A magazine just mixed up two black models - and it has everything to do with racism

Alicia Vrajlal
Entertainment Editor
Sudanese-Australian model Adut Akech. Photo: Getty

Sudanese-Australian model Adut Akech says the Australian media industry has “a lot of work to do” after Who magazine published a photo of model Flavia Lazarus and incorrectly identified it as her.

The 19-year-old took to Instagram to inform her over 497,000 followers that after looking forward to reading her interview, in which she spoke about refugees and race, she was devastated to learn the model pictured in the magazine spread wasn’t actually her.

“This has upset me, has made me angry, it has made me feel very disrespected and to me is unacceptable and inexcusable under any circumstances,” she wrote.

“Not only do I personally feel insulted and disrespected but I feel like my entire race has been disrespected too and it is why I feel it is important that I address this issue. Whoever did this clearly the thought that was me in that picture and that’s not okay.”

“It goes to show that people are very ignorant and narrow minded that they think every black girl or African people looks the same,” she continued.

Ugandan-Australian model Flavia Lazarus, who was pictured instead of Adut Akech. Photo: Instagram/flavialazarus_

“I feel as though this would’ve not happened to a white model.”

And she’s right. This wouldn’t happen to a white model.

In fact, a quick survey of my newsroom colleagues today revealed that none of us could recall an instance where this has happened to a Caucasian celebrity in Australia.

That’s quite a feat, considering our local industry is whitewashed beyond comprehension, whether that be on screen, on the airwaves or on the runway.

Let’s take commercial breakfast television for instance. The number of blonde beauties across Today, Sunrise and Studio 10 is remarkable, and yet we’ve conscientiously avoided misidentifying any golden haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned lookalike TV hosts.

We identify our Sylvias from our Sams and Sonias, and our Angelas from our Allisons.

Some of Channel Nine's popular female TV hosts. Photos: Instagram/channel9style

In response to Adut’s post, Who magazine issued a statement, saying the misprint would hopefully get “people talking about this issue in the industry and tackling it head-on”.

WHO sincerely apologises for the incorrect image that appeared in this week’s magazine,” a spokesperson for the magazine said.

“Unfortunately the agency that set up our interview with Adut Akech supplied us with the wrong photograph to accompany the piece.

WHO spoke directly with Adut to explain how the error occurred and have sincerely apologised.

“We also apologise to Flavia Lazarus for the misprint.

“Our intention was to share Adut’s inspiring story and highlight her achievements. We are committed to increasing the diversity in the pages of WHO, and arranged the interview in view of this. Hopefully the result of our misprint will be more people talking about this issue in the industry and tackling it head-on.”

It’s happened before

This isn’t the first time a black model has been incorrectly identified in Australian press.

Commenting underneath Adut’s passionate post, former Australia’s Next Top Model contestant Duckie Thot wrote: “This has happened to me too with another Australian paper... it’s really disrespectful and sad. I hope you’re okay”.

Mahalia Handley, co-founder of social media movement Shine 4 Diversity, tells Yahoo Lifestyle Australia she’s had a similar experience working in the modelling industry.

“I agree with Adut on her Instagram post that this never would have happened to a white model, because it wouldn’t. I myself have had brands mess my name up on occasions and I’m glad she spoke out and used her platform to address the real issue of the mistake that happened to her,” says Mahalia.

”The Australian fashion industry needs to sky rocket and shift into being the leading example of how we celebrate cultures and ethnicities. Magazines, companies and media need to step their game up and be the change the industry is crying out for.”

Former Australia's Next Top Model contestant Duckie Thot says she's been misidentified in the Australian press in the past. Photo: Instagram/duckieofficial

Meanwhile it was only earlier this year when America’s Vogue proved it’s not just Australian media that needs to address racism.

Journalist, activist and speaker Noor Tagouri had been anticipating a feature in the mag’s February issue, however discovered she’d been misidentified as Pakistani actress Noor Bukhari.

“I’m so heartbroken and devastated,” Tagouri wrote on Instagram.

“I have been misrepresented and misidentified multiple times in media publications — to the point of putting my life in danger. I never, ever expected this from a publication I respect so much and have read since I was a child.”

Vogue later issued an apology on its social media channels.

“We were thrilled at the chance to photograph Tagouri and shine a light on the important work she does, and to have misidentified her is a painful misstep,” read the post

“We also understand that there is a larger issue of misidentification in media—especially among nonwhite subjects.”

What happens next

So what’s the solution? Is it the hiring of more culturally and linguistically diverse journalists? Is it greater education around race? Is it putting more people of colour in front of the camera?

It’s all of that.

And in a time when we dedicate resources to interviewing people of colour about their culture, refugees and race relations, the least we can do is get their photo right.

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