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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.