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Artillery Row

I wanna be black

The perils of self-identification

I was scrolling through Instagram recently, my guiltiest of guilty pleasures, when I came across a call out for artists for an exhibition opportunity responding to the theme of “BLACK JOY”. Artists had to be based in East Sussex, West Sussex or Kent “who identify as Black”. Another recent opportunity was specifically targeted to “artists, academics and researchers who identified as Black”

The term “…identify as” is a concept that troubles me. We have seen the torrent of abuse and threats that women receive who refuse to submit to the coercive gender identity belief, the growing impulse and compulsion of people to assert their gender pronouns, where some people state the bleeding obvious but also where some men identify as women and visa-versa or in the plural they/them. 

I was joking with a friend on WhatsApp, after reading these opportunities where Black self-identification is a key criteria for applying for creative opportunities, and he sent me a YouTube video from 2019, “Martina Big Is Back After Having Injections to Turn Her Into a Black Woman”. Maybe it was too early in the morning, maybe I had a hangover, but while I was watching the video I honestly thought it was a comedy sketch — a biting satire on white people who identify as black. Her exaggerated physique, her plastic surgery, her piping, clipped German accent, her un-natural skin colour and then her boyfriend, a Caucasian guy wearing an African-style shirt looking as if he spends too much time and money on spray tans or on a sun bed. I was laughing to myself, but after a few minutes, I began to feel uneasy —  rather like when watching those social media moments when the real and the fake collide and you don’t know what to believe. Martina Big was being sincere! She genuinely wants to be black, she has adopted an African name — Malaika Kubwa — and will not stop until she achieves her dream — check out her YouTube channel and Wikipedia page to see the steps she’s taken to become a black woman.

In 1978 the great godfather of Punk, Lou Reed wrote a stinging, searing song against white middle class men in America who wished to be stereotypically black: “I wanna be black, I wanna be a Panther/Have a girlfriend named Samantha/And have a stable of foxy whores”. Martina Big, a white German woman, has fetishized and has become a stereotype of what she believes to be the quintessential black female woman. 

Rachel Dolezal, who claimed she was black and now identifies as transracial, went beyond the attraction of culturally borrowing (appropriating?) signs and symbols associated with Black-African-diasporic culture. She was forced out as president of a US civil rights campaign group National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in Spokane, Washington and lost her African studies post at Eastern Washington University when her parents disclosed that she was white. According to Wikipedia, her parents were “white and primarily of German, Czech, and Swedish origin; she was born as a blue-eyed blonde with straight hair.” As an artist and former academic she can theoretically apply for many opportunities that are open to those who identify as Black. 

The University and College Union (UCU) which represents over 120,000 staff members across the UK published a statement in 2019 asserting that the union “has a long history of enabling members to self-identify whether that is being black, disabled, LGBT+ or women”, and in 2018, the theatre director Anthony Lennon, who was born to white Irish parents, was awarded a traineeship funded by Arts Council England, which was intended to address the under-representation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) in British theatre. The argument in his favour seems to be that he looks like a person of “mixed heritage” and claimed to have undergone the struggles of a black man due to his physical appearance; “When my hair was shorter it looked like a little afro and people just assumed you’re half-caste”. To add further credentials to his black self-identification he adopted a Nigerian middle name, Ekundayo. According to Frieze magazine, Arts Council England said that this “unusual case” shouldn’t undermine “the support we provide to black and minority ethnic people”. It was of great relief to him when he later took a DNA test and indeed, found himself to have mixed ancestry somewhere along the bloodline of his family tree; he’s 68 per cent white European and 32 per cent black African, thus validating his blackness. 

Nowadays it seems that anyone can self-identify as black regardless of their race or ethnicity. In the past, I adopted the term black to mean something beyond the colour spectrum of light brown to the darkest of skin colour. When terms like “coloured”, “negro” or “West Indian: fell out of favour, the term black become a potent symbol of resistance against racism, particularly in the 1970/1980s. At demonstrations we all collectively, irrespective of skin colour, chanted Malcolm X’s slogan “Too black, too strong”, popularised by the radical rappers Public Enemy, against police racism, racist attacks. Our arguments were that racists kicking your head in didn’t differentiate between someone who was of Asian or African descent. 

A thinker and activist whom I greatly admired in the 1980s, A. Sivanandan (1923 – 2018), a man of Tamil Sri Lankan descent and director of the Institute of Race Relations, and Trinidadian born Colin Prescod, who recently retired as Chair of the IRR, would both assert that black is a political colour, that the common struggles of people who came to Britain from Third World countries to the colonial motherland of Great Britain experienced and fought against racism as Africans, Asians and Afro-Caribbeans; these struggles “were forged in the community and on the factory floor, as a people and as a class, and as a people for a class, that legacy of holism made our politics Black – so that black defined the colour of our politics and not the colour of our skin, and Black itself became a political colour.” (Race & Class, Summer 1986, volume XXVIII Number 1). Interestingly, Colin Prescod, in an interview this year for The Guardian, lambasted “unconscious bias” training as re-hashed/re-packaged race awareness training nonsense.

The recent concept of Identifying as Black has become a performance

The recent concept of Identifying as Black has become a performance. It is no longer enough to have an interest, appreciation of, or scholarly knowledge of say African or Caribbean history or culture in its multitudinous manifestations, or a critique of colonialism and imperialism. If you’re Caucasian, you can now embody “blackness”, you can be black. Ali G’s “is it because I is black?” comedy line has become reality, and everyone must now accept the fiction of false self-identification, just as everyone must now accept gender identity. This is why I will no longer use the term black to describe a culture, a community, or a section of humanity. 

As for culture, we have reached peak diversity. In the past, I worked in partnership with Arts Council England on a funding programme awarding significant funds to early and mid-career artists of British artists of Asian, Black African or Black Caribbean descent as I genuinely believed that highly talented artists from these backgrounds were under-represented, or overlooked by visual arts institutions compared to their Caucasian counterparts. Nearly two decades later, I think “job done”. Where are we now? Alas, it is saddening to see institutions awarding many mediocre artists, on account of their identity rather than for quality of their imagination or other serious aesthetic reasons. The 2021 Turner Prize for example, shortlisted a collective of identity-based creatives — thus ticking all the boxes of black, queer, trans, neurodiverse, environmental and community art. It marked the death of the talented individual artist, of someone who is his or her own person. 

The advocates of today’s black self-identification fad lack the clarity of the principled anti-racists of the past; unable to define what “Black” means they simply assert that if you think you’re black then you can adopt the mantle of victimhood, oppression and be part of the intersectional club. Furthermore, we have come a long way from the awfulness of racism that was part of daily experience in the last century for immigrant communities. Underrepresentation of minority ethnic groups in culture in nearly all of our institutions have been successfully redressed and the term black, even as a political identity, feels nostalgic at best, divisive at worst. Black self-identity and politics ignore the serious contemporary problems we are failing to address such as the underachievement of white-British working-class and British African-Caribbean boys in education; the knife crime in our inner-cities amongst teenagers of African-Caribbean descent; the dangerous growth of Islamism among Asian and African communities; the loss of community cohesion and the geographical and social class disparities in society.

Having said all that, I still think Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet is a ground-breaking awesome album, and I say that because I am my own person.

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