Mistaken Identity

A few weeks ago, some of my neighbors stopped by my house to return some mail that had been mistakenly delivered to them instead of me.  I rarely get unannounced visitors, so I curiously approached the door–perhaps it was a teenager doing a fund raiser or a friend who happened to be in the neighborhood.

I opened the door, said hello.  A white man and woman stood on my stoop.  Their faces quickly went from placid to surprised.

“Are YOU…?”

“Yes, sir; this is my home.  How can I help you?”

A quick explanation of the mail mishap and they were gone, leaving me with a Women’s Health magazine and feelings of resignation.

This interaction was, unfortunately, not a first for me.  People have been surprised at my Blackness more times than I can count.  Perhaps it’s the unassuming first name.  Or maybe the lack of accent–my extensive public speaking background nipped that in the bud real quick.

But multiple times in my life, I’ve spoken to someone on the phone and heard a shocked, pleased, or even disappointed exclamation of “I didn’t know you were Black!” during our first in-person meeting.  Or gotten a look of confusion in a doctor’s waiting room when I stand after my name is called.  Each time, I roll my eyes and add the interaction to the list of acts of subtle racism thrown my way.

Why do people live with stereotypes–usually negative–of what Blackness is?  Why, after meeting me in person, do people feel the need to remark on how “articulate” I am?  Or how I’m “not what they expected?”  Most people probably don’t even realize what they’re doing–and they definitely wouldn’t call it being racist.  However, stereotypes about Black people are so deeply ingrained that most of the population doesn’t even recognize them unless they are explicitly pointed out.

Sometimes, the stereotypes have terrifying–even deadly–repercussions.  A Black woman was held at gunpoint because a white neighbor thought she was breaking into her own apartment. Luckily, this woman wasn’t injured or killed.

…However, this Black man wasn’t so lucky.

Neither was this Black woman.

For those who continue to mistakenly believe that we live in a post-racial society, look around you.  Look at your own actions.  Scrutinize your reactions to and interactions with people of color.  You don’t have to wear a white hood, rep the Confederate flag, or say the n-word to be a racist.  You don’t have to be a billionaire raised with the finest of things to have privilege.  Remember this each time you open your front door and the person on the other side acts like you belong there.

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