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!”
Still, people of all races can look undifferentiated if there’s nothing particularly unusual about their looks. And, sometimes we simply resemble someone else or remind someone of someone else.
I only once ever got mistaken for a ‘celebrity’, right after I moved to Canada. At the summer Scottish Games in Fergus, Ontario, someone mistook me for an actress on Coronation Street.
Me in 2005 and my alleged doppelganger, actress Sally Lindsey. Yah, hard to tell us apart, huh? Morgan Freeman, my heart bleeds for you.
I’d never heard of her but I Googled later and thought, “What the hell?”
I guess all us white women look alike to….even all us white people.
Why do we make fun of the ‘Karen’ bowl cut? Because many middle-aged white women sport it. Maybe that’s why they pitch public tantrums; so people notice they’re there.
The good news is, with a little effort and covert attention, one can learn to identify individuals of other races by paying attention to the differences one never noticed before.
Toronto is the most ethnically diverse city I’ve ever lived in, not nearly as segregated, self or otherwise, as anywhere else. On a crowded subway when I have to stand with no room to read, I glance at my peeps.
Body height and size. Hairstyle. Eye shape. Eye placement. Facial features. Different types of hair. Even when it’s all the same color, it’s different if I look. I’m not supposed to, but I’m also not supposed to stereotype or say, “They all look alike to me.” We’re emotionally split on ‘race’ (Is it a thing? Is it a human construct?) and differences (Celebrate them, be not ashamed, but don’t talk about or refer to them unless you’re writing your ‘woke’ bio listing the genetic recipe that makes you you).
So I look. I try to be discreet since no one likes being stared at. The only way to move beyond ‘they all look alike to me’ is to notice how they don’t all look alike.
‘They’ don’t look as alike to me as they did when I first moved here.
Muslim women in various states of coverage taught me to forget hair. How do I tell those faces apart? Skin tone for people with actual skin tone is far more helpful than it is for us largely uni-colored white folks. Some of us are pasty and some of us look like we vacationed in Miami, but I’ve never been able to use white skin as a cue for telling someone part.
Now I see: African-Americans have many different types of (natural) hair. Asians have different facial characteristics and eye shapes. I don’t mean ethnic ones, although they may have that too; I’m interested in individual differences.
Hopefully, I won’t ever mistake Lisa Liu for Lisa Ling, although to be honest, they really do just happen to look a lot like each other. Maybe one should get a haircut.
Some people spend time to look different, standing out either by beauty or clothes or other types of expression.
Others choose to fade into the background. Not everyone wants to be seen. And sometimes it just — happens.
The cross-race effect may be more based in infant brain wiring than we realize, but it can be challenged. Scientists have found people who live in more ethnically diverse communities exhibit less of the effect.
Paying more attention to people who don’t look like you enables you to see the differences you never saw before.
Including white people.
(But damn, we really do look alike sometimes!)
No one likes being the first Brown Sheep in the neighborhood. CC0 2.0 image by Jesus Solana on Wikimedia Commons
This first appeared on Medium in April 2021.