Maxine and I grew up in the same country, during the same era. As a New Zealander, I was also a little different, and I was discriminated against by one particular teacher, but this wasn’t widespread. I am white. My best friend was Australian-Indian – she was born there, but her parents weren’t. Reading this book made me think harder about what the impact the colour of her skin must have had on her. To me, she was my BFF. When we returned to NZ when I was 11, I was none the wiser about her experience.
What happened to Maxine Beneba Clarke by virtue of the colour of her skin, growing up in a small town in NSW, Australia, was unforgiveable. Maxine is Australian, her parents, as far as she was aware, were from England. Her first experience of racism was at preschool, at the hands of a pretty blond girl who stated, “You are brown”. While she had realised she wasn’t white, she hadn’t realised that this was perceived as a bad thing until that point. And from that point forward, many wouldn’t let her forget it. At primary school, she was star of the week, and when telling her teacher her parents were a Mathematician and an Actress she was assumed, by the teacher, to be lying.
She prays to a God she doesn’t believe in to become white, like everybody else, and one day it happens. Her skin starts turning white. Her mum takes her to the dermatologist, who diagnoses vitiligo. It doesn’t last, she turns dark again once the summer returns. Later she notes, “By grade eight, the wake-up-white prayers of my childhood had been well and truly reality-checked. I knew it would take an awful lot for broad-nosed, coffee-toned, B-cup, study-freak me to make the grass-greener leap.”
Maxine is a skilful storyteller, and grounds each segment of the book in its place politically, and socially. Her love for her family and friends shines, while she tells her stories of torment without the grainy taste of revenge. And it was torment – every time she moved schools, changed after-school activities, there would be a group of people who had been allowed, even trained by their culture to ridicule her. There is no doubt in the book, that this treatment of race was/is insidious and endemic in the White Australian culture. She spoke to a guidance counsellor who said it was a ‘little bit of teasing,’ when she had nasty notes being placed in her bag, her books, telling her to “go home”. She took another bullying incident to the principal, bawling, who said ‘It’s just a little bit of nonsense.’
But though there is misery, and this is a memoir, it is not – somehow – an overwhelmingly downbeat read. “The margins between events have blended and shifted in the tell of it. There’s that folklore way West Indians have of weaving a tale: facts just so, gasps and guffaws in all the right places, because after all, what else is a story for?” Maxine’s storytelling lifts us when we need it, and the depths we plumb are of the behaviour of others, and how Maxine changed as a result. The boys at her high school played a game at the entrance to the girl’s toilets: ‘What are you?’ She had to give the right answer – “A blackie.” – to get past. It is in that chapter that we get the full sense of how this was creating her as a person:
“…I was Sooty, Boong, Thick Lips.
Somewhere along the line we give up counting.
Somewhere along the line, we just give in.
Somewhere along the line, we stop reporting.
Somewhere along the line, we die a little.”
I had the privilege to see Maxine at Auckland Writer’s Festival, speaking live to a multicultural group of high school students. She was one of the most powerful performers I’ve ever seen on stage.
I think every white person should read this, everywhere. Not just in Australia, nor just in New Zealand: everywhere. “Everyday racism” shouldn’t be a thing. “Black Lives Matter” shouldn’t be necessary to state. All high schools, too, should have this book on their shelves. This is about racism: this is about bullying based on something a person can’t change. It is important for teenagers to understand the impact words can have.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster
The Hate Race
by Maxine Beneba Clarke
Published by Hachette