Black women in higher ed: The problem with mistaking us for each other

Recently I was reminded how Whoopi Goldberg was mistaken for Oprah at the 2016 Oscars, resulting in the emergence of the hashtag: #ThatsNotOprah. 

This is neither the first or last time that Black women celebrities were and will be mistaken for each other. These mistakes although presumably innocent, are problematic for an infinite number of reasons. The most evident and readily referenced in the case regarding Whoopi and Oprah is the fact that both women have largely distinguished acting careers. (Who lives in America and doesn’t at least know who Oprah is?). The second issue is that they look vastly different. One of the most noticeable differences is that Whoopi has locs and Oprah either wears her hair straight or in curls. Whoopi also has a large visible tattoo in the outfit she wore and to my knowledge, Oprah doesn’t have any tattoos. 

The list could go on about the ways that Whoopi and Oprah differ, including the fact that they played very different characters in the same movie: The Color Purple.  Whoopi’s character was very meek and docile and Oprah’s was bold, outspoken and confrontational to a fault. Unfortunately, none of these differences seem relevant when it comes to the misidentification of each of these well known Black women celebrities. 

The real reason we’re here, though is to discuss my own related experience. Just last week, for the second time this semester, one of my Black women colleagues  and sister scholars was mistaken for me and was called by my name by white faculty/staff member.  While I’m not yet the caliber of Oprah or Whoopi Goldberg and we aren’t quite in Hollywood, I found this equally horrifying and problematic for several reasons. The main issue is simply the fact that it’s the second time this has happened in one semester and that it’s unlikely to be the last occurrence in my lifetime or even in this particular setting. I have the easiest name to remember so people only remember that one of the Black girls’ name is “Megan” and somehow this results in calling any one of them by my name at any given time for trial and error.

This communicates that in the mind of an older white professor/ staff member we all look alike despite the fact that we all have very distinct appearances. Similar to the situation with Whoopi, I also have locs which gives me an even more distinguished look in my opinion. Of the two times this has occurred this semester, one is a common offender of calling non-white students the wrong name and has done this more than three times this semester to women of various non-white ethnicities, namely Black and Asian. In response, I can only wonder, at what point would one realize a need for a behavior change, be it practicing the names more or admitting this common challenge and using name-tags? Moreover, how is it that one can manage a class full of Rebecca’s, Caitlyn’s and Lindsey’s and not manage to mix them up but can’t seem to manage a class of 3-4 Black or Asian, or Asian American women without consistently calling each of them the wrong name?

Mistaking one Black woman for another informs us that you have not taken the time to get to know us as students or colleagues (as graduate school professors like to proclaim).  To what extent does one forget the correct name of someone who is humanized and distinguished in their mind or one who you listen to (to understand) when they speak?

While I understand in-group/ out-group biases and the fact that people of other ethnicities sometimes look alike to non-members of that group, it is a much stronger offense when viewing the volume and frequency at which Black women experience this and must continuously remain calm and attempt to overlook it. The mistaking of one of us for another tells us that we’re seen as a monolith, and that non-Black professors/staff still struggle to distinguish our thoughts, bodies, experiences, mannerisms, hairstyles, and energies from one another. This occurs in spite of the countless books, research studies, Buzzfeed articles, quotes, and despite our emergence in film, and our attempts to control our own narratives throughout the media. What more can we do to establish and distinguish our presence as unique individuals and not just “one of the Black girls”?

The problem with calling a Black woman by another Black woman’s name is that until we bring light to this deadly and commonly occurring issue it will continue. Keep in mind, occurrences such as these, while generally not life-altering, are hardly ever isolated; thus, the volume at which they occur for one group (Black women) and from another group (white people in powerful positions) contribute to the larger issue that creates our feelings of being othered, marginalized, disrespected, and oppressed.

#ThatsNotMegan

1 thought on “Black women in higher ed: The problem with mistaking us for each other

  1. It seems to be a carried subconscious bais for many in the majority group. We are all lumped into categories and stereotypes because they only identify us a groups and never individuals. Identifying us as individuals takes time and effort that many of them have the privilege of not needing or wanting to address. Many people in the majority typically only remember names when the person of color is associated with power, preference, or promotion as a relates to their life.

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