(The Root) —
"I work in pharmaceutical sales in a territory that doesn't have much racial diversity. Recently I greeted a young lady who works at one doctor's office I visited with the wrong name. I'd confused her with the other Asian receptionist. She replied, 'Oh, so we all look alike?' or something to that effect.
"I'm African American, and I know this is something black people say when people of other races confuse us for each other. So I was embarrassed, and I apologized profusely. But when I thought about it, I told myself it was an easy mistake to make because they actually did resemble each other. So my question is, was it really my fault, and did it say that I am prone to stereotyping or racism? Of course I don't want to make the same mistake again, but is it that bad to have a hard time distinguishing people who really do have similar features (as some groups do)?"
Look at you, suddenly being all forgiving about the "They all look alike" phenomenon, now that you're not part of the "they." Let's see how you feel the next time a receptionist calls you by the UPS deliveryman's name because you "really do have similar features."
I'm teasing. As you know, you're not the first person to mix up two individuals who share little more than a general color palette. Far from it.
Remember when E! confused actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer? When a Buffalo, N.Y., news station displayed a photo of Seal when Michael Clarke Duncan died? When George Stephanopoulos thought Bill Russell was Morgan Freeman? How about the record-setting triple mix-up of Will.i.am, Wale and Wyclef by a news anchor?
These incidents elicit a collective cringe because of a shared cultural understanding that the person responsible for the error may have unintentionally exposed something vaguely troubling about his or her thinking about race. But we respond with humor ("Oh, so we all look alike?") rather than outrage because we sort of agree that something subconscious is at play. And that the offender has totally humiliated him- or herself.
Last month my professor friend told me she'd received a message from a student who was horrified that he'd confused her with the only other black female faculty member in her department. Believe me when I tell you they look nothing alike. Plus, one was pregnant.
"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."
Hugenberg also pointed out that, although the way our society is set up means your "in-group" often shares your race, research shows that it's really defined by who you see most often every day, not how you see yourself or what you see in the mirror.
So, no, it's not the case that Asian people "really do have similar features," said Hugenberg, adding that "people who grew up among Asian people are quite good at distinguishing visibly among Asians." Just as most African Americans would avoid some of the celebrity slipups listed above.
And there's even more proof that the confusing similarities among racial groups exist more in your head than in the features that exist in front of your eyes: In one study (pdf), when white participants saw a biracial (black-and-white) face and thought of it as white, they recognized it quite well. But if they thought of it as black, they recognized it just as poorly as they did other black faces. If they identified it as biracial, the results were right in the middle.
So the ability to distinguish one face from another depends on both past experiences and motivations, Hugenberg said. And while you can't control where and how you've lived, "you can absolutely control motivation," he told me to assure you. For example, in one encouraging study, when he and his colleagues told subjects that they were likely to fall victim to the cross-race effect, people were able to eliminate their confusion. They did it simply by deciding to pay attention to what made individual out-group members unique. You can do this, too. And you should, both for the sake of professional reputation and for the sake of people who like to be called by their own name.
You asked about whether this mix-up means you're racist or have a tendency to stereotype. There's no research-based answer to that. But can we agree that we'd all rather be around — and have more respect for — someone who cares enough to do the work of seeing individual characteristics in addition to ethnic groupings?
I'm not suggesting that you aim to become colorblind. That won't happen. But the science says that an awareness that you may be seeing people's "category" first and individuality second will help you avoid awkward interactions like the one in your question. I wouldn't be surprised if exercising that mental muscle extended to other areas of your thinking with even more significance than facial features.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: "'Mixed Kids Are the Cutest' Isn't Cute?"
The Root's staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life — and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.