Typecasting: Double-Takes, Danger, and Death
The problem of squeezing Black people into certain predictable boxes
As a Black woman—a person of the global majority*—every time I walk into a global minority, predominantly white space, I feel like many people around me experience cognitive dissonance, that mental discomfort when something, or someone, doesn’t quite fit your beliefs. Do you know how some actors always play the same kinds of roles? Well, that typecasting happens in many white people’s minds related to Black people. I’m convinced of it.
What else could explain the double-take as their minds struggle to process the fact that the person with an anglicized name is a tall Black woman? As you know, I’ve had that happen to me more than once. It happens less these days because my photo is firmly attached to my name on social media, but I’ve never forgotten how it feels to see that reaction.
There are other examples of this, and not only within the Black community. I was browsing Instagram one day when I saw a post about the same thing in the Latine** community. Here’s what happened. Some people were hanging out at a house. Another person arrived and immediately assumed that the Latine person in the group was doing domestic service rather than forming part of the group of friends.
I’ve had the same thing happen to me in many settings—in offices, where somehow, I was often the person asked to make the tea. And in numerous shops, where random white people walked up to me and wanted help, without even asking whether I worked there—they just assumed I did, and some were pretty huffy when I made it clear I didn’t.
Questioning the biases
And let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with holding those roles. I just question the bias that underlies the assumption that everyone who looks like me MUST serve in that capacity. And the often-related assumption that Black and Brown people somehow lack education and brainpower. It’s ridiculous! You’d better believe that the person serving you at Target or H&M could also be getting their degree on the side or starting a much-needed business that supports their family comfortably.
Typecasting also happens in other arenas. I’ve heard of Black surgeons and medical professionals getting stopped for driving the same luxury cars as their white counterparts. But somehow, in that case, there was an assumption that they didn’t have the right to do so or must have stolen them. Even worse, I’ve heard of people refusing treatment from those same Black professionals because white patients assumed they were less qualified or capable. (Again, given the need for Black people to be twice or three times as good to have the same chances, the opposite is likely true.)
And then there’s the example of Ryan Coogler, who went into a branch of his OWN bank to withdraw his OWN money and was somehow suspected of trying to rob that bank. While the incident didn’t last long, the fact is that he was briefly in handcuffs, and the cops had their guns drawn. (And yes, Black people can act out of white supremacy, too, as clearly happened in this case.)
The trouble with typecasting
Howard W. French talked about typecasting in relation to excluding Black journalists from topics that weren’t deemed of “Black interest.” That has led to a “whitened” view of the world and helps feed the stereotypes that result in some incidents I described earlier.
The trouble with typecasting is that Black people can end up dead. When your skin marks you out as a threat, how can you ever be safe? There are hundreds of cases where this happens in the US, but it’s not unique to that country. Indeed, in Australia, the acquittal of the police officer who shot Kumanjayi Walker dead has left the young man’s family feeling an all-too-familiar pain.
So, what can would-be allies do about this? Apart from continually working for justice and changing the systems that result in the deaths of so many Black people, you can examine what’s going on in your own mind and your own social circles. Are you and those around you jumping to unwarranted conclusions about those who don’t look like you? Is there a way to do better by recognizing our common humanity? I challenge you to start there.
Thanks for reading,
*People of the global majority is a term coined by Rosemary Campbell-Stephens MBE.
**I’m using Latine as the term created and used by many Spanish speakers outside the US, including those who face -isms. It’s a gender-neutral term, that’s easy to pronounce in Spanish. Note that there is no widespread agreement on this.
This post was sent to paid subscribers on 11 April 2022.
Image credit: Getty images: Klaus Vedfelt
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2022. All Rights Reserved.