I was going to blog about this story when it came out - 'Tory goes to a fancy-dress party as Mandela...and ends up in racism inquiry', but never got round to it. Luckily, the Mail have followed it up today with 'Don't mind you dressing up as me says Mandela...not keen on the shirt, though', so I have an excuse.
I'd like to start by saying that Councillor Brian Gordon is an idiot. Whether or not you think blacking up is unacceptable, you must have some clue that it's a little bit sensitive and you might get criticised for it. Especially if you're a bloody councillor. The Black & White Minstrels have been off our screens for ages. But does that mean he was being racist by blacking up? Not neccessarily.
Rory Bremner blacks up to impersonate Trevor McDonald, but that's not considered racist. I find it a little bit uncomfortable, but Bremner's an impersonator who changes his appearance to look like the people he's impersonating. He's got the suit, the glasses, the hair. So surely, it should be okay to black up if you're dressing as someone for a fancy dress party? Not necessarily.
I went to a pop star party not so long ago, and thought about going as Flavor Flav. Yeeeeah boyyyyyy. I wasn't going to black up partly because I thought that would be funnier but partly because I would never black up. Like, ever. Because I'm not a bloody idiot. Still, people a lot less PC Gone Mad than me asked if I was going to with something like trepidation. Even though they thought it wouldn't be a problem for them, they knew it might be a little bit sensitive and not something to be done lightly (pardon the pun). In the end I went as Alice Cooper because the costume was easier to get hold of, but if I had gone as Flavor Flav you would have known who I was supposed to be from the dodgy shellsuit, top hat, shades, gold teeth and dirty great clock. I wouldn't have needed blackface.
Have a look at the picture of Brian Gordon as Nelson Mandela. Now do a Google Images search for Nelson Mandela. Find any of him wearing a dashiki shirt? I looked through over thirty pages of images and didn't come across a single one. Come across any of him wearing a tooth/bone/fang necklace? I didn't. Find any of him wearing a colourful African style hat with fur on it? I didn't. Any with a beard? Maybe two black and white ones from the sixties, but none from recent years.
The problem with Brian Gordon's costume is that nothing aside from the blackface actually makes him look like Nelson Mandela. He didn't even shave his beard. That's why he needs the sticker with the words 'NELSON MANDELA' in massive letters on it. In fact, the Lib Dem member who complaind, Stieve de Lance, made this very point, as reported in the Guardian's 'New race row for Tories', when she said:
If he wanted to pay homage to Nelson Mandela why did he wear a stupid hat, wig and kaftan and not the colourful Indonesian shirts Mandela is famous for?In other words, if he wanted to go to a fancy dress party as Nelson Mandela, why didn't he, you know, dress like Nelson Mandela? Unsurprisingly, the Mail decided to leave this point out of its coverage.
Instead, it focuses solely on the blacking up issue, saying:
Barnet's Tory council leader, Mike Freer, said: "I accept that blacking-up is fraught with difficulties and has all sorts of historical connotations. But this wasn't blacking-up like the Black and White Minstrel shows.What Mike Freer should have followed that up with is, "by putting on comedy African black bloke stereotype clothes that have nothing to do with what world leader actually dresses like." See, that's why blacking up like the Black and White Minstrel show is fraught with difficulties. The Minstrels were acting and dressing like crude, stereotyped versions of black people. So this is kind of similar.
"This is Brian Gordon dressing up as a world leader who happens to be black."
As Stieve de Lance's comment shows, she had no problem with him actually dressing as Nelson Mandela, but just the manner in which he did it. Sure, the blacking up is part of it, but only part of it.
In the Hendon & Finchley Times, we can see that Mike Freer also said:
Just to categorise Nelson Mandela on the basis of his colour is demeaning to him.But that's exactly what Brian Gordon has done. He made no effort to actually dress like Nelson Mandela other than by blacking up and wearing odd stereotyped African clothes that Mandela doesn't actually wear. We'll never know if there'd have been a complaint if they guy had blacked up and actually dressed like Mandela, but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have been quite so harsh a complaint if he had.
Brian Gordon himself says:
For several years on Purim, a traditional time for dressing up, I have taken on the guise of a range of famous personalities, including President Reagan, Boris Yeltsin, Ariel Sharon and Sir Ian Blair.Now, I bet you eight squillion buckaroos that when he dressed as Ariel Sharon he didn't dress as a Hasidic Jew, because that's not what Ariel Sharon dresses like. What kind of person would you expect might do that at a fancy dress party?
There's a fantastic defence of his behaviour in the Hendon & Finchley Times piece 'Hilarious Councillor Did Not Offend Anyone'. In it, the author says that Brian Gordon was great, and anyway, the author's dad used to perform in blackface in minstrel shows, and, "Yes, we've come a long way since the demise of The Black & White Minstrel Show. Unfortunately, it's been down the wrong road, as a result of 'political incorrectness'!" I'm sure that's a great bloke to be defending the Councillor.
Still, there's another important thing in this piece:
I entertained at the Sydmar Lodge Care Home on Purim, and hosted its fancy dress parade. During my last song, Councillor Gordon came in, promptly took my mike and spontaneously began 'rapping' to my backing music. It was quite hilarious, and (in entertainment terms) brought the house down.Here's another eight squillion buckaroo bet. I bet that when Brian Gordon dressed as Boris Yeltsin or any of the other leaders, he didn't hilariously begin 'rapping'. Because, you know, black people rap, and Nelson Mandela is black. So he must rap too! God, that's a tape I'd love to see.
Anyway, all of this is apparently moot, since Nelson thinks everything's okay. I'm not sure it is though. For a start, blackface doesn't seem to have the same connotations in South Africa as it does here. Mandela himself endorsed the 1986 'Cape Coon Carnival'.
More importantly, Mr Mandela seems to be reacting to this article. As you can see, this is pretty much skewed in favour of Brian Gordon and also neglects to mention Stieve de Lance's comments about not bothering to dress like him beyond blacking up. Mr Mandela, like most readers of this article and the ones in the Mail, will be under the impression that the only problem anyone had with the costume is that Gordon blacked up. He even commented that it was a poor choice of shirt.
Another important point is that Nelson Mandela felt there was no ill intent from Gordon. But that's kind of the point. The reason a councillor shouldn't act in this way is because it signals they're not especially culturally aware when it comes to the issues in their own area, and might not be competent to deal properly with the different people in that area. I'd be prepared to bet that quite a lot of British black people would have a problem with the costume.
So, was Brian Gordon being racist? A bit. Probably unintentionally, but that's the point. What sort of idiot wouldn't realise that if you're going to dress as a black person, you should actually dress like that person and leave out the comedy voodoo necklace?
Does it matter that Nelson Mandela didn't appear to be bothered? A bit. But not enough to blow the whole thing out of the water. South Africa has a far different culture in connection with race, and probably has to deal with far more shocking things than this. I can imagine why it would seem trivial to a man who spent years of his life in jail for fighting apartheid. Especially as he'd only seen one side of the argument, which included a quote from someone who said that if he had taken offence, he didn't have a modicum of humour. Stieve de Lance might feel a bit silly for calling for the guy's immediate sacking now, but she still had a point - and it was not fully presented to Mr Mandela.
Should Gordon be sacked? I don't know - maybe not. It does expose that the Tories haven't changed though. He has apologised, but it wasn't much of an apology given that it was basically an attack on the people he offended for not having a modicum of humour. He deserves some sort of disciplinary action if the Tories want to show they give a shit about unintentional, institutionalised racism. Wandering around saying, 'Why is ot offensive to go to a fancy dress party as a black person and go far enough to black up but dress like a weird stereotype including comedy voodoo jewellery instead of actually dressing like the person?' doesn't really inspire confidence.
What's this got to do with the Mail's coverage? The important thing is how the paper has leaped to Brian Gordon's defence by leaving out relevant information and ignoring the main point of the objection to his behaviour - namely that he didn't actually bother to dress like Nelson Mandela beyond blacking up and slapping his name on a badge. But the paper's prepared to print a whole new article when something happens that's relevant to the councillor's defence. It just exposes how the paper doesn't just present one-sided arguments, but that it does so by keeping the main opposition to their arguments secret from their readers and offering a strawman in its place.
It also illustrates a technique I'll be writing a full post on - of papers approaching people for their opinions and only giving one side of the story, so it looks as though they've all seen all the relevant information and have all come to the same conclusion.
They haven't, though.