I should cut the brother a check … a humongous one at that; one with lots of zeros at the end of it. Seriously. I’m talking about one for Leonard Pitts, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at The Miami Herald. You’ve seen his name appear in this column a number of times before. You see, aside from being an extremely gifted – and courageous – writer, he makes my job easier. I say that because he occasionally provides me with tantalizing topics and eyebrow-raising quotes for bridging his insights on external issues into our kaleidoscopic workplace.
He also gives me an out, a convenient scapegoat, someone I can deftly pass, matador-like, the blame onto should something I write about backfire.
Here’s one of his recent gems.
Pitts weighed in on the brouhaha over Los Angeles TV reporter Sam Rubin and his interview with actor Samuel L. Jackson. Rubin, who is white, was interviewing Jackson, who is black, and asked him about his Super Bowl commercial. If you’ve not seen the video, Google it before reading any further. Go ahead, we’ll wait. I’ll crank out a couple of emails in the meantime. We’ll circle back to Mr. Pitts further down.
But first, some dot-connecting is in order. When we arrived simultaneously at the revolving door exiting the building recently, a person I didn’t know whirled around, looked me squarely in the eye and said, “Hey Art. Nice to see you. How are you?”
Uh, oh, a real-time deer-in-the-headlight diversity moment. I knew immediately that the person had probably confused me with Art George another black guy. Now not a bad comparison, mind you. “I’m fine, but I’m not Art George, if that’s who you thought I was.” I smiled to break the ensuing silence.
“I’m so sorry, I…..”
“No problem. Actually I’m Terry Howard,” I said while shaking the person’s hand. “Wait, aren’t you the diversity guy with the hat on our internal webpage?” “Sure am,” said I. At that, we headed out the door exchanging mutual “foot-in-the-mouth” experiences, whooping it up like old friends.
Was this an isolated incident? Nope. Being confused with another black male has happened to me a number of times over the years. One that was particularly unnerving was an encounter years ago outside a restaurant in New Jersey when I informed the fellow that I was not the guy he thought I was, the one he told me had recently been shot at a restaurant nearby. Gee…thanks…sir…reassuring…indeed! Oh what a relief it is!
I shared that recent doorway experience with Art the other day. We both leaned over in laughter. “Terry, I’m amused by the number of times people have confused the two of us. Seems that it all started when I started wearing hats like the ones that have become a part of your brand.”
Wanting to confirm a hunch that we were not alone in this experience, I decided to check with a few other black folks on what their experiences have been.
Said one woman, with a laugh, “Oh sure, it has happened to me. The only thing I had in common with one woman I was confused with was that the two of us have very dark skin. However, it was not worth energy being offended by it.”
Said a man, “Because I’m a 3B ─ big, black and bald ─ you don’t know how many autographs I’ve signed and pictures I’ve taken with folks who thought I was a famous athlete. But I’ve come to enjoy my celebrity. One guy even asked me how he could get a free grill.”
Said another woman: “I recall years ago while attending a large gathering, a gentleman engaged me in a 10-minute conversation, excused himself to go the men’s room, and resumed our conversation with the only other black woman present. Now I have a very light skin color and the woman he resumed the conversation with was two shades darker than you, Terry. Guess that makes him color blind, huh?”
Back now to Leonard Pitts and the Super Bowl dustup (the interview, not, eh, the game). “Problem is, Jackson didn’t do a Super Bowl commercial, Laurence Fishburne did,” wrote Pitts. “They are two celebrated actors who look nothing alike, except for the fact of being black, a point Jackson proceeds to hammer like a nail. “Speaking over and through Rubin’s embarrassed and repeated attempts to explain and apologize, he keeps making the same point: He, Sam Jackson (famous for ‘Pulp Fiction’), is not Laurence Fishburne (famous for ‘The Matrix’). Black folks do not all look alike! I don’t blame Jackson for being angry. He is not exactly an unknown, and no one calling himself an entertainment reporter should have made that mistake. Still, I felt sorry for Rubin,” wrote Pitts.
“People often find it difficult to identify people of different races, whether it is whites identifying blacks, blacks identifying whites or what have you. Indeed, it happens enough that psychology has a name for it: the other race effect. It is the reason eyewitness identifications across racial lines are notoriously unreliable. And though you might think this an outgrowth of racial bias, researchers say it isn’t. A bigot is no more likely than anyone else to misidentify people of other races.
“Which is not to say ‘they all look alike’ is never a sign of racial bias. But it isn’t always. And maybe it would not be the worst thing in the world, in our era of instant affront and zero-to-60 outrage, to allow for the possibility that occasionally, what looks like a moron is just a human being, being human.”
Now before writing this off as “what’s the big deal,” understand that the “they all look alike” issue has long been a hot button for many African-Americans and for other groups because it robs people of their individuality. It’s often a source of frustration and anger.
OK, to be honest, I cannot let myself off the hook on this. I recall instances when I confused Asians with other Asians and Latinos with other Latinos – “Excuse me Terry, I’m Jose, not Juan!” If you’ve ever experienced this yourself, you’ll agree that this is never a comfortable experience.
Could culture influence how some react to being confused with someone else? Possibly. Do African-Americans tend to react with more emotional intensity than other groups because of their culture, life experiences and fear of being stereotyped, particularly if they are the parents of young black males? Possibly. But that’s a topic for another day. So yes, I need to cut Mr. Pitts a check, and charge it to my cost center.
But wait, wait, wait!
There’s a potential upside to this mistaken identity thing: With any luck, maybe someone will again mistake me for Art George …and charge it to his cost center.
Questions for thoughtful analysis:
1. How does my revolving door encounter align with or is absent from your experiences?
2. What assumptions did you make about the person (race, gender) I encountered at the revolving door? What could this possibly mean?
3. Putting aside questions of guilt or innocence, how might we suspend judgment and seek to understand the perspectives of people on either side of inevitable interactions of this nature?
4. If you find yourself on either side, what leadership skills could emerge for you from such encounters, ones that may be otherwise lost in cross-currents of emotions?