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“Ya’ll All Look Alike To Me!”

21 Sep

That racial misidentification thing can get folks into trouble. I remember in Junior High School, in which there were 7 black students the first year (5 girls, 2 boys) of integration out of about 2,000, the Principal announcing over the PA System “BTx and/or Hobert report to the office.” Hobert being the other black male. Seems that Hobert had gotten into a tiff with one of his classmates, and the teacher claimed not to be able to tell which of us was which – so he called both of us down. That particular teacher was later fired when found to be failing every black student in her class, automatically giving them “Fs” on everything we submitted, including in my case a paper written by one of my white classmates, who had straight A’s when we did a paper swap to test her fairness. He got an A for submitting my paper.

She apparently knew “It was one of them black boys” in the scrap.

Not that I never did anything to get in trouble…So I, in truth, cannot plead total innocence to all Junior High Schooler stupidity.

I will admit to working hard to be able to tell the difference with some accuracy between Asian peoples.

Actress Lucy Liu (l), Journalist Lisa Ling(r)

Knowing a Southeast Asian from an East Asian visually, is automatic to many Asians I have met. But I have to admit, one of the things which made it harder was growing up in a community where there was exactly one Asian family. One of the things the Civil Rights Act did was to eliminate (or at least reduce some of the most egregious aspects) of discrimination against Asian peoples immigrating to America, resulting in very very small, homogenous populations concentrated primarily in various “Chinatowns” in major cities. That changed, and now Asians make up about 7% of the US population – meaning the opportunity to meet Asian people has increased, and hopefully our ability to recognize people. To be honest, I think I might still miss this one, if I had never met one of the women in question. Hairstyle, eyebrows, forehead, skin color (accounting for the different backgrounds), and nose are pretty close…

What do you think?

 

The Science Behind ‘They All Look Alike to Me’

The outcry was immediate and ferocious when a white New York City police officer tackled James Blake, the retired biracial tennis star, while arresting him this month in a case of mistaken identity. The officer mistook Mr. Blake for a black man suspected of credit card fraud, according to the police.

Racism, pure and simple, some said.

But was it?

RACHEL L. SWARNS

Does Condo look like Rachel?

Scientists, pointing to decades of research, believe something else was at work. They call it the “other-race effect,” a cognitive phenomenon that makes it harder for people of one race to readily recognize or identify individuals of another.

It is not bias or bigotry, the researchers say, that makes it difficult for people to distinguish between people of another race. It is the lack of early and meaningful exposure to other groups that often makes it easier for us to quickly identify and remember people of our own ethnicity or race while we often struggle to do the same for others.

That racially loaded phrase “they all look alike to me,” turns out to be largely scientifically accurate, according to Roy S. Malpass, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Texas at El Paso who has studied the subject since the 1960s. “It has a lot of validity,” he said.

Looking for examples? There is no shortage — in the workplace, at schools and universities, and, of course, on the public stage.

Lucy Liu, the actress, has been mistaken for Lisa Ling, the journalist. “It’s like saying Hillary Clinton looks like Janet Reno,” Ms. Liu told USA Today.

Samuel L. Jackson, the actor, took umbrage last year when an entertainment reporter confused him with the actor Laurence Fishburne during a live television interview.

“Really? Really?” said Mr. Jackson, chiding the interviewer. “There’s more than one black guy doing a commercial. I’m the ‘What’s in your wallet?’ black guy. He’s the car black guy. Morgan Freeman is the other credit card black guy.”

Not even close!

And as a Washington correspondent, I managed a strained smile every time white officials and others remarked on my striking resemblance to Condoleezza Rice, then the secretary of state in the Bush administration. (No, we do not look alike.)

Psychologists say that starting when they are infants and young children, people become attuned to the key facial features and characteristics of the those around them. Whites often become accustomed to focusing on differences in hair color and eye color. African-Americans grow more familiar with subtle shadings of skin color.

“It’s a product of our perceptual experience,” said Christian A. Meissner, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University, “the extent to which we spend time with, the extent to which we have close friends of another race or ethnicity.”

(Minorities tend to be better at cross-race identification than whites, Professor Meissner said, in part because they have more extensive and meaningful exposure to whites than the other way around.)

“It’s embarrassing, really embarrassing,” Professor O’Toole, the director of the university’s Face Perception Research Lab, said. “I think almost everyone has experienced it.”

But as Mr. Blake’s case has demonstrated, the other-race effect can have serious consequences, particularly in policing and the criminal justice system. (None of the experts interviewed condoned the white officer’s rough handling of Mr. Blake. “He shouldn’t have been treated that way,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said.)

Professor Malpass, who has trained police officers and border patrol agents, urges law enforcement agencies to make sure black or Hispanic officers are involved when creating lineups of black and Hispanic suspects. And he warns of the dangers of relying on cross-racial identifications from eyewitnesses, who can be fallible.

The good news is that we can improve our cross-racial perceptions, researchers say, particularly if there is a strong need to do so. A white woman relocating to Accra, Ghana, for instance, would heighten her ability to distinguish between black faces, just as a black man living in Shanghai would enhance his ability to recognize Asians. (Mr. Malpass believes that people who need to identify those of other races — in the workplace or elsewhere — are more likely to be successful than people who simply have meaningful experiences with members of other racial groups.)

 
1 Comment

Posted by on September 21, 2015 in The Post-Racial Life

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

One response to ““Ya’ll All Look Alike To Me!”

  1. zobop republic

    September 21, 2015 at 11:52 AM

    Hello. I once saw, somewhere on the internet, that the idea of getting peoples fingerprints was inspired by the F.B.I. to tell the difference between two Black males that looked similar. This was during the era of Jim Crow obviously. This idea doesn’t surprise me. [I probably need to research this information before commenting.]

    Thanks for the moderation.

    Like

     

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