Roxane Gay has been to Australia three times, but her first encounter with the country’s Indigenous people in 2015 came before she’d even stepped off the plane.
‘Are there any black people in Australia?’ she tweeted.
The reaction was swift: ‘Are you serious?’ ‘Just wow.’ Some simply commented, ‘Odd’.
The interpretation of the tweet by many was that Gay was erasing the experiences of Indigenous peoples in a colonised country.
Well, not so. Speaking to NITV during her recent visit Gay explained that she simply wanted a hair relaxer.
“I was thinking about how I was going to need to get my hair done while I was in Sydney and I was wondering if there were any black people of African descent in Australia, and I did not know at the time that Indigenous people consider themselves black,” she says.
“I learned more about the Indigenous community here, so it ended up being a good thing.”
“Australians are very attached to this narrative that Australia is a land free of racism”
Gay returned to the country in March for a discussion with conservative thinker and self-titled ‘factual feminist’ Christina Hoff Sommers, and used the trip to deliver some pointed observations about the country’s race relations.
Her visit coincided with a statement released by Queensland Senator Fraser Anning in response to the Christchurch massacre. Anning blamed Muslim immigration for a massacre perpetrated by a white supremacist from the mid north coast of Australia. The senator has since been censured in a bipartisan motion and expelled from an exclusive Qantas lounge. But that hasn’t stopped the disgraced Senator from being able to register his own political party.
“Australians are very attached to this narrative that Australia is a land free of racism,” Gay says.
“I find that to be inexplicable given the very real statistics that are not the only story about the Indigenous community, but do speak to historical inequalities that are very much at play right now.”
This denial was on full display when Gay appeared on the ABC’s Q&A program last month, she says.
During the program, Gay's co-panelist and Liberal Party vice-president Teena McQueen responded to a question from Wiradjuri and Māori woman Latoya Rule, who said she was worried about the rise of neo-nazism in her home town Adelaide.
McQueen responded by saying she didn’t “see the growth of white supremacists” as a concerning issue.
“We have a lot of people who are living in communities who absolutely enable and uplift white supremacy,” Gay responded.
“They look the other way or they don't say anything, or they engage in these conversations, and then when people point it out, they just say, 'What are you talking about?'”
Gay says to bridge that understanding, people of colour often assume the duty of educating the wider community.
“The reality is we should not have to carry white people's water," she says.
"We should not have to take this time of educating them time and again about things that have been going on for hundreds of years. And yet here we are."
"Our communities are galvanising"
Despite the very real adversity black communities in the United States and Australia are facing right now, Gay says she is encouraged by the power of Black art.
A few years back, Gay entered the Black Panther universe as a writer for the comic book series, World of Wakanda,
Along with Yona Harvey, this made Gay the first black woman writer of a Marvel series. Although World of Wakanda was discontinued, Gay's work has not. She has since recently teased a new comic book series titled, The Banks.
"I do think it’s a responsibility to expand the black imagination and show black people and black children what is possible with enough imagination and with enough temerity,"Gay says.
"I am also encouraged by the ways in which our communities are galvanising, and even though there are these overwhelming things that we’re facing, we are not becoming complacent and we’re not giving up."
You can watch the full interview with Roxane Gay here: