It happened again. Nicholas Pilapil got an email clearly meant for his co-worker, Jonathan Castanien. Previously, Pilapil had missed a meeting invitation because their white co-workers couldn’t tell them apart.
So they came up with a cheeky way to address the problem. Between their desks, Pilapil and Castanien hung a sign that read, “This company has worked __ days without an incident. Incorrect names are avoidable.”
Whenever a co-worker called one by the other’s name, they would reset the count to zero. During the six months or so that the sign was up, the count never exceeded 14 days, Pilapil said. In total, they were misidentified about 50 times.
“It kind of makes you feel invisible, because they don’t know who you are even though you are putting in this hard work,” Pilapil said. “It was very shocking.”
Pilapil called Castanien his “work twin” — sarcastically, because they bear only a passing resemblance to each other. Aside from being in their 20s, they don’t share many characteristics: Pilapil is Filipino, has fuller lips, a squarer jaw and a darker complexion than Castanien, who is Vietnamese, Chinese and German.
While their cubicles were next to each other, Pilapil worked in communications and Castanien worked in public relations. The only thing that could have prompted their colleagues’ confusion, Pilapil says, was that they both had Asian heritage.
Pilapil and Castanien’s experience is common. When About Us asked people of color on Twitter for stories about being misidentified in predominantly white places, more than 400 people replied, including a digital marketing consultant whose client kept calling him by his gardener’s name and a professor whose student turned in a paper with the wrong professor’s name.
The implication is that, while white people are seen as individuals, other groups are often viewed as a monolith, with their race or ethnicity becoming the defining characteristic of who they are.
“If we just identify someone as a ‘black person,’ then that is how we are going to see them,” said Kareem Johnson, an associate professor of psychology at Temple University.
While many on the receiving end of this phenomenon say it’s another example of every day racism, it does not necessarily indicate negative racial attitudes, Johnson said. Rather, it’s part of a larger cognitive problem called the cross-race effect — essentially, the impression that people of a race other than your own “all look the same.”
“We have much more difficulty recognizing people of a different racial group than we do our own,” he said.
The problem can also occur when a person’s name reflects their heritage. Johnson, who is one of a handful of African American professors in his department, says he is mistakenly called Hakeem or other names of similar ethnic origin.
White people also can be subjected to the cross-race effect in workplaces where they are in the minority.
That happened to Bill Watkins, a white man who taught English at a medical school in China in the early 1980s. When he returned to visit the school years later, a man he didn’t know approached him like a close friend.
“Bill, why didn’t you tell me you would be back?” Watkins recalled the man asking. “I would have come to meet you at the train station!”
“About 12 years ago, almost two years into my job, I was at a conference in a city other than the one in which I was based. A man that I didn’t know came up to me and said, ‘Hi, Desiree.’ I replied, ‘I’m not Desiree’ while simultaneously recognizing that all he saw was a black woman and knowing who that woman was and why I should not be confused with her. He responded, ‘What, don’t you like Desiree?,’ taking zero ownership of his faux pas. ‘Actually,’ I said, ‘Desiree and I are friends. What I don’t like is you mistaking me for Desiree.’ And then he just walked away without uttering another word. In his response, he implied that I was the problem, he maligned my friendship and he didn’t have the decency to apologize.”
After pretending to recognize him for a moment, Watkins realized he was being mistaken for another white teacher who also happened to be named Bill.
“I was amused that this would-be best friend would be confused for so long,” Watkins said.
But the racial demographics of the United States make that far less likely, given 65 percent of U.S. workers are white. And white people are far more visible in U.S. media, making all Americans more attuned to their physical differences.
While #RepresentationMatters has become a cultural force in demanding visibility for people of color in film and television in recent years, generations of Americans have grown up watching mostly white faces on screen and in speaking roles where they are given more depth and humanity.
“As a minority in America, you’re much more likely to get practice differentiating between white faces due to more exposure,” Johnson said.
While there are cognitive explanations for the “work twin” problem, these kinds of common, subtle slights, known as microaggressions, cause undue stress over time. Microaggressions — such as asking Asian Americans where they’re from or repeatedly mispronouncing a person’s name — make people of color permanent outsiders and create constant discomfort in offices, schools and other places where they have to be.
“Study after study shows that there are negative compromises to well-being when people experience microaggressions,” said David Rivera, an associate professor at Queens College, City University of New York, who has studied microaggressions for more than a decade. “It’s the accumulation of microaggressions over the months and days and years that creates these compromises.”
“I definitely had this experience at a previous job, which honestly just makes one feel like a nobody. It was frustrating because I am Filipina and the woman I kept getting confused for was Indian. To raise awareness to the situation, because it happened way too often, we decided to dress similarly for April Fools' Day and wear name tags with each other’s name. We went the humor route to not shame our white colleagues who seem to only see brown skin and dark hair. It wasn’t too long after did I decide to leave the company; if they didn’t know who I was, I don’t think I could have been appreciated fully. … I used to try and tell myself it wasn’t a big deal, but it can really be demoralizing.”
This can lead to mental health issues such as depression, traumatic stress symptoms and suicidal ideation. It’s a particular problem in workplace hierarchies, which make it difficult to raise grievances over these slights, Rivera said.
“If you receive a microaggression from someone who is higher status, you likely have more to risk,” he said. “People tend to keep those microaggressions to themselves because they don’t want to be labeled as the troublemaker.”
Workplace microaggressions can have a ripple effect, too, endangering people beyond the direct target.
An Indian American doctor working at a Minneapolis hospital described a situation when a nurse mistook her identity while asking about a patient’s status. The nurse wanted to know whether it was okay for the patient who had liver disease to eat that day. Since the patient had no medical procedures scheduled, the doctor replied, “Yes, of course it is.”
But the nurse was asking about a different patient.
“We get confused all of the time. Whether it be an overly enthusiastic wave/smile from someone who I don’t recognize, or a colleague approaching me in a hostile fashion about a work issue in which I am not involved. One time, I was in a presentation and raised my hand to ask a question, and the presenter referred to me as Spring — even though the real Spring was sitting right behind me and not raising her hand!”
“Another woman who had liver disease was being taken care of by one of my colleagues, who I think looks nothing like me, but she’s Indian,” said the doctor, who requested anonymity to avoid violating patient privacy laws. “And she came in the workroom and said, ‘My patient couldn’t go down to biopsy because someone let her eat.’”
The doctors realized that the nurse had mistaken their identities.
“The patient who needed an urgent diagnostic test got bumped off the schedule because she had eaten,” the doctor said. “That woman continued to get sick, and she was too unstable to get the procedure done the following day.”
The doctors wondered if there was anything they could do to prevent such mistakes. For those who experience cross-race effect frequently, psychological explanations can feel like a cold comfort.
Mandeep Singh, a 25-year-old Sikh man, is frequently confused for colleagues at the San Francisco tech company where he works, and he has made a point to call out anyone who confuses him for another brown-skinned co-worker, even when the vice president of his company made the error.
“Just like any other microaggression, it’s the buildup that wears me down. I also don’t know how much it impacts me because I don’t know if people think I’m any of the other Asians who work here — am I being denied certain opportunities because they might think I’m someone else, or am I receiving unwarranted advantages because they think I’m the smart Asian guy? (I’m not; I had to take remedial math in college.) This creates a space of confusion and a certain amount of uncertainty in what I do as a teacher. One positive outcome, I suppose, is I try to channel my anger into motivation to work with Asian/Pacific Islander students to try and help them navigate around some of these problematic situations.”
Singh said that he would like to see the company have a more open conversation with white co-workers about such microaggressions and the harm they cause to employees of color and the general office culture.
“I don’t think it needs to be a dramatic and controversial conversation, but I think that individuals need to understand why this happens and where it is coming from,” Singh said. “If an organization wants to be respectful, this is part of the conversation that people need to have.”
Rivera, the microaggressions expert, said there is some benefit to calling out microaggressions in the moment. He suggests saying something like, “That interaction made me feel [fill in the blank]. Can we have a conversation about that?”
Don’t be surprised if the action results in some pushback, he said.
“I do think that people should expect defensiveness, but we shouldn’t let that defensiveness stop us from pursuing the conversation further,” Rivera said.
But, he added, he’d avoid saying one triggering word: racism. It tends to shut down the conversation before it can start.
“I’ve been confused over 15 times over a two-year span for a former colleague of mine named Kelly at an ad agency we used to work at. A ton of hilarious but ridiculous anecdotes including: someone blaming the fact that they didn’t have glasses on for a mix-up, someone complimenting me on my ukulele skills after Kelly played at a company talent show, and others who would blatantly speak to me as if I am Kelly for minutes at a time.”
“I would never tell someone that ‘what you said was racist,’” he said. “I would never start out with that. It may lead there.”
Pilapil took another tactic when he put up the sign in his workplace marking the number of days since he was called by the wrong name. It both provided a way to quantify his experience with this particular microaggression and to shame co-workers at the theater company in Orange County, Calif.
But instead of starting a conversation or prompting his co-workers to be more sensitive, Pilapil ultimately was ordered to remove the sign.
“We were asked to take it down because they said it makes people uncomfortable. But we were uncomfortable,” Pilapil said. “We said, ‘We’re sorry that your racism makes you uncomfortable.’”
Do your co-workers regularly confuse you for another person in your office? Share your story using the #WorkTwins hashtag or tell us about it through this submission form. We will publish more reader stories in an upcoming edition of About US.