Why white people misidentify people of colour so often and its traumatic consequences
Gavin Williamson has been branded as the most "ignorant, clueless, and incapable" education secretary in UK history this week.
In an interview with the Evening Standard, the politician confused footballer, Marcus Rashford, with England rugby player, Maro Itoje.
Williamson was asked if he had met the Manchester United and England footballer, who has led a campaign to extend free school meals. He replied saying that he had met him over Zoom, where he seemed "incredibly engaged, compassionate and charming."
The paper later clarified that this was wrong – in fact, Williamson had actually met the Saracens and England rugby player, Itoje, who has campaigned to improve access to laptops and the internet for children unable to attend school during the pandemic.
Ivié Itoje, Flair anti-racist expert and the sister of the rugby player, tells Four Nine that misidentifying people of colour can take an emotional toll over time: "It's traumatic to be continually misidentified and it can definitely affect someone's mental health and self-esteem in a negative way."
An 'honest' but unacceptable mistake
While Ivié says she wasn't particularly surprised by Williamson's mistake, it still proved disappointing. "I don't doubt that it was an honest mistake, but it is heavily loaded," she tells me.
"It speaks to a culture of seeing people of colour as a monolith, with their race or ethnicity being the defining characteristic of who they are, rather than their actual achievements.
"It creates the impression that white people are seen as individuals, while the same is not afforded to groups of people of colour."
Rashford and Itoje are two high-profile individuals, which begs the question of how often people in everyday life are misidentified in the workplace — which Ivié says is an example of microaggression.
Why do white people misidentify people of colour?
Although it's not unusual to be confused with someone else, the frequency of it happening to people of colour, especially when in predominantly white spaces, is unacceptable.
According to research, there is a scientific reason behind this. Studies have shown that people find it easier to identify faces from their own race — a phenomenon that is referred to as own-race bias or the cross-race effect.
However, this does not condone repeated errors, nor the emotional impact that this can have on people of colour.
A 2018 study on the experiences of Black, Hispanic and Native American resident physicians in the US showed that those particular groups of doctors "were routinely mistaken for other minority residents," sending a message that they were "indistinct from each other". Unsurprisingly, this contributed to their overall stress levels.
Certainly, as well as creating a culture where people feel invisible, Ivié corroborates that this can carry career implications.
"Being visible is a huge component when it comes to being advanced in the workplace," she explains. "While it may seem innocent, in the long run, this can have devastating effects on someone's career."
There is a pressure to not be seen as aggressive
Rashford and Itoje are both young Black sportsmen and philanthropists — but that's where the similarities end as they later pointed out on social media.
The footballer took to Twitter to jest that their different accents "could have been a giveaway", with the laughing-crying emoji. He of course hails from Manchester, while Itoje was born in Camden, North London.
Meanwhile, the rugby player also joked: "Due to recent speculation I thought it was necessary to confirm that I am not Marcus Rashford … And whilst we are here my name is not Mario either!! Just a simple Maro Itoje will do … Much love, Marcu … I mean Maro Itoje."
As Ivié acknowledges, their response to the gaffe was largely to make light of it. This, she explains, is something that many Black and minority ethnic people are expected to do in light of microaggressions. "There is a pressure to not be seen as aggressive, or play into racist stereotypes of being perceived as being angry or 'too much' — this is a burden that is placed on us.
"It can be expected of employees of colour to dismiss things as 'not a big deal'," she continues, adding out that there is also a cultural history of Black men being seen as "aggressive, angry and dominant," creating a "criminality and aggressiveness that has been attached to Blackness.
"I'm not saying that Marcus or Maro were conscious of this, but if I am speaking more broadly, Black people are generally aware that our responses can be politicised. It only makes sense that we handle it in the best way we know to, and that can be by making jest of the situation."
Gavin Williamson's apology 'should just be the start'
Cabinet MP, Williamson, has since issued an apology for the mixup, claiming to have made a "genuine mistake."
"Towards the end of a wide-ranging interview in which I talked about both the laptops and school meals campaigns, I conflated the issues and made a genuine mistake,” he said. "I have huge respect for both Marcus Rashford and Maro Itoje who run effective and inspiring campaigns."
Commenting on the apology, Ivié says that what should apply to Williamson also applies to the rest of us as a society. "He holds a great amount of power, so this could be an opportunity for him to be a role model," she explains.
"We need to be sure that anti-racist work is not just performative. People actually need to be learning about racial literacy, and doing the work to unlearn societal beliefs held about race.
"That's how we will be able to see a shift in how people of colour are viewed, and a shift in the structures around us."
Turning a 'gaffe' into an allyship
Hakeem S. Allen, the Founder and Executive Director of The Anti-Racist Social Club, corroborates Ivié's belief that Williamson now has an opportunity to model what active anti-racism work should look like.
He tells Four Nine: "Microaggressions have researched physical, mental, and emotional impacts on health, it's why they're called 'death by a thousand cuts'.
"This is exactly what we help people and organisations understand, that it's not about their intention, it's about their impact.
"It's not enough to just shrug our shoulders and say 'I'm sorry' for a 'simple mix-up,' a mix-up that required both of these young, Black men to validate their individual existences.
"This is a moment, to set an example as a government leader. The apology should just be the start, he should weaponise his privilege for good and invite Rashford to have an audience with him not only to rectify the issue but also give support to Rashford's admirable efforts to support young children around the UK.
"That's how you turn a 'gaffe' into allyship," he concludes.