Is it really so hard to tell different black celebrities apart?


The image of Jourdan Dunn on Hello!'s website with the caption 'Joan Smalls'

I was checking out the Cannes red carpet looks earlier this evening on Hello! magazine’s website when I came across an image of supermodel Jourdan Dunn which was mistakenly captioned as featuring Joan Smalls. A simple mistake you say? Well, maybe. But I’m not feeling that generous given that such mix-ups when dealing with famous black people are becoming somewhat common. (Somehow I don’t see it ever being the case that Cara Delevigne will be confused with Kendall Jenner.)

Only a few weeks ago Labour’s Tottenham MP and London mayor hopeful David Lammy joked about the fact that one news publication had accidentally put a picture up of Sierra Leonean politician Julius Maada Bio thinking it was him. Laughing it off, Mr Lammy posted the photo on Twitter alongside the words: ‘If anyone knows who this guy is please let him know he's now the MP for Tottenham...’.

But really, if you think about it is offensive. Indeed, when a KTLA anchor confused Samuel L. Jackson for Laurence Fishburne (who, by the way, looks nothing like Samuel L. Jackson – with a completely different skin tone and facial features), in an incident that is now infamous, Samuel L. Jackson tore the guy to shreds. Many expressed their sympathy for the anchor, arguing that it was a relatively easy mistake to make, but perhaps did not consider how it must feel to know that you are viewed simply as ‘the black actor’ rather than a talented actor called Samuel L. Jackson.

Samuel L. Jackson blasts a news anchor after he mistakes him for Laurence Fishburne

Let’s face it there aren’t exactly so many black politicians in the UK that it is hard to keep track of who’s who – quite the contrary. Similarly, the number of world famous black supermodels and celebrities is very limited (when compare to the number of famous white supermodels and celebrities), so why is it that such mistakes continue to occur all too frequently?

I would suggest that a combination of laziness and ignorance are to blame; ignorance because the lack of diversity in fields such as the film industry and politics means that a black model or politician are perceived foremost as black and secondarily as either a highly talented supermodel (in the case of Jourdan Dunn) or politician (David Lammy). It is lazy because these are major publications and news broadcasters where everything has to pass through editing teams, whose jobs it is to prevent such errors.

Surely these mix-ups are further evidence that greater diversity is needed in all major fields so that black actors, models and politicians are known primarily for their work rather than just being a black [enter job title here]. With regards to the need for greater diversity in journalism and media, would a black editor have picked up on the fact that Jourdan Dunn is not Joan Smalls? Maybe not, but having a diverse editing team would probably reduce the chances of such mistakes happening.

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