Monday, June 29, 2020

Mistaken Identity

Annamaria on Monday

In the old days, before algorithms, it was people that guessed wrong about me. 

Mostly, my clients around the US used to hypothesize about who I am, and often they were mistaken.  Many seemed to assume I was Jewish.  I figured they based that on the fact that I was short, dark-haired, came from New York, and ran my own business.  This misassumption was, I guess, their motivation for telling me, in tones that lingered between admiring and patronizing, how much I looked like Barbra Streisand.

 I never tried to disabuse them of that except to smile and say, “Please don’t ask me to sing.” 

If such a conversation led me reveal that I was born in New Jersey of Italian descent, within thirty seconds someone said the word “mafia” or mentioned Tony Soprano.

I knew it was no use trying to defend my ethnic group from such stereotyping.

Perhaps it was my accent that caused so many of my Midwestern clients to wonder about my background.  I fully admit that I speak like the New Yorker I am proud to be.

On my first trip to Kenya, I met a very elegant and ultra-snobbish retired English physician, who lives in Mombasa.  We had many interesting conversations while on a tour of World War I battlefields.  Until one day, when he brought up my speech patterns by asking with his best toffee-nosed disdain, “Is that the Bronx, I detect?” 

In my best Bronx intonation, I said, "No honey.  If you want da Bronx, I can give you da Bronx, but if ya really want da Bronx, ya gotta listen to Bugs Bunny.  Bugs really knows how da tawk da Bronx.

When I then gave him my quite good imitation of a BBC announcer, he urged me to speak in that way all the time so that people would understand that I was a woman of some intelligence.  I smiled and kept to myself my preference—to sound like who I really am and let people like him understand that even human beings who are not upper-class English have brains in their heads.

Not long ago, I asked science if it had an opinion of who I am.  I had my DNA tested.  The first report I received pegged me at 73% Greco-Italian, 12% Middle Eastern, 5% European Jewish, and 9% Caucuses.  That made sense to me, considering that my grandparents were all born in southern Italy and two were from Sicily—a land that has been conquered by all the invaders of the Mediterranean basin since time immemorial.  Lately, Ancestry has changed their thinking about me.  They now say I am:

My guess is that they have since discovered that just about all people of Southern Italian descent share the same mixed up gene pool that they first found in me.  So they no longer make those minute distinctions.  I kinda liked them though. 

Nowadays, the algorithms of the world are busy coming to their own conclusions about me, which are even more far-off than the Streisand resemblance.

According to what the software of internet advertisers are “discovering” about me, I am a Black-Jewish-Chinese woman.   I know this because of ads placed to appeal to me.

On-line social media sometimes shows me advertising meant to appeal to Blacks.  I also get direct mail promotions and invitations in my mailbox aimed at Black families.  This is understandable since I have been a long-time member of the NAACP, which I joined because—in the 1960s—I supported the Advancement of Colored People.  I still do.  Of late, also, I have been seen on Facebook wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt and displaying photos of public art that support that movement.  If the snooping market researchers  want to think I am Black—okay by me.

My on-line subscription to the New York Times, on the other hand, thinks I am Jewish.  So, it often shows me ads in Hebrew and things like this come in the mail:

As do solicitations to join all sorts of Jewish organizations and causes.  This—most likely—because I make donations to support efforts of Jews to find a path to peaceful coexistence with Palestine.

Why I am thought by some to be Chinese is a mystery to me.  I know this mistaken identity is the case because I regularly, both on my cell phone and my landline,  receive robocalls in Chinese.  When I say…

Wǒ zhǐ huì shuō yīdiǎn zhōngwén
(I speak only a little Chinese)

…the callers just hang up.  They probably know from my accent that I won’t understand anything but an odd word now and then if they try to sell me something in Mandarin.  How did I get on record as Chinese?  I did study the language for a few years, just before and after visiting China in 1986.  Otherwise, my only theory about this is that my legal name is Patricia King and that means I sometimes appear on lists as P. King.

The real me finds ALL of this delightful.


  1. A. Conan Doyle would say this is "A Case of Identity" that only Mr. Sherlock Holmes could solve.

    1. I wonder what the algorithms would make of Sherlock, considering what he would be charging to his credit card in today's marketplace.

  2. It is fun to see how badly these algorithms get things wrong. On the other hand, it can be scary how often they get things right!

    1. What scares me most, Michael, is when I look at something I might want to buy on line and then when log on to, say the New York Times, and there is an ad in front of me for a similar item. I have long-since given up on privacy or security on the internet. But still, it gives me the creeps to know exactly how closely Big Brother is watching.

  3. "P. King?" Geez, sis, I suggest you duck, before someone concludes your unaccounted for 1% of ancestry is my linked to my sense of humor.

    Happy 4th.