Colin Brazier: Is it really a racist scandal for a white man to pretend to be Kanye West?

It might sound a frivolous question, but it’s not.

Published

I was a teenage fan of a rock band called Adam and the Ants. They shot to fame in 1981 with an album called Kings of the Wild Frontier. On the album’s title track, the band’s eponymous singer, Adam Ant, sang “I feel beneath the white, there is a red-skin suffering.” He seemed to be saying that, though white, he felt a sense of kinship with native Americans in the United States.

To underline that point, he wore a couple of colourful long feathers from his hair, and face paint – a white stripe, horizontally drawn across his nose. It became the band’s signature look. And thousands of impressionable young fans, myself included, showed our devotion by adopting that white stripe. I thought I looked really, really great.

Well that was forty years ago. What would today’s commissars of cancel culture make of a white man appearing on the BBC’s primetime music show, Top of the Pops, and pretending to be a Native American? It wouldn’t happen, would it?

Last year, one of the biggest names in American football, stopped being called the Washington Redskins. And lest anybody thinks it’s only in the United States where cultural appropriation is an obsession, I advise you to monitor the ongoing row about whether the English rugby team Exeter Chiefs will retain its name and logo for much longer.

But it’s one thing to wear a white stripe across your face, as I did as a 13-year-old New Romantic. It’s another to apply black face-paint. Or so it seems. Today officials at Durham University are trying to establish the identity of a young man who appeared at a fancy dress party in blackface. The university condemned it and stressed how racism wouldn’t be tolerated. Last year it withdrew the offer of a place at the university from a student who posted offensive comments online.

The man in the Instagram post that’s causing all the fuss is reported to have said he was at the fancy dress party as a ‘chimney sweep’, although the suspicion is that he was impersonating the American rapper, Kanye West, an impression underlined by the sight of a woman standing next to him who had a passing resemblance to Kim Kardashian.

What’s the difference between my white stripe and this young man’s black face? We were both pretending to be a race other than our own, weren’t we? But you could argue this was all done with affection. I did it because I liked Adam Ant. And there is no obvious sense in which our young friend in Durham is ridiculing Kanye West, one of the world’s most successful musicians.

And yet any nuance has already left the building. The Durham People of Colour Association tweeted: “We have yet another racism scandal on our hands. The racism is never ending for people of colour at this university.”

Is it really a racist scandal for a white man to pretend to be Kanye West? What about a drag queen impersonating Diana Ross? It might sound a frivolous question, but it’s not. In North America people have lost their jobs over this, which is why celebrities and even politicians like Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau, have apologized for past misdemeanours.

And it’s not just America where public figures have been forced to say sorry for Blackface. The BBC took Little Britain off the iPlayer. It’s stars David Walliams and Matt Lucas apologized. As did ITV’s Ant and Dec.

For the record, I wouldn’t dress up in black face paint. But I deplore the crass presumption of Britain’s race industry that just because something has been anathematized in America, then it has to be in the UK too. The United Kingdom is not the United States. Morris dancers began blacking up with soot in Britain at least as far back as the 14th century. It allowed peasants to disguise themselves while begging, which was illegal then.

That said, I like the flexibility of morris dancers in Hampshire who now perform with blue, not black faces. Why cause needless offence? But why seek it either?

Before we start throwing around accusations of racism, let’s consider the motivation. Somebody dressing up as Kanye West is as much an act of adulation as it is one of derision.

What matters, is what’s in someone’s heart. It’s why anti-racism campaigners, for instance, are prepared to forgive Prince Harry. He turned up to a fancy dress party, not as Kanye West, but as a Nazi. But this was dismissed as a youthful indiscretion when he went on to marry a black woman