Mistaken identity

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.

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46 thoughts on “Mistaken identity

  1. Great piece. This has happened to me often where I’m standing in a Best Buy in shorts and t-shirt and a white guy turns and asks me where something is in the store. I typically respond with an annoyed “Whaaat?” or an angry “Do I look like I fucking working here?”

    In both cases they walk away and never apologize.

  2. Lawn-mowing thing happened to my brown husband (who wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a red t shirt) once. He told the white lady who wanted to hire him that she was welcome to borrow his mower when he was finished, but she’d need to fill it with gasoline as it was almost out.

  3. I’ve had the “I don’t work here” situation (while wearing T-shirt & shorts) in home improvement stores a few times over the years. Sometimes I do wonder whether it’s because they see a non-white face and speak before seeing the rest of me (my clothes) in context.

    Fortunately I haven’t been asked about the lawn-mowing thing yet by strangers. But I did have a few acquaintances jokingly ask me to do their lawns after I finish with mine. I tell them that they can’t afford me. Most just laugh. A couple give baffled expressions, so I explain that I don’t want to mow their lawn, therefore my rate would be so ridiculously high that they’d be a fool to pay it, and I’d be a fool to decline such money to just mow a lawn (if someone was crazy enough to pay it).

    I’m waiting for the day a stranger asks me just to see their reaction to my asking rate!

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  5. Just yesterday a friend (Korean) was telling me about getting into an elevator and having a woman who was going to the same floor say, “I think you have my lunch,” because he was holding a white paper bag with his lunch in it. Apparently she didn’t recognize the expensive hipster haircut and matching wardrobe.

    There was probably a pointed rejoinder he could have volleyed her way that would have actually educated her, but he was too surprised to say anything and just went into his office (the first door off the elevator) when they got to their floor. Lucky for him he doesn’t have to say anything for her to feel dumb the next time(s) they are in the elevator together.

  6. I can’t count how many times white lawyers would walk up to me in court and ask for me to tell them when the prosecutor came in. They wanted for me to make sure they knew when HE walked in. Mind you, at that point, I have the files, I’m cutting deals with other lawyers and talking to the judge. I would even handle the case in front of them at the bench. I would just let them sit until court was almost over and when the judge would ask why they were there and they would reply they were waiting for the prosecutor, the judge would just smile at me and tell them they had no idea how much they had just screwed their case.

    Of course those were still better days than the ones where I was mistaken for the defendant or the defendant’s girlfriend and told to sit in the gallery.

  7. Happens all the frakkin time, so continually as to be totally beyond count. Just the other day I was walking on a front-lawn path toward my friend’s front door and his landlady intercepted me assuming I was delivering food from the local Chinese take-out joint. I can stand around in just about any retail space and white folks will come up to me asking for service. It’s a hilarious spectacle.

    Then there’s the tangentially related phenomenon we all know so well: any Asian persons within 15 feet of one another in any retail space are assumed to be together.

  8. I worked at the local airport three days a week, and attended University for two. I’d wear a small lapel pin to work with the mascot/logo of my University on it.

    Countless people would raise their eyebrows in awe and ask “wow, you work at the University *too*?!”

  9. Haha, call me young and naive, but until reading this article, I had no idea why people have assumed that I work at a store when I’m dressed in normal clothes.

    I can recall having directed someone to the bathroom once. Another time someone asked me something about a product, so I told them I didn’t work there, and they apologized.

    I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more of this.

  10. Yes, I’ve been there. My husband and I were in the lobby of a luxury hotel when a woman asked my husband (who was wearing a sports jacket) if he was going to help her with her luggage. While on vacation in Jamaica as my friends and I waited for a table, a white couple politely asked me if I worked there. Before I could respond, my friends flipped out in unison with “why do you assume she works here!” and finally while waiting to sit down with other attorneys to negotiate a settlement a fellow African American attorney asked me to get him some coffee. I told him I did not typically do that but I would be happy to show him where the pantry was. Sigh.

  11. *lol. You’re not the only naive one, Ike!

    I was in-between jobs at the time. I was shopping with my mother, and people kept asking me where stuff was. I was with my mother!

    Anyway, at the time, I chose to view it as a omen: Maybe that meant that I should take an job application! But, the store never hired me! =D

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  13. nicely written post. i sometimes mistake white people for employees at stores. they get all offended. i sometimes apologize, but often don’t. it’s not right, but inside i think, “oh get over it, you guys do it to us all the time,” as i turn away and smile sinisterly. i know that’s wrong, cause individuals aren’t responsible for the actions of a group, but it’s my own lil’ private triumph.

  14. People can be idiots and I’m sure that this happens to people of color much more than it does to whites, but apparently my fat, fish-belly-white self looks like a shop girl, because no matter where I go, I get asked for help. If it’s a store I know well, sometimes I even give it.

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  16. The thing that gets me is the ASSUMPTION. When I’m in a store, I at least ASK – Do you work here?

    They NEVER ask that. They just ASSUME you do, and when you inform them that you don’t, they NEVER apologize.

    But, if anyone gave me their keys thinking I was the valet, I’d take the car, find the crummiest neighborhood, leave it there, unlocked, keys in the ignition, and let them deal with it.

  17. I am adopting a black child and we are a white family. I will have to teach her to be very self confident and love herself since she will not have an easy life in this world. It’s so sad that people are like this. I am so aware of it that I make double sure the person is an employee before asking them for help. I would never just assume and if I ever was wrong I think I would apologize until my face turned red.

  18. Its so interesting reading everyone’s experiences. My parents live in a very well-to-do white neighbourhood and they are the only brown people on their block. Dad was once asked by an elderly white neighbour to do her lawn once he’d finished working on his. They’d never guess that he retired at 50 and just likes to potter about the garden all day :/ Because brown people are ALWAYS the help, dontcha know…

    On another tangent, my partner is white – Whenever we meet new (white) people at gatherings/functions or whatever, they usually talk to him, and address him directly even though we are standing right next to each other, and we are both fairly extrovert people. They just assume I’m the quiet brown person who doesn’t speak english, even though the opposite is fairly evident.

  19. Your website was pointed out to our adoption group today. We are from different parts of the US, many of us are white, and are all adopting from Ethiopia. Your Mistaken Identity post was wonderful.

    It made me smile to hear of others who have been mistaken for help at the home improvement stores. A few years ago I was helping my husband build a deck/screened in porch. I was wearing boots, a baseball hat, an old t-shirt and a pair of pants with a million pockets filled with: work gloves, pad & pencil, a rag, and of course the ever present tape measure hanging off of one of them. If anything I looked like a girl contractor not an employee. I had 2 different people ask me where things were in the lumber dept. Of course I laughed and said I didn’t work there. But, really? I think there may just be a lot of oblivious people out there!

  20. A distinguished professor of mine often related a similar experience of being handed car keys as if he were the valet. It got worse when he started wearing his hair braided. Apparently there is no suit and tie so expensive that it can effectively negate the “brown people are here to serve me” white privilege.

  21. Well, I have been asked for help at Target several times (and I wasn’t wearing red) but it is probably b/c they see me there so much. LOL

    I think it is sad that it happens and I know my daughter will face it. I hope she can deal with it with dignity and self assurance.

  22. If I were mistaken as an employee because of my race, I’d find it humorous (if they asked me in a friendly way), or very angry and offended (if they demanded the service).

    There are some mentions about being mistaken despite wearing ‘expensive’ clothing (e.g. briefcase and tie, hipster haircut). But I don’t see how wearing these things should matter in this context; do you really have to wear something ‘better’ to make up for your ‘deficiency’ in race?

    Even if I were wearing a cheap red T-shirt and shorts, I still won’t think others will have any more of an excuse when they mistake my identity. I should be able to wear anything (of any class or style), and be confident that people will not make assumptions so easily. I’ll be equally as mad if they think I’m an employee while I’m wearing those clothes as opposed to some other piece of evidence that proves I’m ‘rich enough’ not to be a service person.

  23. Although I did not mention it in the context of my trip to Jamaica I was wearing all white as were the waiters so the couple that asked if I worked there could have assumed I was the hostess (even though I was standing there with other people). As for my mention of the sportsjacket, I’ve never seen a bellhop wear one when assisting a hotel patron. So in that respect, clothing can distinguish service workers or not and a description of such is relevant to the perception of the potential offender.

  24. I am a white woman who apparently channels that shop-girl vibe as I get asked incessantly where things are in stores by people of a veritable rainbow of colors.

    And generally, when you tell people that you don’t work there, no, they don’t apologize.

    But I haven’t ever had anyone get bitchy with me for not helping them after I said I didn’t work there. That is just.. bizarre and very rude.

  25. I saw Whitney Houston tell this story on ABC.

    After a performance for the President (I don’t remember which one), Houston and most of the guests were in a post gala buffet line in the White House. Houston picked up a plate and a white woman took it from her, thinking that Whitney Houston was there to pass out dishes.

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  27. I’m white and people always think that I’m working in clothing stores and for some reason Target even when I’m not wearing red. One time in a clothing store a woman got super snotty with me when I told her I didn’t work there. I do get told that I look “exotic” whatever that means so maybe that’s it.

  28. This post ran so true with me, an Asian woman who has gotten asked for the check in Chinese/Korean/Japanese/Thai restaurants. I work for a small parenting magazine, and we’d love to reprint this piece. I see the info about tracking back from a website, but hope you might be able to e-mail me with guidelines for using in a print magazine.

  29. I wonder if some of the people who do the assuming and then don’t apologize don’t have the classist biases that seem to make it pertinent to apologize? If you don’t view a store employee as beneath you, then I’m not sure why mistakenly identifying someone as a store employee would require an apology. The people who are rude and snippy about it – they definitely should apologize. But the person simply requesting information? Not so sure about that. Note that this is coming from a white woman who often gets mistaken as a store employee and who ALWAYS asks first if the person is an employee before proceeding with any questions.

    My (black) husband has been dealing with a slightly more negative case of people assuming something because of his looks. He has shoulder-length dreadlocks, and people keep coming up to him and attempting to buy drugs (and, in case it’s not clear, that’s not what he does for a living – he is a chemical engineer who works as a business analyst). The other day someone asked him for drugs while he was at the convenience store, having just gotten out of the minivan, with our infant daughter strapped onto him in a sling, while he was in line to get a chocolate malt. I mean, sure, drug dealers have families, too, and they probably like ice cream as much as the next person, but even still, do you suppose they deal in the convenience store with their baby strapped onto their bodies?

  30. I still turn red when I remember the blue shirt I approached for help in a Best Buy who turned out to be a fellow customer, who was really gracious about it. That the person wearing the shirt happened to be black wasn’t a factor I had considered until this post, but I have noticed where I live that the racial divide in restaurants is really stark and severe.

    I don’t think not appologizing is a class awareness thing, though. When I appologized to the gentleman above, it was for bothering him and babbling at him, not because I think store employees are beneath me. I consider it only polite to appologize to someone when my presumptions take up their time. I’ve appologized to employees as well, when I’m particularly ditzy or out of it, because they’re working and they just want me to order or pay and be done with it, not dither.

  31. Some of you guys take this kind of stuff too far with the violent reactions to what could be an innocent question. The ‘do you work here?’ stuff happens to white guys all the time, especially in retail locations. One thing that will not help the situation is screaming at someone after they ask you whether you are an employee.

  32. Wow John, you really seem clueless on this subject. This stuff may happen to white guys but there is really no racial negativity attached to it. Help what situation? some people are so fed up with and frankly sick of being discriminated against, so pardon me if we decide to let off a little frustration at ignorant people. If someone asks politely then yes, I would also treat them with politeness. However if someone has an attitude or in my case, keeps asking “am I sure that I don’t work here,” then yes I am going to get angry. Maybe the next time they won’t be so stupid and ignorant.

  33. Not surprised anymore. My husband is black and I am white. I used to be clueless until my husband was arrested on Christmas Eve in 2003 for robbery by force and fear. It was so outlandish to think that not only did he not fit the description of the suspect, he was at work (proven by time card). Her initial description was 5’10″, dark skin, 200 pounds. My husband is light skin, 5’6 3/4″, 165 pounds. He just so happened to be shopping in a department store the victim worked at and she says “thats him”. It was a shocking moment in my life but not the end of the trauma. The police also placed him in a line up for another crime, which the victim in this case did not identify him as a suspect but later came to one of his court hearings and said “thats him”. This case was for rape by force and fear. He didn’t fit her description either. My husband broke down and we both lived in hell for almost a year. Both were cases of mistaken identity and dropped. We never even received an apology.

    In court, the white girls described my husband as living a double life. Why? They didn’t think it was possible for a black man to be responsible, have a family, have nice things and be a “real” decent, kind, caring person? He has nothing to hide and their racism was exposed. Who’s living the double life?

  34. currently in this situation. I worekd as a sub teacher and I do many things in the school district. I’m an African American women who completed my B.A and working on credential. Every school district that I worked in California from elementary to high school, I always been refered to as a parent, volunteer or for worse student. However, I in a leagl situation where my identity or name has been link to African American young lady who is 3 years youger than me……Let Freedom ring from this currupt mind sets..God Bless…………..

  35. [Hi! I haven't really read much about racism, so I didn't know that my comment was already covered by Racism 101 #15, and that scads of other people also fall prey to We Heard It Before #16. It must be tiring for you all to always hear the same shit over and over again! Sorry!]

  36. I’m white and I haven’t heard some of these before.

    When staff are thin on the ground, I try not to make assumptions about who works somewhere. I’m more likely to say, “I know you’re a customer, but do you know where X is?” “Do you work here?” just seems ruder.

    Overall, I’m appalled at many of your stories here. Sadly, I’m no longer surprised.

  37. Who are these awful people that treat others like this? It’s baffling. I’m with rikyrah and deirdre – I would always check with someone before I ask for help- and it would always be politely. I admire how good hearted people are here who have had such unpleasant experiences – not sure I would be so forgiving!

  38. Thanks for the great piece.

    I think some people go into this kind of desperate, glazed-over mode when shopping (especially malls, grocery stores, target, etc.) and don’t see the person that is really in front of them, but kind of revert to their basic prejudices. And some of those people have all sorts of nasty race and class prejudices — and when someone challenges those assumptions? Whoo boy, it’s freak out time. Because they can’t be wrong about your position, because that would challenge their position and their judgement and suggest that they are a racist, and all kinds of stuff – so better to just scream at the person who challenged their evil assumptions.

    On the other hand, a lot of people are just asking their fellow human beings for help – like if you are carrying a tape measure in a home store, you obviously know more than they do, so maybe you know the answer to their question. I’m a librarian (white), and as such I believe I must have “Ask Me!” tattooed across my forehead. And darned if I don’t find myself being drawn into their questions most of the time — at least I can find someone who works there for them. Mostly I find it bizarrely fun, because I’m kind of pathetic that way. I’d hate to think how bad it would be if I were a female librarian of color – probably I’d never get a darned thing done of my own business and just have to shop online (oh. wait.).

    I do ask other shoppers (or people on the street) for help a lot, too. I hope they don’t assume they think I think they work there (unless they are wearing the uniform or whatever). If I think work there and they aren’t uniformed, I would usually ask. But if I don’t think they work there I probably would say something like “Excuse me, do you happen to know…?” and I’d hope they wouldn’t think I thought they worked there and be offended. Of course, hmm, why would that be offensive? You are right, it does make me think about my class and job prejudices.

  39. To the white folks that have responded that it happens to whites all the time… Yes, I know lots of white people whom it does happen to in terms of where things are at the store… i.e home depot, target HOWEVER I would be that no one assumes white people are a) bringing their lunch or Chinese takeout b) the valet who is going to park their car or c) the “help’ at a restaurant. These are explicitly demeaning experiences that have a history of that particular minority attached to them, and no way could you understand the depth of emotion that that would lead to because you have never been there. So it is easy for you to laugh it off. Sometimes people even say things deliberately to “put you in your place.” Even worse. You may be surprised at how your white friends act when you (other white people) are not around. Sometimes white people pretend to be “non racist” to other white people, but in fact have strong racist perceptions and will act those out on minorities. (As they say, your true character comes out when no one you “value” is around.) I have been very very offended at people sharing stories with me about their 13 year old “girl friends” in Vietnam War (They will ask first, Are you Vietnamese, and when I say, no, they will STILL tell me because I of my Asian appearance-why are you telling me this except to offend and or demean me- and even if I was- still, it only makes me hate you!?(and/or bringing up bombing of Japan in WWII & people going “poof”(not Japanese here= why are you telling me this??) I could go on. I think some of the racist remarks above were “female related” just like remarks I received. (i.e. getting coffee etc).

  40. My brother (Viet) was standing around waiting for me and his wife to pick out a Christmas tree. He was bored and just parked next to the Douglas Fir section. We were two rows over next to some Noble Firs. He was wearing jeans and a sweater, nothing fancy, with his arms crossed, when we heard an older lady (white) holler, “Hey, senor! I need help with this!”

    Of course, my bro was assuming she was talking to someone else, so he ignored her.

    “Hello?? HOLA?!? Help please!!”

    When she kept yelling, he finally looked around to find that he was the only one close to her, so he looked at her and gave her the “Who, me?”-look.

    “Do you speak English?? I (pointed to herself). Need. Help (pointed to my brother). Tree (pointed to the tree). Car (pointed over to the parking lot).”

    LOL! She said it all slowly and started using her primitive form of sign language. My sister-in-law yelled, “HONEY! Come here!”

    And he walked over to my sister. That lady later complained loudly that she was here first. She STILL thought my brother was an employee until the sales rep said, “Oh, him? He doesn’t work here.”

    All she said was, “Oh.” *sigh* The things we experience.

  41. Ty, the thing I love about blogging is realizing that it isn’t just me. And I was twistedly amused by your brother’s story. Especially the “Honey” part. ;-D

  42. I (Asian guy) was in a J.Crew in a mall looking for new clothes. I was dressed in dressy attire. Black dress shoes, black trousers, my new Guess French-Cuff-linked burgundy dress shirt with my new black cuff-links, and a black dress tie. A white older couple, say upper 40′s – lower 50′s, came up to me and asked me “Do you know where the dressing room is?” I looked at them and said “One, I don’t work here. Two, the dressing room is over THERE.” They look baffled and I can tell they looked embarrassed but I shook my head at them as they scurried away. They kept ducking me when I was still at the store.

  43. Not the first time this has happened but today I was shopping at a high-end store and a white woman approached me (out of a group of shoppers, all others being white) and asked me to do a price check! I responded by informing her that I did not work there and as an executive, I wouldn’t know what buttons to push! Unbelievable. Clearly all she saw was color and not the uniformed, nametag-wearing white sales associates nearby.

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