Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir The Hate Race is the story of an Australian childhood blighted by racism

Maxine Beneba Clarke lays bare the horrors of growing up black on the outskirts of Sydney, to parents of West Indian heritage.

Maxine Beneba Clarke was born and raised in the Sydney suburbs. Her parents – a mathematician and an actress – emigrated to Australia from England in the 1970s.

After success on her school’s debating team as a teenager, Clarke finds herself being interviewed as an entrant for the Lions Club Youth of the Year competition.

“Where are you from, Maxine?” asks one of her interviewers, so she takes a deep, patient breath and replies: Kellyville, Sydney.

“The woman smiled, as if mildly amused that I didn’t understand … ‘Where were your parents born, I mean, sweetheart?’”

What follows is like a scene from a nightmare in which one finds oneself scarily unable to communicate even the most simple information to one’s interlocutor.

Clarke writes: “‘My dad was born in Jamaica, my mum’s from Guyana,’ I said curtly but politely. ‘You mum’s from Ghana? I have an old friend who lived there for a while.’ Frank wrote something down on a notepad. ‘No, she’s from Guyana,’ I corrected him. ‘You must mean Ghana.’ Frank shook his head, smiling. ‘Guyana, in the West Indies,’ I said. ‘You have those striking African looks!’ he responded. ‘I very much doubt your mum’s from India.’ He and Susan chuckled.”

Compared with some of the more bile-filled attacks Clarke recounts in this memoir – the ute driver on a sleepy suburban road who slows down to scream at her to drown her own child; the vile names she's called by her classmates; the anonymous hate mail someone covertly slips between the pages of her school textbooks week-in, week-out for months – this example of small-minded ignorance might seem fairly benign, but The Hate Race expertly illustrates how racism is a one-sided war of attrition: "Somewhere along the line we give up counting," Clarke writes. "Somewhere along the line, we just give in. Somewhere along the line, we stop reporting. Somewhere along the line, we die a little."

It’s heartbreaking to read of Clarke’s school counsellor dismissing racist abuse as “a little bit of teasing”, a woman who immediately becomes more “businesslike” when Clarke tries claiming she has an eating disorder instead (the kind of issue associated with “pretty white girls”), “as if here was an actual real problem”.

But as I read, I was ashamed of the impotence, and of the indulgence, of my distress. “I don’t want sympathy,” rails Clarke internally when another mum on the school run attempts to comfort her after the encounter with the man in the ute, “I want to un-hear what I just heard, un-experience what just happened. If racism is a shortcoming of the heart, then experiencing it is an assault on the mind.”

At times, it’s an outright attack on her sanity. Those around her deconstruct and reconstruct her identity, trapping her at every turn as she’s reduced to stereotypes both negative and positive. “It’s in your blood. You folks are built for it,” her sports teacher tells her, confused by her slow times running track. “What if I just needed coaching?” Clarke ponders; if she was good at running she’d be doing something “a real black person could do”.

One of the most interesting responses I came across to Jordan Peele's recent race-relations horror Get Out was a black viewer explaining how perfectly the sustained tension of the film replicated what it meant to go about one's day-to-day business as a black man in the United States: always vigilant, no more than one moment away from being attacked, verbally or physically.

Clarke’s extraordinary memoir achieves something similar. As she takes pains to point out at the end, in many ways her upbringing was “privileged”, but this is a book “about a very specific aspect of my childhood: interactions and misunderstandings around race and ethnicity”, the structure of which draws on oral storytelling traditions – “That folklore way West Indians always have of weaving a tale. This is how it happened – or else what’s a story for” – which is poignantly set against the colonial, white history of denying non-white narratives.

The only book in her school library about Jamaica contains a single page, “a footnote” at the end, about the slave trade; and what the children are taught about Australia’s own indigenous people is little short of lies: “Captain Phillip tried hard to be friendly but the Aborigines were violent and hostile,” reads their history textbook.

For all the horrors within its pages, The Hate Race is as elegantly written as its subject is important.

Clarke’s voice is rich, resonant and uncompromising, impossible to ignore.

Lucy Scholes is an independent journalist based in London.