Say what you want about 2019—if nothing else, it was a great year for not knowing what famous people of colour look like, how to say their names or who they even are.
Last December, Canadian actor Simu Liu (slated to play the lead role in Marvel’s forthcoming Shang-Chi) presented an award at Sydney’s AACTAs. As Liu stood backstage, the event’s disembodied announcer offered a strange introduction. Predictably, no effort was made to learn how to pronounce the actor’s name. But more bewildering is that Liu—who broke out in the sitcom Kim’s Convenience a few years ago—was described as a ‘Hong Kong cinema veteran’.
‘It was an honour to be invited, but I was surprised to be introduced as a Hong Kong cinema veteran despite never having set foot there’, the actor joked on Twitter after the incident.
It’s not clear who the 30-year-old had been mistaken for. Jackie Chan? John Woo? A literal war veteran with a fondness for film? We may never know.
In Australia, the profiles of even the most recognised people of colour are handled with a habitual lack of care. In the space of less than a year, Who Magazine mistook one famous Black woman for another on two separate occasions.
In Australia, the profiles of even the most recognised people of colour are handled with a habitual lack of care.
The first was when in August 2019, an interview with world-famous model Adut Akech was published alongside a photo of fellow supermodel Flavia Lazarus. While it was mostly brushed off as an honest mistake (the magazine itself claimed ‘administrative error’), Akech suspected more insidious forces at play. ‘I feel as though this would’ve not happened to a white model’, she wrote, describing the incident as ‘ignorant, rude and disrespectful towards both [women]’. She added that ‘big publications need to make sure they fact check things before they publish them’.
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A few months later, the same publication confused Venus Williams—who is in her late 30s and probably one of the most famous women in the world—with rising tennis star Coco Gauff, who at time of publication was fifteen years old.
Any suggestion that these mix-ups are steeped in racism is usually quickly shut down by our most dedicated media stalwarts. If a person of colour voices their concerns about racism, we are assured that they are overreacting. It was a mistake, sure. An unfortunate error. An administrative gaffe. Not everything is about race, we are told. Mistakes happen, after all.
But often missing from these conversations is the varying levels of care—the attention to detail that we give to names, people and places is in no way random or incidental. Certain people, places and names get treated with a level of precision that others are not. And it’s impossible to separate those varying levels of care from the power structures that we all inhabit.
The attention to detail that we give to certain names, people and places is in no way random or incidental. Some are treated with a level of precision that others are not.
That’s why we see Venus Williams being confused for a literal child as opposed to, say, Chris Hemsworth being mistaken for the kid from Jojo Rabbit, or indeed any other of the myriad Hollywood Chrises. I mean, could you even imagine it? An age gap spanning two decades, a grown adult confused for a child—it’s absurd to the point of being inconceivable. But for Williams and Gauff, it’s what happened just three months ago.
‘Care is effort’, editors Elena Gomez and Rosie Isaac write. ‘It is a loaded word. Attention…requires care, as does our navigation of the world and our relationships within it. But care is also political, racialised and gendered.’
That is, these blunders don’t just happen because of individual people being too racist to tell two non-white people apart. It’s about racial inequality being so structurally entrenched that they bleed into our cognitive selves; shaping who (or what) is made worthy of our attention.
During a stint as an editorial assistant, I was tasked with proofreading a pile of articles; each authored by a different writer. ‘They’ve already been fact-checked, they just need a final proof’, I was told. After reading through a piece or two, though, I came across the odd factual flub. Before long, my eyes would dart towards a hotspot for stuff-ups: anything or anyone ostensibly non-European or non-white. One writer spoke fondly of the non-existent Ethopian city of ‘Jumbo’ while another (who had just returned from India) referred to Hindi—one of the most widely spoken languages in the world—as a religion.
Of course, mistakes are always going to happen. But what’s striking is that even after rounds of revisions, these were the ones that hadn’t been picked up. Repeated editing and fact-checking processes had taken place, but when it came to anything ‘ethnic,’ big, glaring blunders went undetected, again and again.
Philosopher José Medina has talked about how entrenched racist ideologies make us ‘cognitively worse off’, leaving us with an array of cognitive deficits. That is, growing up in a culture marred by some form of inequality—and here I’m talking about racial inequality—will inevitably shape how we cognitively process the world around us.
Growing up in a culture marred by racial inequality will inevitably shape how we cognitively process the world around us.
I would suggest that most of us have a socially-produced attentional deficit when it comes to dealing with people of colour. You see it, for example, in the strained face of a Q&A audience member when the Arab woman has spoken for too long, or the reporter who approaches only white members of the public for comment. These may seem like small oversights, but inattention is insidious in the harm that it can cause. A 2014 study looking at patterns of care among cancer patients in Queensland found that being Indigenous was a risk factor for being diagnosed at a later stage and receiving less cancer treatment than non-Indigenous patients. Meanwhile, a well-known study conducted by researchers at ANU found that job applicants with Chinese last names needed to submit 68 per cent more applications to get as many job interview offers as applicants with ‘Anglo’ surnames.
When it comes to non-white people, places or things, our willingness to pay attention starts to wane.
That’s why we have people of colour being seen as interchangeable, slapdash research jobs and half-hearted fact checks. And by not taking these mistakes seriously, they reproduce themselves; damaging the knowledge available to the broader community and getting in the way of further racial progress.
It would be all too easy to throw up one’s hands, relinquishing our ability to do better. If all of this is a result of deeply rooted systemic flaws, then who are we as individuals to change it?
British-Australian scholar Sara Ahmed has said that ‘the belief that racism is inevitable is how racism becomes inevitable.’ We are not just dupes to the ideologies that we inherit, and anything that is socially produced can at least partially be socially undone. To err is human, but we are at least in control of how to respond when criticised.
These incidents, as dehumanising as they are, have the advantage of dragging our racial biases, kicking and screaming, into the light. At some point, we need to start paying attention. To take responsibility for the habits that we have inherited, listen to the people that call us to account, and to try and do better.