It’s a Monday night and I have plans to meet a writer. She is everything I aspire to be – honest, empathetic and transformative. The American and I are among the first to get to The Dendy in Newtown and are promptly ushered into the ground floor, cinema number two. We decide against sitting in the front row, a metre away from where two empty stools are placed. Sitting instead in the second row I reason I can take photos and stare without being completely obtuse. Within half an hour the cinema is full and she is walking down the stairs. Maxine Beneba Clarke. Her earrings hang bright and low from her ears. Her hair is cropped close to her head and in my mind I’m trying to memorise it all. Her publisher come interviewer begins by admitting they’ve just taken a shot of whisky before coming on. Laughter breaks the silence.
I came across her books by chance, The American and I were in Better Read than Dead on King Street when he picked up Foreign Soil and handed it to me – you might like this. He was right. Later Maxine would write in the cover of that book, ‘Dear Grace, From My Heart to Yours, Maxine Beneba Clarke’ I’d gush like a school girl and get a photo taken of us where I’m smiling so big my lips disappear into my face.
That night at The Dendy was the launch of The Hate Race, Maxine’s childhood memoir of growing up black in a predominantly white suburb of western Sydney in the eighties and nineties. The interview takes up most of the time and I sit there enraptured and squishing the desire to run up and hug her. She spoke about the difference between writing non-fiction and memoir, the desire to capture the feelings of a childhood self and the fear of misremembering. She spoke about how her mother sent her a review of the book she said was her favourite where the writer wrote ‘Maxine’s mother is a pillar of parental integrity’. More laughter. Then there is question time. What has most stayed with me from that night was Maxine’s response to a question – Could she speak a little more about her experiences with friends who stood by while she was the victim of racism and bullying?
Maxine’s response was to refer to what she tells people and even her own children about being a by-stander – that there is something everybody can do.
‘The thing with bullying is that there is the person being bullied, there’s the bully and there are the twenty-six other people in the room’.
Let me tell you a story.
It begins on a packed, peak-hour train on Sydney’s Western line. In a carriage full of commuters sits my sister. There is a man of Indian descent sitting a few rows in front of her. He is speaking on the phone in a language other than English. A woman is sitting in the row directly behind this man and begins to mumble to nobody in particular but her voice rises until it fills the dead air with We’re in Australia, why don’t you speak Australian? The woman continued her diatribe with exactly what you would expect to follow that sentence. She spoke for ten, maybe fifteen minutes.The carriage was silent except for the cut and slash of the woman’s words and the man on the phone who was, maybe, oblivious to the abuse he was the subject of. When he finished she said, Finally! Nobody stirred. Eyes were averted and people shifted in their seats I’m sure. My sister, moved by her anger and indignation, spoke out. You’re all the same was the retort. It was close to Seven Hills station where my sister gets off. She was mad as a dog and about to say something more when other commuters said, Just leave her alone. Just keep walking. Other people shook their heads at my sister and looked at her as if to say, look what you’ve started.
There was the bully, the person being bullied, my sister and all the other people in the carriage. Hers is a story that is not unique. She did what many of us fail to do, what many of us think is not our role or place to do. We are too often conflict-averse and would rather sit this one out than stand up for a stranger. We think our voices don’t matter, that it won’t make a difference and that is our first mistake. Words change the world is what Maxine wrote on the inside cover of my copy of The Hate Race. She’s right. It’s not important exactly what the woman said or exactly what my sister said. What she was really saying was this:
Your hatred is not acceptable here
You are not allowed to treat people this way
You will be called up on your actions and the words you say
We will speak up so that it is known, so that hatred does not grow in the comfort of silence.
In my brief experience trying to advocate for issues I believe in, I have realised you cannot achieve much by preaching to the converted, to those who would and have already pledged their allegiance to your cause by virtue of being directly affected by it or morally outraged.
We are the sum of our voices and if we are to achieve anything we must build a chorus that sings from all parts of society – not just those you would expect to cry out. We need to create a culture where people who are not directly affected by issues of racism, discrimination, abuse, neglect, imprisonment, violence, vilification and all the other acts that spring from the thought You are worth less than me, stand up for and support those victims of such acts. We need to see how devaluing other human beings devalues us as a whole. We need to remember that we are all connected.
We need to be willing to give up the safety of our silence and enter into conflict. We need to realise that our silence is not safe, that it creates a dangerous culture and legitimises hateful thoughts that can turn into violence.
What I loved about the Sydney rally in August against the offshore processing of asylum-seekers was that there were university students, grandmothers, teachers, unions, families and in October there will be another rally headed by doctors and nurses. What we need is the loudest and broadest voice we can that says in no uncertain terms that the Community we are a part of is more love than hate, more acceptance than intolerance, more Maxine Beneba Clarke than Pauline Hanson.
We are the other people in the room and we will not be silent.