By any other name, subtle race stereotypes still haunt us

“My name is TRACEY. You should know that. I’ve worked here for six years.” Embarrassment crept up the back of my neck as I mumbled, “Sorry.” It didn’t matter. she was quickly out of earshot. I immediately flashed back to a memory of my father — and just as quickly wondered if my daughter would ever face the same situation.
Instead of saying Tracey’s name, I called her Marla. I winced before the word finished coming out of my mouth. This might’ve been a simple slip — I’m grateful people at my part-time job wear their names on their aprons because I’m terrible at remembering connecting the names and faces.
Why it was more than a faux pas: Both Tracey and Marla are African-Americans. There’s a long-standing stereotype that white people are unable to — or don’t care to — recognize that African-Americans are individuals. This “they all look alike” insult has been with us for a long time, and many people are understandably offended by it.
I didn’t mean it. But I still did it, and Tracey was offended. I wanted to go and talk to her, to explain I wasn’t really like that. But I think African-Americans hear that excuse so much it often rings hollow.
I dimly recalled one night 50 years ago that my father came home, either from work or some errand. It was upset with himself because he had seen and chatted with an acquaintance, who happened to be African-American. His cringe-worthy moment: Upon parting, he called the young man “boy” — meant as an expression of friendship, but a word that was a stinging insult directed at African-American men.
He was angry with himself. He didn’t mean to do it, and he was embarrassed. Details are scant, but the basic memory stayed with me.
My next thought: Would my daughter suffer the same self-inflicted verbal wound?
I have hope we will someday outgrow these errors of misinterpretation. I look at her school, her classes, and students work side by side without employing these old cultural concepts. They are friends with a blind eye to skin color.
Maybe, just maybe, this will slowly nudge out a population that believes there are significant differences associated with race, and the color of your skin overshadows how people think of and respect you.
As for Tracey? The next time I saw her, we chatted — and I waited a bit before slipping in her name. I was relieved I hadn’t tried to fumble through an explanation and an apology. Our friendship — and her faith in me — prevailed.
What about the kids in school today?
Yesterday, I had an 8th grade class. One of the African-American students addressed me by the name of another substitute teacher, who’s also white.
Classmates quickly corrected her.
“That’s OK,” I told her. “I know all of us white guys look alike.”
The African-American students howled with laughter. The white students looked puzzled. That was a good thing — if they didn’t get it, they were less likely to perpetuate the stereotype.

3 thoughts on “By any other name, subtle race stereotypes still haunt us

  1. Unfortunately it’s true from talking with my friends that to whites it’s hard to distinguish the difference particularly with the BLACK blacks. Yeah I have been guilty and fight racism still but, an excuse used a lot is a victim of my early days. Henry, my co-pilot, medic, taught me a lot about race relations a well educated man who had a great sense of humor.

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