(The Root) —
“I work in pharmaceutical sales in a territory that doesn’t have much racial diversity. Recently I greeted a young lady who works at one doctor’s office I visited with the wrong name. I’d confused her with the other Asian receptionist. She replied, ‘Oh, so we all look alike?’ or something to that effect.
“I’m African American, and I know this is something black people say when people of other races confuse us for each other. So I was embarrassed, and I apologized profusely. But when I thought about it, I told myself it was an easy mistake to make because they actually did resemble each other. So my question is, was it really my fault, and did it say that I am prone to stereotyping or racism? Of course I don’t want to make the same mistake again, but is it that bad to have a hard time distinguishing people who really do have similar features (as some groups do)?”
Look at you, suddenly being all forgiving about the “They all look alike” phenomenon, now that you’re not part of the “they.” Let’s see how you feel the next time a receptionist calls you by the UPS deliveryman’s name because you “really do have similar features.”
I’m teasing. As you know, you’re not the first person to mix up two individuals who share little more than a general color palette. Far from it.
Remember when E! confused actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer? When a Buffalo, N.Y., news station displayed a photo of Seal when Michael Clarke Duncan died? When George Stephanopoulos thought Bill Russell was Morgan Freeman? How about the record-setting triple mix-up of Will.i.am, Wale and Wyclef by a news anchor?
These incidents elicit a collective cringe because of a shared cultural understanding that the person responsible for the error may have unintentionally exposed something vaguely troubling about his or her thinking about race. But we respond with humor (“Oh, so we all look alike?”) rather than outrage because we sort of agree that something subconscious is at play. And that the offender has totally humiliated him- or herself.
Last month my professor friend told me she’d received a message from a student who was horrified that he’d confused her with the only other black female faculty member in her department. Believe me when I tell you they look nothing alike. Plus, one was pregnant.