A few weeks back I read an interview with Robert Johnson, the African American billionaire founder of BET. Johnson recounted a few stories of mistaken identity, one in which he was mistaken for the chauffeur of his own car.
I was thinking about this because I thought how often this type of mistaken identity happens when white people see people of color.
A young African American guy I used to know had two occurrences of mistaken identity in one week. He was washing his very expensive car at his trendy condo building when management came out and told him that he wasn’t allowed to do that. Turned out that they had a problem with homeless people soliciting money for car washes (?). Condo owners, of course, were allowed to use the facilities in the garage for that purpose.
Then he was walking past a restaurant when a man jumped out of a car and handed him the keys. He had been mistaken for a valet.
To me, this was a clear example of how race can blind some white people to everything else. This guy clearly looked wealthy by my standards. He was always extremely well-dressed, lived in a very expensive neighborhood and drove a new sports car.
I’d heard other stories about this type of mistaken identity, but it wasn’t until I had a huge cumulative number of stories of my own that I started understanding how prevalent this is.
The first time I remember this happening I didn’t attach much meaning to it. I was at a friend’s wedding reception when a white woman asked me to get her a drink. I was a little puzzled by her request, and told her that the bar was self-service. Later she complained to the bride that the “help” was “snippy.”
The funniest part about this story is that the reception was held in a VFW hall. There was no “help.” It was an open self-service bar and a buffet table. Did she really think that the help would be wearing formal wear?
I was mowing the lawn one day (using a push mower!) when a white guy asked me for my card. Because he thought I was a lawn service employee. Okay, in his defense, I was wearing a red tee-shirt. (I’ve heard the same story from other brown people mowing the lawn in front of their own houses. No word on the color of the tee-shirts involved.)
While taking an elderly white relative to doctors appointments, I am mistaken for a home health care aide. I wouldn’t mind this so much, but apparently if you are perceived to be an aide and are struggling because of some difficult situation (like those problematic double doors) , you don’t deserve any help from others. Whereas white relatives have doors opened for them and courtesies extended.
When walking through a restaurant, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, a white man stopped me and asked me to take his plate away.
Clearly, assumptions held by those people overrode even clear and obvious information that would indicate I was not in a service position.
Also, for some inordinate reason, white people often seem to mistake me for an employee of home improvement stores. Hello! No orange apron! (But every once in a while I like to answer the questions anyway.) Maybe it’s the tape measure and the manly stride. A white woman once abusively screamed that she wanted to see my manager RIGHT NOW because she did not feel I was helpful. Even after she found out she was mistaken, she did not have the grace to apologize.
They never do.
I find these kinds of events telling not only about the other people, but about myself. I have ingrained notions of what type of people are in these types of positions, and I am indignant: I am not one of those people! (I will note that I used to be one of those people, and in my own defense perhaps I’m like the ex-smoker who is militant about nobody smoking in their space. Because I often wake up grateful not to have that kind of job anymore. It is hard.)
But these types of incidents often also give me some type of insight about the type of abuse people in service positions receive on a regular basis. And when they are people of color, the abuse is heightened.
On some level, this is about a perception of equality. We often feel superior to people in positions “beneath” us. But we may also assume that some people, perhaps by virtue of their color, will always be in positions “beneath” us. Because otherwise why wouldn’t people simply open the door?
To me, this is a clear indication of why racism affects us all. We lose our own humanity and we discount the humanity of others.