Two years ago, I was chatting with a cashier at a food truck while I waited for my order. The cook turned around and walked over to me with a smile and said, “Hey, I know you! How’s it going? Anika, right?” I guess he recognized me from high school and wanted to say hello.
Except I’m not Anika, a girl we both went to school with. Like me, Anika has brown skin and dark hair, but that’s as far as the similarities go. When I told him my name, he shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly, as if he had accidentally handed me mustard instead of ketchup. I walked away knowing this wasn’t an isolated incident.
In Grade 10, an 11th grader asked me if she could borrow my mascara and foundation. I never wore makeup in high school and told her I only had lip gloss. She glared at me and walked away. A friend told me afterward that the girl had borrowed Anika’s makeup previously. Now she apparently thought I was lying about who I was or that I was just being rude by refusing her request.
Aside from my peers, teachers also called me and other brown students by one another’s names. One teacher would use Anika’s name to refer to us both as if we were interchangeable. When I noticed he had once mixed up our quiz scores, he ridiculed me in front of the class and claimed that I was just “upset about my grade.”
In addition to frequently being mistaken for Anika, my doppelgänger, I have an older sister who is several inches shorter and thinner than me. Still, some of our friends and classmates couldn’t tell us apart. They would call us “twins” or refer to me as “Oprah” or the “fat twin.” I remember one guy grabbed my butt when I went to a school dance. He called me my sister’s name and squeezed my hip. When he realized who I was, he laughed and said, “Oops, wrong sister” to his friends. He was 17 and I was 12 at the time.
I have often wondered what is happening in these instances. Are some people really incapable of distinguishing between people of a different race than their own? Psychologists point to the other-race effect to explain the tendency to recognize and recall faces of people from our own race more easily than those of a different race.
In one study, Caucasian babies as young as six months showed the emergence of a tendency to recognize only caucasian and Chinese faces and by age nine months they recognized only caucasian faces. Such facial recognition preferences were not found present at birth or even three months. The study noted, “very young infants have a broad face-processing system that is capable of processing faces from different ethnic groups … Between three and nine months of age, this system gradually becomes more sensitive to faces from an infant’s own ethnic group as a consequence of greater exposure to such faces than to faces from other racial groups.” Another study added, “It seems likely that face recognition reflects an experience-expectant process, whereby exposure to faces during a sensitive period of development likely leads to perceptual and cortical specialization.”
But just because experiences ― or, in this case, lack of experiences with races other than our own ― shape our tendencies, this does not mean we can’t overcome our learned biases. Until my 8th birthday, I was surrounded primarily by Black and brown people. Apart from my school principal, the only white people I knew were on TV. I could tell Kelly Garrett from Sabrina Duncan, and Blanche Devereaux from Rose Nylund ― not because of their clothing or hairstyles, but because I paid attention and got to know them.
When I immigrated from Trinidad to Canada, I had to learn the difference between the three Sarah’s and Matthew R. and Matthew D. in my class. As the only brown kid in my grade, I didn’t want to risk being ostracized if I had mixed up Melanie and Melissa. It might sound like I’m being facetious, but I’m not. Mixing up people’s identities is embarrassing for the person making the error ― or it should be. The impact of these recognition errors, however, is even more distressing for the recipient.
I had a repeat of the Anika makeup incident in university, but this time it was regarding econ notes and I was called a “bitch” for not lending them to a classmate. The problem is, I never took an econ class in college.
Later, when I entered the workforce, I was once mistaken for another colleague — and that incident gave the resident bully ammunition to isolate me by leaving me off of important emails or giving credit to someone else for my work.
Reporter Michelle Ye Hee Lee has written about the impact of being mistaken for other Asian American journalists. “Whether the person acted without malice, the effect is the same: It erases my body of work for someone else’s, simply because their ancestors were born on the same continent as mine,” Lee wrote.
Mistaking a person’s identity, even when unintentional, is, at best, lazy, but these seemingly innocuous errors can have serious consequences from incorrectly identifying the perpetrator in eyewitness lineups to racial profiling of Black people by the police. According to The Innocence Project, in cases where DNA was used to exonerate individuals wrongfully accused of a crime, 42% of those wrongful accusations involved a cross-racial misidentification. The recent rise in incidents of anti-Asian racism is yet another example of how racialized groups are treated as a monolith rather than a multiplicity of cultures and communities.
Recognition errors don’t just happen between strangers. When I wrote about the mispronunciation of names, students and professors reached out to me with stories of being mistaken for their peers. Students would get emails or texts clearly meant for someone else. What’s more, being in positions of high visibility didn’t insulate professors from co-workers who insisted they said something they hadn’t or were at an event they didn’t attend.
For years, a colleague in a different office would insist to my boss that he knew me from undergrad even though we had never met. My boss thought I was just forgetful. I am guilty of forgetting or mixing up names, but not when it comes to people I know and have interacted with repeatedly.
Such instances leave me feeling as if I’m walking through a haze of amnesia but the joke is on me. It’s the ultimate in gaslighting when people try to convince us we’re someone other than ourselves. They remember us from the nail salon where we never worked, compliment us on the coconut curry dish we never made, or confuse us with our light-skinned classmate who has short hair and wears glasses.
Could it be that the person is someone from our past and we simply don’t remember them? Or is it possible that some people are focusing exclusively on the most convenient shorthand available — our race and skin color? Their slow and steady erasure of our identity renders us invisible.
It’s the ultimate in gaslighting when people try to convince us we’re someone other than ourselves. They remember us from the nail salon where we never worked, compliment us on the coconut curry dish we never made, or confuse us with our light-skinned classmate who has short hair and wears glasses.
So much of what is happening in the world right now with regard to race has to do with the fact that Black, brown and Asian people do not feel seen ― truly seen ― by white people. If we are seen, we’re lumped together, confused for one another, ignored, written off as being “all the same,” or otherwise othered. It can be a part of the quiet, systemic but still insidious racism that we experience and it is exhausting and even traumatizing to have to deal with over and over again.
Still, although some people see me as “the other” or “an outsider,” I don’t believe the other-race effect is always motivated by racism or bigotry. Platitudes like “I don’t see race” or “we are all one race” don’t ease the emotional toll of being treated differently because we look different. I want people to see my race but not lose sight of my individuality and what makes me unique or just like them.
If you make a mistake, don’t be so quick to dismiss it by saying, “I’m terrible with names or faces.” If you feel uncomfortable, we feel it too. If you’re embarrassed, tell us. Resist the urge to laugh or shrug it off. If you pay attention and get to know us, you’ll find I’m more like Rose than Blanche.
Nandini Maharaj, Ph.D., is a freelance writer covering mental health, career, identity, and relationships. Her essays have appeared in HuffPost Canada, Animal Wellness, POPSUGAR, and Introvert, Dear. She is a dog mom to Dally, Rusty, and Frankie.
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