The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke

In Maxine Beneba Clarke’s twitter bio, she says “I try to write beautifully, about ugly things.” And that’s precisely what she does.

The Hate Race is a stunning, devastating, and powerful memoir. Clarke tells of her ‘typical’ Australian childhood – there was just one major difference between her and the rest of her classmates – she has brown skin.

The most striking thing about The Hate Race is how similar Clarke and my childhoods were. And also how very, very different.

Clarke and I both new the joy of a first bike; catching tadpoles; perfecting bubble-writing; watching Degrassi Junior High and The Cosby Show; and playing mixtapes on our boom boxes. Her description of her local swimming pool was exactly like my local swimming pool –

“The local outdoor swimming pool was all thigh-scalding concrete bleachers and grungy changing rooms with there-since-forever hairs caught around the shower plugholes. The toilet floors were always wet with pool water from peeled-off swimmers and who knew what else. The only salvation was the pool kiosk. stocked with banana Paddle Pops, Ovalteenies in orange foil packets and fifty-cent paper bags of chewy red and green frog lollies.”

This is one example of dozens where Clarke described things that were so familiar to me, so exactly like what I remembered.

But I never hid in the toilets at lunch time.

I never had kids calling me a ‘filthy bitch’ and ‘dog’ because of the colour of my skin – and then teachers tell me that it was “only teasing”.

I’ve never had a stranger pull over in their car and tell me to “Go the fuck back to where you came from.”

“Greg Adams called me dirty and disgusting. He recoiled when I came near him, in a deliberately exaggerated way. Greg Adams hated wogs, and chinks, and niggers, and abos, and curry munchers. His hatred was wide, and loud, and vicious, and entitled. His hatred knew no bounds.”

This is terrifying stuff. And I only had to read it.

I could go into detail about Clarke’s arresting writing, her cleverly structured text (based around the Afro-Caribbean storytelling tradition from which she is descended) and her repeated use of the poetic line, “This is how I tell it, or else what’s a story for” but it’s not necessary. What you will take from this book are the similarities and differences in childhoods. And how damaging that can be.

I wish this story had a happy ending but I’m afraid it does not – casual, overt and institutionalised racism still exist. As Clarke writes –

“I love this country, but I believe we could be so much kinder to each other. So much more equitable. So much better. I hope I live to see it happen.”

4.5/5 I want to make this book ‘required reading’.

My parents held lots of dinner parties in the eighties and my brother and I were like little scavengers, the After Dinner Mints the main prize –

“Cecelia, Bronson and I would hang around the kitchen sneaking soft white dinner rolls and after-dinner mints until shooed to bed.”




13 responses

  1. “Required reading” when I was at school, a generation before you (my kids watched Degrassi High), was the Fringe Dwellers, which on re-reading clearly blames the Aboriginals, but I guess it was a way in to the discussion about race – which was largely unnecessary as we were not only all white, but all Anglo. I understand the teachers’ need to pacify rather than confront, but we are clearly doing a bad job, race-wise as a society and hopefully books like this will give us a way in.

  2. This sounds powerful. That final quote could apply to so many areas/countries, depressingly enough. Being kinder to each other is such a valuable lesson, so simple and yet could be huge, if we all adhered to it.

    • The thing that frustrates me the most is that the people who could learn the most from this book would be the last ones to read it. But additionally, it’s such a powerful way to show that racism begins with very small kids, and that those kids are sharing opinions they hear at home. Many of Clarke’s bullies are let-off in the basis that they’re little and ‘don’t know any better’ – well, teach them!

  3. Clarke’s story collection Foreign Soil, published last year, was amazing—not a single misfire, every story a gem. On the strength of it, I’ve got a proof of The Hate Race, and anticipate it even more with your review behind it.

    • I thought this was even better than Foreign Soil – perhaps because there were elements of her story that were so familiar but in both books, her writing is outstanding.

  4. I liked this book a lot, too. I should be required reading for teachers, policy makers, teenagers, parents etc etc. We have so much to learn from stories like Maxine’s.

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  6. Great review Kate. Damaging is the word I was seeking when I wrote my review – I used gut-wrenching and devastating (as did you) but damaging is a great description.

    BTW I’m with Bill, it was my kids who watched Degrassi!!

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