I am not Samuel L. Jackson. I am not Laurence Fishburne. I’m yet another black guy. In case you are wondering why I have to make such a statement, watch this short (hilarious!) clip:
In this clip, an entertainment reporter asks Samuel L. Jackson about a commercial, which did actually feature Laurence Fishburne and not good old Samuel. Samuel L. Jackson then goes ahead and scolds him for his mistake. The reporter apologizes several times, while the studio crew laughs in the background, perhaps because they are seeing a promotion coming their way. (Maybe somebody set him up by telling him to ask about the SuperBowl ad?)
A lot of social media comments I read, said that Jackson was overreacting and that it was an honest mistake on the part of the reporter and that this has nothing to do with race or racism. I beg to differ. But let’s get a few things out of the way first:
- The interview continues after Jackson’s reaction. He doesn’t yell, curse or get up and leave. He just told the reporter he was an idiot for not knowing his stuff and then went on with the show. That’s not overreacting, that’s reacting and making jokes.
- The reporter apologized. Good. Yet, on a professional level, if you are an entertainment reporter and don’t do your research on the person you are interviewing properly, you’re not doing your job. Yes, there are forgivable mistakes, like slips of the tongue. (Even if I don’t understand why you would say ‘gay’ instead of ‘blind‘.) But this is not one of them. Because Laurence Fishburne and Samuel L. Jackson do not look alike, they are not the same age and their names don’t sound alike either. He confused the two, because they are both black. And that’s the problem.
Have you ever been mistaken for somebody else? I guess you probably have. I haven’t. I was always one of a very small number of black people growing up in my community and I stood out because I had long hair while all the other black guys had short hair or shaved heads. Yet, as I have said in a prior post about race, people told me I looked just like Bob Marley, Eddy Murphy or 80s Michael Jackson. In other words, I looked just like that black guy they saw on TV. But I really don’t look like either one of them, and none of them look alike and none of us four look like Laurence Fishburne or Samuel L. Jackson.
Now, if you’ve grown up mostly among white people, it is possible that you don’t agree with this last part. You might have some trouble telling these actors and musicians apart. And if you see a broadcast showing a group of Africans, you might even think that they are indistinguishable from each other. And they are. To you. Because you’re ignorant. And I don’t mean ‘bad person ignorant’. I mean ‘never needed to tell black people apart when I grew up, only white people, so now I see all the differences in the faces of white people and can’t fathom how anyone could not tell them apart but struggle with black people or (God behold!) Asians’ ignorant.
On this level, not being able to tell two black people apart, is not so much racist as it is a personal, forgivable and amendable(!) fault. You never had to, because not only were your surroundings dominated by the presence of white people, but also the media. TV, movies and newspapers all show a lot of white faces. Not being able to tell white people apart makes life harder in the Western world.
But this is a sign of white privilege. It is possible to avoid having to be among a majority of people of another race or even see them at all. Therefore, you do not have to be able to tell them apart. It is different for people of color, in the United States and in Europe. If we want to lead a ‘normal life’, we have to go into situations where we are the minority most of the time. We can’t watch TV without seeing a lot of people, who don’t look like us, and very few people who do. Being able to tell Bill and Bob apart is a necessity. (And, by the way, it is also a sign of respect.)
So if a white person refuses to learn to tell people of other races apart, they take full advantage of their privilege and are being disrespectful at the very least. If a white person tells a black person (or any other PoC): “I can’t tell you people apart!”, what they are actually saying is that they do not see why they should be bothered with telling them apart. It is almost the epitome of denying another person’s individuality and humanity. They are saying: “I don’t see you, and I think it’s cute, so I giggle about it. And I don’t think it is necessary to see you. You are not important.”
This is maximized when you are talking to a person who is famous and has been in many movies. Here is a black man who has achieved visibility in a world that was and is not the most supportive to people like him (albeit he is also somewhat type-cast, but we take what we can get). And still, he has to deal with mechanisms of oppression that tell him: “No matter what you do, you are not important!” In all honesty, I think Samuel L. Jackson underreacted.
(And before any of you post videos of black stand up comedians saying how they can’t tell white people apart and ask me about ‘reverse racism’: a. There is no such thing as reverse racism. b. Please learn how jokes work, how punch lines function and all that.)