On one of my first assignments at a large corporation, no one could remember my name. It wasn't because they couldn't pronounce it. It wasn't because they had never met me. It wasn't because they had forgotten it. It was because everyone kept calling me by someone else's name. They would call me by her name with such confidence, stating it loudly and firmly. They would greet me, ask questions, follow up with me, all while addressing me by someone else's name. They would refer to me by the other name even when I wasn't in the room. There was no doubt in their mind. My name was simply not Mita. Really.
No One Listened
That someone else—who was she? Well, she was the only other brown girl in the department. And they called me by her name. And, for the record, they called her by my name, too.
We were both brown girls. That is where the physical similarities ended.
She had short black hair. I had long black hair. She was tall. I was short. She sometimes wore glasses. I never wore glasses. She had a much better wardrobe than me. (I can't and don't want to remember what I was wearing in those days.) And our names, if you are wondering, didn't even sound alike.
No matter how many times I smiled and corrected them. No matter how many times I joked about how my friend and I looked nothing alike. No matter how many times I literally spelled out my name.
And that's when I developed a very firm handshake. I would look them in the eye and say, "It's Mita." If they needed a reminder on how to pronounce it, it rhymes with both Rita and pita (as in pita bread). Even when I stopped smiling, and I just growled underneath my breath, it didn't matter. It was too much work for them to call two brown girls by their God-given names.
It's Not Just Me
So when the story about Padma Lakshmi and Priyanka Chopra hit social media recently—about a mistaken case of brown identity. It struck me as yet another case of "Please Don't Mistake Me for the Other Brown Girl."
Padma Lakshmi was recently part of The New Yorker's celebrity cartoon takeover. When the magazine promoted her position, The New Yorker tagged Priyanka Chopra in the Instagram post instead. Padma Lakshmi didn't hesitate in clapping right back.
"Thank you to the illustrious "@nydailynews' for the shoutout," Lakshmi wrote, tagging the wrong publication on purpose. "I know to some we all look alike, but ... #desilife #justindianthings."
If The New Yorker can confuse Padma for Priyanka, well then, the rest of us don't stand a chance. And they unfortunately have a lot of company: Cuba Gooding Jr. & Terrence Howard, Lucy Liu & Lisa Ling, and even Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis. The list of celebrities of color being mistaken for one another goes on and on. We common people just don't stand a chance.
Then there's the recent case of Courtney Cox being mistaken for Caitlin Jenner. Apparently, this doesn't just happen to brown girls.
One of my close girlfriends recounted a similar story from a conference she had attended. My friend was in line at the lunch buffet when one of the attendees came up to her, gushing about how great her talk was. My friend was confused as the other woman excitedly went on and on.
Finally, my friend responded, "I actually have no idea what you are talking about."
The conference participant thought my friend was the speaker on stage. The speaker and my friend: both white women with brown hair. The speaker was wearing a red dress. My friend was wearing a blouse and black pants. And they looked nothing alike. Please don't mistake me for the other white girl?
Time To Retrain Your Brain
It's clear to me that the human brain is so lazy that it can't even distinguish one face from another. In my case, one brown face from another brown face. And it's no wonder we are bombarded with headlines on AI and racial bias in facial recognition. Our brains are behind on that, too.
Maybe I shouldn't blame the human brain. It's simply a lack of early exposure to members of other communities, cultures, and racial groups. When you don't know many brown or black people or you didn't grow up around people who have had different experiences than you, then your brain just starts compartmentalizing. It's not your brain's fault; it's probably your parents' fault. It's how our brains are programmed. Then all brown and black people look pretty much the same to you.
I can't help but think if my name was Kelly, you would never call me Beth. And I am probably right.
It's time to reprogram your brain, and stop blaming your parents. Start to get to know more brown people, black people, people from different communities and backgrounds than your own. Start creating meaningful experiences with members of other communities and racial groups. Start to recognize that we don't all look like eachother.
Because when you get to know me... That I still like to take notes in a pretty journal. That I prefer a lot of milk with my caffeine. That I am mom of two young kids. That I am obsessed with beauty products. That I like to read political memoirs...
If you can remember just one piece of me, chances are, you will never call me by the wrong name again.
So please don't mistake me for the other brown girl. And if you consistently, repeatedly, over and over again, mistake me for the other brown girl and ignore my pleas. I'll have no choice but to ignore you completely until you decide to call me by the correct name. I'll have no choice but to call you out in front of other people, even if you tagged me "by mistake" on LinkedIn or you thought I was the other brown girl posted in that pic. I'll have no choice but to ask you, if I was a man, if I was taller, if I was a different color, would you still call me by the wrong name?
Please don't mistake me for the other brown girl. Because if you do, eventually I'll just smile and call you Beth instead of Kelly.
This article was originally published February 10, 2020.
WRITTEN BYMita Mallick