Awards season is now upon us, and with it comes the yearly tradition of red-carpet memes on social media, live-tweeting the events of the star-studded evening and publicly lambasting heritage publications that consistently mix up the names of black celebrities. The 2019 Golden Globe Awards this week was no exception, with British Vogue tagging Thandie Newton on its Instagram stories as Zoe Saldana.
This isn’t the first time that these two actors have been mistaken for one another: Victoria Beckham reportedly confused the two at a SoulCycle class last year. Both Newton and Saldana repeatedly seem to laugh and shrug it off – in public, anyway – but they shouldn’t have to. It’s just the latest in a long line of microaggressive behaviour within the media that further perpetuates anti-blackness, by insinuating that “all black people look the same”.
Another famous example of this involved Sam Rubin, entertainment reporter for “the number-one morning show in Hollywood”, KTLA, who, in 2014, mistook Samuel L Jackson for Laurence Fishburne in a Super Bowl commercial that clearly featured Matrix-inspired titbits – a movie franchise that Samuel L Jackson has never been a part of. Jackson's reaction is classic. He told the squirming reporter: "We may all be black and famous but we don't all look alike." And he doesn't let up: "You're the entertainment reporter for this station and you don't know the difference between me and Laurence Fishburne? There must be a very short line for your job."
However, it’s not only within the media that this happens. The mixing up of different black identities is as much a typical microaggression that black people have come to expect, along with our hair being touched without consent and white people who clench their handbags that much tighter when a black man walks into the same vicinity.
This blatant inability to differentiate one human being who happens to be brown from another human being who happens to be brown is far beyond embarrassing – it’s offensive
Even within the influencer circles that I roll in, there have been times when I’ve been confused with other black, plus-size bloggers who reside in the States (despite us looking nothing alike), or other plus-size bloggers here in the UK. At first, I would take it as a compliment that someone would compare me with another blogger that I highly respect and admire, but then I realised that it was a mixture of pure laziness and a failure to respect my identity – a unique identity I have worked so long to create and build within the industry.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not claiming that it is only black celebrities whose names are often mixed up. We’ve all read funny listicles of non-black celebrities who look like one another – the most popular being Isla Fisher and Amy Adams, Katy Perry and Zooey Deschanel, and Margot Robbie and Jaime Pressly – however, it’s important to note the ways in which these similarities are reported. With the latter, the press knowingly acknowledges the identical celebrities – in full knowledge of who they both are – in the name of entertainment for the reader. In the former, the non-white celebrities are captioned or mentioned using the wrong name out of sheer laziness.
Sure, it can be amusing at times, but at the same time it's a reminder of your outsider status – that you can be grouped together with people who may have little connection to your own work and have distinctly different skills and abilities. It gives the lie to those who claim "I don't see colour" when you're made aware that you're being judged by precisely that yardstick. It's a reminder that, as one of a small few who've broken through (either within the entertainment industry or at your place of work), you're still not quite seen as belonging to the organisation or its culture. If you're talking to someone and it becomes apparent that, as they judge you, in the back of their mind they're thinking of someone else, then you've lost your individuality.
There is no reason why, time and again, mix-ups like this should happen, especially as we are navigating a social climate that strives to do better with the issues of diversity and racial inclusivity, both in mainstream society and within the entertainment industry.
Whether it occurs on the red carpet or in a news studio during the middle of an interview, this blatant disregard and inability to differentiate one human being who happens to be brown from another human being who happens to be brown is far beyond embarrassing – it’s offensive and speaks to a much bigger issue at hand. As one mistaken celebrity recently posted on Instagram, folks have to “do better”.