MAXWELL: This confusion has no white equivalency

11/15/2000 – Printed in the EDITORIALsection of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Several days ago, my colleague Elijah Gosier and I wrote columns about how we, along with other black men, are mistaken for each other all the time _ mostly by white people. The pieces were intended to inform and entertain. Here in the St. Petersburg Times newsroom, we have had nothing but fun, with our white and black colleagues jokingly misidentifying not only us but other African-Americans in the company as well.

Much of my correspondence from whites outside the company, however, has been either angry, defensive, ill-informed, recriminatory or zany.

With some overlap, the overwhelming majority of my letters, e-mail and telephone calls have come in three main categories: attempts to show white equivalency, denial and defensiveness.

White equivalency is a logical fallacy. It attempts to show that for every black problem, whites have the same problem, and with the same import and ramifications.

In this case, white people are saying that like blacks, they also are victims of mistaken identity. A white television producer, for example, sent an e-mail telling me that she is often mistaken for another white female producer. Her boss said, “Well, you’re both producers and you both have brown hair.” Yo! Dye your hair red. Elijah and I cannot change skin color unless, of course, we pull a Michael Jackson.

She writes also that people routinely mistake Marti Matthews of Channel 10 for Martie Tucker of Channel 28, “both blue-eyed blonds with the same name. Sometimes Sue Zelenko gets thrown into the confusion, too.”

The woman’s logic breaks down on several fronts and begs comment. Does she not know that mistaking one petite, blue-eyed blond TV news anchor for another is not the same as mistaking a black man for another? In the case of the blonds, we are talking about a specific group of people, a subset of the white race, who have been made to resemble one another because the news industry requires a generic look for its female talking heads. You had better look a lot like Marti Matthews or Marti Tucker or Jessica Savitch for that matter. If not, you are out the door _ if you got through the door to begin with.

Mistaking one black man for another is not the same; we are not a generic subset of the group. Each individual black man is a generic entity in a generic group. In other words, “all niggers look alike,” as a white man told me several years ago. Black computer techs here at the Times are mistaken for me. They are not columnists. Believe it or not, a 26-year-old Times employee on another floor (no gray beard or nappy gray coiffure) gets mistaken for me. No, he is not a columnist or writer. His mug is never in the newspaper.

Anyway, I have never heard of the police blowing away a petite, blue-eyed blond because she is mistaken for another petite, blue-eyed blond. We could, though, produce a long list of black males _ from different professions _ who have suffered this fate. In other words, no white equivalency exists.

Other readers deny that such mistakes occur at all. Still others become defensive to the point of hurling insults. The most interesting are whites married to blacks. Trying to show that they do not mistake one black for another, they became “deeply offended” by the columns, called me “ignorant,” felt “betrayed” and miss the point of the pieces. Most whites married to blacks delude themselves into believing that they know as much about the black experience as I do. That offends me.

An excerpt from a typical letter in this category is worth quoting: “Yes, I am white. I am also a graduate of (historically black) Howard University and the wife of a black man. When you see me on the street, you assume I am as blind as the other white people you have encountered. You don’t want to assume you are the same as any other black person, so how fair is it to judge what I might think about you when you don’t know me?

“If I thought all black people looked alike, I would not know half of my family. I might have even spent my honeymoon with the wrong man. I might have asked the wrong girlfriend to be my maid of honor. And I might have sat in on the wrong lectures in college. I assure you that did not happen. People call me by the wrong name all the time _ I’m just another physical therapist. It seems to me that it’s natural to confuse people you don’t know or have met only once. It just doesn’t happen to black people.”

Again, I do not know of a white, female physical therapist blown away by cops because she resembles another white, female physical therapist.

I will repeat one simple premise of my “invisible men” column: Far, far more whites than blacks mistake me and other black men for someone else. This phenomenon is a fact of life. It is not trivial. It has no white equivalency.