A white theater director defended Saturday his decision to identify as black, a case that has sparked an identity-politics debate in Great Britain after he received a publicly funded grant intended for minority artists.
Anthony Ekundayo Lennon, a director for the black-led Talawa Theatre Company in London, said he had “no doubt that I have some African ancestry” after coming under fire for winning an Arts Council England award meant for “theatre practitioners of colour.”
“I will not allow anyone who can’t accept or understand my life to be relevant to my existence,” said Mr. Lennon in an op-ed for the [U.K.] Guardian.
His critics, including some British theater figures, accused him of misappropriating a racial identity and hijacking public funds meant to support minority thespians after the [U.K.] Sunday Times broke the story Sunday.
Actress Kelechi Okafor tweeted Saturday that, “However ‘black’ you might ‘feel’ it is unethical and immoral to access funding that is specifically meant for actual black people,” adding that “I’m shocked that people are actually entertaining this nonsense.”
“The leap to claiming blackness for himself is almost breathtaking,” said Paula Akban, an advocate for black women, in a Monday [U.K.] Independent column. “Not only has Lennon chosen to wear black identity like a costume, he has actively chosen to take up space and pilfer resources that were never meant for him.”
Mr. Lennon, 53, who changed his middle name from David, said that he began identifying as “mixed heritage” as a boy after being frequently mistaken for black.
He said he had to use an Afro comb growing up because “my mum couldn’t manage my hair.” One of his brothers has similar physical traits, he said, and neighbors would “arrive on the doorstep to gawp at us.”
Both the Arts Council and Talawa have defended the decision to award the minority-intended funding to Mr. Lennon, describing his case as exceptional. The two-year, full-time residential fellowship is reportedly worth 100,000 pounds, the equivalent of about $130,000.
“Talawa raised their wish to support Anthony with us. In responding we took into account the law in relation to race and ethnicity,” said the Arts Council in a statement. “This is a very unusual case and we do not think it undermines the support we provide to black and minority ethnic people within the theatre sector.”
Others have argued that adopting a different racial identity represents a logical extension of the transgender movement, which has celebrated men and women who portray themselves members of the opposite sex.
“[T]his poses an interesting dilemma for the identitarian left,” said [U.K.] Spectator columnist Toby Young. “If it’s perfectly fine for someone born male to identify as female, why isn’t it OK for someone born white to identify as mixed heritage?”
NewsOne.com, an online U.S. news site for and about African-Americans, compared Mr. Lennon to Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who headed an NAACP chapter after altering her hair and skin tone to look more black.
“From Rachel Dolezal, who was showered with awards and praise while at the NAACP, to Anthony Ekundayo Lennon, these white folks who claim they are so Black are blatantly taking resources from Black communities,” said NewsOne in a Monday article.
The brouhaha coincides with another high-profile European identity case involving a 69-year-old Dutch man, Emile Ratelband, who has filed in court to change his age to 49, saying being legally younger would boost his status with clients and on dating sites.
The NewStatesman’s Dorothy Musariri said that despite Mr. Lennon’s “attempts at empathy, he has no real idea of the struggles black actors and directors experience in an industry obsessed with white characters and classic period (white) dramas.”
“His award takes away from the little opportunities that people of colour have,” she said in a Tuesday column.
Mr. Lennon has made no secret of parentage, appearing in a 1990 BBC documentary in which he discussed identifying as “African born-again” despite having white Irish parents.
“Although I’m white, with white parents, I have gone through the struggles of a black man, a black actor,” he told a theater audience in 2012.
He said Saturday he appreciated the support from friends and colleagues who have told him his case is part of a “wider conversation about identity and evolving consciousness,” while others have “tried to make me feel like a liar and a thief.”
“It disappoints me that an attempt to reduce my life’s experience into a misleading headline can so easily lead to character assassination,” Mr. Lennon said.