The Other Black Guy

“Sorry, Addison, but you’re sitting in the wrong group. You’re supposed to be sitting at Table 13.”

Nervously, I looked across the vast auditorium attempting to find Addison. He was on the exact opposite end of the room. As quickly as the human brain can process similarities, I comparatively scanned Addison’s appearance only to find distinctive characteristics. I tried my hardest to give him the benefit of the doubt, but the only thing I could say was:

“Oh sorry I’m not Addison, I’m Caleb, the other black guy.”

Now I may not have been fair. He probably did not mean to offend me and I may have jumped the proverbial gun with the prompt clapback that I delivered. He is a mild-mannered man replete with a large collection of plaid shirts, pressed khaki pants, and boat shoes. His level of precision and his penchant for organization led me to believe that he is overtly careful and accurate. In fact, this happened not only in the rarefied air of a Harvard graduate school classroom, but in a required class which focuses on discussing diversity. So, at this graduate school, with this type of teaching fellow, in this sort of class, I felt compelled to find the similarities between Addison and me.

I could see the discomfort on my teaching fellow’s face. With each drop of sweat he perspired, I worried that I went too far. He returned to his seat, seemingly rehearsing a variety of apologies like someone anticipating the nervous moments of confessing to a priest for recent sins.

For a brief moment, his apologetic tone made me consider whether I should have interpreted his statement as a microagression[1]. But this is not the first time that my identity has been mistaken for another black man. In fact, I have kept a detailed log of these occurrences since starting at Harvard. During these two months, this same thing has happened 27 times, approximately three times per week.

Even more, I am one of 25 black students in the entering class of Kennedy School, Master’s in Public Policy students. In this class of 58 students, I am one of three black men. Misidentifying people could be blamed on factors ranging from the benign—research presented in class has shown it is easier to appreciate the differences with people who most resemble us—to the malicious—limiting my identity to my race and my race alone.

However, my identity became a function of race only. He seemed to skip over easy facts, like the significant height and weight differences between Addison and me. These instances compound the very feelings, I and other students of color actively fight to suppress—that our legitimacy as a student rests on my racial background.

Over the course of our academic and professional experiences, students of color often feel the chilling loneliness of being “that black guy.” We actively fight harder to separate the validity of our contributions from our skin tone that mentally exhausts us. We seemingly have to pay an added tariff to enter the classroom discussion.

I do not hastily assign negative intent to my teaching fellow or anyone else who mistakes me for another black man. But without hesitation, I assign malice to the impact of these incidents. My teaching fellow became number 27 in what is sure to become an even longer list. Sadly, the sterling reputations large organizations, like Harvard, can be undone in the eyes of people of color because of these microaggressions. Micro, though they are, these aggressions become the effective death by a thousand cuts to the richness of my identity. Like precise, thin paper cuts, these aggressions, often unintentionally delivered, annoy, but taken together produce permanent scars and persistent pain that people of color can no longer bare.

So my bandwidth is consumed, delicately balancing on the tight rope of a series of questions. When class discussion deals with inequality, do I speak and if I do, should I leave out race? In leaving out race, do I silence myself? My teaching fellow’s statement is not new and is not limited to me. Many students of color experience this very phenomenon, constantly negotiating the displays of identities. In short, I am tired. My fellow students of color are tired and even more tired of being tired.

As a result, I snapped back at my teaching fellow in hopes of magnifying that not even Harvard or a class on diversity are immune from exhausting students of color. So my teaching fellow, like the other 26 students, faculty, and staff received the same tired response: “no, I’m the other black guy.”