Anthony Ekundayo Lennon, the white director who has identified as black, is on the receiving end of a backlash from black and ethnic minority actors. They are aggrieved that Lennon has taken a black person’s place on an Arts Council England-funded programme. The Independent’s Paula Akpan lambasted Lennon, “you don’t get to pick and discard which signifiers of blackness you’re going to wear. Choosing when to don a cape of blackness is a luxury that black people do not have”. Yet substitute the word ‘black’ for ‘woman’, and you suddenly see why it was possible that Lennon felt he could simply become whatever it was he felt inside. Self-identification is everything, sensible debate is effectively stifled; why shouldn’t Lennon live as a black man if he feels like it?
The Independent went on to say that for Lennon to actively “claim space” that wasn’t his and “purposefully misrepresent” himself “goes beyond ignorance – it’s entitlement. It’s deciding that this identity and culture is yours for the taking, no matter who it hurts”. But didn’t Germaine Greer say pretty much the same thing about trans women before being ‘no-platformed’? Logically race is no more or less interchangeable than gender, so I wonder why we see it as sacrosanct?
Lennon’s story is an interesting inversion of my life. I am half black, mixed race, dual heritage, bi-racial – whatever – but nobody would guess by looking at my face. My father arrived on a boat from Trinidad in the 1960s and married my mother, a white working class girl from Waltham Cross.
In 1970-80s Britain, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was the only brown kid in the village, a handy receptacle for racism, casual or targeted. Lumbered with a ‘funny’ name as well as a brown face, aged seven I changed my name from Linden to Lisa in a desperate bid to fit in, something the BBC’s Kamal Ahmed also admits to having done.
Ironically as an adult I now fit in so well that my ethnicity is all but ignored. This is excellent if I want to simply be assessed on how good I am at doing my job. But what if a slightly darker skin colour would win me prizes and promotions? Would I embrace more loudly my black heritage?
Many years ago, Greg Dyke denounced the BBC as ‘hideously white’. Shortly after these remarks, I sat through a compulsory BBC seminar on increasing diversity and promoting staff, especially BAME women, to change this. The then head of diversity for news, a white, gay man (natch) banged on about how passionately he was going to approach this task. I said to him, “so you’re looking for people like me then? I’m half black”.
He glanced at me and said, “no you’re not”. Until that point it had never occurred to me to play the race card to get ahead. Clearly it wouldn’t have worked as I simply didn’t fit the BBC’s stereotyped image of a half black person, so in its eyes I wasn’t one. My children had their first taste of this topsy-turvy world when they acted in a short educational film that I produced. I cast another boy, James, as the lead because he was brilliant, not because he was black. Upon the film’s release I was delighted to see on Twitter that an eminent head teacher was to show it in her school.
But then the backlash begun. A (different) teacher tweeted: “I would (use the film) if it was representative of the world we live in – am shocked at its posh, all white children cast. Only BAME is the presenter”.
I responded by pointing out that I knew for a fact that two of the other children in the film are of mixed black Caribbean descent, even if their ethnic heritage isn’t immediately obvious. This resulted in some hilarious back-pedalling by some people who were not sure where they should stand on children who are BAME but don’t look it.
Is it my son’s fault that he has his dad’s blue eyes and lighter skin than his sister who’s brown eyed and mocha like me? Does that make him any less a part of our black Trinidadian side of the family? Should he sit in the corner and not enjoy the goat curry, roti and callaloo?
The trouble is that when we start judging people solely on whether they look “right”, we create an idealised version of the truth from which other people like myself and my offspring end up being deleted; and people like Anthony Lennon can prosper at the expense of others.