Blacking up: nope, it's still not funny

Tory MP asks why it is offensive to black up in one-man mission against political correctness

At the weekend, it emerged that Philip Davies, the Tory MP for Shipley, has been haranguing the Equality and Human Rights Commission on a self-proclaimed fight against political correctness.

Since April last year, he has sent 19 letters, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

The question that really caught the imagination of the press was this: "Is it offensive to black up or not, particularly if you are impersonating a black person?" In a postscript to this letter, he adds: "Why it is so offensive to black up your face, as I have never understood this."

Wow. Where to begin?

The (obviously very good-humoured) commission had yet to reply in writing to this query, but in the meantime, a spokesman said: "There are many writings produced by scholars about blacking up, arguing that minstrel shows lampoon black people in derogatory ways, and many people clearly find blacking up to portray minstrels or black people offensive."

It's true, Davies's question displays a certain ignorance: impersonating a black person is offensive because it is so fraught with history. Blacking up is mockery, and it's dehumanising, with its symbolism of a grinning, infantilised rascal dancing around for the amusement of others.

This is not the first time blacking up and the Tories have met. There was controversy in 2007 when a Tory councillor dressed up as "Nelson Mandela" -- yes, complete with skin colour -- for a fancy-dress party. The councillor defended the decision as a piece of "harmless fun". Hmm.

There was outcry this year over a fashion shoot in French Vogue that featured a white model blacked up. "It's horrible, there's nothing else to describe it. The image says we'd rather turn a European model white than hire a black model," Nana A Tamakloe, who manages models, said at the time.

Davies's query relates to a practice that is pretty much non-existent anyway: it's a deliberately provocative and pointless piece of questioning. It is another mockery, but luckily he seems to have made himself the butt of the joke.

According to the Guardian, he also asked:

  • Whether the Metropolitan Black Police Association breaches discrimination law by restricting its membership to black people. He compared this to the BNP's whites-only policy, which the far-right party has now agreed to change.
  • Whether the women-only Orange Prize for fiction discriminates against men.
  • Whether it was racist for a policeman to refer to a BMW as "black man's wheels".
  • Whether it was lawful for an advert for a job working with victims of domestic violence to specify that applicants had to be female and/or black or from an ethnic minority.
  • Whether a "Miss White Britain" competition or a "White Power List" would be racist, after Phillips justified the existence of Miss Black Britain prizes and the Black Power List. "Is there any difference legally or morally than publishing a white list [sic]? Do you think this entrenches division?"
  • Whether anti-discrimination laws ought to be extended "to cover bald people (and perhaps fat people and short people)".

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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There are two sides to the Muslim segregation story

White families must also be prepared to have Muslim neighbours. 

Dame Louise Casey finally published her review on social integration in Britain. Although it mentions all communities, there is a clear focus on Muslim communities. However, the issues she raises - religious conservatism, segregation in some areas and Muslim women experiencing inequalities -  are not new. In this case, they have been placed in one report and discussed in the context of hindering integration. If we are truly committed to addressing these issues, though, we have a duty of care to discuss the findings with nuance, not take them out of context, as some tabloids have already done.

The review, for example, highlights that in some areas Muslims make up 85 per cent of the local population. This should not be interpreted to mean that Muslims are choosing to isolate themselves and not integrate. For a start, the review makes it clear that there are also certain areas in Britain that are predominantly Sikh, Hindu or Jewish.

Secondly, when migrants arrive in the UK, it is not unreasonable for them to gravitate towards people from similar cultural and faith backgrounds.  Later, they may choose to remain in these same areas due to convenience, such as being able to buy their own food, accessing their place of worship or being near elderly relatives.

However, very little, if any, attention is given to the role played by white families in creating segregated communities. These families moved out of such areas after the arrival of ethnic minorities. This isn't necessarily due to racism, but because such families are able to afford to move up the housing ladder. And when they do move, perhaps they feel more comfortable living with people of a similar background to themselves. Again, this is understandable, but it highlights that segregation is a two-way street. Such a phenomenon cannot be prevented or reversed unless white families are also willing to have Muslim neighbours. Is the government also prepared to have these difficult conversations?

Casey also mentions inequalities that are holding some Muslim women back, inequalities driven by misogyny, cultural abuses, not being able to speak English and the high numbers of Muslim women who are economically inactive. It’s true that the English language is a strong enabler of integration. It can help women engage better with their children, have access to services and the jobs market, and be better informed about their rights.

Nevertheless, we should remember that first-generation Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, who could not speak English, have proved perfectly able to bring up children now employed in a vast range of professions including politics, medicine, and the law. The cultural abuses mentioned in the review such as forced marriage, honour-based violence and female genital mutilation, are already being tackled by government. It would be more valuable to see the government challenge the hate crimes and discrimination regularly faced by Muslim women when trying to access public services and the jobs market. 

The review recommends an "Oath of Integration with British Values and Society" for immigrants on arrival. This raises the perennial question of what "British Values" are. The Casey review uses the list from the government’s counter-extremism strategy. In reality, the vast majority of individuals, regardless of faith or ethnic background, would agree to sign up to them.  The key challenge for any integration strategy is to persuade all groups to practice these values every day, rather than just getting immigrants to read them out once. 

Shaista Gohir is the chair of Muslim Women's Network UK, and Sophie Garner is the general secretary and a barrister.