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Monday, November 18, 2019

Not recognizing people of other races

I recently had an argument with a former classmate about people who have a hard time telling members of other races apart. (Specifically, the subject was whites who don't recognize Asians.) This woman is white but grew up in Japan, and was offended that whites might not recognize individual Japanese.

She seemed to feel that those who had a hard time telling members of other races apart were somehow morally wanting.

Speaking as a half-Asian, I understand why some whites, especially those who've had limited contact with Asians, can't tell them apart. Whites come in a wider variety of obvious physical differences, like hair color, facial shape, nose structure, height, build, etc. Asians exhibit less variety in all those traits, so if you're not used to them, it would only be natural to have difficulty telling them apart. 

My mother found it extremely annoying when a local white woman once mistook her for the woman at the dry cleaning shop (decades ago). I certainly understand why my mother was insulted, but I don't really blame the white woman. 

A young black woman once told me she had a hard time telling the old white guys at her law firm apart, since they all dressed similarly and sort of looked the same, with their white hair and wrinkles. I can't blame her for that either. 

Nor do I blame whites for mistaking one black for another. I've seen this happen on a number of occasions, and it's always embarrassing, especially given the current social climate. But again, it's understandable. 

Blaming people for this is basically the same as blaming people for being dumb. 

And as the LGBTQ crowd always reminds us, it's unfair to blame people for something they can't help. 


Anonymous said...

Good post. Not worth getting bent out of shape over innocent mistakes.

- Conservative Woman

John Craig said...

Conservative Woman (B) --
Thank you.

LBD said...

For years I have wondered how police in Japan, Korea and China, which have a much more homogeneous population than America, construct verbal descriptions of crime suspects. Medium height, medium weight, black hair, brown eyes. That would cover nearly every Asian person I have ever met, and I lived in San Francisco and the Bay Area for decades. It’s not as if I rarely saw Asians. Of course gang tattoos might make a difference but not all of those are visible.

I am sure that within their own society there are ways of thinking of and describing the myriad differences between individuals but I don’t know what they are. My Ethiopian friends have an incredible number of words to describe minute variations in skin color among their countrymen, variations that an outsider would not notice. I would love to see some criminal justice student who reads and speaks Japanese do a thesis on this subject.

Welcome back, by the way. Glad to see you’re blogging again. I know I’ Commenting on an outdated post but I just caught up with this blog.

John Craig said...

LBD --
Nice to hear from you.

Japanese people have absolutely no problem recognizing each other. The differences are there, they're just more subtle (and sometimes invisible to Western eyes). I hadn't known that Ethiopians have so many words to describe skin color. They do have a fairly wide range over there, not that surprising given their location on the Horn of Africa. I suppose it's a little like Eskimos with all their words to describe different types of snow.

Thanks, though I'm not really back. I just had a few things I felt like venting about. but will probably continue to be very sporadic going forward.

LBD said...


Yes, I know that there are differences between individuals. I have plenty of Asian friends and acquaintances due to where I live, and I don’t get them confused with one another.

My point is that in a homogeneous population there has to be a terminology to describe these differences in a meaningful way, and I don’t know what that is. My coworker Kat doesn’t look anything like my sister in law, but how do I describe my sister in law other than she “looks like Flora”? Or that Kat is Katherinlike in appearance?

Both are medium to slender, with long black hair and brown eyes. If you’re surrounded by a billion people with those descriptors in common, what features do you zero in on to meaningfully distinguish between them? To me that’s the mystery.

John Craig said...

LBD --
I wasn't trying to imply that you personally have a hard time recognizing Asians, just making the point that Westerners in general do.

My guess -- and it's only a guess -- is that most Asian languages would have words to describe subtle differences in facial physiognomy, the same way Ethiopians have all those words to describe shades of skin color. (But I don't know, it's just a guess, and to be honest I don't remember anything like that from when I was 8, and was fluent in Japanese, not that 8-year-olds would necessarily know that type of stuff.)