On Casual Prejudice and Remembering People’s Names
by Jenn Robinson
My colleague recently sent an email to the wrong person because they had a similar south Asian name to the person to whom he meant to send the email. He asked me, “Is that racist?” And, honestly, the answer is yes, a little bit. No, it’s not the kind of racist that causes people bodily harm, but it is an example of the little annoyances of standing out in a primarily white, male environment.
For another example: I used to be assumed to be a secretary by people I contacted from my old job, and now that I work for a female scientist, I’m often assumed to be her before I have a chance to introduce myself. As in, people say “Oh, you must be [boss’ name]” before I even open my mouth to actually tell them who I am. It’s not a problem with which most of my male colleagues have to deal. And, yeah, it’s kind of annoying to have it pointed out that, hey, what are the odds there are two of you in a single physics group?!
The really sad part is that I have a really common female name, and my boss has a very uncommon name. I mean, also we’re totally different people and look different.
Because that’s the crux of the problem: it points out a person’s otherness. Yes, people with non-Western names are used to people mispronouncing their names. They’re used to being asked if they’re from the same country or city as another person who looks vaguely similar. It just highlights to them that you are judging them first and foremost by what you see, and that you don’t have the ability to distinguish between different people who aren’t the same race (or gender?!) as you.
Yes, I’m being hyperbolic. But it’s a real problem. Every time it happens, it’s an alarm going off, “you’re different, you’re different, you’re different,” in your head. It grates. As with the concept of “lighten up” in response to off-color jokes, it builds up. I promise you, your slip is not the first time this person has had to deal with this, even if you think it’s the first time you’ve made such a mistake. We notice the people who treat us like individuals, rather than a demographic group. But we’re going to be gracious and polite about it, because what else can we do?