Everyone may think it's cool to be black, but it's really hard work

Trevor Phillips wanting to be different
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So you wannabeblack? Since this is one of the few areas in which I can claim to be an expert let me give you a few tips before you finally make up your mind.

Quentin Tarantino says that he feels black inside, and wishes that the colour of his skin matched that of his soul. I heard that Steven Spielberg, who has adopted black children feels a kinship with the brethren that is closer than friendship. And, I saw the Princes William and Charles putting their caps on backwards and giving the "Yo, dude" sign. I know that William Hague has been virtually one of us since Carnival last year, and in this week's party political broadcast there was a suspiciously high melanin count. This is very serious, people; the fact that it is Hollywood leading the charge means that even now there is at least one clinic working on the melanin-reinforcement treatment that will give the stars what they want.

I would be the last to argue against people knowing about and trying out elements of each others' cultures. That's healthy. It is also the way of the world today; we can all travel wherever we want, and we can, happily, discover new ways of living. In particular, the growth of cities means that most of humanity can find somewhere away from their ancestral village, where no-one knows them, and where they can, in part, reinvent their lives. This is why cities like New York and London are an earthly approximation of Heaven; if we make it there we can be forgiven all our past sins. But I draw the line at physically wanting to turn into something else. For goodness' sakes, what if you get it wrong? There may be no going back. It may be fine to be a Tory one year and a New Labourite the next, but who can tell the difference anyway? Changing your race is something else altogether. Take the sad case of the self-styled King of Pop.

For more than two decades Michael Jackson has been changing from black to white, and whether the reason is a natural physical condition or an unnatural mental one, he has in his music tried to make a virtue out of the change, by celebrating the commonality of all races. It must be bewildering for him to find everyone heading in the opposite direction. If I were Wacko, I'd be gutted.

The sons and daughters of Africa are emerging as the most desirable role models in the world, whether mixed with other genes or not. Who would not want to possess the unmodified beauty of Halle Berry or Naomi Campbell; to carry the gravitas of General Colin Powell or the saintliness of Nelson Mandela; to enjoy the athletic success of Magic Johnson or Tiger Woods; to feel the ferocity of a Mike Tyson or the sheer mischief of Ian Wright? These are the heroes of our time. And this influence is not just limited to performers: the black pre-eminence is stretching into the arena of basic moral values. For two decades, the most significant poet-philosopher in the world was called Muhammad Ali; and today the queen of western mores, able to call kings and presidents to account is Miss Oprah Winfrey.

It used to be the case that it was just a few beatniks who wanted to shed their colour and culture and become alcoholic jazz musicians; in more recent times, Bob Marley's glamour brought a posse of doped-up white rastafarians into being, christened affectionately "wiggas". These were people who wanted to escape from dull, predictable lives, and they would have been the same were they black, white or anything else. But now, though the global culture's icons are many-hued and racially diverse, one can't help but think that Africa is out there leading the pack.

The problem is that, as always, things aren't exactly as they look; and it behoves a preacher - for that is what we columnists really are - to warn his flock of the pitfalls that lie ahead. Let's start with the most mundane of tasks: did you think twice before you last tied your tie? No you probably didn't. But if you're a black man you may now start to have worries about accidentally asphyxiating yourself, since no less an authority than Richard Tilt, the Director of the Prison Service has kindly pointed out that you are susceptible to being accidentally choked. It may of course that Richard Tilt himself has some black genes; his remarks sound like the thoughts of someone who had suffered a sudden interruption of the flow of oxygen to his brain.

If you are a woman,there is unfortunately an equivalent problem. If you want to see a black woman cry, discuss the hair problem. Natural or pressed? Permed or straight? What strength of conditioner? And have you ever noticed the attention that black women pay to the weather forecast? That is because being caught in a rain shower with straightened hair is the equivalent to being dropped in the village pond; you look and feel ridiculous and no amount of poise and dignity will stop that hair curling back to its original state. Do not be fooled by Naomi. She makes it look easy, but every follicle has taken years of pain and hours of grooming to reach the shiny- soft nirvana, and to carry that special heavy swing that comes from a full head of African hair. I need not, I hope, repeat points made here before about the difficulty of finding appropriate makeup for black skin.

Then there is the responsibility of being funky all the time. Europeans, being totally dysfunctional cannot grasp just how much effort goes into being hip. You have to learn a language that is constantly being refreshed so that nobody else understands it.; every time "they" learn the meaning of words like "wicked" and "24:7" we have to stop using them and invent something new. Otherwise no-one believes that you're black, and people say cruel things like "You're just like us, really".

Another variety of this - males only - is the desirability of being edgy and dangerous. Most of my black contemporaries have spent years perfecting that mean, moody look that says "Don't mess with me"; it's an art form, but like all art, it takes its toll. You cannot watch Blind Date or Friends and look mean and moody at the same time. It is an impossibility; so you end up missing the fun, or else being thought "not very black" ( a curious expression, but one that people use all the time about someone who doesn't quite fit their idea of what a black person should be like).

And finally there is the biggest problem about being black: once you've started, you can't stop. This is a one-way ticket. And on this journey, if you want to join the club, you carry all the baggage. you may be a chic black woman, but with the image comes an age-old suggestion of availability. The more accomplished you may be in athletics the more the picture posters paint you as a bear of little brain. The more you seem streetwise, the stronger the odour of criminality. And of course it is precisely the whisper of danger that attracts people who otherwise would live nice safe non- black lives. The wannabeblax are playing with fire. That's their business, but they do need to look deep into the flames and work out what it is they are getting themselves into. Be careful, boys and girls; you never know what you might turn into.

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