Heck, they all look alike to me!
Like two prize fighters, we Americans again find ourselves bobbing and weaving over the seemingly never-end issue of race. A few steps forward, quantum leaps backward. The sad thing is that we often get swept up in all this and are left confused and frustrated and throw up our hands in helplessness.
Now before reading any further, how many of you have ever uttered something to someone who didn’t look like you that based on his/her reaction you wish you could have taken take it back? Okay, now let’s read on. Allow me to tell you about an actual encounter.
When we arrived simultaneously at the revolving door exiting the building a person I didn’t know whirled around, looked me in the eye, smile on his face, and said, “Hey ‘Tim’. Nice to see you. How are you?”
Uh, oh, a deer-in-the-headlight moment. I knew immediately that he had confused me with another “Tim,” an African-American in another organization.
“I’m fine, but I’m not that Tim if that’s who you thought I was.” I smiled to break the silence.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, I…..”
“No problem. Actually I’m Terry Howard,” I said while shaking his hand.
“Wait, aren’t you the guy with the hat who writes a column?”
“Sure am,” said I.
At that he laughed, we laughed, and we headed out the door exchanging experiences and whooping it up like old friends.
Was this an isolated incident? Nope. Being confused with another black male has happened to me a number of times over the years. One that was particularly unnerving was an encounter years ago outside a restaurant in New Jersey when I informed a fellow who approached me that I was not the guy he thought I was, the one he said had recently been shot nearby.
Gee…thanks…sir…reassuring…oh what a relief it is!
I shared that recent doorway experience with real ‘Tim’ soon after. We both rolled over in laughter. “Terry, I’m amused by the number of times people have confused the two of us.”
Wanting to confirm a hunch that we were not alone in this experience, I decided to check with a few other black folks on what their experiences have been.
Said one woman, “Oh sure, it has happened to me. The only thing I had in common with one woman I was confused with was that the two of us have very dark skin. However, it was not worth energy being offended.”
Said a man, “Because I’m a 3B ─ big, black and bald ─ you don’t know how many autographs I’ve signed and pictures I’ve taken with folks who thought I was a famous athlete. But I’ve come to enjoy my celebrity. One guy even asked me how he could get a free grill obviously thinking that I was George Forman.”
Said another: “I recall years ago while attending a large gathering, a gentleman engaged me in a 10-minute conversation, excused himself to go the men’s room, and resumed our conversation with the only other black woman present. Now I have a very light skin color and the woman he resumed the conversation with was two shades darker than you, Terry. Guess that makes him color blind, huh?”
The fundamental issue here is the challenge of making identifications across racial lines and how unreliable that can be. Which is not to say ‘they all look alike’ is never a sign of racial bias. But it isn’t always. Sometimes it is just human beings being human beings.
Now before writing this off as “what’s the big deal,” understand that the “they all look alike” issue has long been a hot button for many because it robs people of their individuality. It’s often a source of frustration and anger.
OK, to be honest, I cannot let myself off the hook on this. I recall instances when I confused Asians with other Asians and Latinos with other Latinos – “Excuse me Terry, I’m Jose, not Juan!” – and even, yes, some black folks with other black folks. Those are the moments that left me frantically looking for the nearest rock to crawl underneath. If you’ve ever experienced this yourself, you’ll agree that this is never a comfortable experience.
In the end, many will agree that we exist in world where folks feel that they must “walk on eggshells” to avoid offending someone, where some people – and cameras – lie in wait for some “gotcha” moment aided and abetted by social and news-starved media.
I argue that it is time to start cutting folks some slack, assume the best of intentions, and seize those inevitable “OMIF” (Open Mouth, Insert Foot) slips of tongue as opportunities to bond and bridge in those moments of our imperfection.
As the old saying goes, “even when you fall flat on your face, you’re actually moving forward.”
© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer, trainer and story teller. He is a senior associate at Diversity Wealth, a contributing writer with The American Diversity Report, The Atlanta Business Journal, The Huffington Post and New York-based Catalyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org