I think it's fools, not racists (cross-racial identification of celebrities)

A couple years ago, Samuel L. Jackson chewed out a reporter who seemingly confused him with Laurence Fishburne. The reporter interviewing Jackson congratulated him on his then recent (Super Bowl XLVIII) commercial, apparently confusing Jackson with actor Laurence Fishburne, who appeared in a car commercial as his “Matrix” character. “We don’t all look alike,” Jackson not so gently explained to the squirming reporter over his apologies. “We may all be black and famous, but we don’t all look alike.”

And of course that phrase evokes a very well-known dismissive racist trope: that (minority racial group) are in appearance interchangeable, that “they all look alike.”

Today, Variety reports that “Total Beauty,” a magazine dedicated to grooming and beauty, tweeted effusive praise for Oprah’ red carpet appearance wearing a dress that exposed her tattoos. “We had no idea Oprah was tatted, and we love it!” gushed Total Beauty via Twitter.

The picture that accompanied the tweet, however, showed Whoopi Goldberg.

After an hour and a half – an eternity in social media time which allowed the hashtag #NotOprah to trend across the planet – the magazine posted an apology and deleted their original tweet, once again having fed into “they all look alike.”

In my opinion, this is not the result of racism at Total Beauty, or at KTLA TV. This is the result of incompetence, an attribute much more common and much more socially acceptable.

Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”.

I’m generally inclined to agree, although the application of the principle in these instances would be helped by examples of white people being confused with one another (the closest thing I can think of is that horrendous MSNBC Morning Joe interview of Russell Brand where they clearly had no idea who he was or why he was there, but even then they didn’t confuse him with someone else). Otherwise, it’s hard to argue with the “no, I’m the other black guy!” responses.

Why can’t it be both? subconscious racism makes you confuse them, stupidity makes you deny the possibility of being wrong.

Happens to me all the time- I keep mixing up Dermot Mulroney , Dylan McDermott and some other actor whose name escapes me at the moment. And it’s apparently not just me

Similarly, I cannot tell the difference between Brooklyn Decker, Blake Lively, Amber Heard, and probably some other young blonde actresses whose names I don’t know working in Hollywood these days.


And if your job involved familiarity with celebrity culture, I’d happily call you incompetent for this lack.

Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey are considerably larger and longer in celebrity culture than any of those. The degree of incompetence here is difficult to explain by any combination of mechanisms that does not include a racial element.

And that is when the reporter should have asked when he would be releasing his Thriller II album.

Facial blindness?


I have poor facial recognition skills but I can tell Lawrence Fishburne from Samuel L. Jackson, and Whoopi Goldberg from Oprah. I can also see any average person making a mistake like that, but if you are in the celebrity reporting business it’s an indication of at least laziness and incompetence. As for racism, it permeates our society, odds are these reporters are racist, just like the vast majority of Americans and everyone else.

Exactly. It’s not a mistake because <gasp> racism, it’s because someone isn’t qualified for his job, which is, necessarily, being up to speed on the world of celebrities. And really, how “up” on celebrities does one have to be to recognize Oprah and Whoopi?(although in the Oscar thread I admitted that I had confused their voices, so . . .)

I agree to some extent. Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg are apparently often confused with each other. I believe I’ve read that Chris Pratt and Chris Evans are sometimes confused for each other. Sometimes it’s just that people aren’t great with faces.

I wouldn’t come down too hard on whatever poor intern tweeted that from Total Beauty. I would come down harder on KTLA, because it was an interview. Theoretically, an interview should have a little more preparation put into it than a tweet. Also, I would hazard a guess that there’s some history behind Samuel L. Jackson getting so mad, like in the past that casting agents or film directors have gotten him confused with other black actors and it’s made his career harder. Or he wanted a part in a movie but they already auditioned another black guy so he didn’t have a chance.

I think it’s incompetence, but an incompetence that reveals a race-based way of thinking. People confuse people’s names all the time, but we do so because some how we have those people in the same “basket”. My mom calls me by my sisters’ (and brothers’) names, because we are in the same mental basket of “her kids”. When people confuse two people’s names and the only thing they have in common is race, it suggests that in their mental schema, “race” is a really important factor, the most important thing they use to remember which one is Oprah.

We talked about this in anther thread, and I do feel like a tendency for a teacher, say, to call one black student by another black student’s name (when they otherwise look nothing alike) reveals that she remembers that kid as “one of the black kids” before she thinks of them as “one of the pretty kids” or “one of the smart kids” or “one of the fat kids” or whatever. That doesn’t automatically imply that there is actual racism going on, but it does suggest that the speaker is highly aware of race, and I can see how it feels incredibly dehumanizing to realize that other people consider the most interesting and memorable thing about you to be your race.

This is off topic in that it doesn’t involve celebrities, but in the course of my career I’ve worked with two Vietnamese guys (from Vietnam, I mean, not just of Vietnamese ancestry), both of whom told me that when they came to the States they had a lot of trouble telling white people apart–and, even after 30 years of being here, sometimes still did. So it seems to be a cross-cultural thing, at least in that instance.

Studies have found that it is easier for any racial group to identify its own members than members of other groups. We judge people by the characteristics that differentiate our group, and they don’t always apply to other groups. I personally have difficulty separating out facial features, so I generally identify people by their hair. This works fine in most situations, but if people have very similar hair, I can easily confuse them regardless of race. There are many Filipino women in my office, and I frequently confuse them because they all have similar fine black hair of the same length (they’re also about the same height and have the same skin tone). This has led to accusation of racism. Some people begin to understand the circumstances when I point out that there are several groups of white guys that I have confused for years (the three very pale guys with short red hair, or the two guys with brown hair and the same moustache). But I understand that it’s frustrating for people to feel like “we all look alike to you.”

I once had the opposite situation with an African-American woman. She changed her hair dramatically on a weekly basis, and each time I thought she was a new person and didn’t recognize her. I have had the same problem with white people (I once got yelled at by a guy complaining that I’d just asked him his name for the fifth time), but it still feels racist if you have trouble identifying someone of a different race.

I understand that folks have often confused Patrick Stewart and Ben Kingsley.

Not sure who that’s racist against.

Folliculist, I suspect.

Well Ben Kingsley is of mixed race so…you are racist for not knowing that.

I think.

Personally I’m terrible with faces. It takes an incredible effort of will to remember peripheral faces and names whereas my wife is utterly effortless.

I have mixed up ethnic actors before (that I didn’t know well…Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz) French actors (Isobel Huppert and Audrey Tatou) and even plain old white boys Dominic West, Paul Bettany and Jude Law.
Apologies to all involved but I’m never particularly bothered what their names are, just the parts that they play. I don’t think racism comes into play in any of those cases.

SNL Alumnus Will Ferrell and Red Hot Chilli Peppers drummer Chad Smith.

But racism isn’t malice (except in extreme cases). And I don’t quite understand how not being able to tell rather different faces apart has anything to do with stupidity. It’s either a deficiency or callousness. The callousness obviously can be linked to racism. And the deficiency also can be if they don’t seem to have facial blindness–it can imply a lack of familiarity with a certain type of face. And what’s one reason you might be less familiar with Black faces?

It is different when they actually do look alike. But neither of the OP’s examples actually do. Racism is not the only explanation, but it’s a got a pretty good chance of being right.