Changing the name of a local street because it is derived from a racist slur might seem a simple decision at first glance.
But the reality has proven more complicated when it comes to Hottentot Crescent in Mullumbimby’s Tallowwood housing estate.
The street was given its name because of the hottentot fig trees that were planted there in 1993.
But the word ‘hottentot’ itself is a racial slur that has been directed toward members of the Khoisan tribe in South Africa for hundreds of years.
Earlier this year Byron Council was approached by a local resident who argued that the crescent should be renamed.
In response to the approach Council sent letters to the 23 houses on the street asking for their views.
It received a wide range of responses, from those who felt the strongly that name should be changed, through to those who strongly believed it has become part of the local identity that has nothing to do with its racist derivation.
‘Generally speaking, the submission arguments for retaining the current street name were based on the name referring solely to a tree species,’ Council’s Director of Infrastructure Services Phillip Holloway said in a written report to this week’s Council meeting.
‘Doubtless there are many residents in the area and within the Byron Shire more broadly who are unaware of the name containing any other meaning beyond naming the relevant tree.’
‘Against this, the resident opposing the name argues that the tree name itself is racially loaded (whether this is broadly understood or not), because it is linked to the South African first nations people group the subject of the slur – the Khoisan people – who used the tree for food during South Africa’s colonisation.’
Mr Holloway noted that the resident who contacted the Council started a petition in late June which, at the time of writing, had 370 signatures supporting the renaming.
However, he pointed out that it was impossible to determine where the petition supporters lived.
Mr Holloway also noted that the proposed name change would come at a cost to the residents of the street in terms of administration and inconvenience.
There was also a regulatory cost to Council in following the proper process to change the street name.
‘These costs should be balanced against the hurt caused to people impacted by racially loaded language; even in an instance like this where the difficulties associated with the name have their origin some way from 2023 Mullumbimby, where the road name doesn’t “speak” directly to anyone, and where people use the name in good faith only for the purpose of naming a tree,’ Mr Holloway said.
‘Equally, it is acknowledged that in a culture where much communication happens online, there is arguably a higher risk of someone discovering the street name’s existence and feeling the weight of its alternative meaning than in years gone by.
‘The potential audience for the harm is located both within and beyond the Byron Shire.’
Mr Holloway said it was a decision ‘on which reasonable minds can differ’ but that his report erred on the side of replacing the name.
‘It does this on the basis that there is more lasting value (however difficult to measure) in trying to minimise the type of hurt this particular name could cause some people over the long term, over the value in avoiding the (largely short run) costs to Hottentot Crescent residents who oppose the change.’
The matter will come before Council for determination at this week’s Council meeting.