Thursday, May 15, 2008

forget the names of non-white people

Asian Americans often claim to be good at distinguishing their groups from each other--Japanese Americans from Korean Americans, Chinese Americans from Filipino Americans, and so on. It's hard to blame non-Asian Americans for lacking that ability (unless we're talking about distinguishing, say, Japanese Americans from Asian Indian Americans).

However, the common failure to distinguish individual members of a group from each other is a problem, and it's an area where non-Asian Americans should simply try harder. And when it comes to African Americans, non-African Americans should try harder too.

As you may have heard, People magazine recently screwed up royally in this respect. They did a feature on a Korean actor and singer named Rain (or Bi, in Korean). He's the Asian sensation who's been having a feud/dance contest with Stephen Colbert lately, and also the Asian sensation who's also currently starring in the new Wachowski brothers film, Speed Racer:

Problem is, that photo on the upper-left of the original page isn't Rain--it's Karl Yune, a Korean American actor (and the younger brother of a more famous actor, Rick Yune). That's the real Rain in the inset photo that's superimposed on the lower-right of the magazine page.

Rain and Karl Yune don't really look alike, do they? Alike enough to mix up their photos in such a prominent, publicity-generating magazine?

These things have happened before, so you'd think the people at People would know better by now. In 1988, Rolling Stone magazine committed a similar gaffe when it sent P. J. O'Rourke, the reactionary, white, psuedo-gonzo journalist, to South Korea. O'Rourke's ostensible topic was elections and political protests, but his real interest was pursuing and depicting what struck him as the bizarre, alienating elements of a foreign place.

For O'Rourke, none of the individual Koreans emerged as distinct human beings--they're more like an undifferentiated, "tea-stained" horde. At one point, scanning the Korean faces at a major demonstration, O'Rourke wrote with something approaching terror:

I was looking at this multitude, and I was thinking, "Oh no, they really do all look alike--the same Blackgama hair, the same high-boned pie-plate face, the same tea-stain complexion, the same sharp-focused look in one million anthracite eyes."

But it's not just white folks who lump members of other groups together (and who knows what sort of person slipped up at People). Over at Ask a Korean, a blogger named "the Korean" has a confession to make about what he sees as a natural human tendency:

This process happens to any race of people who are considered "exotic."

Here's a confession: the Korean himself, for some years after he moved to the U.S., had the hardest time distinguishing Danny Glover and Morgan Freeman. They are both slim, distinguished looking black men who have some gray hair -- at least, those were the only things that stuck in the Korean's head whenever he saw Mr. Glover or Mr. Freeman. So even though they look nothing like each other, the Korean's mind just jumped the gun, until he consciously tried to remember every single facial feature of the two men.

So depending on the context, failing to distinguish between the members of a group can happen to anyone--it's not something that only white folks do.

When it becomes a problem, though, is when you have regular contact with people outside your group. When you're working with them, or attending school with them. Then it's definitely worth the effort to try to remember "every single facial feature," so that you can remember that very important thing, their names.

Since this blog is about Stuff White People Do, I'll point out the most common, annoying, and at worst, demeaning way that white folks tend to confuse non-white people for each other--they call people of color they know by each other's names.

Usually if there's one non-white person around, all the white folks know that person's name, just because he or she is such an anomaly. But if they know, for instance, two black women, or two Asian men, white folks often use their names interchangeably.

New York Times veteran Lena Williams discusses this problem in her book, It's the Little Things: Everyday Interactions that Anger, Annoy, and Divide the Races. As Williams points out, what white name-confusion boils down to is a lack of respect:

We've all done it: called an acquaintance, colleague, or classmate by someone else's name. Yet black Americans are more likely to become agitated when whites call them by another's name, because they are convinced the mistake stems from the racial stereotype that "all blacks look alike." It's another form of invisibility.

"We all have gradations in skin color and hair texture, but white people don't seem to make those distinctions," said Cassandra Woods, a thin, dark brown-skinned woman in her forties. A former bank teller, Ms. Woods recalled countless times when regular customers mistook her for another black teller, who was lighter in complexion, heavier in build, and ten years her junior.

"It was bad enough when regular customers did it," she said, "but even some of my longtime colleagues would make the same mistake."

Williams (who is also black) also recalls incidents in which she and other black people are mistaken for celebrities, and for other black individuals that white folks know.

But these were strangers, and their mistake was understandable. It's a far more grievous injury when the mistaken identity is made by whites who, by now, should know better. You know, people you work with, go to school with, live in the same apartment complex with.

"We feel as though we're interchangeable parts," said my brother, known as Doc to friends and family. "That whites don't take the time to look at us or get to know us as individuals with our own unique qualities and habits and hobbies."

Williams admits that this can happen in reverse too. Black people often mistake white people for each other too. However, "there is a difference":

Blacks have been stereotyped for so long, the perception, in most cases, has become a kind of cold, harsh reality. Deep down, many whites truly feel that most blacks look alike. . . . [Also,] blacks sometimes bark at whites and say things that are rude, stereotypical, and ignorant, but we don't, in a systematic way, deprive them of their livelihood or anything that has an ongoing effect on their life or lifestyles."

So what can sincere, goodhearted white folks do about the problems that arise from their tendency to think that non-white people all look alike?

Open your eyes. Look more closely for distinguishing features. Have conversations with the non-white folks around you so that their distinctive qualities emerge past the veil of their color.

In other words, get to know the non-white people around in the same way that you've been led to know the white people around you--as individuals.


  1. Bravo,
    I am bi-racial. Anyway, in college my French teacher constantly called me another girls name. We look nothing alike.

    After halfway through the year I got tired of correcting her and let he believe I was this other girl.I was just so frustrated I figured "do whatever the f___you want."

    My french was passable but I received a B and to this day wonder if I was given the grade earned by another student.

    It has bothered me for 15 years.

    Not only was I degraded everyday in class by her failure to remember my name in front of my peers, I was denied any opportunity to learn and be taught based on my own merits.

    After that I have always made a point to learn the differences in ethnicities since I know how horrible this feels.

    On a funnier note--I was in the grocery store one day and was chased by woman who thought I was Victoria Rowell from Y & R, it was quite funny as she refused to believe me when I told her I wasn't. My girlfriend had to step in before our argument got ugly-for she believed I was being mean not givinig her an autograph!

    Wonderful-blog-I am going back to lurking but thought I would comment on this one!


  2. Well Anonymous, I guess worse things could happen than being mistaken for Victoria Rowell. ;->

    I'm gathering you and your classmate both looked "black" (even though you self-identify as bi-racial)?

    Glad you've been enjoying the blog, thanks for letting us know.

  3. You know what else white people do? Mistake people of color (like yours truly) for a person of an entirely different ethnic group - yet similar in complexion and hair color! Seriously, it's bad enough if all ____ look alike to you but do all non-white peoples look like each other too?

  4. I get mistaken for an Arab, Mexican (which I can understand: 1/2 black, 1/4 Mexican and 1/4 Native-American) and am often asked the "What are you? I mean... racially?". I just say black.
    It doesn't bother me, I'm mostly amused by it.
    Great Blog !

  5. Macon,
    Actually I look many things, some people think I am latina, others do know I am "mixed" and others yes assume black. I am not sure what ethnic group this other girl belonged too since she was a year behind me and I saw her from a distance once. But or skin tone is the same honey biege. My roomate pointed her out to me after months of complaining about it. My hair was longer and lighter too.

    Being raised by my mother not my black father-I always identified as bi-racial because people would always question us when we went out. If my dad came along nothing, but with the kids and mom-it was obvious we were not white.

    I agree-Victoria is not bad and she too is bi-racial so all's well.


  6. My friend in one of my classes has been called the wrong name for months this semester, after multiple corrections. And I just sit there and wonder - how the hell do you mix people up like that? Other than similar skin tone, they share absolutely nothing else in common. One girl is young, tall, thin, athletic, and always wears a longer weave. The other lady is a middle-aged woman, short, average build, wears glasses and never wears a weave -plus her natural hair is short. I can totally understand my friend's frustration about it. It just sounds like "you're not important enough for me to remember your name."


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