Mistaken Identities

My husband and I often find ourselves to be the only people of color at parties and other situations, which is fine. We’re used to it. And we wouldn’t trade the friends who invited us there for the world. But once again, last week, someone just had to tell me that I looked like Michelle Obama. It reminded me of a piece I posted a few years ago.

A very funny thing happened as I walked down the road with my daughter and fluffy white dog in the Martha’s Vineyard town of West Tisbury, just about a half mile from where the First Family was vacationing. From a passing car, we heard someone shout, “Look! It’s the Obamas!”

Now granted, I was wearing a skirt from Talbots, my daughter’s age falls midway between Sasha’s and Malia’s, and our dog is very cute, but other than that and our brown skin, we look nothing like the First Lady and her daughters.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m flattered by the comparison. However, I continue to be baffled by this strange compulsion, this burning desire to classify African-Americans floating solo amongst the majority – and I do believe this condition is exclusive to black people – as famous, meaning athletes, entertainers, and I guess now the President and his family.

Living in Switzerland in the mid-1980’s, a place certainly better known for its xenophobia rather than its diversity, I often heard people whispering to each other that I was the singer Sade. I met a woman the other night, who looked nothing like me, but had had similar experiences – in Boston. My guess is there were a lot of us. Let’s see…hair pulled back, sunglasses…yes, of course, it must be Sade! Does this even make sense?

When I tell people that I work in television, they respond that they’ve seen me on some show.   No – guess what! – I’m a producer, and as far as I know, no actress will ever hesitate to identify her calling up front.

During my time at ABC, if I was specific and said that I worked in sports, more often than not someone will say, “You must have been quite an athlete yourself!” No, actually, I am the most uncoordinated woman I’ve ever met.   “Oh come on,” they’ll tell me, “that’s not possible.” OK fine: Does it count that I spent an evening signing autographs in a Seoul nightclub during the 1988 Olympics? The Koreans insisted that I was Florence Griffith-Joyner, may she rest in peace. All they had to do was look at the fingers holding the pen to know that I was an imposter. Ah, but I didn’t have the heart to let them down.

One of my favorite stories comes from a friend who had been amazed at the friendliness of the neighbors and staff in ritzy Upper East Side apartment building that she and her husband, both highly successful corporate types and rather tall, had moved into with their children. After a few weeks of big smiles and cheerful hellos, a grinning doorman blurted out, “We are all so excited to have a player from the New York Knicks living here!” They’re still trying to figure out which one.

What does all this mean for our children? When I started this blog, I wrote about “The Deeper Meaning of ‘Inexperienced’” in the context of all the rhetoric surrounding the 2008 elections. I said that several parents of color had told me about how shocked white parents – and sometimes teachers – can be at the intelligence of a brown-skinned child. More often than not, though, they will readily gush with praise for his or her athletic abilities or performing talents, counting on them to make game-winning baskets and add a little desperately needed rhythm to school musicals. Meanwhile, my daughter may be a real ham, but I have yet to see any signs of musical genius and it appears that she may well be following in her mother’s clumsy footsteps. Her biggest talent is math.

My African-American contemporaries, products of the ‘60s,‘70s and even ‘80s who have succeeded in spite of the ever-present stereotypes, will joke about us all being athletes, entertainers and, of course, so articulate. When we look at our kids, though, it just isn’t funny anymore.

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