The work pop quiz last night threw up an unexpected dilemma:
- It is the final round of the pop quiz, the round where you draw a pop star in a minute and your teammates have to guess who it is. You are the last team up: if you guess the drawing first go you get 10 points and win; second go and you go into a play-off; any later than that and another team wins.
Your celebrity is James Brown. Now here’s the dilemma – do you make him look black?
I didn’t think it would even be an issue but as the person drew a (very good) sketch of James Brown I realised it was. The sketch being drawn – big lacquered hair, shiny suit, giving it some on stage – looked exactly like 70s Elvis. The sketcher was frantically trying to work out some way of indicating that it was James Brown without doing the very obvious thing of shading the figure’s skin. She could hear her teammates confidently saying “Oh it’s Elvis”. The seconds ticked by. What could she do?
Anyway they guessed Elvis, it was wrong, and they were completely baffled, and didn’t win the quiz. When the truth was revealed everyone agreed it was an excellent James Brown.
I guess the reason for not drawing James Brown as a black man is the worry that – as a white sketcher in a room full of white people (the market research industry is not the most racially mixed in the world) if you draw someone ‘black’ you are going to produce some hideous racist gollywog caricature. I notice a similar thing when colleagues are describing someone else – “Oh you know them – work on the third floor, tall guy, curly dark hair, OMG MUSTN’T MENTION THEIR RACE I WILL SOUND LIKE A SUN EDITORIAL”.
White liberals be worryin’, in other words. I think I would have had exactly the same worry. I did in fact worry that I shouldn’t have put James Brown in the sketch round at all.