‘You Don’t Know Leroy? That Means I’m Blacker Than You’

The darling comment in the headline above was said to me by an inebriated caucasian while I was waiting for my taxi after DJing at the Plough recently. He told me he’d lived in Easton his whole life and was a good friend of Leroy. Did I know Leroy? No. “I’m blacker than you then,” he told me.

I looked at him for moment. “Well, no. Because I’m mixed race and you’re white,” I said.

“But you don’t even know Leroy, so I’m blacker than you.”

“Again, no. You are a white man. I am a mixed race woman.”

“I’ve just got out of pen, love. I’m obviously blacker than you.”

“Well that sounds like you’re using a racial stereotype to prove you’re a black man but that doesn’t make you black. That just makes you prejudiced.”

At this point my taxi had arrived and Leroy’s mate looked thoroughly confused so I thought best to leave it there.

However, it did make me think about the differences between culture and race which have been on my mind since reading the story of Anthony Ekundayo Lennon, a white theatre director who described himself as ‘African born again’ in order to be given a job meant for people of colour.

Lennon is a white Irish actor with curly hair and tanned complexion who used to get called racial slurs. This resulted in him missing out on ‘white parts’ resulting in his perceived ‘black’ experience.

He changed his middle name from David to Ekundayo and received the funding based on his application stating he was mixed race.

Talawa, the black-led theatre company that Lennon works for, said that “as an artist of mixed heritage he is not only eligible for the position, but his experience, work and achievements make him an exceptional person for the role”.

There’s a lot that I have issue with on this subject but let’s start with the point that culture can mean a lot of different things to different people.

Often the word is linked to race which is where I think lines begin to get blurred. In my opinion, feeling connected to a different race due to living within a similar ‘culture’ does not make you of that race.

Looking more closely at Lennon’s story, let me start by saying that the mixed race experience is far more nuanced than simply ‘looking a bit black’. The complexities that surround finding your own identity in between two, sometimes thoroughly contrasting, cultures can be a long and arduous journey in which you can be forced to question where you belong.

The lack of inclusion at the stem of it or the feeling of having to ‘choose a side’ or worse, having that side chosen for you by others, can be quite damaging on a level that runs far deeper than appearance.

I’ve been reading The Pigment of the Imagination: Mixed Race in Global Society which documents the experiences of first generation interracial couples and mixed race people in Britain, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Jamaica.

Joy M Zarembka threads together interviews with stories of her travels and historical background to explore whether society or individuals determine their race. Her book “examines the notion of race and identity to better understand the vastly different interpretations of racial identity in various parts of the world” and is a fascinating read.

For me, the book highlighted the fact that for many, being mixed race can come with an uneasy sense of un-belonging which goes far deeper than skin colour.

Some people with one white parent and one black parent felt the need to ‘pick a side’ or when brought up predominantly by one, having to assimilate into a culture that wasn’t always accepting.

Others found themselves being put into a racial category all of their own which had absolutely no reflection of the individual and everything to do with societal prejudices.

Being mixed race comes with its own privileges and challenges but what’s so frustrating with this Lennon situation is that yes, in some ways he is mixed race. Because everyone is mixed race. We pretty much all have two unique genetic makeups that have been mixed to make an individual’s race.

But using this to get funding and take up space meant and intended for those from BAME backgrounds isn’t right.

The fundamental issue here is that this self proclamation of ‘blackness’ has taken opportunity away from those the funding was intended for, that would benefit from representation within decision making circles.

The conversation around what it is to be mixed-race is huge and not possible to go into for one column. It’s true to say if you’re born to parents from one culture and brought up in another one, you may well class yourself as mixed race due to becoming a product of both – maybe that’s where Lennon is coming from.

The issue for me is taking it so far as to actively take up space meant for those who come from marginalised backgrounds, you are adding to the problems caused by lack of inclusion in conversations surrounding opportunity and diversity – especially in artistic sectors.

I’ve since heard that Lennon actually worked with a lot of people that I respect in Bristol when he came to work with Kuumba 20 years ago.

Every comment I’ve seen online from people that worked with him, who I have also worked with and trust the judgement of, has described him and his input as very positive. He has been successfully working within a community and sector for decades – even appearing on the BBC series Everyman in 1990 to talk about his story. He clearly has a strong community around him that have supported and accepted him as one of their own.

But in my opinion, that acceptance should have been enough. To then deliberately go after funding that is not meant for you because you ‘feel’ like it is a quite a phenomenal show of privilege.

The support he has received in his career so far demonstrates that he has been a positive ally, but to truly embody this role he could have put his own interests behind. He could have used his wealth of experience to assist someone with a BAME background, who the funding was meant for, to achieve it.

In a discussion I recorded recently with Sas Patherick’s Courage + Spice podcast, called ‘How to be a courageous ally’, I talk about the mixed race experience from my point of view and how privileges can be used to help others.

Because whether or not Lennon feels he is living the life of a black man, with the best of intentions, as a white Irish man he is not. Neither was Leroy’s mate. It’s been very interesting to me thinking about these differing situations where two white men have felt confident to announce themselves as black men in response to wanting to feel accepted by a familiar culture. One they felt connected to. One that was also deemed ‘black’.

But culture and race are not the same thing. Culture has been used as a shorthand to group ‘diverse’ people together and in some ways has lost all sense of meaning because of this.

I’m actually going to be running free workshops in St Paul’s and Southmead with Rising Arts Agency as part of the Whose Culture project where we’ll be looking at what defines culture is and how it relates to people. Because in my mind, culture is not the same as ethnicity.

If someone grows up in a community that is predominantly made up of people of colour and therefore has a strong connection to that culture, that doesn’t give them the right to pronounce themselves as black.

They have not lived the life of a person of colour. They have chosen to belong to the community of a marginalised group. What a choice to have.

In the case of Lennon, he’s gone so far as to take a seat at the table meant for someone from that group. To take that away from the demographic of people you claim to be a part of is thoroughly misguided. I can’t see a more obvious show of white privilege than to deem yourself more qualified to speak on behalf of those from the community on what it needs.

Top illustration by Stacey Olika

First published on Bristol 24/7

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