Even white people. Especially white people!
Okay, I took the easy route and chose a picture of the Dionne Quintuplets (1952). But really, this could be any group of young women today, regardless of race, fashion, or hairstyle. CC0 1.0 Public domain photo by unknown author on Wikimedia Commons
It’s considered racist to say about other groups of people, “You all look alike to me.” But…what if they really do? Including your own tribe?
My roommate came home one afternoon — I worked, she was still in school — and said, “Oh my God, you wouldn’t believe these three girls I saw today. I literally couldn’t tell them apart!”
Seems three blonde, pretty little Barbie dolls sat together, with the same manufactured look — hair, makeup, clothes.
“Literally, Nicole, I couldn’t tell them apart. They were like little clones. I wanted to ask if they needed name tags to recognize each other.”
Gotta love college girls. A few years prior, in my student days, every cool girl sported a poufy bad Toni home perm and the then-fashionable Flashdance shirt-falling-off-one-shoulder look.
Fashionable black people emulated Michael Jackson’s dipped-my-head-in-axle-grease look until his hair caught fire while filming a Pepsi commercial, and folks realized how flammable their heads were.
January 27, 1984: The day the Geri curls died.
Black guys whacked it all off and carved artistic designs into their 2mm scalp fuzz. Black girls went back to cornrows, braids, or generic fluffy short ‘dos.
White guys? The hot ones glued their feathered locks in place after pinching their sister’s hair spray; rockers adopted the Stray Cats Wannabe ‘do (“The higher the hair, the closer to MTV”), the metalheads’ hair poufed longer and bigger than the Toni perm girls’, and the stoners all looked like Kansas (the band, not the state) as did the farm kids (the state, not the band).
Adolescent sheep tend to trend because they haven’t developed the maturity and self-assurance yet to follow their own siren call and create their own authentic look.
Okay, fine. But what’s everyone’s excuse today on the subway?
I don’t public-transport much anymore. When I do it’s noticeably less crowded than my pre-pandemic rush hours when the sides of the cars fairly bulged. Insert one thin mint at Bloor-Yonge and it would have exploded like a Monty Python sketch.
Usually I read, but I’d also glance around at my fellow passengers, especially curious in the early months after I moved to multicultural Toronto.
People self-homogenize not just by trending, but by not trending.
Everyone looked bored and slightly pissed.
The young people still looked clone-y.
The middle-aged faded into each other, tired, old. Their wrinkles didn’t erase them; it was their barely-there air.
On singles sites, slightly overweight non-descript men blended into each other with shaved heads, goatees, and T-shirts or light jackets, to the point where you couldn’t have picked out the perp in a criminal lineup of one each — white, black, Asian and brown.
Looking at cloned tired white women on the bus is part of the reason why I kicked my ass into gear at forty-five when I realized a horrifying truth: I was fading, like them.
Was I ready to be old and invisible?
No, dammit! My life wasn’t over!
I lost the post-moving-to-Canada weight, colored my hair more regularly, and stopped dressing as though I didn’t care, because now I did.
I don’t ever want to look like everyone else. Especially not as I enter the senior silver years, like all the clone-y church ladies of my youth lined up in the front pews on Sunday morning, their once-a-week Big Day Out.
Sometimes I consciously look at others, especially people from different racial groups, and pay attention to differences to gain a better understanding of what makes people look different so they don’t ‘all look alike to me.’
When I dated a Japanese guy he asked, “Why do white people say we all look alike? We don’t have a problem.”
“We see variations in eye shape and color,” I explained. “Hair too. Asians lack diversity to us with largely dark hair and eyes. I imagine you recognize each other differently. Maybe facial features or eye shape or hair type or something.”
He had to think about it. You never consider how you tell your tribe members apart until someone calls your attention to it.
Is the inability to distinguish as easily for other races racism? According to the New York Times article The Science Behind ‘They All Look Alike To Me’, scientists note after many years of research it’s not bigotry, it’s lack of early exposure to others as part of something they call the ‘cross race effect’. When people grow up in a homogenous culture (like the era of racial segregation), no matter their race, they can find it difficult to tell other races apart when they come in contact with them.
It’s universal. The first research published on the cross-race effect, in 1914, found East Asians can have difficulty telling us apart. The cross-race effect is most pronounceable in whites, but it’s been observed cross-culturally.
It starts in infancy. Newborns don’t demonstrate a preference for faces of their own race, but it changes between 3–9 months as they gain more experience within same-race families and communities.
Whites learn to differentiate by hair and eye color differences; African-Americans pay more attention to skin color; Asians, as Atsushi explained to me, by face and eye shape and how one walks. Atsushi grew up in a culture even more homogenized than mine: Japan even today remains one of the least ethnically diverse countries.
But he didn’t think about how he did it. He saw someone and said, “Hey, Daichi!”