One of the seemingly inescapable facets of the Black experience is the awkwardness of having a white person mistake you for a totally different Black person, who most of the time, looks absolutely nothing like you. There’s also the “You know who you remind me of?” gem, in which a white person insists that you favor a certain Black celebrity, or talks to you at length about one of their three Black friends who you are just like. Sometimes they’ll even pull up photos on their computer or phone, the true icing on the microagressive cake. Cases of proverbial mistaken identity, though, tend to be the more annoying of the two for me. This is mostly because 9 times out of 10, you get some bs explanation or excuse, rather than a genuine apology. Simply saying “Wow, I am so sorry; what a stupid mistake” is apparently more than many white people can bear.
The years I spent as a caregiver were very isolating, and so it wasn’t until I returned to the University of Michigan to complete my degree that I remembered how absurd–and at times, frequent–those interactions can be.
In my first semester back, I had a classmate come up to me before class to ask a question, addressing me as “Mercedes” because she thought I was our GSI. Though I was around the same age as the GSI because of my educational gap, we looked nothing alike. I wore glasses; she did not. I’m about 5’11.5; she was a little over 5 feet tall, and frequently made jokes about her height in class. Her hair was a markedly different color than mine, as was her skin. But because Black and plus sized with natural hair, of course we were the same person.
Me, a petty person, simply responded “I’m Brittney; wrong Black girl,” and then laughed. She turned red, beelined to her seat, and avoided eye contact with me for the remainder of the semester.
“Wrong Black girl” became my go-to when I moved on to a graduate program at U of M. I was studying social work, so it was uniquely annoying to have multiple peers make that mistake. Once I was even mixed up with a girl who had locs. Like…how, Sway? The irritation of the microaggression never faded, but I found solace in the squirm of self-proclaimed ~*white allies*~ as they realized they’d committed a cardinal social justice sin.
Sometimes, though, the squirm doesn’t come, and you have moments like the one I had at brunch last month, where a white woman literally interrupted a whole entire birthday celebration to have a conversation with a person that I actually was not. I just wanted to enjoy my bacon and be drunk, but after staring at me from the next table over for quite some time, she stopped by our table before leaving the restaurant. The interaction didn’t even begin with words; she just smiled at me and made awkward gestures with her fingers. Just as I was about to explain that I didn’t know sign language, she placed her stranger danger hand on my shoulder and asked:
“You’re Shantanique, right?”
After the fits of laughter quelled at the table, I let her know that no, I was not. I had to let her know that twice, because her half-assed attempt at an apology was really more whitesplaining than anything. Shantanique was a fantastic flute player, which was why she did the weird finger thing. Shantanique and I looked just alike, and she’d spent her whole brunch being happy for me, “Shantanique,” because I was having such fun with my friends. There was a teeny tiny shred of embarrassment displayed as she explained this, but mostly, she found the mix-up hilarious.
Obviously, I did not.
I did find her ignorance hilarious, though. I’ve had to find humor in these occurrences, because unfortunately, they’re not going to stop happening. Beyond that, as I found out this past summer, they are essentially inescapable.
I interned in Australia from May to August as part of my graduate program, and it was the first time I had visited the country. Within the first two or three weeks, however, I was recognized by colleagues–with considerable confidence–as the one who worked in a different part of the hospital a few years back; the one who was featured on the hospital’s website a couple months ago; and my personal favorite, the one who presented at this same conference last year.
In a truly magnificent combination of mansplaining and whitesplaining, a social worker from a different agency not only insisted that we’d met the previous year, but asked me if I was sure that I’d never been to Australia. He seemed genuinely certain that perhaps I’d failed to recollect a previous time in which I traveled 10,000 miles from home, as if it is an easily forgettable experience. I bust out laughing in his face, and then tersely responded, “I am absolutely sure. 100% sure.” His sole reply? “Huh.” How mind-boggling that he could possibly be wrong.
But what’s truly mind-boggling is the boldness it takes to look at someone whose sole resemblance to a different person you know, or have met, is the color of their skin, and strike up a conversation/dismiss subsequent correction when you turn out to be wrong. Perhaps more astounding, though, is the fact that I haven’t just squared up with anyone in the midst of my exasperation with the foolery, and I probably never will.
God is a keeper, yall.