I feel some sympathy for the director Anthony Ekundayo Lennon. According to the Sunday Times, which broke the story last weekend, he’s the beneficiary of an Arts Council England grant intended for ‘theatre practitioners of colour’ even though he’s white. To obtain the grant, Lennon described himself as ‘mixed heritage’ but what’s interesting about this case is that both the Arts Council and the theatre he’s linked to are standing by him. They have defended his right to identify as a person of colour, claiming it’s not an act of deception but a choice he’s made and which they respect.
Needless to say, he’s come in for a fair amount of criticism from the left-wing theatre community, including some prominent black actors, and he may yet be thrown under a bus. But this poses an interesting dilemma for the identitarian left. If it’s perfectly fine for someone born male to identify as female, why isn’t it OK for someone born white to identity as mixed heritage?
Lennon is the son of two white Irish parents and has never made any secret of the fact that, genetically speaking, there’s nothing black about him (beyond the African ancestry he shares with all Caucasians). On the contrary, he appeared in a 1990 BBC documentary in which he talked about being a white man who thinks of himself as ‘black’ and has even published an e-book on the subject. His reason for identifying as non-white is that he has caramel skin, high cheek bones and short curly black hair, all of which make him appear to have mixed heritage. In addition, he was racially abused as a teenager in Kilburn in the 1980s, so maintains he knows what it feels like to be a member of an ethnic minority. He had difficulty persuading directors to cast him in white roles when he started out as an actor and decided it would be easier to audition for non-white parts — one reason he decided to ‘Africanise’ his name. It’s a kind of deception, I suppose, but not a particularly egregious one. Lennon has done his best to be as honest as he can about who he is, circumstances allowing.
There’s a parallel here with Rachel Dolezal, the white American who had to resign as president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in 2015 after her employers discovered she wasn’t black. She was widely condemned by the social justice left for masquerading as a member of a ‘victim group’ when, according to them, she was the beneficiary of ‘white privilege’.
The debate took an interesting turn when an associate professor of philosophy called Rebecca Tuvel wrote an essay in an academic journal arguing that those who defended the right of Caitlyn Jenner to identify as a woman were being inconsistent if they condemned Dolezal. She pointed out that you cannot object to Dolezal on the grounds that she was born ‘privileged’ by virtue of her white skin, without objecting to Jenner on the grounds that she was equally ‘privileged’ by virtue of being born male.
After the essay was published in April last year, Tuvel was condemned by ‘woke’ academics for being ‘transphobic’, ‘racist’, ‘triggering’, ‘unforgivable’ and just straight out ‘crazy’. Less than a month afterwards, a letter signed by 830 academics calling for the piece to be retracted was delivered to the periodical and at least one member of the journal’s editorial staff took to Facebook to issue a grovelling apology which was described by a defender of Tuvel’s as ‘like something Isis makes its captors read in a hostage video before beheading them’. Most of the condemnations of Tuvel relied on a distinction between ‘transgenderism’ and ‘transracialism’ that, for those unfamiliar with the complexities of gender studies, were difficult to grasp. The best argument, explained to me by Bradley Campbell, co-author of The Rise of Victimhood Culture, is that transgendered people are regarded as belonging to a victim group before they’ve ‘come out’, as it were, but transracial people aren’t. But that doesn’t apply to Lennon, since his appearance meant he was regarded as non-white — and suffered accordingly — before he began to identify as mixed heritage.
I hope Lennon keeps his job. He clearly has a passion for the theatre and has done his best in a world hamstrung by politically correct nonsense to carve out a career for himself. Far from having to return the money to the Arts Council, he should be awarded an Enterprise Grant and applauded for his inventiveness.