"You Look Like President Obama": Reflection on Identity During Black History Month

02/06/2013 10:19 am ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

The first time some one compared me to our current president was when I was 18 and he was running for office back in early 2008. I was working at a catering company and did pastries, desserts and all those other delicious things, and this specific day I was working on truffles for a wedding. I remember this day very well because the topic of politics came up and everyone was discussing the hopes of a new era in the upcoming post-Bush period, which was especially exciting to hear in this usually conservative environment. As the topic turned to the Democratic candidates, one of the sous chefs looked my way and said, "Hey, Zach! You know who you look like?" I responded, "No, I don't." He laughed and blurted out, "Obama! Especially with your glasses on!"

This statement hit me like a pie in the face, I was stunned and didn't know what to say. All I could think was, "Wait, does Senator Obama even wear glasses?" Before I could point out his mistake in regards to the future president's eyewear, someone else corrected my co-worker -- who laughed it off, not really understanding or caring why he thought I looked like the presidential candidate "especially with glasses on." When I got home that night, I told my family about this weird encounter, and my mom started laughing. Through her laughter, she told me, "You know what he was saying, right?" I did, but I didn't really want to articulate it. "He was saying you look like an educated black person!"

This instance happened a lot over the year of 2008, as our now-president became more and more famous, and even happens now within his second term. Usually, when someone compares one to a person who is famous it's most of the time a compliment, especially when it is the President of the United States -- well, when it's Obama -- but I don't take it as a compliment all the time. You see, President Obama and I really don't look all that much alike; there are similarities in height, skin tone and maybe the fact that we both have college educations, but we really aren't that similar. Also, it is not only Barack Obama that I get compared to; the list is quite extensive and includes Don Lemon, Will Smith, Usher and even Halle Berry.

From my experiences, it seems that any time a light-skinned person becomes well-known, all other people with similar skin tones are compared to them, that we become them in this weird way. It's as if one's color overrides all other features on their body, and the only way people can really translate one's very being is connecting it to someone who is famous, not realizing how stripping that can be to someone's own identity and personhood.

People get caught up in these "compliments" and don't stop to think what that compliment really is saying and how it gives us greater insight to how people are viewing certain types of people.

So, during this Black History Month, I challenge people to not only look at people in comparison to others, no matter how great the compliment or comparison may be, but instead to see them as them: as the great person they are, as the attractive person they are, as the individual they are. Black History Month may be focused on black folks, but their blackness isn't necessarily their main identity and isn't the sole focus of the month, but yet their leadership, bravery and resilience is that focus.

We have Black History Month to bring attention to people that have so often been left out, their voices hushed and many of the times their work and success compared and co-opted by others. It's time for us to stop saying "So-and-so looks like this" and instead "So-and-so is this." It is time for black people to not be homogenized into one group, but instead individualized and seen as people -- not just famous people.