On Telling Black People Apart

Because some days it feels like this. This short informercial video features comedian and actor David Alan Greer selling his fictitious book, “How To Tell Black People Apart”.

The informercial opens up with the very real moment when Samuel L. Jackson was mistaken for Laurence Fishburne by a white tv news anchor.

I’ve always thought that there is an element of sadness behind some forms of comedy.

The video, and Sam Jackson’s response say what many of us are thinking, or saying when we experience it ourselves: Pay Attention.

I once attended a celebratory event for undergraduate students at a predominantly white institution. As I had taught many of the students in attendance throughout their journey, I sat on the stage with the other members of the faculty. Aside from the keynote speaker who was a Black woman, I was the only other black person on the stage.

The students had nominated a speaker to speak for them who was an older, African-American male. His coming to the stage meant that there were now three of us up there. One Black woman, and including myself, two Black men.

His speech was truly inspirational, and I could tell, not only from the applause that followed it, but by the conversations that took place among others who attended that he really made an impact.

It’s what happened after the event that stuck with me. People were dispersed and talking, some saying goodbye, others were leaving. I was still on the stage saying my own goodbyes, and even hellos to a few folks I hadn’t seen in awhile.

As I was wrapping up, one of the parents, who was white approached me, and told me that the speech I gave was so wonderful. She just had to know some of the quotes I used. She took some notes but had forgotten the names of the people I gave credit to.

She had mistaken me for the speaker. He; although also Black, was much taller, much older, and had a bald head.



With hair as long as hair can be. (Not really, but you know what I’m trying to say)

This happens to me pretty often but despite that, I wasn’t expecting it. The (not so) funny thing is though, is that it always happens when I least expect it.

I paused for a moment because it caught me off guard. Also important to mention, was that the person I was talking to before she came up was also Black; an old friend who I hadn’t seen in awhile who came up to see me after the event was over.

She; who was also used to being mistaken for other Black women in predominantly white environments despite there being so few Black women in those spaces, was also caught off guard. We exchanged a silent look of both shock and understanding.

There were many thoughts that crossed my mind from “not again”, to “are you kidding me?”, to “it’s an honest mistake, she meant no harm”, among other thoughts. I was doing all sorts of racial calculus in that moment as I decided how to respond.


“Actually, the speaker’s over there.” She walked toward the speaker without another word.

Whiteness has this way of stirring things up and moving on; leaving you to pick up the pieces. 

More Than A Mistake

I can talk about how intent does not negate impact all day long, but to me, that act represented more than a mistake.

Although I was able to recover fairly quickly from that interaction, it was not lost on me that it literally hit on one of my biggest fears.

“As a male, I generally don’t think of my safety at night in terms of being fearful that someone would try to rob me or someone would try to harm me in some type of way, but another thing that came as a result of being in intergroup was focusing on intersectionality.

So a male is one piece, but when I add race into it, that makes it even more complicated.

So, while as a male I don’t generally think about my safety in terms of that at night, as an African American male, I am really concerned about being mistaken for a criminal, or being pulled over by police, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

For example, where maybe a robbery is being committed and, who knows, maybe the person might have run away but since I’m the nearest person, they’ll say oh it’s that guy! That guy did it and then it’s me getting caught up in something so that’s one of my fears.” 

From an interview I did in 2011: Brief Thoughts on Intergroup

Blackness has already been criminalized to the point where the list of everyday things you could be killed for while Black continues to grow. How many Black people have been killed, hurt, or falsely imprisoned because someone who was white did not take the extra moment to pay attention?

From the evidence that speaks to implicit bias, to criminal descriptions that could be basically any of us, Black lives can be at stake when people who are white fail to take the extra moment and pay attention.

I’ll end with Samuel L. Jackson’s interview–black rage in all its glory, and a reminder that tone policing is just another way to protect privilege.

There are real consequences to this.



From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins-Jones, MSW, LLMSW



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Written by

I'm a Social Justice Educator and Aspiring Humanitarian who is interested in conflict resolution, improving intergroup relations, and building more equitable and inclusive communities. "Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian" is my blog, where I write about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to continue to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action while encouraging others to do so as well in their own ways.

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4 Responses

  1. There is actually quite a bit of research on this matter and the fact is it isn’t just White vs. Black. The fact is persons from one racial group have trouble telling other racial minutae for another group. Ex. Asian and Black persons or Middle Eastern and Indian persons. With our own racial group, we grow up around these people and learn the small differences. However, if someone isn’t exposed to other groups, they will not notice the little differences. I try to explain to my 11 year old the small differences and so now he knows to look for them. This is always why eyewitness testimony is inherently unreliable.

    • Thanks for visiting and for sharing your comment Anna.

      It’s great that you’re teaching your 11 year old about the small differences, and exposure is definitely a key component because I feel if we aren’t exposed, all we have to go off of are images, limited, single stories, stereotypes, and projections of people without understanding who they really are.

      Yes! The unreliability of witness testimony also came to my mind when I was sharing it through my writing here, and most certainly in the moment when I experienced it and made the connection to what some would consider a simple mistake to the very grave consequences that could have ensued had the “mistake” happened in another context.

      In a way, your comments also reminded me of how the phrase #BlackLivesMatter is silenced by the use of All Lives Matter.

      “It’s like walking into someone else’s funeral and screaming “Why are you not crying for my daddy? He’s dead too.” Well yes he is, and that is sad, but that is not the topic of the conversation.”

      At no point in my sharing did I mention that this was inherently exclusive to White people, although I will say that the consequences for doing so do are not spread equally between people who are white and people of color collectively.

      I did however share from a specific experience that is commonly shared by other Black people in the context of how mistaken identity can be more than a microaggression. In some cases, mistaken identity can mean loss of life and limb in a criminal justice system that is structurally racist.

      In regards to telling Black people apart, I shared a specific experience in this note that is connected to other shared experiences of anti-Blackness within a larger context.

      Yes, this can happen with other groups too, and that is sad, but that is not the topic of the conversation. There are times when I write about how “everyone” does something, but that was not the focus of this note.

      It is possible to hold the reality that we’re all implicated somehow in the web of privilege and oppression and responsible for making things equitable, while at the same time, being able to share about specific experiences that highlight the differences in how that implication shows up, and how responsibility, and actions toward making change do not look the same for every group.

      I wanted to mention this because while sometimes, asserting “we all do this” can add nuance and complexity to the dialogue, it can also be derailing and invalidating, depending on how the message is received and to what degree it challenges, or reinforces dominantly held oppressive narratives.

  1. July 1, 2016

    […] On Telling Black People Apart […]

  2. March 1, 2017

    […] Sure, some of the folks who do it may not intend to be malicious; yet the impact leaves a scar not only because it communicates the message that all Black people look alike, but also because white folks not being able to tell Black people apart can have lethal consequences. […]

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