Dear Diversity Diva: The other day I accidentally called a woman in another department by the wrong name and she accused me of thinking that “we all look alike,” since the person I confused her with was of the same race and I’m white. I think that was totally unfair. Everyone mixes people up on occasion, so what’s the big deal? — Tweaking My Twenty-Twenty
Dear Tweaking: Mistakes do happen, and you’re right that in a professional environment people should carefully check how they express frustration.
Most likely your co-worker’s frustration stems from having one of the many again confusing her with one of the few, because I have no doubt this isn’t the first time this has happened to her or to someone she knows. She probably thought that if you can’t keep so few people straight who only share race in common, it’s because you’re either deliberately ignorant or benignly careless.
So if she is already pointedly dealing with being one of a small number, what seems like an innocent mistake to you is a grating misstep to her — and one that minorities generally don’t feel like they have the luxury to make.
Quick rule of thumb: If a person of any race is significant enough to be called by a name at work, make sure it’s the name of the person you’re talking to.