You Look Like Beyonce: Are Comparisons Inherently Racist?

02/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is it racist for a white person to compare an everyday black person to someone famous?

Last weekend I went to the House of Blues to see an incredible, energetic sold-out Kings of Leon charity show put on by Platform One Entertainment and the Lisa Klitzky Foundation that benefited the University of Chicago Comer Children's Hospital. I was sitting in one of the opera boxes with friends when a cameraman came in to film the crowd and the stage. One of my friends commented -- but not before she said something to the effect that she didn't want it to be taken in the wrong way -- that the camera guy, who was black, looked like Chris Rock.

Taken the wrong way? How can saying someone looks like another person be misconstrued? But I knew what she meant. I said, "Isn't it funny that white people feel like they're being even slightly racist when saying a black person looks like another famous black person, but that we have no problem comparing non-famous whites to famous people?"

From this, another woman standing near us joined the conversation saying that she mentioned to one of her black female co-workers, who had just done some sort of dance or energetic move (I can't remember the details -- we were in a partying state) and she commented that she looked like Beyonce in her video for " Single Ladies." Her co-worker became immediately offended, making a comment to the effect of, "What, you think we all look alike?" The woman who made the initial comment was stunned and said she would be completely flattered if someone said she looked like a gorgeous entertainer. She then added, "I guess we can never win."

I found this whole exchange really interesting, at a time when our country has reached a breakthrough in race relations, where we can elect our first black president, not on the color of his skin but for the fact that he has rallied the country, given us hope and instilled a sense of renewed patriotism. Isn't that what so many of us -- white, black, Asian, Latino, whoever -- have longed for for so long? To bridge a barrier moving us away from a horrible past that left so many in our country with deep wounds and scars?

White people finally feel more of a kinship with our black neighbors, but there's still those hushed conversations and moments where we feel like we have to be careful about what we're saying. Do we have to say the word black in whispers when describing someone? Is saying someone who looks like a famous black person racist because there's this perceived misconception that white people think all black people look alike? Or is it really just a plain fact that people look like other people? For years, people have said I look like various famous white people, some very complimentary and others personally insulting. But hey, it's a perception and someone's opinion.

In Saturday's edition of the Red Eye, the paper featured an interview with Reggie Brown, a 28-year-old aspiring actor. The article ran beneath a picture of Brown wearing a dark suit and light blue tie with the headline: 3 Questions for an Obama look-alike.

Now I have no idea the race of the journalist who wrote the piece or the editor who ultimately signed off on the interview. But does it matter? Looking at the picture, it's obvious that Brown is a spitting image of our new president. Surely, it's ok to say it. Because to argue the point would be foolish. The proof is in the picture.

So have we finally gotten to a point where we can start talking to people as people? Are we able to discuss a person's physical attributes without it setting off a firestorm of racial rhetoric? I for one surely hope so because it's high time we stop talking about people for the color of their skin but who they are. Commenting that someone looks like another person is a matter of opinion -- and sometimes fact -- and should simply be taken at, well, face value.