Why we shouldn’t excuse “casual” racism: In the video below, an American entertainment reporter has confused Samuel L. Jackson with Laurence Fishburne. Rather than letting him off politely, Jackson riffs on him: “We don’t all look alike! We may be Black and famous, but we don’t all look alike!” The reporter tries to laugh it off but Jackson says, “Hell no!” After speaking about his role on Robocop, the reporter mentions the other cast members. Jackson says: “Make sure you don’t confuse them with those *other* White actors.”
People explain moments like these away as a “slip of the tongue” on the one hand, or as “unintentional” or “casual racism” on the other hand. There’s no such thing. Racist exchanges, including getting one individual mixed up with another due to their racial appearance, belie the entrenchment of racial hierarchies. This isn’t about Jackson having similar facial traits reminiscent of Fishburne. They look nothing alike.
White people are not mistaken for other White people simply on the basis of the colour of their skin.
Social decorum often demands that people of colour restrain their responses to racism. I’ve written about this before with respect to Muslim-Australians, who report feeling that they must control their anger when faced with racism so they don’t contribute to the stereotype of the “out of control Muslim.” Even Martin Luther King is supposedly not allowed to look angry about racial oppression. The reporter quips he needs a “spanking” to try to erase the significance of his mistake. Jackson does not simply use humour to mask how offended he feels; he makes it clear that this mix-up is not okay.
Beneath this reporter’s faux pas lies something deeper. It’s the “you all look alike to me” attitude that perpetuates discrimination and violence against minorities. Jackson is not having any of it. As it should be.