The idea is this: Once you reach status—legendary-Hollywood-superstar status—the rules change. Somehow you are legitimized, devoid of disrespect, a household name. The tropes should not fit anymore, and slights should fall casually outside your perimeter. That is the black-American-success dream of assimilating without changing who you are; that somehow, in your legitimate work, you are, in fact, legitimized.
So even the arrest photo that the television news will show should be easy to find because you are famous—except it isn’t, because you are black, and therefore easily confused with another black, famous person, because as the old stereotypical saying goes, all black people look alike, even if one has a face and head full of tattoos.
San Antonio’s KSAT News has become the latest blip on a radar screen filled with markers of black mistaken identity, a happenstance that on the surface is funny, shareable and embarrassing, but one that is also connected to a historical bit that is tired in its repetitiveness.
While reporting on Young Jeezy’s arrest for reportedly being found with an assault rifle in California during the last leg of his Under the Influence of Music tour headlined by Wiz Khalifa, KSAT tweeted out a photo of Young Jeezy Tuesday, except for one problem: The photo was of rapper Birdman.
This isn’t the first news station—nor will it be the last—to run up against the “We don’t know who this rapper is, so plug in any rapper” saga. As newsroom diversity continues to nosedive, it is hard to cover or report the news when the newsroom doesn’t look like the people it is covering.
Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery recently got into a Twitter dustup after he tweeted that black people don't work at Politico. It was a brash and bold assertion that wasn't wrong. Unless Politico is hiding some brothers and sisters behind its masthead, a recent look through website photos shows fewer than five black faces in the entire organization of more than 200 employees.
But covering rappers and their sundries is difficult enough, and mistakes excusable to an extent. Their created names don’t follow the usual spellings, and they aren’t household names unless your household enjoys that form of music. I am not versed in country music and wouldn’t know the difference between Blake Shelton and Kenny Chesney if they were both wearing a cowboy’s ten-gallon hat.
Below are three examples that mainstream press never should have gotten wrong.
1. Danielle Brooks and Retta
Monday was the time for two major blunders. The Los Angeles Times mistook Parks and Recreation’s Retta for Orange Is the New Black star Danielle Brooks. Granted, they do have a lot in common, such as being talented actresses and having their Twitter games on lock. But other than their being two stunning women, there’s no reason they should be mistaken for each other. Retta poked fun at the mistake on her Twitter account, asking Brooks to “peep this.” At least they were able to get a good laugh out of it.
2. Idris Elba and Alfre Woodard
There are many ways in which Idris Elba and Alfre Woodard differ: Elba is British, Woodard is American; Elba is 41, Woodard is 61; most importantly, Elba is a man, and Woodard is a woman. However, a staffer at Armani posted on its Instagram account a photo of Woodard captioned, “Idris Elba posing in a gorgeous Giorgio @armani dress at the 5th Annual Governors Awards.” The post was immediately deleted, but not until the hashtag #armanicaptions made its way on Twitter.
3. Samuel L. Jackson and Laurence Fishburne
It is hard to believe that anyone in the United States of America cannot correctly identify Samuel L. Jackson or Laurence Fishburne, but an anchor for KTLA managed to prove that there’s at least one person who thinks they’re the same person. KTLA’s Sam Rubin asked Jackson about his Super Bowl commercial, and that is when Jackson realized that he was being “Fishburned.”
"You’re as crazy as the people on Twitter. I’m not Laurence Fishburne! We don’t all look alike. We may be all black and famous, but we all don’t look alike. You’re busted,” Jackson told Rubin. In the aftermath, Fishburne told The Guardian, “People have been confusing Samuel L. Jackson and me for 25 years,” and Jackson tweeted out a photo of himself wearing an “I’m Not Laurence Fishburne” shirt.
Diamond Sharp is an editorial fellow at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.