Freedom. Black Americans in Australia feel free: a strange notion considering we have not been slaves since the 1860s. There aren’t many of us here yet. A popular Facebook group for African-Americans living in Australia has just over 1000 members. The majority of us are in Sydney and Melbourne, but a growing number are also in other capital cities like Brisbane. Our arrival is a mixed bag of moving for education, work and love.
We come from a country where racism sits at the intersection of every facet of life. Healthcare, the justice system, school, home ownership, and even the cleanliness of the air you breathe, or how safe your drinking water is, are all navigated based on your skin tone. Much of our energy is spent fighting for, or preserving, these basic rights in a country that tells us how privileged we are to call ourselves ‘American’. Progress moves in a drunken shuffle while our nerves remain on edge.
‘The harvest is plenty but the labourers are few.’ He was referring to the overabundance of highly interested women and not enough African-American men to match their numbers.
Then, we land in Australia and it feels different. While it is no promised land, the ever-present tension on our shoulders, the weight of gravity on our backs, changes. It changes, as in it alters its impact on our body.
But like any other colonised country, racism exists here too: it arrived by boat. It first made itself known to me on a partly cloudy Sunday, while I worked at my wife and I’s food business selling plant-based “soul food” in Potts Point. A young white woman approached our stall to make a purchase. She immediately recognised what we offered: African-American cuisine from the southern USA. Soul food is the edible transformation of the scraps tossed to us during slavery: the fatty pieces of hogs, leafy ends of vegetables or bitter root vegetables that black people turned into magic. We now sold this cuisine in a mostly white suburb filled with yoga and pilates studios and fresh juice bars.
The young woman glowed while discussing her love of the music wafting from our speaker: in this case, it was Maxwell’s 90s hit ‘Sumthin’ Sumthin’. She confessed that underneath her slightly tanned skin was the vibrant soul of an African-American woman. She looked at me and said, ‘I looove black music, soul food and black men.’
Her ‘adoration’ was more of a ‘fetishisation’.
For black men, the white Australian fetish is often based on myths about black male phallic size and prowess in bed. The thirst, as our community calls it, is evident whenever black military service members take shore leave. I recall one year, while living in Woolloomooloo, seeing a news story featuring American sailors on shore leave. They were here as part of annual war game exercises off the eastern coast. Later that night, while at a nightclub in Kings Cross, a white woman in a sea-blue skirt sauntered up to me. ‘Are you in the Navy?’ she asked. I said ‘no’ and she moved onto the next black target. The club was split like a grade school dance with girls on one side and boys on the other until several African-American men entered the club. It wasn’t long before they draped over white Australian women nestling their noses into sticky necks.
For black men, the white Australian fetish is often based on myths about black male phallic size and prowess in bed.
One single black male I knew arrived in Sydney to work in retail for a couple of years. JR had a wealth of experience in the USA and came over on a sponsored visa. After spending a significant amount of time within Sydney’s dating scene, he had a saying for it all: ‘The harvest is plenty but the labourers are few.’ He was referring to the overabundance of highly interested women and not enough African-American men to match their numbers. He told me that every Australian woman he slept with always asked him the same question: ‘How big is your…’
Another oddity in Sydney is the “urban” nightclub scene itself: White-run clubs soaking up black American culture without actual black people. They include ritzy dens or glittering rooftops where bouncers scrutinise us. A popular club in Martin Place had a couple of large Pasifika men as bouncers at the door eyeing my friends and me up and down before settling on our shoes: designer Nike sneakers that just wouldn’t cut it. It is a frustrating practice as I often try to overdress my way into clubs to reduce my chances of being denied entry. Michael, an outspoken friend of ours, in an act of protest, gave it to the bouncers. He labelled them pawns: Brown Yes-Men plucked out by the white club owners to faithfully reduce the number of other brown people allowed inside. People of colour who are taught and trained by white people to marginalise other people of colour is the embodiment of what African-Americans call an ‘Uncle Tom’.
White-run clubs soaking up black American culture without actual black people.
This single encounter wasn’t enough to convince one friend of ours, George, that the Double Bay nightclub was racist. JR, who was also out with us that night, decided to return with him a second time to the club. When they were both denied entry again, he recorded George’s face on his phone, a look that can only be described as dumbfounded.
I keep a personal rule to write off attending any establishment where I have ever felt slighted due to the colour of my skin. It is a practice that I brought over with me from being discriminated against in my hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina.
It’s for this reason that I won’t return to one hotel in the Rocks that’s famously known for their stunning view of the Harbour Bridge. On a balmy Saturday evening, we’d walked up to a second-floor cocktail bar via some bygone-era wooden staircase. There, we had an excellent first round. I drank an elegant Negroni while my wife consumed a well-executed vodka martini, her drink of choice to accompany the giant Afro wig that she was wearing.
From there, we debated about whether to proceed up to the third floor to admire the famed harbour view, but ended up going for round two instead. Then we parked ourselves on one of the tables outside. My wife and her friend commented on the men in the bar while I enjoyed a Corona. We became conscious of a white bouncer wearing a fluorescent vest near the entrance. He looked at us curiously. After a little while, he awkwardly walked over and told my wife that she was visibly intoxicated and asked her to leave. I shrugged him off like this: ‘You have the wrong woman.’ It was a silly comment because we were the only people of African descent inside the bar.
The white bouncer was indignant, replying: ‘We’re allowed to have the wrong one mate!’ He claimed that a staff member said my wife had been visibly wobbling on the second floor. They forced us to leave the bar while yet another, brown-skinned, bouncer looked on in silence. Before we departed, my wife calmly approached him, stating that he knew exactly what was going on in this situation and that his silence made him an accomplice to our unfair treatment. The brown bouncer just stared at her wide-eyed, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else.
Just like the United States, racism preys on us here. Someone whispers ‘Blackie’ as they pass by me at a train station, or yells out ‘n*****’ down the aisle of Woolworths. Half the time I’m wondering if I heard them correctly. It’s not easy to always keep up your racial guard. A lapse in focus means some instances go unchecked. Feelings of violation and rage collide in those moments. At the same time, there’s a feeling of powerlessness.
Someone whispers ‘Blackie’ as they pass by me at a train station, or yells out ‘n*****’ down the aisle of Woolworths. Half the time I’m wondering if I heard them correctly.
The culprits on the other side, who have only appeared to be white thus far, have no idea what variety of black I am. If I speak, revealing from my accent that I’m an African-American, overall treatment generally improves. This is due to the fact that there is a ‘Hierarchy of Blackness’ across nations.
The second entry in my hyphenated nationality as ‘African-American’ translates to currency. The ever-changing skilled migrant sponsorship visas give us status as part of a highly trained and experienced workforce from one of the world’s largest, most diverse, and complex economies. We bring our ‘hustler’ mindset to a country that runs at half the speed we are accustomed. America, in her generational abuse of black people, gave us an incredible work ethic, fierce determination, and ambition to seize any sliver of opportunity. It moulded us for such a country ripe with opportunity and fewer barriers for upward mobility, at least for African-Americans.
While there is still a multitude of strides for this multicultural, isolated continent to make, we do tell friends back home that Australia is about as close to a meritocracy as we have seen so far. It feels like black Americans have more job prospects and greater opportunities to start businesses (like my wife and I did), or change the course of their career here.
I can’t ignore the biting irony of our ascendance as black Americans while many Indigenous black people struggle in this country. One people were stolen from their land while another had their land stolen. But the freedom that I experience here is welcoming to a foreign person who feels unwelcome in his own country.
The article is part of a collaborative series by SBS Life and Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement which is devoted to empowering groups and individuals from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds through training and employment in creative and critical writing initiatives. Sweatshop is directed by Michael Mohammed Ahmad.
Our African Roots premieres at 8:30pm Sunday 17 October on SBS and SBS On Demand, as part of the Australia Uncovered strand of documentaries. All documentaries will be repeated at 10pm Wednesdays on SBS VICELAND from 15 September.