At least once in your lifetime, you have probably heard the phrase “But they all look alike!” uttered after someone mistakes two people of the same race for one another. You also probably nervously laughed the blunder off, because you know that the people being mistaken didn’t really look alike at all, right? Or did they? Sometimes it really does seem like everyone of a certain race looks alike. You may gasp silently in horror. Does that make me … a racist? Fear not, because science may have found the answer to this.
Years of research have led scientists to discover that there is something called the “other-race effect,” a cognitive phenomenon that makes it harder for people of one racial group to readily recognize or identify individuals of another. Instead of being explicitly racist, difficulty in distinguishing between races is simply the result of a lack of exposure to other groups.
It makes sense. A person who has limited exposure, or none at all, to people of different racial backgrounds may assume that everyone of a single race does really look the same out of unintentional ignorance. Because of our environment, we might be able to immediately identify people who look like us, but struggle when it comes to doing the same for an outsider. In this context, cases of mistaken identity are understandable.
Often times, however, I would say that the “they all look alike” claim is a result of simple laziness. This is when it becomes racist. As innocent as the claim sometimes may be, confusing people of the same race shouldn’t be taken lightly because science says it’s natural or okay. It can have some seriously disastrous consequences. Limited exposure or not, I think that we all on some level still recognize that everyone has distinctive features. We are subconsciously aware of it, but we consciously choose to ignore it. We have to recognize that sometimes it truly is bias, and sometimes it is straight up bigotry at work because of the negative stereotypes and racism that exist in our society.
Whenever someone claims that every minority looks alike, we disregard that person’s unique, distinctive features — we disregard their individuality. We define them on our own terms and devote our focus solely to a person’s “otherness,” which on most occasions tends to be their skin tone, the most distinctive feature that separates us from one another.
This study is very insightful, but I think that many people may use it wrongfully. We shouldn’t see it as another excuse to keep perpetuating stereotypes and assuming that everyone from a certain region with a similar skin tone looks the same. They don’t. It’s an excuse to be lazy, it’s an excuse to not take responsibility and it’s an excuse to keep being self-centered and elitist in thinking that the only culture that matters is your own. We owe it to ourselves to be more cultured, step out of our comfort zones and actually be conscious of what we think, say and do.