by Homera Cheema

The recent controversy about Anthony Ekundayo Lennon, a white man who identifies as black, who received the Talawa Theatre Company Artistic Director Leadership Programme (ADLP) has illuminated the discussion around whether identifying as ‘transracial’ is acceptable.

On one side, Anthony’s case presents a quandry vis-à-vis Rachel Dolezal who purposefully lied about being white and changed her appearance to hide the fact. Anthony on the other hand, while being of white-Irish parentage, from a young age was racially profiled as black because of his darker skin and afro-Caribbean hair.  In Anthony’s instance does transracialism make sense? It throws up the nuances of the discussion as to what constitutes Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME)? Is it your immediate heritage or whether you can pass for white based on your features and skin colour? 

Since the story broke last week, both Talawa and Anthony himself have responded in respective statements. Talawa takes the position that ‘in the spirit of inclusivity’ on the basis of which Talawa has operated since 1986, Anthony was awarded the traineeship as a person of mixed heritage. Michael Buffong further responds to the Anthony’s eligibility:

“About a year ago, I was made aware of some quotes taken from a book that Anthony had contributed to about his identity, these were contrary to what I had understood about him. I asked Anthony about this and he said he was misquoted.  I took this very seriously and sought legal advice to check whether he was indeed eligible for the ADLP scheme. From the advice I was given, because of the complex nature of his case, he was deemed to still be eligible.”

Buffong also dispelled the myth that Anthony had received £400,000 worth of BAME funding which is not the case. Anthony’s own statement published in the Guardian, doesn’t really acknowledge his assuming a mixed-heritage identity but presents it tacitly. Talking of when he moved close to a black community at the age of 12 when his parents divorced: 

“It was like being adopted or fostered by people who “got” you, or knew what you needed. It was at about that time that I heard the word “throwback”. I wasn’t sure what they were talking about. But in my mind there is no doubt that I have some African ancestry.”

The popular comparison to Lennon’s case is that of Rachel Dolezal but how they have both positioned themselves within the black community is crucially important, while Rachel had extreme appreciation of black culture, Lennon was defined that way by society and therefore welcomed as a mixed heritage individual.  While Michael Buffong explains that Lennon’s story is complicated and said that he “welcome[s] the debate around identity and while I am no arbiter of that debate, surely we must acknowledge that there are nuances and grey areas.” 

Of course, there are grey areas, nobody is disputing that fact. It is inherently hard to draw a line in terms of how far you go by generations to qualify as BAME. Or conversely how BAME do you have to look for you to qualify for opportunities, predicated on the fact that the more BAME you look the less opportunities you must have had in life. This is an accepted correlation by the Arts Council who has focused on the importance of diversity in relation to social mobility.

Like gender equality, the purpose of BAME initiatives is to make themselves redundant. Especially in the arts, BAME opportunities are working towards a future goal where there is diversity in race and backgrounds not only proportional to the ethnic mix in the UK but based on merit alone. They are a means to a truly multicultural end.

To those who are asking whether transracialism will continue to grow and be accepted by society at large, for some the answer lies in the broadening of who is accepted for BAME opportunities. From the latest census findings BAME represent 16% of the working population, while the latest report from the Arts Council’s 2016-17 ‘Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case’ reported that only 10% of Artistic Directors were from BAME background – inferring that it is 6% lower than it should be. Although the Arts Council has only been collecting data on diversity since 2013, the categories and ways of collecting data seem to evolve as the debate around diversity continues. For example, In last year’s report, white – other was included in the ‘Black and minority ethnic’ grouping. We now recognise this grouping does not give an accurate picture of ethnic diversity in the sector, so in this report ‘white – other’ is shown as a separate category.”

As well as this, the “prefer not to say” category also presents problems for comparability of the data year on year and prohibits the collection of diversity data from giving a full picture.

Further, within the report the statement from Sir Nicholas Serota CH addresses the successes of increasing diversity at all levels within the arts but also acknowledges the challenges and highlights leadership roles as an area to focus on. The report goes on to say that “…aspirations are not always translating into meaningful actions or significant appointments. The reasons are complex, but leadership plays a major role. More power should be in the hands of those who understand the need for change.”

The traineeship which Anthony is receiving is directly a corrective measure to increase the proportion of BAME individuals in leadership roles within the arts. According to Sir Nicholas’ statement, Anthony represent someone who understands the need for change however due to the limited opportunities available to BAME individuals in the positions were true change can be made, is it still fair for this opportunity to go to someone who is BAME in the arts council definition?

This is important because the popular conception now is that in the post-New Labour world, the multiculturalism project has failed. A survey carried out by the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate, found that 43% of respondents predicted relationships between different communities would deteriorate over the next few years while only 14% who felt things would improve. 

In today’s times we have much more nuanced approach to talking about identity in general whether it is about gender, race, religion, heritage and even ability. You can now add citizenship to that list following the Windrush scandal and the hostile environment policy set by the Home Office. Part of this is deconstructing what this identity means in terms of power and access, by outlining what is problematic in order for it to be corrected towards the aim of inclusivity. But those who are marginalised are not the only ones defining identity and especially from a racial perspective, far-right groups inherently have a problem with immigration and Islam. The defining of identity especially based on race looks set to continue, and the goal of BAME opportunities making themselves redundant looks like a distant dream moving further away. As such these BAME opportunities become all the more political with the grey areas and nuances presenting themselves as not speculative but real dilemmas.

Homera Cheema is a writer based in Manchester. After some years working in aid in the UK and in field missions she is now undertaking an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Writing School and writes reviews on author events, books as well as articles.