NEWS
08/02/2020 07:06 GMT | Updated 08/02/2020 07:06 GMT

How It Feels To Be Mistaken For Another Person Of Colour By The Media

Labour MPs Marsha de Cordova, Dawn Butler, Tulip Siddiq and Rupa Huq have all been wrongly identified by news outlets.

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Labour MP Marsha de Cordova was mistaken for Dawn Butler and Bell Ribeiro-Addy in a matter of hours 

“It feels like more than a mistake,” says think-tank director Faiza Shaheen. “It feels like on a deeper level we are interchangeable because we are brown women.” 

This week, the BBC sparked controversy after it confused Labour MPs Marsha de Cordova and Dawn Butler, showing the deputy leadership hopeful’s name on screen while de Cordova spoke during a Commons debate. 

It was a mistake that triggered anger from both de Cordova and Butler and a storm of outrage online. 

“I love my sister @MarshadeCordova but we are different people,” Butler, the shadow equalities secretary, tweeted. “Marsha is amazing and deserves to be called by her own name.”

Then, just hours later, it happened again – the media confused de Cordova with yet another black woman. 

This time, it was the Evening Standard which made the mistake. Reporting on the BBC’s blunder, it used a photo of Streatham MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy thinking it was de Cordova. 

Both outlets apologised, with the BBC saying the error was corrected “immediately” and the Evening Standard blaming its picture agency for the incorrect caption.  

But it was far from the first time this has happened to BAME people in the public eye – over and over again, people of colour are mistaken for one another in the media. 

While it does occasionally happen to white people – the BBC confused Labour MPs Cat Smith and Holly Lynch in January – it seems to happen more often to people from minority ethnic backgrounds. 

Only this week, the Mirror confused the name of the mother of the Streatham attacker with that of Inzamam Rashid, the (male) Sky journalist who had interviewed her. 

Last month, the BBC featured a clip of LeBron James during a report about the death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant, while Labour’s Tulip Siddiq was confused for Rupa Huq on BBC Parliament last year. 

On all of these occasions, the news outlets apologised for the mistakes and corrected them. 

But what does it feel like when, despite spending years working hard to establish yourself, you repeatedly get mistaken for other people of colour in a way your white colleagues appear not to? And what does it say about society? 

In the wake of the outrage about the mix ups between de Cordova, Butler and Ribeiro-Addy, Tulip Siddiq shared a photo of her speaking in the Commons – with Rupa Huq’s name at the bottom of the screen.

Getty Images/ PA
Tulip Siddiq says she and Rupa Huq (right) have been confused on a number of occassions 

“News channels have mixed me and Rupa up a lot,” Siddiq tells HuffPost UK. “And to be honest, Rupa and I are not very similar looking – it’s just that we both happen to be quite small and we are both of Bangladeshi origin. 

“But our hair is different, our noses are different, our faces are different, our dress styles are very different.

“It’s just very lazy. I’m not sure it’s malicious… but at what point do you stop forgiving people for being lazy?”

Despite MPs like Tom Tugendhat and Grant Shapps having similar characteristics, “I don’t often see people mixing them up,” she says.

“I fought an election like everyone else. When I first stood, I inherited a constituency that had the smallest majority in the country – it was 42 votes. It’s now a 14,000 majority.  

“Give me some credit here… I think I should at least deserve to be known by my own name.” 

It’s a view echoed by Brent Central MP Dawn Butler. From her point of view, it feels like black women are “always having to justify our presence in a space” in a way other people don’t. 

ISABEL INFANTES via Getty Images
Labour's Dawn Butler, who is running to become the party's next deputy leader 

“How many white men are there in parliament?” she asks. “How many times has this happened to a white man? All you have to do is Google – it’s really not a difficult thing.

“It’s almost as though there can only be one [Black woman], because having more than one is just too much for anyone to cope with,” Butler says. 

“Sometimes mistakes happen. It’s not about making a mistake. It’s about making an effort to recognise people for who they are [...] and the qualities they bring to the table. 

“We all have our priorities. We all have things that we care passionately about and we each deserve to be recognised for our merits.” 

For Faiza Shaheen, the director of the Class think-tank who ran to become a Labour MP during the most recent general election, these kinds of errors “feel like more than a mistake”. 

During the campaign, she was confused for journalist Ash Sarkar twice – once by Tory MP Nadine Dorries on Twitter, and again during an episode of Newsnight

PA Wire/PA Images
Faiza Shaheen with Jeremy Corbyn during the general election campaign 

“Ash is amazing and I love her, but we are two different people with different voices who have worked hard to develop our own line of work,” she explains. 

“It feels like on a deeper level we are interchangeable because we are brown women.  

“It makes you feel like you have worked so hard to be there and they can’t be bothered to tell you apart from other people. You work so hard to be in those places in the first place and then when you get there you’re treated with such little respect.”  

It’s not enough just for the media to say sorry when these mix-ups happen, Shaheen says, speaking about the incident involving Butler and de Cordova. 

The people who make these mistakes are not “faceless institutions”, she says. “It’s not enough to say it was a mistake. 

“No – take a long, hard look at yourselves and ask yourselves why it is you make this particular mistake and you don’t confuse Boris Johnson with another man with dodgy blond hair.

“Recognise that you are having a problem differentiating between people of colour and double check. Know your stuff. It’s just not acceptable. There has to be some kind of consequences.”

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David Lammy says he has been confused for a number of people in the public eye, including Lenny Henry, Gary Younge – and the president of Sierra Leone 

Many of these mistakes in the media “point to a failure of diversity in our newsrooms”, according to Tottenham MP David Lammy. 

While his local paper – the Tottenham and Wood Green Independent – infamously used a photo of former Sierra Leone president Julius Maada Bio thinking it was him, Lammy says he’s also been mistaken for Lenny Henry and Gary Younge. 

“Everyone can make mistakes, but the frequency with which prominent Black and other ethnic minority people are confused shows this is a structural problem rather than a series of gaffes,” Lammy says.  

“Rather than being viewed as individuals in our own right, ethnic minorities are too often viewed as one homogenous blob.” 

A BBC spokesperson said: “We always strive for accuracy in all of our reporting and coverage.

“Where we make mistakes we correct them quickly, and our editorial guidelines apply to all of our staff irrespective of their background and ensure accuracy, impartiality and diversity of opinion in our output.

“More widely we are making significant changes to improve diversity and inclusion at the BBC, to ensure it is an organisation where everyone feels valued and where our workforce reflects the whole of the UK.”