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Sunday, September 20, 2009

On the subject of whites who don't recognize blacks or Asians

There was an article on the Swimming World website recently by an associate producer there named Jeff Commings. He is in his early thirties, a former world class breaststroker and a current masters world record holder. He is by all accounts a great guy. He's also black. The article was basically about how he was incensed that six different people at a recent event mistook him for Cullen Jones, the only recent black Olympic swimmer. Both men are well over six feet tall, and dark-skinned, with similar swimmer's builds. Commings was perfectly polite to everyone who made the error, but then went home and stewed about it, and wrote about it on the website.

I wrote the following in response. (I took a more mealy mouth tone than I do on this blog, but was still much more straightforward than any of the other responders):

I don't blame you for being annoyed and feeling humiliated by what happened to you in Chicago. If I were in your shoes, I'm sure I'd feel the same way. And I applaud you for saying it wasn't racism. But I do think you need to look at the issue with more perspective.

I'm half white, half Asian (hence my moniker). I adore my Japanese mother (and to date have never mistaken her for anyone else). But I've made plenty of mistakes in the past not recognizing other Asians I've met. It's obviously not because I feel any animosity towards them because of their race, it's because -- and this has to be said -- they do look more alike. Whites come in a full range of hair colors, from blond to brunette to black; they come with brown, blue and hazel eyes; they come in a full range of shapes and sizes; and most importantly, their facial features range from relatively flat faced to extremely hawk-faced. Asians come in one hair color, one eye color, and they virtually all have relatively flat faces. They tend to be similarly small in stature, and you rarely see a fat one (outside of sumo rings and away from Polynesians, who are sometimes grouped in with Asians). The same can be said, to a slightly lesser extent, of blacks. Blacks come in a wider range of shapes and sizes, and different skin tones, depending on how much white blood they have. But there's just not the same range of hair color and facial features you get with whites.

Plus, as liquidassets said, everybody is hardwired to recognize people from their own groups. And more to the point, if your daily life doesn't involve as much contact with a lot of people from another race, you're less likely to be attuned to subtle variations in their features. It certainly not an indication of ill will (asking for your autograph is hardly evidence of that). Twenty-five years ago a young black woman told me she had a hard time telling some of the older white guys at her law firm apart (she was just there for the summer). I can understand that: once their hair turns white, once their skin gets a little wrinkly, there is a certain sameness to their appearance, especially when they all dress in suits and ties. It never seemed to me that she was being mean, or even insensitive. (Your essay didn't ascribe meanness to anyone, but you were essentially talking about insensitivity.)

You and Cullen Jones are both tall, dark-skinned guys with similar builds. If the whites who mistook you for him saw the two of you together, and on more than one occasion, I'm sure they wouldn't make that mistake. But if they've never seen either of you before, it's an understandable mistake.

One more story: I told my wife about a year ago that there are so many women who are forty-five-ish, slighty overweight, elegantly dressed, with dyed blonde hair in our hometown that I have a hard time recognizing them if I've only met them once. It's embarrassing when I meet them for the second time and they say hello and I'm at a loss. But again, it doesn't mean I bear them any ill will.

Anyway, what can be done about this? The answer is, nothing. You can't teach facial recognition to people, and when it's not there, it's just an embarrassing fact of life that has to be dealt with. Is a white person more likely not to recognize a black or Asian? Frankly, yes. But I don't think it's reason to get angry.

I certainly hope the experience doesn't turn you off swimming.
Submitted by: halfbreed

("Halfbreed" is the name I post under when indulging my swimming addiction.)

In all honesty, I have to admit, it would get on my nerves if people often mistook me for another member of my race who bore only a superficial resemblance to me.

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