Too Few Brown Dots
I attend a predominantly white R1 institute of higher education where I am a doctoral student in the field of Curriculum and Instruction. In most of my classes, I am either the only one or one of no more than 3 black females. In this class, I am one of two. For the sake of anonymity, let's call my black female friend and classmate "Elizabeth". We don't look alike. We aren't even the same shade of brown. We never sit close to each other. Our names start with different letters. She has short hair and I have locs that hang past my shoulders. I wear glasses and her vision is 20/20. I'm 5'9" and she's about 5'5". Her research interests are the arts, and mine focus on literacy and identity. We are clearly two different people.
How many times is too many times for a professor to mistake me for the one other black female in class? The consensus is 1. I excused it during the second week of class when I walked in, sat down, and Elizabeth had not yet arrived. Our tables were arranged in a huge rectangle, and my professor was going around, one by one, trying to remember our names when I walked in.
Before I took my seat, she looked at me and said "I know... it's a common name." Once she said that, I knew that she was mistaken and I had a pretty good feeling where this was going. I looked around at my classmates, most of whom knew my name, and I wondered if they also knew what was happening. I was being mistaken for the other black chick- something that has happened too many times in my life, especially in higher ed.
I couldn't take it any longer, the whole 10 seconds of her about to form her mouth into some "common" name. I'm Tiye. "Oh." I told her that I was wondering how many other "Tiye"s she knew because I had never met one in person. That was my passive aggressive way of telling her "Learn my name, and don't forget it." As you will soon learn, it was clearly ineffective.
I made sure to volunteer in class and speak up that week and the weeks following when we worked in groups. I was vocal in class, asked questions, and wrote my group's information on the board when it was time to present. I tried to make myself even more memorable than I thought I already was.
Last week, Elizabeth was absent. I don't remember if my professor ever addressed me by my name because we spent some time out of the classroom practicing research.
Today I went to class. My professor arrived a few minutes late, and I immediately walked up to her and let her know that I would have to leave in the middle of class for a short presentation. She looked at me straight-faced and responded "That's a little odd- scheduling a presentation in the middle of class." I explained the situation to her, that it was unplanned but also my job to make sure that it got done. Basically, I wasn't asking for her permission to be excused from class, I was informing her that I would be leaving for a little while around 5:00 pm. She gave me an "ok" (that I wasn't really asking for), I returned to my seat, and class was about to start.
Two students were absent from class last week, one of them being Elizabeth, and the other being a white female. Granted, my professor could not remember who the second absentee was, but she confidently walked up to me, holding a copy of the same handout I received in class last week, and said "You were absent last week" as she held out the paper. I corrected her. "Elizabeth was absent last week."
Once I responded, I immediately thought that maybe that's why she was so snippy when I told her that I would have to leave class for the presentation. Maybe she was thinking "How dare you leave in the middle of class when you missed an entire session last week."
Another student of color sitting across from me caught the brief interaction, something that I hoped someone else noticed so that I could tell myself that I wasn't being paranoid. I glanced at her, caught her eye, and we shared a brief look of "what the...?", a hearty head shake, and a chuckle.
Was this racism or an instance of bad memory in practice? I dub these moments exercises of "racist memory". Racist memory is when the color of someone's skin, or other physical attributes, allude to an essentialized identification, thus removing any (and sometimes all) unique characteristics that would otherwise differentiate one person from another. In layman's terms, "I see a brown face, that must be Elizabeth." The first time, I could have excused it. The first time, I DID excuse it. I've excused every instance when I was mistaken for "the other black girl" because I never reacted in offense. I never reacted in offense because I think being seen as "the angry black girl" wouldn't do much more good than being seen as "the other black girl". Hence my conundrum: Do I continue to ignore recurring "slips of the tongue", smile and offer gentle correction to adults who should associate my beautiful and unique face with my equally beautiful and unique name and laugh it off in private OR do I start blasting Crime Mob's "Knuck if you Buck" and start throwing bows?
These are actually the ridiculous things that I have to share with my friends to soften the blow of my recognition being diminished to being either one or the other black student in the room. In my heart of hearts, I wanted to respond with “Nope, I'm actually the ‘other’ negro, the one with the very UNcommon name. Take a moment to look at my face. Notice the differences between hers and mine. Here, touch my hair. Those are locs. I’m the only person in this room with locs. My name is Tiye. Say it with me, ‘Tiye’. There you go. Now, Elizabeth- can you stand up please, Elizabeth? Yes, Elizabeth is sitting right over there. She was absent last week, so you might want to fill her in on what she missed in class. Mmmmhmmm thanks.”
It doesn't anger me to be mistaken for someone else. In my educational environment, we're all aspiring scholars who have access to academic greatness partially due to the fact that our school's name will eventually be on our CVs. What's frustrating is that even as such and at one of the most prestigious research universities in the country, I often experience instances of being reduced to one of few brown faces. What's annoying is that in these instances, I'm expected to maintain my composure, correct my adult professor who should know my name after almost 2 months of weekly classes, and not think anything of the fact that she blatantly practiced her "racist memory".
Every time it happens, some trap-style fight song starts playing in my head, and my now perfected side-eye slowly makes its appearance. I correct the offender, they're either mildly embarrassed or don't even realize what they've done, and the show goes on. I would say that this is the life of a person with an ethnic name, but when "Tiye" is confused with "Elizabeth", it has nothing to do with name origin or difficulty of pronunciation and everything to do with being one of too few brown dots in a classroom.
Editor's Note: Since the publishing of this post, my professor has said my name to acknowledge me at every chance she gets. Maybe God exercised his perfect timing that way, but I have a feeling someone directed her to this post!