in Opinion | 04 MAR 97
Featured in
Issue 33

A Colouring Book

Charting the shift from race to colour

in Opinion | 04 MAR 97

In 1989, Piscataway High School was faced with a straightforward choice. Due to cuts it had to fire one of two teachers, Sharon Taxman or Debra Williams, both of whom had joined the school on the same day some years before. Eschewing drawing straws or tossing coins, and some might say, with commendable ruthlessness, it sacked Taxman. Taxman was white, Williams the only black teacher in the school's business department, and the school made no secret that this was the deciding factor. The school's actions left most liberals dizzy: whilst their sympathies were with the black teacher, the decision rode roughshod over that dearly held liberal belief - that we ought to treat people in a colour-blind way. In Color Conscious: Political Morality of Race (1996), Anthony Appiah and Amy Gutmann convincingly debunk this notion, contending that colour-blindness will only work in an ideal world. Each argue that colour, and more specifically, race, are too problematic to be solved by the simple solution of not looking for them.

Reviewing Appiah and Gutmann's book in the Observer, Timothy Nation proffered Colin Powell, the black Republican almost-ran, as an example of the uncritical way race is often used. He pointed out that not only do Powell's roots lie in the discrete West Indian community of New York rather than its African-American counterpart, but he has never displayed any of the cultural markers associated with American blacks. Nation also alluded to the once-unmentionable: that Powell's skin was more than a few shades paler than an espresso. Indeed the rather unfortunate term used was 'café au lait'. More simply put, Powell wasn't black.

Nor, we now discover, was Freddie Mercury white. Mercury's latest outing (and one is tempted to ask how many more his fans can take) came during the recent Freddie Mercury Photographic Exhibition organised by the Mercury Phoenix Trust. Amongst the usual images of Freddie on stage, Freddie in drag, Freddie with a crown and flowing robes, were previously unseen photographs of Mercury's childhood. Somewhat surprisingly the six or seven photographs showed a young Indian boy whose early childhood was spent in Zanzibar before he was shipped back to India to be schooled at St. Peter's School, Bombay. Farok Bulsara and his family, who hail from Gujerat, moved to England in 1964 whereupon Farok changed his name by deed poll to Freddie Mercury and for the rest of his career studiously avoided too many questions. Despite being the first band ever to do stadium shows in South America, Queen ignored their large following in Asia and never toured there. Mercury was also aided by his pale, Parsee skin, and the occasional hint that he was Zoroastrian. The obscurity of that religion, along with the useful fact that the majority of Zoroastrians in Britain come from Iran, gave Mercury an all-round, unspecified exotic charm which was jollied along by his penchant for women's clothing.

So farewell then, Freddie the prophet, for race has seemingly gone the way of feminism. Artists who would once have applied for those special Arts Council ethnic grants now fight shy of such categorisation, largely because the argument behind it ground to a conceptual halt. On the one hand, artists wanted people to realise they had been culturally excluded because of their colour, on the other they soon realised that this marked them off as separate from the mainstream with the result that they were as isolated as before except this time in a slightly different way. It seems the only way to solve this problem is to use one's colour, but in a heavily ironic fashion - successful examples in Britain include Chris Ofili and Yinka Shonibare. This shift towards irony and contingency lies at the heart of both Appiah and Gutmann's arguments.

In separate essays, each author begins by restating the principal case against racism, that its intellectual rationale is invariably dependent on supposedly scientific accounts of the concrete divisions between races, now long-discredited. Race, each argues, is a fiction. The next step, seemingly would be to do away with the concept of race all together, but however logical, the idea of belonging to one race rather than another means something important to a majority of people, no matter whether their feelings are positive, negative or lunatic ones. Faced with this fact, Appiah concludes 'Live with fractured identities; engage in identity play; find solidarity, yes, but recognise contingency, and above all, practice irony'. He offers a notion of a 'recreational' ethnic identity, giving the Irish-American community as an existing example, although whether you can count the sporadic funding of the IRA as recreation is a stone Appiah sadly leaves unturned.

More persuasively Gutmann argues that the answer lies in a shift away from race to colour, believing that our actions can be conscious of colour without being conscious of race. Colour, as opposed to race, admits difference whilst suggesting its superficiality - we realise people are sort of different, but not really that different. In a non- ideal world, a certain amount of colour awareness is important to be able to retain worthy public projects such as affirmative action, but key to Gutmann's argument is contingency. Using colour in a contingent way is a shift from biology to history, a restaging and reinscribing of fictions which, if not necessary, are at the least here to stay. So black culture is fine, as long as you remember it's contingent and superficial.

Which brings us back to our case studies. Initially, it would seem Ofili and Shonibare have got things right. Their works reference their skin colour yet they're ironic and playful about it. Mercury and Powell prove more problematic. They fulfil one of Gutmann's criteria by refusing the racial identity that their would-be oppressors would have foisted upon them: Asians don't front rock bands, Black Americans don't vote Republican. Mercury, however, proves a unique case. He has been reclaimed as the first Indian pop star to achieve global acclaim, but if we follow Gutmann, it is doubtful whether one can usefully talk about Freddie Mercury's colour. In fact it is arguable that the most Indian thing about Freddie was his attempt to hide it.

Think about this nugget of wisdom from Sonya Aurora-Madan, Indian-born lead singer of Echobelly: 'Even though I've got brown skin I consider myself to be quite British. I don't really speak very good Indian.' A similar, if more articulate, sentiment runs through most interviews with Anish Kapoor, despite the obvious subcontinental connotations of his sculptures. Even Karim Amir's description of going to a football match in Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia, 'where I forced Changez to wear a bobble-hat over his face in case the lads saw he was a Paki and imagined I was one too', suggests that there might be some sort of exodus here away from groups which have never widely been perceived as particularly cool. If the key to colour consciousness is a knowing contingency, there is nothing wrong with following Mercury's example, but in certain cases it seems only to lead to reinforcing the racial stereotypes which Gutmann so wants to escape.

Powell would also win points for being a Republican, which by extension would mean he would have won more points for becoming a member of a far-right neo-Nazi group, smashing yet another racial stereotype in that heroic Gulf War Commander way, and all of this without him even strictly (whatever that means) being black. As Terry Eagleton has pointed out, trying to fight evil essentialisms such as race with contingent irony is a losing game. And poor old Freddie, singing increasingly theatrical songs about the end of the road being nigh, making his fans cry and the rest of us cringe, perhaps knew that all along.