While some of my friends have been traveling lately, I have been watching their home and taking care of their menagerie of pets, which includes three dogs and two African parrots. They have a beautiful home in Dilworth, with a grand Southern porch and pool in the back.
During one of my first stays as I unloaded my car, a neighbor walked by and struck up a conversation. It soon became obvious that he thought I was one of my friends who lives in the home. I politely said, "I'm not Jova."
I figured it was an isolated incident, but it actually continued throughout my stay. One afternoon I was coming back from the park and a neighbor began to walk toward me, speaking in a very familiar way. I replied with my now-pat response, "I'm not Jova."
Now, a few of these encounters were very understandable, as neighbors would sometimes greet me from a distance with a friendly "Hi, Jova." Or sometimes while walking the dogs at dusk, I would walk by a home and someone would greet me with an "Evening, Jova."
To be fair, my friend and play brother Jova is, like me, a tall brother with locs, but that is where the similarities end. I have locs, but I wear them differently. I am also significantly older and noticeably slimmer than Jova (friendly shade).
One of my favorite "I'm not Jova" encounters was at the park, when one woman carried on a lengthy conversation and asked about the youngest dog, which was not present, by name. She knew the dog's name, but could not see that I was not Jova.
Sadly, I am accustomed to this sort of confusion. The chair of my graduate film program at Iowa constantly confused me with my best friend Jerry. We were the only two black males out of maybe 16 graduate students. Heck, on any given day, we were the only black dudes in the building. But I was tall, dark-skinned, skinny and rocked a short fade cut, while Jerry was shorter, light-skinned, muscular and sported short locks. I know, the resemblance is uncanny.
What I experienced back then and in the more recent encounters during my house-sitting stints in Dilworth is a form of racial/cultural bias. This bias refers to the tendency to more easily recognize members of one's own group. A deeper analysis of this phenomenon reveals that as a person interacts more with that other race or culture, he or she will begin to use a more holistic approach in recognition. It's called the experience effect.
To help break down this concept further, I turned to a trusted therapist, Isis Reddick-Umoja. "Historically, in our [Western] society, people of color have been invisible to the mainstream. People of color are not really seen as individuals. Negative connotations perpetuated by our society, along with fear, will sometimes interfere with one's ability to connect with people of color in an authentic way." Example: maintaining eye contact and being present enough in the moment to recognize them in a future encounter.
Everyone has experienced this at some point, confused someone for someone else, but I believe when you are accustomed to being "the other" you train yourself to be a bit more aware of subtleties that help you identify folks. It's like a muscle that gets bigger the more you exercise it.
I have found myself teaching a class and noticing, at first glance, that some students look very similar. I remember once I had a class with not one but three young white female students, all named Amber and all sporting various shades of blonde hair. I had to really work at identifying specific features, voice patterns, mannerisms and individual stories to eventually quickly assess which Amber I was addressing.
One of my favorite films, The Breakfast Club, has a very appropriate quote from one of its archetypal characters. The "nerd" responds to his principal's request to write an essay during detention: "Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it is that we did wrong. But we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us: in the simplest terms and in the most convenient definitions."
Do we reduce folks to the simplest terms? Do we get more complacent as we get older?
My most memorable "I'm not Jova" encounter supports this observation. I was on the porch one afternoon texting on my cellphone when a woman walked by with several young children. She waved and smiled at me as they passed the house and yelled out the familiar "Hey, Jova." Without missing a beat, one of the little boys looked up at me and said, "That's not Jova."