The Obama/Osama Mix Up: An “All Brown People Look Alike” Thing

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    President Obama and Osama Bin LadenClutch Magazine, a leading online destination for black women, has posed an interesting question. Hyper-intellectual news site Salon.com has published a story in which linguists try to explain away the mix-ups of Obama and Osama that have peppered the mainstream press as a simple, human mistake. Clutch asks us if we are buying it.

    No, I am not.

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    Yes, Obama and Osama sound a lot alike. But the reason for the consistent confusion of these names by award-winning journalists, seasoned copyeditors, and political thought leaders is not that simple. The repetition of this blunder is a Freudian slip that shows how far we have not come in terms of living the dream of a post-race America. A dream that many Americans ironically believe Barack Hussein Obama represents. (I wonder what Obama Bin Laden thinks.)

    The challenge of keeping Osama and Obama straight might stymie the average American, but this inaccuracy has been replicated twice by FOX news, and by more respected sources like BBC, CNN and Salon. The staffers of these newsrooms are supposedly at the top of their game — and none of them can distinguish between an “s” and a “b”? The article commissioned by Salon is a detailed excuse for these inaccuracies, but doesn’t explain why these gaffes curiously don’t happen when people of European descent are involved.

    There is something deeper at work here. Something achingly familiar. The overwhelmingly white news creators who confuse “Obama” with “Osama” are a sad reminder of the fact many still subconsciously believe “all brown people look alike.” This inability to notice the differences between people outside of one’s race is far more common than even liberal people want to admit. But we have all experienced it – being called the only other black person working in the same office, or being told by a stranger that you look “just like” an African-American celebrity that you bear no resemblance to. Calling Obama “Osama” reeks of this common human tendency.

    The American Psychological Association posted a report on our penchant for generalizing, stating that “people place inordinate emphasis on race categories–whether someone is white, black or Asian–ignoring information that would help them recognize people as individuals.” This incapacity of the American news media to see people as individuals because of their race is a documented circumstance. A few recent examples include:

    -In March of this year, The New York Post ran a picture of Keri Hilson with a story about Mary J. Blige.  Simple human error, of course.

    -In August of 2010, the same paper published an extensive piece featuring BET founder Bob Johnson and Desiree Rogers, who had just been named CEO of Johnson Publishing.  The problem is that there was no connection between them, except that the name Johnson was involved, and they are both black.  So all black people look alike, and are somewhat related?  Explain that, linguists.

    -And don’t forget the confusion of black newbie actress Rutina Wesley with veteran thespian Regina King in an Emmys photo caption in 2010. This mix-up stung the latter star so much that she penned a wrathful open letter to the media community. Maybe that happened because both of their names begin with “R.” Probably not.

    The confusion of Obama and Osama demonstrates this propensity in the media towards mixing up all brown people, and their often “foreign” names. It’s an extension of the subconscious stereotyping that often takes place between whites and non-whites in this country. The fact that this is happening in such a public way is the only aspect of the situation that is new. Making excuses for it unfortunately isn’t new at all. (By the way, the editors of Salon should read my post on studies proving racism actually exists, and is often subconscious. They could have saved on linguists’ fees.)

    These messy slips of tongue have stained the victory of our first black president with a shady reminder that there is something about him people will always see as different, because he is black with a Muslim name. This lurking attitude is unacceptable at this time from our culture creators.

    This nation was designed from its roots to be the one place on earth where a human being could come from another culture and develop a new life based on earned status while retaining the best of one’s previous identity. The reason we have O’Briens, Olssons, and Zimmermans is because everyone comes from someplace else, and worked to fit in while loving who they are. And that worked pretty well, if you were white. Now is the time to extend that form of love between all racial groups by promoting true understanding of “foreign” names, foods, religions, holidays and other cultural aspects that infuse our great nation with its enriching diversity.

    Names like Singh, Ali, and Abood should no longer feel so foreign – nor should the souls that bear these names. Recent U.S. Census results have made it clear that we need to get more comfortable pronouncing names like Rodriguez. We can open our hearts and minds to different kinds of people by retraining our ears and eyes to distinguish the differences between them. Seeing our differences clearly is a key way to demonstrate that we respect our varied citizens as full people.

    So please Salon, and all you other large, professional news organizations: No more excuses. Get on the multi-racial bandwagon. Talk about the similar sounds between the Obama and Osama names, but also think about the underlying issues that make you seek out round-a-bout explanations for what is apparent, yet hard to admit. Get it together, and keep your brown people straight.  It might help if you hired some.

    And knowing that you have these issues, get an extra proofreader.

    Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter.

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