The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She’s Asian and female. But she’s not me.

I’m often mistaken for other Asian American journalists. Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes it’s awkward. It took me years to realize that it also stings.

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We’re both Korean American, 5-foot-8, and our last name is Lee. That’s about all we have in common.

Christine and I worked for affiliate news companies in Phoenix on the same floor. She worked the early-morning shift, from 3:30 a.m. to noon, as a TV reporter. I worked the day shift for the newspaper.

One day, a human resources representative pulled Christine aside. The person told her they noticed she was in the office until 7 p.m. every day and requested she stop working double shifts.

That reporter they saw in the newsroom was me.

Amy, a Taiwanese American reporter, wrote a heart-wrenching front-page story about a girl with a rare disease that caused her skin to deteriorate upon touch.

A colleague came over to my desk, where I had hung a makeshift sign next to my name plate — “NOT AMY” — because we were mistaken for each other so often. He said: “That was an amazing story today, and it wasn’t even on your beat. How did you find that girl?”

“I didn’t,” I told him. “The other Asian reporter did. It’s on her beat.”

While on assignment together recently, my Chinese American reporter friend Sally was sitting near me. A source that I had spent months trying to get to know walked by her and greeted her with my name.

She wasn’t me.

In every news job I’ve had, I have been confused with another Asian woman reporter — a steady undercurrent in my career. I’m hardly alone in experiencing this, and it’s certainly not just Asians who are confused for each other. There is some science behind people’s failure to grasp cross-racial identification.

‘It makes me feel invisible’: When people can’t tell their coworkers of color apart

If you just cringed, chuckled or rolled your eyes, I’ve been there. These instances are rarely intentional, and can be more embarrassing for the person who made the error than for me. Sometimes it’s genuinely funny. Other times, it’s just awkward.

It took me years to realize that it also stings.

Whether the person acted without malice, the effect is the same: It erases my body of work for someone else’s, simply because their ancestors were born on the same continent as mine. It tells me that my place in journalism — and that of the other Asian reporter they confused me for — is dispensable, interchangeable and indistinguishable. That no matter what I do in my career, I am but an Asian who may or may not have ever worked in journalism at all.

Sometimes, I’m gaslighted into thinking maybe I actually am the person they think I am. Those moments infuriate me the most.

Strangers approach me to compliment me for speaking at events I don’t remember attending. I thank them, figuring my memory has failed me, and so as not to litigate a kind gesture.

Then I realize later they confused me with another Asian reporter, which fills me with guilt. Should I have pried for details about the event I allegedly attended, then corrected them? That would have been rude, I’m sure. But that other reporter probably worked hard to prepare and rehearse her speech. Why did I thank them for the compliment?

I recently met a new source by phone. He told me we had spoken a few years ago. “Oh, I don’t remember that for some reason, but it’s nice to connect again,” I said, feeling awful that I may have forgotten meeting him.

But as he described our alleged first encounter, it occurred to me that he was confusing me with an Asian reporter who left The Post three years ago.

After we got off the phone, I wondered: Should I have corrected him once I realized it wasn’t me? Would that have started our source relationship on an uncomfortable note? Do I now pretend that she is … me? What if it comes up again in a future conversation?

These instances happen with such frequency that it is impossible for me to quantify.

A successful reporter navigates delicate interactions with other people and emerges with the information she hoped to glean. Preferably, she makes them comfortable enough to take her call again. At the very least, she doesn’t make her news organization look unprofessional.

So I take these instances in stride. I keep my sense of humor and never make a big deal about them. I don’t know exactly what I’ll say if it comes up again with that source, but I won’t be a jerk about it.

But what these interactions ultimately do is hurl my otherness at me, reminding me that I have no ownership over the career I have worked for since I was 15 years old. That I don’t deserve the dignity of earning credit for my accomplishments or owning up to my failures. That I must shoulder the blame of others’ mistakes or somehow share their successes, just because they are Asian and female.

When you peel back the veil of a careless, awkward mistake, you see it for what it truly is: an act of unconscious bias at best, drive-by racism at worst. And it has real consequences for us in the workplace and holds us back in ways we can’t control.

Christine was on air starting at 4:30 a.m. every day, ate “dinner” at 1 p.m., and rarely got to spend time with her friends. Yet she was criticized by company officials because they thought she was me.

Amy earned the trust of a family to tell a beautiful story that sparked empathy among so many of her readers. Yet I got credit for her work.

Sally was away from her young son and husband when we were on the same reporting trip. Yet she was treated as if she weren’t even there, just because I was.

Judge us each on the merits of our individual careers. That I am an Asian woman in journalism does not make me a substitute for any other Asian woman in journalism. The women I’ve been confused with are among the most resilient, most talented, smartest and wittiest people I know — each in her own way.

And, just to be clear, none of them is me.

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