Why Do All Asians Look the Same?

This morning, my family engaged in one of our all-time favorite activities, watching the United States Women’s National Soccer Team play. Today we cheered on from our living-from the United States as they beat North Korea 1-0 in the first round of 2012 Olympic play. Watching the USWNT play over the past few years has been one of the most powerful and important things my daughters have experienced. The names Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach, Megan Repinoe, Lauren Cheney and Carly Lloyd are known in our house much like sports figures like Kobe Bryant, Drew Brees or Big Papi might  be known in others.

Despite the great fun of winning and watching the great play of the United States, as my wife and I followed the commentary on Twitter, we noticed a disturbing trend. Here are just a few examples from some the seemingly innocuous to the blatantly offensive:*

 

So to point out the obvious and absurd in all of this, all Asians do not all look alike. Still, do this search or this one or this one and you will see ample evidence that some believe and experience the contrary. Sprinkled throughout the tweets you see some folks calling some people out, others including a “I don’t mean to be racist.” disclaimer and others simply wondering outloud.

While it is one thing to call out the North Korean squad for their rough play, it is quite another to wander into the realm of “all Koreans look alike.” While this might not be a huge deal to many folks, this “they all look the same” rhetoric this has been one of THE primary ways that society has historically denied and dismissed the human experience and expression of people of color. Sure, everyone is mistaken for someone at some point in time, but I simply do not think this happens to White folks as much as it does for people of color. For many of my Black, Latino and Asian friends out there, I am sure that we can all list instance after instance after instance when we have been mistaken for a like-raced person who looks nothing like us.

Let me give you an example of how this plays out in real life in an innocent, yet telling way. If I had a dollar for every time that someone made a Bruce Lee reference to me, I would be a very wealthy man. Now you might be thinking, “Well, duh, your name IS Bruce and you ARE Asian.” Sure this train of thought MIGHT might sense if I was also ripped with muscles, was 30 pounds lighter, 2 inches taller and could kill you with a one-inch punch to the heart and but alas, these are not traits that I possess. While I am not actually mistaken for Bruce Lee, it does give insight into the place where people start and usually stop when first meeting me . . .  my Asian face and an automatic connection to another Asian face. This plays out even more personally, when I AM mistaken for other Asian Americans in my own church denomination. Despite the fact that I look nothing like Rodger, Joey, Neal or Kye it happens again and again, further illustrating the reality that many people really do think we all look alike.

In the end, seeing this trend in the midst of an event that is meant to bring the global community together, I was reminded that there is still much to do in trying to build better relationships between people of different racial backgrounds. We must be able to take the time to actually get to know each other in a way that does not dismiss the genuine racial and ethnic background/s of a person, but allows us to incorporate these elements into the lens through which we interact with one another. This could be said for many issues that make up our complex existence and unless we are willing to see one another’s humanity in a way that truly incorporates all of those things, we will continue be a people who find ourselves battling across false and one-dimensional dichotomies of  race, gender, sexuality, age, ideology, etc.

If you feel comfortable, please feel free to leave your story of mistaken identity as I do think telling the stories of our mistakes and brokenness is one way to help us all move towards some level of forgiveness and healing. Engaging in these conversations about race is certainly not an easy task – community rarely is – but I am convinced and convicted that it is well worth the effort.

*I chose not to publicly call these folks to the extent that I would include the links to their twitter accounts. Many are young folks who I believe are still learning the nuances of social media. My intent is not to bring down the hammer on any one person, but only to point out that issues of race are still in need of addressing in today’s society.

  • hellooo…..

    You know I read somewhere that the physical features of asians from different parts asia differ greatly, more than other ethnicities.

    Also, i live in a predominantly white, but raised in an asian family, but i cant differentiate other ethnicities well (indians/middle easterns/natives/ latin americans), perhaps its just your environment and where you live.

  • LOL

    This guy is mad :)

  • Patti

    This makes a lot of sense, the lesser amount of cross breeding of genetic pools. Its more like a purebred, if that doesn’t sound offensive. All I wanted was a scientific reason, and meant no
    harm in wondering. I DO have Asian friends. Wonderful people. Thank you!

  • patti

    aw man, I was hoping this story would explain why so many of the Asians look alike. I’m not racist at all. I have a good Korean friend, yet I still can’t distinguish much between the facial bones and eye size.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_S3YJDPIC7MDN7F43RFNPXPG5JQ yahoo-S3YJDPIC7MDN7F43RFNPXPG5JQ

    As my lovely Asian wife explains to me on occasion when we are watching a police TV program, it is virtually impossible to put out a “all points bulletin” or BOLO for a wanted person in Asia. What are they going to say? Be on the lookout for a person with dark hair and dark eyes?

  • K

    K, funny story: I was at a barbecue for new chemistry grad students. One Korean guy approached me, a white American, and asked, semi-slyly, “I have heard that Americans think all Koreans look the same. Is that true?”

    Thinking fast, I answered, “Um, some people have said that. I think it’s more something people say as a bad joke.”

    He didn’t say anything for a little while, as if thinking to himself, “No, it’s okay: We can’t tell each other apart either.”

    (On a related note, I’ve also heard that the reason girls in Japanese anime have weird-color hair is because otherwise viewers wouldn’t be able to tell apart 4 or 6 or 8 characters with the exact same appearance and hair color.)

  • Anne

    It’s actually a very interesting phenomenon that the faces an infant sees will determine ability to differentiate among faces later on in life. This applies to the ability to tell non-human species apart as well. Famous neurologist Oliver Sachs writes about this. Thus a non-Asian infant brought up by at least some Asians will never have difficulty differentiating among Asian faces. Lack of exposure however creates a limitation that is in fact neurological in origin. It can of course be overcome with practice and effort, just as prosopagnosia (inability to distinguish ANY face) can be overcome to some degree with therapy. In the meantime, it’s pure ignorance and stupidity to make such comments.

  • Keno

    About two percent of people have prosopagnosia, not complete, but to some extent. I have and have difficulty seeing the difference in many people. ( I am of Japanese origin and am often told I look like Miyagi in “Karate Kid”.) There are people (like my primary care physician who is Indian) that I could never recognize outside of the doctor’s office, and neighbors I see frequently that I never remember. … Asian, Afro, Hispanic …and white. And when I catch myself in a mirror somewhere else, my first reaction is “who in the hell is that?” Prosopagnosia, called “face blindness” on 60 Minutes … look it up.

  • gatherroundtheflame

    Being white means not having to think about it. When white cry “your’e playing the race card” that is code for “you have no right to talk about racism”

  • gatherroundtheflame

    The racist picture on the top is photo-shopped to make the racist joke. Now add “it was a joke – you people have no sense of humor” or “some of my best friends are Chinese” (because you are the same – right?) I don’t think the “they all look alike” is due to not being able to tell people apart; I think they are just being terrible racist people. I am white and have never had the experience of not being able to tell people apart due to race.

  • Muneraven

    I’m a 52 year old lesbian and my partner and I often get asked if we are twins. Her hair is gray, mine is dark. Her eyes are brown, mine are hazel. She has prominent cheekbones, a long waist, a pinkish skin tone while I have dimples, a short waist, and I am heavier than she is. Who asks us this? Young people, as a rule. African-American young women most often.

    I don’t take it personally. To them, all middle-aged, White lesbians look alike. I can remember thinking that all the little old ladies at church looked alike when I was young. I grew out of not seeing people who weren’t part of my demographic. Hopefully they will, too.

  • Matt Matthews

    Dear Bruce,

    I’m not sure I can speak to this as intelligently as others posting here, I would simply add that Bruce Reyes-Chow looks like Bruce Lee, or Jackie Chan, or Marty Feldman, for that matter, UNTIL I get to know Bruce Reyes-Chow. Relationship, relationship, relationship. That’s one way we get beyond the confusion of who’s who. There are three sets of identical twins in my congregation. I love and pray from them all. But the only set I can consistently tell apart is the set that I know the best. (The others were college kids when I arrived, I didn’t see them regularly, and now they live out of town. When they show up on Christmas Eve, I fumble with their names, and guess God has a sense of humor for blessing me with them.) Relationship engenders civility and respect, and at the least gets us beyond confusing every Asian neighbor with Bruce Lee and every elder black man with Morgan Freeman.

    One other note. Humor helps leaven these conversations. There’s nothing funnier to me than a bunch of blondes telling blonde jokes, or my gay friends telling me that the problem with politics in America is that there are too many heterosexuals in charge. Once a black friend from Junior High School was trying to recall the name of a mutual friend; he got her confused with somebody else. How could you confuse Abbey with Karen, I wanted to know. His answer?

    “You white people all look the same.”

    With love,

    Matt Matthews
    read MERCY CREEK
    Matt@MattMatthewsCreative.Com

  • http://twitter.com/jojowiththeflow Jo

    Apparently if you tweet it while pretending to be Robert Downey Jr it is deemed funny and gets over 18,000 retweets?
    http://twitter.com/RobertJrDowney/status/230648878091886592

    Nope, didn’t think so either.

  • wty

    I’m not a geneticist, but it seems apparent that we (East-Asians) are more homogeneous in our genetic composition. In other words, we haven’t mixed our genetic pool with a whole bunch of other genetic pools thru forced or voluntary interactions. Plus, the nuances of an Asian person’s facial features are less apparent to those who have simply not seen many or cared too much to see such faces. Homosapiens, we all are, but caring, thoughtful and enlightened human beings, only some may attain. good luck.

  • Brooke R.

    I know that historically it’s applied to the non-dominant cultures here. I do know that, I hope you know I know that. My point was that when I heard that I was glad it wasn’t just an insensitive white person thing.. because I try to be sensitive but sometimes I’m still hit with the “all y’all [insert racial group here] look alike” thing in my head. The getting to know folks for me is – getting to know them within the context of their racial and ethnic background, especially if it’s important to them. For example- the Palestinian-Jordanians -> getting to know them within that context is extremely important to a lot of them, because being Palestinian is so incredibly important to them. If I were to get beyond their ethnic background it would be offensive to many of them.

  • Denise Falbo

    Paul, it sounds like those people were identifying you by one salient characteristic – body type. They looked not further. It appears to be the same mechanism at play when people think all Asians, etc. look alike.

  • Gun Ho

    My answer to the question raised here is “Because the person who looks does not attempt to see.” It is the failure (and even the fallacy) of a mono-cultural, self-centered perspective that refuses to accept the “larger” world made of difference and diversity. We have to admit we people of color have the same tendency. Our young people who are enticed to look at a global world of the sameness need to learn to see the world of difference with care and respect. Maybe the outcome of colonial studies continue to be translated into a daily language. Thanks for your leadership on this matter.

  • http://www.facebook.com/aaron.minix.5 Aaron Minix

    Is the discussion about people of the same ethnicity or differing Asian ethnicites? I teach English in Korea, and there’s no way all Koreans look alike. Some are whiter than I am, while others have darker complexions. But if you lined up a Chinese, Korean and Japanese and asked me to pick who’s who, I might get 2/3 if I’m lucky. Tell me their names and it’s easy. Also, since this is North Korea we’re talking about, they might have forced their players to look alike. North Korea stresses ethnic purity as much as the Nazis did, not to mention total conformity. I don’t know since I didn’t see the game.

  • Guest

    I’m black but for some reason, I’ve always been able to differentiate among ethnic groups. I think the idea that there is more diversity among whites is disingenuous. The real issue, IMO, is a distinct lack of concern for the “other.” I also think white people don’t HAVE to be concerned about others b/c for so long, they’ve been the majority. Henry would shine their shoes. Beulah would take care of their kids. Jose would pick their fruit/veggies. Wong would do their laundry. Minorities were stereotypes; as such, they weren’t really LOOKED at.

    That said, I think other groups have been subjected (to a lesser extent) to the same thing: lesbians, blondes, preppies, goths, etc.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.gibbs55 Joel Gibbs

    I notice that most the comments relate more to experiences of mistaking one person for another. As others pointed out, we all make this mistake sometimes, and I would hope we recognize it is our mistake. But this is very different from saying that all persons of a racial group look the same, which is the focus of Bruce’s article. I think that Jeff, the first commenter, made the most important point: In the context of the predominant white culture in the U.S., when a white person makes the statement that all persons of a particular racial group look alike, there is an implicit statement that the white person’s inability is due to a deficiency in the others, rather than themselves. I believe this is another way of labeling the other as an outsider. As a white person who has lived for over 30 years in an Asian/Pacific Islander family, I believe I can speak with some experience. To many white persons, Asians look “foreign.” Here’s my anecdote: Once when I was walking into a predominantly white church with my 2nd generation Filipina-American wife and our two youngest children, the greeter stopped her and asked if they were the immigrant Vietnamese family the church sponsored. She was a very well-meaning person, but to her, Asians equated with immigrants; i.e. outsiders. While white people may not be able to distinguish other racial groups, and vice-versa, no one makes the assumption that an African American is a foreigner; or white people, or perhaps Latinos to a lesser extent. So when a white person says all Asians look the same, what they are really saying is that Asians or outsiders or foreigners. I believe that, to Asian-Americans, this is a major impediment to achievements in our society.

  • Madison

    Hair color and eye color are the two stand-out features that most Caucasians are accustomed to using to catalogue friends and family. And the fact is that there is a much greater degree of diversity in Caucasian hair color and eye color than there is in other ethnic groups (generally speaking). When you grow up with a red haired/grey-eyed aunt, and blond/brown eyed brother and a black haired/blue eyed father, those are the variations you notice first in people. Twenty black haired, dark brown eyed people will – at first- all appear very similar to a Caucasian with little exposure to people of color. As a Caucasian, I’ve had to grow in the ability to distinguish subtle
    features of individuals from different ethnic backgrounds, and it’s
    embarrassing to recall an earlier time when this was difficult for me.
    The only thing that helped me grow in this is being in close
    relationships (work, church, roommate) with diverse friends. But, I do
    know that this is by no means a one-way street of ignorance…. two
    white friends of mine who attended a black church in their neighborhood
    were constantly being confused by the mostly black parishioners. We all
    know what we know, and we grow in awareness with more exposure to
    different groups.

  • http://www.facebook.com/timelovesahero Paul Andresen

    In my 20′s I was a bar manager and mistaken for a guy named Stan. Stan managed the bar three blocks away, had long black hair and full beard while I was had sandy short hair and a clean shave. One night at that time I was congratulated on joining the Knights of Columbus, quite a feat for this Presby boy. Some 20 years later, I grew the goat and and was mistaken for John, the other goateed pastor with sandy hair in the Presbytery.

    The one thing we all had in common is we are fat guys. I understand the racial instead of facial ramifications of “you all look alike” (I once mistakenly called one seminary classmate by another’s name. It was an honest mistake but still I was both embarrassed and convicted.) but I am left to wonder how “fat guys” fall into the “you all look alike.”

  • Jeff

    It’s not the inability to discern differences in people of other races other than your own that is the problem here (something that I am sure is true cross culturally). It’s the tone of the comments made by those in the majority that this inability is a deficit on the part of those deemed indistinguishable. None of the tweeters said, “Wow, watching the Olympics, I recognize how little time I spend among Asian people that I have trouble distinguishing differences.” The implication in the comment, “All the Korean players look alike” is that there is some deficiency in the Korean players, implying there is no such deficiency among American players. It’s not my fault I can’t tell them apart, it’s their fault for all looking the same!

  • http://www.facebook.com/laurie.mcknight.50 Laurie McKnight

    It has to do with taking the time to learn/notice distinctiveness. When I visited a friend in Venezuela, I was interested to note that she could differentiate between other latino ethnic groups. Similarly, my Caucasian cousin married to an Asian man can also distinguish between different Asian ethnic groups. In a seminary lecture hall, I called one African American woman by the wrong name — I was sitting a few rows behind her and was trying to get her attention — from the back, she and another African American woman (same coloring, same build/stature) looked very much alike to me. She wasn’t happy about my error, and I was mortified to have made it. I worked very hard to call her by the right name every time I saw her after that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1208582255 Kathy Randall

    I don’t know Joey, Neal or Kye, but I met Rodger once, and I’ve met you once, and you don’t look a thing like him. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/suzanne.harp.3 Suzanne Harp

    My partner and I are both 61 year old round, white haired women, and although we look nothing alike (if one is looking beyond older and round) we are often taken for sisters “because we look so much alike”. Lesbians are often ‘disappeared’ in our culture, as are older people. Another side to the same issue.

  • http://www.facebook.com/maggie.gillespie.58 Maggie Gillespie

    I once had a young Chinese woman at my house and I introduced her to my four children. Later she told me she couldn’t tell them apart and that “Americans all look alike.” Sure, I suppose there’s some family resemblance among my children, but two are blond, one a brunette, and one a redhead! For me, and I think many white folks, we tend to look at hair color as a distinguishing feature.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Laura-Garwood-Meehan/534494805 Laura Garwood Meehan

    I think I can most easily pick up on differences in people of races I have spent the most time with. Most of my life, the vast, vast majority of people surrounding me were either white or of Mexican descent. I can’t imagine actually believing that people of any given race or nationality were more similar, however, than those of my own race. When people think people from any given race all look the same, they clearly don’t know any of them.

    In high school, I was often mistaken for my best friend (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150387690519806&set=a.217018809805.130551.534494805&type=3&theater) by people of other races, though to me it was obvious that we were similar but different.

  • http://www.facebook.com/karen.sapio Karen Sapio

    This can have terrible repercussions,though. I was at a gathering recently where a psychologist who works with law enforcement explained that mis-identification of suspects in police line-ups is at its highest when it happens cross-racially. That means a white person is very likely to wrongly identify a suspect in a line up if there are people in the line-up of different races from themselves. Presumably this would also happen with people of any racy ID-ing people of other races, but that’s probably the most common sceanrio.

  • Amanda Jarratt

    Caucasian people (and I speak from person experience) are often not taught how to distinguish people of a particular race or ethnic group. And while it seems obvious to a person in that group, what the reverse, all white people look alike statement, makes clear is that ignorance of what is different than us is not necessary a sign that we are racist, but rather just uneducated. Unfortunately, what we are ignorant about we often make fun of or otherwise diminish to avoid admitting our ignorance. And while it now seems stupid to me to say that all Asian people look a like because I have learned to look at people differently and notice elements like their facial shape, skin tone, and the size and shape of their features (which is something that I may not have done when cataloging a Caucasian person in my brain for later reference) there was a time when I would have thought the statement had some validity.

  • Josh

    I disagree. Just because a man or woman isn’t able to recognize the differences in an ethnicity’s physical appearance doesn’t mean they don’t recognize the broad span of culture. I don’t think you should be offended that someone doesn’t have the optical/cognitive ability to tell you apart from other Asian peoples. I realize that a man from China looks entirely different then one from Japan, just as a man from Germany is different then one from Ireland. But I don’t think you should be offended that someone is able to recognize the physical diversity in your skin-color.

  • Foster

    There have been times in my life when I have lived in multicultural settings, and times when I’ve lived in almost all White settings. I have found that my ability to recognize ethnic and racial differences (including differences amongst individuals) increases when I’m in a multicultural setting and decreases when I’m not. It’s a learned skill. I am a white male.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/breyeschow/ Bruce Reyes-Chow

    Yes, I do know that it does happen the other way, but historically and even currently the majority of the “you all look the same” comments are NOT directed at White folks. Still, some of the same things apply. Getting to know folks beyond – but not despite – racial ethnic background is important.

  • Brooke R.

    I was told by someone of color once that all white people looked the same. It was very comforting to me to know that it wasn’t just me as a white person who thought that way about some races. I don’t think that anymore. Now that I’m Episcopalian I think all Presbys look the same, but that’s another story for another day. *joke* Not about the “all white people looking the same” though.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/breyeschow/ Bruce Reyes-Chow

    Conner. I agree, but I usually like to turn that around with folks and as, “if there are only three Asians that someone has to track, shouldn’t that be even easier to distinguish between them?” Again, i do think you are right on about why and highlight what I think is a learning area for many of us. Thanks for commenting!

  • Connor

    While I normally refrain from commenting on people’s blogs, this topic is of particular interest to me. My heritage is Japanese (my father was born in Japan and his mother was entirely Japanese which makes me 1/4). However, I look absolutely Caucasian, and therefore hear comments people make when they don’t think anyone who might be offended is present. While sometimes hurtful, I think, for the most part, the issue in the apparent indistinguishability of Asian people stems from the fact that most Caucasian people don’t encounter a large enough sample size of Asians to notice the subtle facial features that make it possible to tell people apart. Instead, they notice the most prominent characteristics. I suppose my point is that, while I think it would be wise and sensitive for people to think before they speak in terms that lump groups of people together, the inability to distinguish faces isn’t necessarily their fault.


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