The Hate Race
Maxine Beneba Clarke
Published 9 August 2016 by Hachette Australia
Read from 14 March to 15 March 2017
“I retired to my room after afternoon tea one day, and scooped my exercise books out of my schoolbag. Plonking them down on the desk, I noticed a small carefully folded rectangle of lined paper poking out from between my history and English books. Dots of red ink had bled through the paper.
Grade nine was the age of note-passing: of secrets too previous or terrifying to utter aloud. The girls in my class documented the boys they had crushes on in heart-shaped origami, which they passed around the classroom. They unfriended besties with paper aeroplanes…
…I pulled it out from between the books, unfolded it. Printed in large red block letters were the words: FUCK OFF BACK TO WHERE YOU CAME FROM.”
The Hate Race is a powerful memoir and important reflection on Australia’s shameful and deeply ingrained racism. Maxine Beneba Clarke, a widely published and highly lauded Australian poet and writer of Afro-Caribbean descent, recalls the early years of her suburban Sydney life in a manner that is factual and effortless.
Clarke cleverly has us drinking from the Cottee’s nostalgia cordial from the get-go, appealing to the ‘ordinary’ Australian in us all. But each time we see ourselves as we want to remember it [Hey, remember me? The as proud-as-punch Student of the Week in prep, ready to tell the class all about how my favourite colour is yellow and my favourite Hubba-Bubba flavour is grape?], she sucker punches us with a forceful truth delivered with equal ease:
Mrs Kingsley looked furious. ‘You know what I am asking. Why are you being so insolent? What country were you born in?’
‘This one.’ My head was hurting now.
‘Oh,’ said Mrs Kingsley ‘Well…where are you parents from?’
‘They came here from England.’
Mrs Kingsley was glaring at me again. A boy called Matthew, who was sitting at the back of the room, right next to where our teacher was standing, started laughing.
‘They’re not from England!’ he said scathingly. ‘My nanna’s from England and your parents are not like her. They’re not English, Mrs Kingsley!’…
…‘I want you to go home and ask your parents where they’re from,’ said my teacher. ‘And you can come back and tell us properly tomorrow.’
Clarke leaves breadcrumbs of her storytelling heritage throughout The Hate Race, subtly constructing her story as an Afro-Caribbean ballad. Regular refrains remind us that we are all characters in this story of race relations:
‘This is how I’d have it sing.’
‘This is how I tell it, or else what’s a story for.’
‘So went my early childhood. This is how it sang.’
‘This is how it changes us. This is how we’re altered.’
‘This is how it entices us. This is how we succumb.’
‘This is how it grips us. The way it draws us in.’
‘This is how we shame it. How we make it break.’
I’ll admit there were times early on when I found these refrains a little trying, sometimes obtrusive (and dare I say, pretentious?). But as I read on I could see how Clarke was using the rhythm of her ballad to show us how storytelling can be an act of resistance, and can inspire it. There’s an excellent critical feminist essay to be written on this approach, I’m sure! This said, the bulk of The Hate Race is written in such an accessible way that someone who doesn’t overthink and overread - perhaps someone that doesn’t often read at all - would power through unaware of Clarke’s song.
I have no doubt there’s an abundance of reviews out there that begin with “there is so much of Maxine’s story that rings true for me - the Cabbage Patch dolls, Book Week dress-up parades, Inspector Gadget, the cream brick houses, the pet tadpoles, the clag glue, the white-history-only school curriculum. Her childhood was just like mine [only, OMG, I am suddenly so aware of my white privilege] [only my family migrated from X and I’m so happy I’m not alone in these experiences].” These reviews are great, they are important, they show us that The Hate Race has us looking critically at our own reflection. But a book like this needs to be read more widely. It deserves to be shouted about beyond the echo-chamber of these halls. It needs to be read by the Carlita Allens in whose preschool declaration of ‘You are brown’ “lurked…an implied deficiency”, by the Marcuses from the debating team who don’t understand the very real harm of racist culinary symbolism, the Maxine Beneba Clarkes who use ugly, abusive words to retaliate against pity, by those who are racist, by those who stand silent, by those who close their eyes. In short, this book should be read in Australian schools.
And if my word isn’t enough, take this:
P.S. Mark my words, The Hate Race will take out this year’s Stella Prize.