When You ‘Mistake’ Me for the Other Black Woman at Work…
Being a six-foot-four inch tall black woman often precludes me from being mistaken for other people. Growing up, I was almost never told “Hey, you look just like my friend,” or asked, “Have we met before?” But, living in Orange County, CA and working for white owned and operated businesses, I have been repeatedly mistaken – by white coworkers – for the only other black woman (or person) in my department. Though seemingly innocuous, it points to a racial and intellectual laziness and insensitivity from whites, and it is analogous to overarching attitudes toward black folks across this country.
Black people are not interchangeable. No member of any racial, ethnic, or gender group is. When whites exercise their own privilege in ‘mixing’ us up or ‘confusing’ us for one another, they speak to a larger truth about white attitudes toward black bodies. It seems our individual identities are so unimportant, they don’t even have to remember which one we are. Typically shrugged off in a joking manner as an ‘honest mistake,’ these incidents are rarely one-time offenses. They are repeated, passed on to other coworkers, and, sometimes, intentionally ignored thereby making them systemized features of a hostile working environment.
At Disney, when I was first referred to as “Nichole,” I simply said, “no, I’m Jennifer. Nichole is a schedule planning manager.” The response? “Oh, it’s just that you two look so similar.” A compliment given she is a beautiful woman whom I admire, that answer simply didn’t sit well with me.
When that same white coworker and others began inadvertently referring to me as “Ni-Jenn” (catching themselves before they actually said her full name), I realized it was a pathological issue. They were struggling to deprogram themselves from associating one black person with all black people. They were having immense difficulty seeing my individual identity as disassociated with that of my counterpart.
At PacSun, the same experiences were par the course. The only difference there was that white coworkers used their lack of familiarity with the department as their justification for calling me “Amber.” And when a sweet older woman named “Marie” joined the department, my name was quickly mistaken for hers as well. No, none of us resembled the other. But we were all black so…
There have been several times when these women had to transfer me phone calls because white folks in the office called them asking for me. I, too, had to redirect folks to them when I answered my phone, “Jenn Jackson speaking” and the response was, “Is this Amber?”
Some will argue that perhaps whites mistake me for other black women because of similarities in our names. But Jennifer and Amber aren’t even remotely similar pronouns. Neither are Jennifer and Nichole. At both companies, the women I had been mistaken for had been there for years longer than me. They each were managers and neither of them had ever worked in the particular role I occupied. Our physical features were not similar – aside from our brown skin. And, our language, diction, point of origin, interests, husbands, families, college, so on and so on weren’t remotely alike. This has never been an issue of similarity at all.
Yes, this is further evidence that Corporate America suffers from an intense diversity problem. But it also draws attention to the waning appetite to allow black bodies the individuality we are due and is inherently our right. When white folks mistake individuals of minority backgrounds for other individuals of a similar minority background, it simply denotes a lack of interest in our humanity. It says, “I really don’t which one you are. I need you to do this work for me.” It also undermines our individual abilities and contributions to our work teams. It implies that our skillsets and expertise are the same because we are all black.
As a black woman, I personally feel this is more dubious than it appears on its face. Black women’s bodies have never been raised in honor or esteem in this country. Acting as if we all look alike is a symptomatic facet of the root desire to erase and suppress our right to be women in public.
It isn’t a joke. It isn’t an issue of “not being very good with names.” Nor is it an innocent error. This issue is just a symptom of the white privilege exercised against people of color. It is a further stripping of our personhood. And, no matter how much whites attempt to shrug this off as an attempt to “race bait,” or “blame whites,” this is not the responsibility of people of color.
White people have to do better. When they mistake us for the other black person, they aren’t even trying.
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