism that overshadow the racism itself; its authoritarian, untouchable violence; and above all, its systematic and illegal abuse of non-white refugees and asylum seekers, who are only treated in the appalling way they are, because none of them are White and some are Muslim. Since the sunny, forward-looking days of the 1990s, which celebrated the new, multicultural Australia (still shamefully silent about real reconciliation with Aboriginal people), we relapsed into conservative, insular thinking, where the British imperial heritage of Australia was lauded at the expense of everything else. The walls went up. Government surveillance and harassment of non-white people increased – border protection, the Northern Territory Intervention, racial profiling in policing – and the dogs of hate slipped the leash to bark on mainstream and social media with seeming impunity.

    The New Right Australia is the old White Australia and I am feeling blacker every day.

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