No, Neither Asians nor Blacks All Look Alike

Race Manners: Sorry, the problem's in your head, not in the faces of people of other races.

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 “Professor,” the student wrote,” I hope this finds you well this evening. Wanted to take a moment to apologize again for calling you by the wrong name today. I’ve felt bad about it all day, and really am very sorry.”

My friend said she rushed to reassure her student that the mistake was fine, but she confided in me, “I hate that minorities always have to make whites feel comfortable and assuage their guilt. But that’s all I want to do for this guy.”

Her conflict gets right to the heart of your confusion. How much responsibility should one have to take for a mistake made without any intent to harm? But what if that mistake sends a dismissive signal that people placed into the same racial group are interchangeable?

Well, my answer to “How much responsibility?” is “A lot.” That’s because the problem that caused the confusion most likely originated in your head, not in the “similar features” of the two Asian receptionists. But here’s the good news: You don’t have to make this type of mistake again.

Let me explain.

When you have a harder time recognizing or distinguishing between members of racial ethnic groups other than your own, what’s at work is known as the “cross-race effect.” It’s been widely studied and researched around the world in contexts such as criminal justice, where it can really mess up eyewitness identifications.

The basic theory, introduced back in 1914, uses language about race that’s a bit oversimplified for 2013 America. It assumes that we all have defined racial groups that are apparent to others and that we spend most of our time around other people from our own group. That’s less true all the time. But just go with it for the sake of this explanation.

One cross-race effect theory on racial mix-ups is what’s called the “experience-based” hypothesis: We find it easier to recognize and distinguish and remember faces of our “racial in-group” than we do “racial out-groups” simply because we see the in-group features more.  

Then there’s the related “coding” or “categorization” hypothesis: When we see a member of another race, our minds pay more attention to what makes the person an out-group member than to his or her individual features. We lose some of the distinguishing details in the process.

Kurt Hugenberg, a professor of psychology at Miami University who has spent much of his career studying stereotyping, prejudice and cross-race face identification, told The Root that this categorical thinking is a useful tool for the human mind in many cases, but “when you use these categories, they can make members of racial out-groups seem more similar than they actually are.”

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