“When my hair was shorter it looked like a little afro.”
The discovery that a British director has been getting government funding for “theater-makers of color” despite being “indisputably white” is forcing the identitarian left to contend with some of its inherent contradictions.
Last week the Sunday Times revealed that one of the Arts Council England’s diversity fellowships — a taxpayer-funded program offering black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) artists a two-year residency at an established theater — was granted to director Anthony Ekundayo Lennon, who had previously described himself as white, but had applied as a “mixed-heritage” individual.
The fact that Lennon’s pedigree is utterly Irish (his parents have been described as “indisputably white” by the BBC) is belied by his dark skin tone and once-thick black hair. Because of his distinctive appearance, he grew up being perceived by his surrounding as a child of mixed-race, which was fodder enough for racial slurs and abuse.
“When my hair was shorter it looked like a little afro and people just assumed you’re half-caste,” Lennon said on a 1990 episode of BBC’s “Everyman” that focused on the black experience in Britain. “When I was younger I would try to explain. After a while I just got sick of it, the explaining.”
The identity stuck. “When I’m alone in my bedroom looking in the mirror, thinking about the stuff I’ve written down, my past, relationship-wise, pictures on the wall… I think I’m a black man,” said Lennon, then 24 years old, on “Everyman.”
As a young actor, he found more success getting cast for black roles than white, according to The Sun.
Over time, he fully adopted the identity, taken the African name “Ekundayo” and even referring to himself as “African born again.”
“Everybody on the planet is African. It’s your choice as to whether you accept it,” he wrote in the book “Photo ID.”
According to The Sun, Lennon confessed to an audience in 2012 that the experience of skin-color-based discrimination — not genetics — is what defines him as black. “Although I’m white, with white parents,” he said, “I have gone through the struggles of a black man, a black actor.”
Through the funding of the Arts Council England diversity program, Lennon was extended a position at the Talawa theater company, a black British drama troupe based in East London.
In a statement, the council stood by its decision. “This is a very unusual case and we do not think it undermines the support we provide to black and minority ethnic people within the theatre sector,” the statement reads.
But among the culture commentariat, the discovery fomented uncertainty.
The initial blowback was of alarm edging on moral disgust.
Anthony ‘Ekundayo’ Lennon is the epitome of white entitlement, to be at centre of everything, to have access to every word, every culture, every community. That’s not being an ally (esp when it might end up destabilising BAME arts funding). Ant, some things ain’t yours fam? Ok?
— Coco Khan (@cocobyname) November 4, 2018
Former chair of the UK Commission for Racial Equality Trevor Phillips was apprehensive of the possibility of “self-identification” becoming the yardstick on matters of race for institutions “desperate” to boast their inclusivity.
“The problem is, of course, that the people who lose out are the minorities,” he told the Sunday Times. “White liberals are so desperate to show how lovely they are to minorities that they do things that end up causing more harm.”
But on Twitter the controversy was recognized as something deeper: The result of tensions at the very foundations of cultural progressivism.
It’s funny how some of the people who defend transgender self ID are the same people who will condemn this guy for “appropriating the black body” & emblematic of “white entitlement” for “taking up BAME spaces” https://t.co/m0CEFCYyCy
— Ralph Leonard (@buffsoldier_96) November 4, 2018
It’s a truism of contemporary-progressive thought that race, gender and most other points of identity are the construction of social fiction, and only incidentally relate to biological differences.
If identity is in fact nothing more than an individual’s subjective experience in society, then why shouldn’t a white man who suffered racism identify as black?
“Like race, racial identity can be fluid. How one perceives her racial identity can shift with experience and time, and not simply for those who are multiracial,” Angela Onwuachi-Willig, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, wrote for The New York Times in 2016.
And indeed, the belief in the fluidity of identity has been fueling the transgender movement, which calls for socially accommodating people based on their self-identified gender. Criticism of the movement — and of the notion of fluidity — is usually rejected as bigotry on the left. Liberal women who worry that self-identification may end up muddling (possibly setting back) the achievements of Feminism are repudiated as self-centered “TERFs” (trans-exclusionary radical feminists). Even a delicate attempt by The Guardian’s editorial staff to consider these tensions was trans-Atlantically condemned as “transphobic” by the newspaper’s American staff.
Yet Lennon’s story shows that, barring some exceptions, when it comes to race, the left is still unprepared to follow its own dogma to its logical conclusion.
And the thing is, had his role of Ekundayo failed he could’ve have just backed out and gone back to just being Anthony Lennon. Actual BAME actors don’t get to pull out. The roles he took, the funding he took, those will never come back.
— Corvus Corax (@Errandboy5) November 4, 2018