Grime MC? Footballer?
No doubt you’ve seen the recent mix-up between Romelu Lukaku and Stormzy on the back of the Irish Herald.
An innocent mistake or something a little more insidious? Well, like most things in life the truth is most likely somewhere in-between.
Rather than produce more click-bait content about what is otherwise a non-story, we thought it might be more useful to offer some sort of explanation as to how all this could have happened in the first place. We’d also like to examine our nation’s attitude towards stories such as this, and ask if we could all be doing a little better. After all, this isn’t the first time Stormzy has had to appease the country’s discomfort over a case of mistaken identity.
First off, let’s explore how this sort of thing happens.
In that ever so useful phenomenon we all call ‘science’, there is a theory known as the ‘other race effect’. A number of studies, including a neurological one with lots of technical terms and brain measuring instruments, has tested this theory with some very interesting findings. As a football blog, we’re not going to try and go into all the details, but take a look for yourself and hear it from the horse’s mouth.
In a nutshell, researchers focused on two parts of the brain associated with facial feature recognition (N200 & P2, obviously). Participants were shown faces from different races, and low and behold the brain had to work a bit harder to recognise them.
The degree of brain strain was very much dependent upon two factors:
1. How many distinguishing (non-stereotypical) features an individual had.
2. How much contact participants had with people from other races in their life.
Gustave Feingold captured this concept brilliantly all the way back in 1914:
“Individuals of a given race are distinguishable from each other in proportion to our familiarity, to our contact with the race as whole.”
So what can this tell us about the Lukaku Stormzy situation?
Maybe the person who chose the photo hasn’t had enough exposure to people from other races.
Maybe they’re not that into grime or football.
Maybe Lukaku and Stormzy have remarkably similar and stereotypically bland faces? You could certainly argue that they both have similar facial hair sometimes. Personally, I don’t find them to be all that similar. But that’s just me. I love grime and football and have loads of black friends (said every racist person ever). I’m also mixed race… blah blah blah.
But in all seriousness, it is more than likely that ‘the other race effect’ had some sort of role to play in this unfortunate error.
In 2015, ITV had to apologise for using archive footage of Anslie Harriot in a clip about Lenny Henry’s Knighthood. Ironically, Lenny Henry was speaking to the reporter about diversity and inclusivity as they ran the clip of the celebrity chef.
Samuel L. Jackson was also famously mistaken for Laurence Fishburne on American news, with Fishburne even claiming to have experienced the same mix-up early on in his career.
We’re not claiming that the Herald and all those directly responsible are completely innocent, it’s just important to consider that these sort of mistakes don’t make you a racist. In fact, neurobiologist and Guardian columnist, Mo Costandi, has referred to his inability to distinguish between Matt Damon and Leonardo Di Caprio in The Departed.
So there is some evidence that we’re all predisposed to thinking that particular groups of people look the same, either because the individuals concerned actually do, or because we simply haven’t had much prior exposure to people from that race.
However, the key point to note here is that there is a difference between making a mistake in the comfort of your own living room and making a mistake that goes through several sign-offs only to end up being published on the back page of a national newspaper. That’s how you cross the line from ‘mistake’ to ‘monumental fuck up’.
The amount of times black people have been victim of this particular fuck up at the hands of the mainstream media would further support the conclusion that there is an issue with the underrepresentation of black and ethnic minorities within these institutions.
Now, in fairness, the Herald is an Irish newspaper, which suggests that the diversity within their workforce is likely to be far smaller than you’d expect from an English institution. Ideally you want a workforce that reflects the audience you are trying to reach. Unfortunately this is rarely the case.
Which leads us nicely onto the next issue – the slightly sinister reaction to the mistaken identity of Stormzy and Lukaku.
So fair enough, there’s considerable scientific evidence to suggest that we’re predisposed to making these sort of errors when it comes to recognising other races. Fine. What sits altogether less comfortably is the way in which some people have reacted to these incidents, seemingly looking to trivialise rather than understand the issue.
Unfortunately for Stormzy, this isn’t the first time he has had to deal with a situation like this. In February his house was raided by police following a call about an intruder in his property in Chelsea. The ‘intruder’ was in fact the owner, Stormzy. You do the maths.
Stormzy was then put in a difficult position on Channel 4 comedy ‘The Last Leg’, when a host of comedians made misguided, uncomfortable jokes about the ordeal. Of course humour is an excellent way of dealing with bad situations, but in this instance it felt like they were all tippy toeing around a serious issue that Stormzy clearly didn’t want to address on this particular platform.
Around the same time (months before the Herald messed up), Stormzy also had to address his Romelu Lukaku lookalike situation on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch – once again on an all white panel.
On the surface, this appeared to be a light-hearted chat that Stormzy was totally on board with. However, consider the pressure on this young musician to react in a way that doesn’t suggest he has a huge chip on his shoulder.
This is a 23 year old trying to establish himself as a mainstream artist. The last thing he’s going to do is turn around to Tim Lovejoy and say, ‘do you know what mate? This is really boring’.
Meanwhile, Joe.co.uk used this clip for an article entitled ‘Stormzy reacts brilliantly to being asked about his footballer lookalike’. Now, do you think you’d ever come across the headline ‘Gary Barlow Reacts Brilliantly To Being Asked About His Footballer Lookalike’?
Rather, the use of language here suggests a sense of relief that Stormzy is able to see the humour in something that the narrator most likely considers to be funny but also, well, a bit wrong. Incidentally this is the same vibe you can pick up from the laughter on the panel – a sense of relief that Stormzy is able to laugh at himself in the same way that they are laughing at him.
‘Good thing you found that funny mate, because we were all cackling about this before you got here’.
Alternatively, Stormzy may just be laughing to survive and prosper in this unfamiliar environment. To avoid being – in his own words – a ‘party pooper’.
However, Joe.co.uk have taken it one step further this time and run a story acknowledging Stormzy’s disappointment with the Herald’s mistake. This was inevitably met with a backlash of people telling Stormzy to ‘lighten up’.
Maybe Stormzy does think he looks like Lukaku. Maybe he has a laugh about it with his mates.
But when he’s wheeled out on national TV with the weight of an under-represented group of people on his young shoulders, he’s probably sick and tired of responding to something that isn’t even funny and is in fact just a result of ‘the other race effect’.
According to the Runnymede Trust, 4 in 5 people believe ethnic minorities are negatively represented by mainstream media. While a seemingly trivial chat about lookalikes might not seem as damaging as some of the more sensationalist coverage of minority groups, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t harmful.
Stormzy laughing along with the Sunday Brunch panel epitomises the less visible effects of underrepresentation. The intentions might not be cruel, but the result is insidious.
So next time you Tweet, interview or bump into Stormzy, leave out the references to a case of mistaken identity with a black guy he may or may not look a bit like dependent on the set of lenses through which you view life. In fact, take advice from one of his biggest hits to date and SHUT UP.