The He’s-Got-to-Be-the-Help-Because-He’s-Brown Mistake

Lithub has a searing personal essay by poet Patrick Rosal — an excerpt of We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America, edited by Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Page. The piece is framed as a letter to a white woman who mistook him for a server at the black-tie National Book Awards gala, which he had attended in support of a friend who was being honored.

The experience prompts him to reconsider his choice of a $90 suit for the occasion, and also to reflect on the kinds of mistakes white people often make about people of color — in this case what he calls “the He’s-Got-to-Be-the-Help-Because-He’s-Brown Mistake.”

After the first round of drinks, after introductions and small talk with my tablemates, after the courses of salad and soup, I stand up, excuse myself, and walk across the swanky hall, winding my way through the other big round tables to find my way toward one of my dear friends, who is among tonight’s honorees. And you—sitting at a table not far from where my homeboy is sitting—stand up too. Surely, by the way you crane your neck forward and to the side, stepping slightly left into my path just enough to intercept me, I must know you from somewhere else, right? I lift my chin a little to see if I can link a name to your face. And surely you think you know me too, don’t you? I’ve traveled only from the other side of the room to walk toward you and for you to walk toward me. But doesn’t something break just then, when you and I approach? All the festive shimmering in the space. These eyes. This face. I think I’m even smiling now, when you point back at your seat to tell me you need a clean linen to dab the corner of your mouth. You need a knife for the beef cheeks. A refill of your cabernet. Maybe you need me to kneel down and shim one of the table legs to keep it from bobbing.

So this is how you and I have been walking toward each other maybe this entire time.

When at first I don’t respond, maybe you think it’s too loud for me to hear you clearly. Or maybe you think my English isn’t too good—for you ask me the same thing once more before you clip your request short and say: “You’re one of the servers, right? . . . You’re with the servers? . . .” And I stand there absolutely still so we might stare at each other for one long second exactly like that. “You’re not with them?” You are pointing at the line of workers in white jackets and bow ties, a tray hoisted over some of their shoulders. That’s when my face gets unfixed quick. I twist the whole thing—top right eyebrow to bottom left lip. I crinkle the bridge of my nose and suck my teeth once before I blow out a pffffh! You open your mouth and maybe if there were not the thousands around us chattering, pricking each other with their literary wit, the fine chime of restaurant china like a four-hour avalanche of muted porcelain, I think I might hear you whisper, “Oh . . .” You spin on one heel and dash back to your chair.

Read the story