I used to live in Houston, in a deteriorating rented apartment with my mother, brother and grandmother for most of my younger years, until I moved away to attend university in Austin at the age of 18. After finishing my master’s degree, I moved to New York to see if I could survive in the big city. From New York I went back to Austin, next to Chicago and then Albury-Wodonga in regional Australia.
In 2011, while I was working in Orange County, I received an email from the hiring manager at Charles Sturt University advising me that I made the shortlist of applicants for the Director of a new long day centre operated on campus. I would also be able to teach at their School of Education on occasion. The email stated the Australians wanted to conduct a phone interview. While I sat in a fishbowl meeting room in LA, surrounded by hipster freelancers and start-up employees, a hiring team of four white women sat around phones in Albury and Bathurst and interviewed me about my suitability for their vacant position.
‘I take it you have never been to Australia, Sydnye. We’re a long ways away from Sydney.’
Next, they flew me to Albury for a face-to-face presentation and interview. During my presentation, the wide-mouthed grins and smiles lingered and then there was a big round of applause. Two days later, I was offered the job. In all that time I had not fully considered what it would mean to live in Albury-Wodonga.
In all that time I had not fully considered what it would mean to live in Albury-Wodonga.
Growing up in large American cities taught me so much about adapting to new environments, but none of it prepared me for daily life in Albury. On 15 November 2011, I arrived and started my education on regional Australian life along the New South Wales-Victoria border. The first person to show me daily Australian life was Frank. He worked as a principal at the high school where most Aboriginal and migrant students attended school. He was a 50-something man of European descent who enunciated each syllable with a slight delay on the last one on each sentence. I remember Frank wore suits every day, even in summer.
Before I left the building on my first day of work, Frank provided me with a printed list of metric conversions, which I carried around for several years. I had no idea how many kilometres or litres were involved in travel by car. Each time I pulled out the conversion tables to calculate how many grams were in a third of a cup, I thought of Frank and his suits.
Growing up in large American cities taught me so much about adapting to new environments, but none of it prepared me for daily life in Albury.
Then there were lessons about blackness in unexpected moments. Beatrice, an academic, walked into my office while I sat at my computer typing. ‘Hey, I attended your presentation when you flew in for the job interview.’ Beatrice was a thin woman with salt and pepper hair framing her sun spotted skin. I gave her a polite generic response to which she replied, ‘There is a very large Sudanese community here.’
I turned, squinted and crunched my eyes and mouth toward the centre of my face, then turned back to the screen, my hands and shoulders stiff from hours at the desk. Beatrice stood there in the door frame for a few seconds longer. When the silence remained, she left.
Georgina chirped like a myna when she described the difference between residents of Albury, NSW and Wodonga, Victoria. ‘We’re called Mexicans because we live south of the border.’
I tried to hold back, but the words flew out of my mouth. ‘People live and die on that border.’ I was referring to the Rio Grande river that separates my native Texas from Mexico. Everyone in Texas knows about the brutal crossings of people seeking entry into America through the dessert and across the river. People seeking humanitarian visas to enter America risk their lives to reach the southern American border, which is currently at the centre of President Trump’s manufactured national emergency. This is no laughing matter. It is a humanitarian crisis fueled by racism.
Clementine was one of the first people to invite me into the Albury culture. We met at work where she was a casual employee. It is possible I felt beholden to her because she tolerated my strange big city American ways and my blackness.
One time, I told Clementine I was going to ride my bicycle to the gym from my new residence in Lavington. ‘Don’t let them mistake you for an Aboriginal person,’ she warned me while pouring skim milk into her mug of Moccona.
I mumbled, ‘What? Why would they do that?’ The layers of discrimination unpeeled in my brain in a way that wouldn’t register for her in the space of a single conversation. What she meant was that blackness was defined as otherness in Australia and subject to targeted racist ideologies. She identified for me that the specificity of my blackness mattered because I might be exempt from some anti-black racism. I am not Aboriginal or Australian-born, so my American identity made me a different kind of black and buffered my African identity. In contrast, an Indigenous black person would be subjected to particular bigotry rooted in the Australian colonial anti-black racist paradigm. This was the first instance in which I was made aware that the Australian colonial history provided me a privileged blackness that I had never experienced in America. In Australia, the exoticism of my African-American blackness is tolerated and even celebrated at times, particularly through the consumption of black fashion, films, language, literature, music and television.
My journey in Australia began along the New South Wales-Victoria border. From there I moved to Sydney. The cultural baggage I acquired in Albury-Wodonga took some time to unpack. I remember being asked back then, ‘How is Australia?’ I felt like I could not honestly answer that question because my experiences were based on living in a regional community of 88,000 people. If asked that question today, I would say, Australia is a land with a rich black history that dates back tens of thousands of years and I have so much more to learn about the history and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in order to understand what it means to live in Australia.
*names have been changed
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.