What I do when I confuse two people of color (and what I say to my daughter)
When my daughter was about a year-and-a-half, we were standing outside of our building and my daughter pointed to a boy about 30 feet away and asked me, “Julien?” referring to a friend from her daycare. This boy was not Julien; I recognized the adult who was with the boy as a neighbor from the next building. But I knew what my daughter was talking about.
“”No,” I replied. “That’s not Julien. That little boy is one of our neighbors, he lives right there,” (I pointed). “You’re right that he and Julien are both Black, but Julien is much younger! That boy over there is much older–look how tall he is!”
As a Spanish teacher, I have traveled to various classrooms, teaching Spanish to many different grade levels. At times, I have had almost 200 students, and once in a while, I will confuse one student’s name with another. Sometimes, it’s because their names sounds similar, sometimes I will use the name of an older sibling, and sometimes I get mixed up between two children who share a similar skin tone or hair length/style. Having worked at various schools where White is the majority (at least 70% White), the children whose names I have mixed up are, more often than not, White–but of course I also mix up the names of two students of color. I feel poignantly aware that the impact of this “mix up” is different when the two students are White, and when the two students are students of color.
As a teacher, I have started to be more transparent about why I make these mix-ups, whether the students are White or students of color, saying something like:
“You both have a similar skin color (or haircut, or hair color) but that is where the similarities end—sometimes I get mixed up and I’m really sorry.” By using these words, I am being race conscious, instead of colorblind. Not merely apologizing, I am acknowledging why the mix-up happened; I am also sincerely apologizing, looking students in the eye and saying with seriousness, “I’m really sorry.”
One could say that this is bound to happen when I teach so many different students, but the repetitive nature of these mix-ups (not just by me but by other teachers and adults in children’s lives) is an example of a microagression which is defined by the Micro Aggressions Project as an “event, observation, and experience” that is:
…done with little conscious awareness of their meanings and effects. Instead, their slow accumulation during a childhood and over a lifetime is in part what defines a marginalized experience, making explanation and communication with someone who does not share this identity particularly difficult. Social others are microaggressed hourly, daily, weekly, monthly.
A few months ago, my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and I were playing with her Fisher Price people. She put them up in a circle and began to slap her knees and sing the goodbye song she sings in school, naming each person as she sang (yes, they each have names!). Then, she made a mistake, singing “bye bye Joey” instead of “bye bye Mario”. Joey and Mario both have brown skin, but Joey wears a red shirt and Mario an orange shirt.
I interrupted, saying, “That’s not Joey! That’s Mario!” which struck her two-and-a-half-year-old sensibility as hysterical and she continued making the “mistake” on purpose (as a joke). “They both have the same skin color but they are wearing different colored shirts,” I added.
The joking continued so then I said (in Mario’s voice), “I don’t like it when you call me Joey. That’s not my name!”
Then, in my own voice, “I think Mario is feeling sad—it’s OK to make jokes if everyone thinks something is funny, but Mario doesn’t think this is funny so it’s not OK to joke about this.” My daughter shifted the focus from just Mario and began purposely misnaming every Fisher Price person and laughing hysterically.
This is not the last time that my daughter or I will both confuse people based in some way on their physical appearance. I want to call her attention to why this happens and also make sure she considers the impact on others when this happens.
Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn.