/Our names matter: The side effects of own-race bias

Our names matter: The side effects of own-race bias

Recently, I accepted an invitation for a graduate school visit at a university across country. Everything went reasonably well—the department paid for the hotel, I made fast friends with the doctoral students and I even had a brief (but fruitful) shopping stint downtown.  

I thought the trip was shaping up nicely. However, any sense of contentment I experienced was short-lived.  

Near the end of my visit, I was mingling with the rest of the recruits in the hallway when I overheard one of the professors say “Briana’s* here, we’re just waiting on Jasmine.”  

I stared at him in confusion. Surely, in a room that was majority women, he hadn’t mixed me up with the only other Black girl there. That couldn’t be the same person who had to stare me in my face when he picked me up from the airport.  

He repeated himself: “I wonder where Jasmine is.”  

The quiet, exasperated phrase, “actually, that’s my name,” was one of the hardest things I have ever had to utter. Right then, I decided I couldn’t commit myself to that university, and later, I found out that Briana had done the same. 

That happened last month, so clearly the visit has been over for some time, but it’s still on my mind. I question myself constantly. Was I was being overdramatic? Did I owe that professor the benefit of the doubt? 

Was my decision justified?  

I understand that to some, a name mix-up may not seem like a big deal, but as a person of color, I read into these types of situations very differently. This isn’t the first time a white person has confidently mistaken me for the only other Black person in the room, and I don’t think it’ll be the last.  

The “Psychological Science” journal has described these types of occurrences as being part of the “own-race bias” or the “other-race effect”—a phenomenon that makes people more likely to confuse the faces (and names) of people from racial groups they’re not a part of.  

There are several hypotheses as to why this happens, but psychologists generally agree that the concept is culturally-bound. If people are used to being around those of their own race or ethnicity, especially from a young age, they’re better at telling those people apart. 

Be that as it may, it’s not an excuse.  

As Daniel Levin, a cognitive psychologist at Kent State University, has explained: “The problem is not that we can’t code the details of cross-race faces—it’s that we don’t.”  

This bias isn’t directly tied to any one race, but the history of privilege and of being considered the default is. That kind of past comes with a large responsibility to students and peers of color—one that teachers of all levels should try harder to honor.  

In doing this, I ask that everyone understands that impact matters more than intent.  

“I do this to everyone” is not acceptable. “I’m just bad with names” is not acceptable. Regardless of reasoning—busyness, age, exhaustion, class sizes, good intentions or otherwise—mixing up our names is not acceptable. It’s a microaggression.  

In schools with faculty that are predominately white, many students of color are regularly called by the wrong name. Their cumulative effect gives them power, and the underlying social message is offensively clear.  

We’re insignificant. We’re replaceable. We’re interchangeable. 

Eventually, “interchangeable” begins to feel a lot like “disposable.”  

As hard as it is to remember our names, it’s even harder for people of color to constantly be forced into spaces that don’t feel safe or welcoming. We shouldn’t have to give up our mental wellbeing to exist.  

Our names matter. (I’ll scream it from the rooftops if I have to.) 

*This student’s name was changed for privacy.  

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