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A Case of Mistaken Identity

Posted on July 5, 2019

We love taking the kids to our neighborhood pool. The kids take swim lessons there, so it’s a familiar and comfortable space for them to play. We parents get to stay cool while the kids expend all their energy. It’s a rare win-win for both parents and children.

Today, I noticed there was a little light-skinned boy about Damian’s age. The kid was enjoying himself - playing with various pool toys. I thought to myself, “It’s cool to see another biracial kid playing at this pool.”

Damian and Me

A bit later, a white father and his son approached Damian and me in the pool. This man said that they were looking for his son’s water gun, and he saw Damian playing with it earlier.

Now, I had seen the other light-skinned boy playing with the water gun. That boy was not my son. I politely said, “That wasn’t my son.”

The man gently insisted that he was sure it was Damian.

I responded, “It wasn’t him.”

He paused and looked away briefly before insisting again, “I think it was him.”

I said, a bit perturbed, “It was the other light-skinned kid.”

The dad paused, realized his mistake, and sauntered off a few feet before turning his head slightly to offer what should have been a mea culpa. Instead he offered a “Thanks, man…”.

His son scolded him, “I told you that wasn’t him, Dad!”

In that moment I wanted to mount a strong and dramatic defense for my son, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my son has been with me this entire time, and he hasn’t been playing with a water gun.” But…

I didn’t. I’m glad I didn’t.

I could have pointed out all the differences between my son and the other boy. From the innocuous, like the other boy was wearing blue goggles while Damian wears green ones. To the things a black father to a biracial son notices, like the other boy is lighter skinned and has coarse, almost blond hair while Damian has wavy, dark hair. But…

Again, I didn’t. I’m glad I didn’t.

The burden of proof should not be on my son and me.

This interaction left me frustrated because the father was 100% certain and 100% wrong. While this case was harmless, it gave me pause.

What if I wasn’t there to advocate for my son? How would Damian react? Would that father, who seemed so certain, accuse my son of stealing their cheap water gun? What if this was a more serious accusation? Cases of mistaken identity for people of color can have life altering consequences.

That experience followed me for the rest of our pool time like a cloud threatening a summer storm. Sharing this has helped me process it and hopeful of the following lessons learned:

Other father - I hope you learned to check your assumptions before jumping to conclusions. Gaps in your knowledge are not an excuse. Even your son could tell the difference between the two light-skinned boys. Do better.

Damian - Just because you have less melanin in your skin doesn’t prevent you from being a victim of stereotypes or mistaken identity. Don’t be a victim. Be aware.

Me - The burden of proof is not on me. Don’t feel the need to explain or defend yourself when you’ve done nothing wrong. You have every right to be in these spaces.

About

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Hi, I'm Don Pottinger.

I love building things with computers. At 10 years old, I wrote my first program using BASIC. I built my first computer when I was 12 years old.

I graduated from Georgia Institute of Technology with a BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering. I have a background as a technology consultant and software engineer.

Now, I'm a Customer Engineer at Google.

Also, I'm the founder and CEO of Lytham Labs. Lytham Labs helps businesses sell more with marketing automation, predictive analytics, and artificial intelligence tools. My primary product, Kevy, is a marketing automation platform for eCommerce retailers.

I live in Atlanta with my amazing wife and kids. For fun, I play too much soccer and follow my favorite clubs, FC Barcelona and Arsenal F.C.

My CV so far

  • Cloud Engineer at Google (2019 - Present)
  • Founder and CEO at Kevy (2014 - Present)
  • Co-founder and Head of Technical Development of Body Boss Fitness (2010 - Present)
  • Engineering Manager and Software Engineer at Big Nerd Ranch (2012 - 2014)
  • IT and Management Consultant for Accenture and Slalom Consulting (2008 - 2012)
  • Graduate of Georgia Tech with BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering (2008)

Facts About Me

  • I was born in Jamaica and raised in the United States.
  • I speak English, Spanish and Jamaican Patois.
  • I love to travel. So far, I've visited Peru, Argentina, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Greece, France, Italy, Canada, Jamaica, Hawaii, Mexico and England.