Why White People Think We All Look Alike

“Hey Tracey,” the dean said. I stared at him blankly for a few seconds before saying, “I’m not Tracey.” He was embarrassed. “Oh, right! I know that. I’m sorry Chanequa.”
We were only a few weeks into my first year at the school. I had been surprised that the dean of student life had made an attempt to learn the names of the 180 new students. He had gotten my name right before, so I didn’t hold it against him that he had mistaken me for my new friend Tracey, who was also new to the school. I probably would not have remembered the incident at all. But it turned out that it was not the last time that a White faculty, staff member, or classmate confused the two of us for each other.

It became annoying. “Do people keep calling you by my name?” we asked each other. We couldn’t figure out what that was about. Tracey was noticeably taller with low-cropped curly hair; my locks hung well past my shoulders at the time. Perhaps we had the same face shape, but her face lacked any of the moles that dotted mine. We were close in complexion, but not close enough that we would wear the same Fenty shade. We did not look alike. We did not even look like each other’s people – our biological relatives. And both of us look very much like our people. Tracey happens to have a cousin who could pass as her twin, as do I.

For Black people and other people of color, being mistaken by White people for another one of our racial kinfolk is a common occurrence. Remember the interviewer who confused Samuel Jackson for Lawrence Fishburne?

“White people think we all look like,” is a common refrain among African Americans and Asian Americans especially. We are not making that up. Until they learned that it was politically incorrect to say it aloud, White people used to actually say, “You all look like.” It is such a common racial trope that people of color often bristle the moment that someone outside our race tells us that we look like someone whom we obviously do not resemble.

People of color often bristle the moment that someone outside our race tells us that we look like someone whom we obviously do not resemble.

As with many forms of racism, confusing two people of color for one another is usually done without malice. My hypothesis is that it happens when people lack enough exposure to a particular racial/ethnic group to develop the ability to delineate between our features. In a White supremacist world in which one’s race determines one’s freedoms and rights, we are all socialized to see each other first in terms of race. For centuries, White people have been socialized not to look much further than that if a person is another race. Black people are especially accustomed to being unseen by White people, including those whom we know.

It is one of the hardest things about being in predominantly White spaces for people of color – being rendered invisible. In seminary, I became accustomed to being unseen by White classmates in the hallways. We could sit in classes together for an entire semester, but they would routinely pass me in the hallways without making eye contact. If they happened to look at me or even if I said hi, their eyes glazed over me without any real sign of recognition. It is the dominant experience that I have at the annual meeting of my academic guild each year. As I walk through the hallways, panning the crowd for signs of familiar faces and scanning the name badges for signs of connection, White colleagues glance at me without seeing me. It happened just a few days ago at the farmer’s market, when a former White student looked briefly at me and then turned away before I could say hello.

White people are socialized not to look at us. So it is no wonder that they are more likely to confuse us with other people of color whom we do not resemble. Lord forbid that there be an actual resemblance, as in the case of the two U.S. congressmen John Lewis and the late Elijah Cummings. In October 2019, Cummings passed suddenly at the age of 68; two months later, Lewis announced that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. In covering both events, major news outlets confused the two men for one another. So many people confused the two men when Cummings died that Lewis’s name became the top Twitter trend for the day. Fox News posted a photo of Lewis when Cummings died. Two months later, CBS used a photo of the then-deceased Cumming when news of Lewis’ diagnosis was announced.

Photo of congressional representatives Elijah Cummings and John Lewis seated beside each other.

Granted, the two men looked remarkably alike, so much so that they reportedly joked about it. And it turns out members of Congress get confused with one another a lot. Everyone makes mistakes, and not every mistake is racist. Even Black people made the mistake of confusing Lewis and Cummings. Likewise, over time, Tracey and I noticed that it was not just White people who confused us with one another. Several of our Black classmates did it too, including those with whom we were good friends. Apparently, though we did not look alike, there was something about us that evoked a similar response from other people, just as there was something that drew us together as friends from the opening moments of orientation.

Sometimes racism involves situations that occur uniquely to Black people (or other people of color) and solely because of their race. But sometimes, racism involves situations that happen more frequently to Black people because of our race, especially when White people are also involved. It turned out that White classmates and professors confused me and Tracey for each other far more frequently than did Black people. And there was something qualitatively different about it when it happened. Our Black peers caught themselves making the mistake as soon as they did it. “Did I just call you Tracey? I don’t know why I did that.” And having made the mistake once, they never did it again. In contrast, we usually had to point out to White classmates and professors when they had called us by the wrong name. After we did, they would often stare blankly for a few seconds before they realized their error, almost as if they were searching their mental rolodexes to determine which of their two Black friends we were. I could always see the moment of recognition when it dawned. But why did it take so long for their brains to register our actual faces and names? Why did it take so long for them to see us? Perhaps, like the media professionals who repeatedly confuse Cummings and Lewis, their eyes and memories had not been racially trained enough for them to see the differences between two Black people.

Their eyes and memories had not been racially trained enough for them to see the differences between two Black people

Neither Elijah Cummings or John Lewis are obscure congressmen. Given the political and historical importance of both men, every reputable news outlet should know who they are, that they look alike, and that special care needs to be taken to identify them correctly. News correspondents who cover Capitol Hill should be taught to discriminate between them, in the same way that they have learned to discriminate between the various Bushes and Kennedy’s who have held political office. Plus, neither incident involved a brief or chance encounter. They involved photos, documents that are protected by copyright law and that must be properly credited to their photographers. Moreover, they involved situations where media professionals – sometimes even multiple media professionals – had to glance at a photo and story before it made its way on the air. Or more specifically, they involved situations where White media professionals had to glance at a photo of a famous Black person before it went on the air.

Photo clip from film, "Pulp Fiction,' showing Samuel L. Jackson as his character, Jules Winnfield, pointing a gun. Text overlay reads: "Say 'All black people look like' one more time. I dare you."Tracey died the year after we graduated from seminary. I still see glimpses of her sometimes in strangers. In some ways, I would love to be somewhere and have someone yell “Tracey!” at me, because it would mean that I am in the presence of someone who knew both of us and who knew that there was something about each of us that reminded people of the other. I would probably laugh it off, but then I would tell them, “You know me and Tracey don’t look alike.”