In the late 80s I was the teaching assistant for an undergraduate aerospace engineering course at the University of Colorado in Boulder. There must have been some 40–50 students in the class, and only two of them were black: Richard and Ellis. Although back then I was less aware of racial issues, I already knew and appreciated that being a racial minority in that context was at the same time a testament to their skills and determination, and an indication of inequality in higher education.
One evening well into the semester, when I had already learned everyone’s name from the class, I was attending an event on campus, perhaps a concert or a play. During intermission I was walking around the main hallway with my girlfriend and ran into Ellis. The moment I introduced him to my girlfriend as “Richard” I knew I had made a huge blunder. It’s true that I am terrible at names, and have been known to call people by the wrong name, but I knew that it was the wrong name the moment I blurted it out, and I knew that I had just mixed up the names of the only two black people in my class. And no, they did not look alike — no more than Baye McNeil and Bob Sapp.
To his credit, Ellis was extremely gracious about it, and laughed as he reminded me that he was Ellis, not Richard. As I got back into my seat for the second half of the show, I wanted to throw up. I did not think myself capable of such insensitivity and wondered how I could have made such a mistake.