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)".