I've Gotta Be Me

Thirty years ago, my grandfather was walking on a sandy beach in Acapulco when he was accosted by a group of adoring fans. They wanted to see him up close and maybe even get an autograph. No, grandpop wasn't anyone famous. He was just a retired postal worker from Philly who retired to Mexico in search of the good life. The man had no idea that part of that "good life" would include being mistaken for Sammy Davis Jr. more times than the Candy Man was probably recognized himself.

Grandpop barely resembled the Black Rat Packer, but it still didn't keep folks from asking. African Americans in foreign lands are often confused for famous people. I once had a friend whose aunt was stalked in Japan because everyone thought she was Sheila E. Another friend of mine had a boyfriend who, despite being about seven shades lighter and four inches shorter, was dubbed Michael Jordan while abroad. Ask any black person who's traveled further than the Bahamas – this type of mistaken identity happens quite often.

But for some reason, it's much easier for me to understand this happening in other countries than when it happens in my own backyard. Here, most Americans are see a variety of African Americans everyday, if not in real life, at least on tv. Regardless, many of us are still have the occasional experience of being mistaken for someone we only vaguely resemble. A victim of this type of false identification system suffers from TOB – The Other Black.

I had my first experience with TOB in the seventh grade, when my art teached accidentally called me "Henrietta". Henrietta was a girl who was about half my height and twice my width. She thought it was kinda funny that Mr. O'Reilly confused us, but I didn't see the humor in it at all. I thought it meant that I needed to go on a diet. It wasn't until much later that I realized that the only reason Mr. O'Reilly called me Henrietta was because Henrietta was black like me.

TOB starts as early as nursery school, something I was made painfully aware of this as I was dropping my four-year-old off yesterday. The mix up went something like this:

We were entering J-Jo's classroom as the head teacher was coming out.
J-Jo looked up and as usual, greeted the woman by name.

Head Teacher looked J-Jo square in the face, smiled and responded. "Hi Mia."

This was problematic on a number of levels:

1. J-Jo's name is not Mia.
2. Her real name sounds nothing like Mia.
3. Mia is the name of the only other little black girl in the entire school.
4. Although they're both tall for their age, Mia's hair is a finer texture than J-Jo's, her skin is darker than J. Jo's and her mother is white.
5. I am very clearly not white.

Still, somehow, Head Teacher had lumped the two girls into the same caste system within her mind.

She tried to make up for it by quickly catching herself and readdressing J-Jo by her true name. I forced a smile and cut her some slack for acknowledging the slip up. But I'd be lying if I claimed not to have given further thought to the faux pas. Not because there is anything about Mia that I would not want my daughter to be associated with, the two are actually good friends, but they look absolutely nothing alike.

At least not to us.


queenlatreesa said...

Here I come again...can't resist commenting to your excellent points! I am a teacher in Canada, and I have no problem distinguishing the black children in my school, but I am so guilty of having to think real hard before calling the name of the asian girls in my classes! They are together all the time, they do look different from each other, but I have to sort through the list of names to find the right one almost everytime! In my defense, I am guilty of swapping names of all the "best friends" I teach too! It is that association of MelissaKathySusanJennifer always being together that takes a minute to remember they are actually individuals not one entity. Sometimes it is just that, but it happens that all the kids who share a culture sometimes also share all their time! Thank you for reminding me what it must seem like to the student and the parent!

Dee said...

This is such an interesting concept to me. I never had it happen, but it has happened to so many others I know. There is another blogger, the black factor, that writes about this kind of thing all the time.


Mrs. J said...

Dee – Thanks for the link, I'll be sure to check it out!