All X People Look Alike ™

test-tubes

All X People Look Alike ™ is the psychological phenomenon whereby most or all members of other ethnic and racial groups appear to look similar. This mindset is fairly common in heterogeneous nations such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, but can also be found in more homogeneous societies. When displayed in conversation, it is one of the most commonly used racist remarks. This comment has the uncanny effect of making my arms prickle with annoyance, every single time I hear it. Some who make the comment seem to be unaware that it is, in fact, ignorant and racist, but most seem to understand its implications.

But why is this frame of mind racist? In case it’s not clear, it’s because All X People Look Alike™ seeks to discriminate (i.e. distinguish) based on perceived race or ethnicity. In doing so, it disregards the individuality of others and keeps its possessor in ignorance.

Some hypothesize that All X People Look Alike™ results from assuming that people of other races look more similar than those of an individual’s perceived race. But research suggests that this mentality is a bit more complex than that.

they-all-look-alikeDaniel Levin, a cognitive psychologist at Kent State University conducted research designed to test the hypothesis that people can distinguish between individuals of races that are not their own. It’s simply that they choose to place emphasis on racial categories, disregarding individual differences.

Levin tested this theory in a series of experiments involving facial recognition of averaged and real white faces and black faces. He found that participants in his study were better at recognizing faces of members of their own racial groups, than those of others. Yet they could accurately distinguish the subtle differences in faces which were of the same racial group. He explains this phenomenon with the example, “When a white person looks at another white person’s nose, they’re likely to think to themselves, ‘That’s John’s nose.’ When they look at a black person’s nose, they’re likely to think, ‘That’s a black nose.’” White participants were more likely to have difficulty in telling apart faces of other race groups.

The truth is that there is no group of people who all basically look alike. All Asians do not look alike. All white people do not look alike. And most certainly, all black people do not look alike. The same goes for the various ethnic groups — all Mexicans do not look alike, nor do all Finns. If you’re one of those who tend to believe “all [insert racial/ethnic group] look alike”, it would be helpful for you to take a closer look and recognize the nearly infinite range of phenotypes beyond your stereotypical racial categorizations.

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31 thoughts on “All X People Look Alike ™

  1. Interesting. In my Child Devo class we talked about another study that dealt with the “Other Species Effect”–we’re born with the ability to discriminate races and faces of other species, but it disappears around 9 months. With training, the infants in the study could reverse the decline, and it’s hypothesized that the same applies to other races.

  2. Growing up I though that Indian males looked the same. I know its not right, but thats what i did.

    Always the typical stern Indian guy at the store who thought just because you are black that you would steal something.

  3. Nkosazana,

    It’s interesting because the Indian guys I know all look very different from each other. Granted, some are only half Indian (half white), but the diversity is striking nonetheless.

  4. A funny side-effect of this is that I notice (at least with my girlfriend and a few other friends) is that when it comes to telling the tanned White people from the less tanned White people, a lot of Black people seem to have a difficult time noticing the difference — or they just shake their heads in befuddlement. Whereas a Black person could tell the differences between various browns, I’ve noticed they don’t/can’t tell the differences between pale, tanned, and medium White peeps.

    Also, In SF Asian people do the same thing to White people that White people do to them ALL THE TIME. It’s funny to hear the reversal: “So what did he look like?” “I don’t know. He was White! They all look the same to me.”

  5. I can tell the difference, i just don’t see what the big deal is–the darkest White person is still not as dark as most “light-skinned” non-White people. The difference is miniscule.

  6. Jasmin,

    About the various shades of white people: it is (somewhat) important, because of several reasons. First of all, darker whites are sometimes not even seen as whites in certain parts of the world (yours, as far as I understand).

    Also, skin shade can, and sometimes is, used as an ethnic marker. As as you all know, whites often hate other whites of different ethnicites, so it’s really important to determine who is who.

    Also, there is colourism, but is a bit different than non-white colourism. When you’re white, you shouldn’t be “too tanned”, but you shouldn’t be “too white” either. Pale skin is considered really ugly these days, as well as stuff such as freckles (particularly on men). It might not be as important, but it sure matters if everybody around you think you’re ugly because of it.

    Not that non-whites should care about any of it, but it’s not as unimportant as it may seem at a first glance.

  7. As for the topic itself, this sort of thinking is prevalent in my culture. Only whites live here, and the “all X look alike” trope is popular. X can be race (definitely!), but it goes beyond that (it is believed that people of various ethnicities, for example, look alike).

    I think this ignorance goes with the fact people here don’t have any contact with people of different races/nations, and most of them can’t afford to travel.

    Anyway, I’ve noticed around the age of 13 that it wasn’t the same for me… Black men didn’t look the same to me, no matter what people claimed. Nor Asian men. (Or Hispanic, but they are usually considered white here, so I won’t count them).

    I guess it has a lot to do with sexual attraction. If you are attracted to people of other races, you will sure know how to tell them apart. That’s why I hate when somebody points out I’m attracted to non-whites. I am not attracted to non-whites (or whites for that matter) in general… Just specific people.

    But then again, this theory of mine is deeply flawed, because I don’t think all non-white women look alike, and I am heterosexual.

    However, I must say I am generally bad at remembering faces. I fail when asked to describe someone I’ve just met. People ask me stuff about how tall the person is, hair, eye colour, the way (s)he dress… And I can’t describe. I guess all I get is a “general vibe” (not sure how to put it) about a person, and not the physical description.

    PS- That being said, I am not good in recognizing different non-white ethnicities, or white ones for that matter. I could usually say if a white person looks more (stereotypically) Scandinavian or Italian, but that’s all.

    However, I am good at guessing who could pass as a Serbian and who couldn’t.

  8. Mira,

    It might not be as important, but it sure matters if everybody around you think you’re ugly because of it.

    That’s the part I don’t get. I knew a lot of girls in high school who would come in on Monday proudly displaying the fake tan they got over the weekend, and I wouldn’t see much of a difference (unless they were orange). And I guess since I haven’t seen super-pale people be socially ostracized as a group, I don’t see why it’s seen as such a big deal (on a general scale, not an individual scale).

  9. Hmmm… Not sure. It might be the race thing (not noticing the subtle shades of white, lol), or maybe they didn’t look THAT much different (it happens a lot with fake tans, unless they are orange- and they often are).

    I don’t know about the US, but really pale people are considered ugly here. Maybe that’s because we are not as white as some (Northern and Western) Europeans are, so it’s considered ugly to be as pale as, say German or English people (who all look alike, of course :P).

    It is imperative for any girl who “takes care of herself” today to be tanned for the whole year. Tanning salons are really popular. Now, I understand why you might not notice the difference (even I barely notice it), but as someone with really light skin, I am often told how pale and “cheese white” I am, so I guess others notice I am paler than them.

    And don’t get me started on freckles…

    Granted, the colourism is not as strong as in some other communities, but it does exist. Back in the days (when my grandma was young, for example), pale skin was an imperative, especially for women. It meant you were noble and rich enough so you didn’t have to work outside. Women who had tan used a lot of dangerous skin bleach to cover it. It didn’t matter they were still lighter than any non-white person: only whites live here, and people could tell the difference between them and the pale ladies. But it’s quite different today: to be tanned means to be rich enough to afford holiday in the sun, or “sex and the city” lifestyle.

    In a way, not getting a tan is considered being lazy and “not caring about yourself”.

  10. zek,

    “A funny side-effect of this is that I notice (at least with my girlfriend and a few other friends) is that when it comes to telling the tanned White people from the less tanned White people, a lot of Black people seem to have a difficult time noticing the difference — or they just shake their heads in befuddlement.”

    True, true. While writing this, I was thinking of blacks saying this about whites too.

    Actually, the most recent incident of All X People Look Alike™ involved a black friend of mine commenting about my boyfriend. She saw a picture of him on one of my computers; she’d never seen him before. Here’s how the conversation went.

    Me: So what do you think of him? [I try to get a feeling for the “tastes” of my female friends when it comes to men]

    Friend: He’s white.

    Me: Yeah… I’m aware of that. I meant what do you think of his appearance? Do you think he’s cute?

    Friend: *shrugs* He looks like a white guy. All white people look alike. Except if they’re something exotic like Italian or Greek or Jewish.

    Me: Really?… Interesting. All very interesting.

    *face palm*

    We then had a talk about the All X People Look Alike™ syndrome and she realized the error of her thinking… I hope.

    Also, In SF Asian people do the same thing to White people that White people do to them ALL THE TIME. It’s funny to hear the reversal: “So what did he look like?” “I don’t know. He was White! They all look the same to me.”

    I’ve heard Asians say or imply all whites or all blacks look alike. And I can do nothing but shake my head. It is just funny (i.e. sad) to hear Asian people say other people look alike. Because I think they, more than any other group in North America, get stereotyped as looking basically alike.

  11. Mira,

    “About the various shades of white people: it is (somewhat) important, because of several reasons. First of all, darker whites are sometimes not even seen as whites in certain parts of the world (yours, as far as I understand).”

    They aren’t… well, some of them. I think it’s a combination of features and skin color. If they have darker skin (not just tanned, but darker), curly and/or really dark hair, and thicker lips or nose, they’ll probably be seen as “not really white”. Even with just one of these features. Like the Kardashians — even though they are pale-skinned like other whites, they have really dark hair. But if others had to classify these kinds of people as any race/ethnicity, they’d choose white.

    “Pale skin is considered really ugly these days, as well as stuff such as freckles (particularly on men).”

    And red hair.

    “If you are attracted to people of other races, you will sure know how to tell them apart.”

    I think this has a lot of truth to it. I think it applies a lot to me: since I’m attracted to men of all races, I don’t think any of them look like others of their race. 🙂

    “But then again, this theory of mine is deeply flawed, because I don’t think all non-white women look alike, and I am heterosexual.”

    Maybe because you’re attracted to specific men of certain races, you pick up the differences in the women of those races as well.

    Although I do think some white women look similar (not all of them), it’s not because of the All X People Look Alike™ syndrome, but because they try to look similar to each other by all dying their hair blonde, tanning, and dieting to be around the same size.

  12. Jasmin,

    “That’s the part I don’t get. I knew a lot of girls in high school who would come in on Monday proudly displaying the fake tan they got over the weekend, and I wouldn’t see much of a difference (unless they were orange).”

    Girls would do that at my college. It was like a competition –who could get the best tan. I think some of them looked better when they were paler, but whatever.

    “And I guess since I haven’t seen super-pale people be socially ostracized as a group, I don’t see why it’s seen as such a big deal (on a general scale, not an individual scale).”

    True, I don’t see really pale people get ostracized the way really dark people are. Though they are the butt of many jokes and told day in and day out to get a tan.

  13. People don’t all look alike. But someone growing up in Africa, or Norway… they will be able to distinguish the subtleties of people who don’t look like them and all the people they’ve grown up with.

    I’ve heard white comics say all black people look alike. I’ve heard Chris Rock say we all look the same. It depends on your socio-geographic background.

    But a racist guy from Alabama… will especially not take the care to distinguish between black people.

  14. AJ,

    “People don’t all look alike. But someone growing up in Africa, or Norway… they will be able to distinguish the subtleties of people who don’t look like them and all the people they’ve grown up with.”

    So you’re saying people from homogeneous (in terms of “race”) societies are better able to tell other groups of people apart? Like I said in the post, I don’t think that’s true. You can even read upthread where Mira comments that Serbians are also heavily afflicted with the All X People Look Alike syndrome. If Nkozasana were here, I bet she’d put a dent in that idea as well, as a black woman living in Scandinavia (Sweden).

    Also,

    “someone growing up in Africa, or Norway…”

    Virtual cookies for the person who can spot what is wrong with this statement and how it relates to this post. 🙂

  15. I’m saying people in homogeneous places are less likely to decipher other people apart, from different areas.

  16. AJ,

    “I’m saying people in homogeneous places are less likely to decipher other people apart, from different areas.”

    Oh, then be clearer. 😛

    Still, I don’t think it’s true that people from homogeneous areas are less likely to be able to tell others apart. It seems like that would be true in theory, but in heterogeneous societies (where people are more aware of who does and doesn’t look like them), something odd happens. People who look somewhat like you seem to all look different, whereas the “others”, those who supposedly don’t look anything like you, seem to all look the same.

    Most people in the U.S. live in (relatively) diverse areas, yet they are even worse at it than people from other countries. My friend who made the comment above is from my hometown, which you know is about 50/50 white and non-white.

    Jasmin,

    ^^^Africa’s not a country, but it is the most diverse continent. 🙂

    Ding, ding!

    Here you go. Enjoy. 🙂

  17. And red hair.

    It’s even worse with red hair, especially in some cultures (not mine, though- there are almost no red haired people here). However, my grandmother (who was part Polish) had redish hair. And guess what? My hair is full of red pigment, despite the fact it’s dark brown. I can’t dye my hair. There are several red haired people in my family.

    Having red hair is considered bad in some cultures, and not just attractiveness-wise.

    Although I do think some white women look similar (not all of them), it’s not because of the All X People Look Alike™ syndrome, but because they try to look similar to each other by all dying their hair blonde, tanning, and dieting to be around the same size.

    Yes. That is also a problem that contributes to “all X look alike”. Though in all honesty I am not sure if white women are the only ones affected, but yes, sometimes it’s difficult to tell them apart. No kidding. There are some women (and, to a lesser extend, men), who look completely generic. Of course, when people of your own race/culture do that, you don’t think “all X look alike”, but “people who do it all look alike”. (It’s similar to “this is John’s nose” as the opposite of “this is black nose”.)

    True, I don’t see really pale people get ostracized the way really dark people are.

    True. I am sorry if my comment implied I thought otherwise. White colourism does exist, but it has nothing to do with race*. Hence, it’s free of many (if not all) issues that go with race-specific hate. Its only negative effect is based on beauty criteria, which doesn’t seem as important… However, it’s obviously important enough so people pay attention. (In this way, it’s similar in nature with discrimination against overweight people- it’s not something based on race, but it does matter. Only it’s not as serious as discrimination against overweight people).

    *Unless this colourism is about ethnicity, like it’s (partly) in my culture. Foreigners (from Western and Northern Europe) are often very pale, so it can be used as an ethnicity marker.

  18. Mira,

    It doesn’t help that people with red hair often have pale skin and freckles as well.

    But I think redheaded men can be very attractive; they are eye-catching. I don’t generally like beards, but without one, redheads are quite appealing.

    “Having red hair is considered bad in some cultures, and not just attractiveness-wise.”

    Why else would it be bad? Because they have less protective melanin?

    “I am not sure if white women are the only ones affected”

    They aren’t, but at least in American culture, I think they try the hardest to fit into a certain ideal. All women try to fit beauty ideals, but it seems white women go to a larger extent. Probably because they have the best chance of actually meeting them.

  19. It doesn’t help that people with red hair often have pale skin and freckles as well.

    lol, true!

    I have freckles (on my nose and shoulders), so I guess I’m a red haired person… with brown hair.

    I think freckles go with pale skin. And many people with really pale skin also have light hair (and eyes).

    But I think redheaded men can be very attractive; they are eye-catching. I don’t generally like beards, but without one, redheads are quite appealing.

    Honestly, I don’t understand the whole red haired men hate… There are some quite good looking ones. And freckles can be cute, too. So I don’t understand.

    Why else would it be bad? Because they have less protective melanin?

    I am not sure, but I believe they are considered to be unlucky or something in some cultures. They are also sometimes considered to be mean, or whatever (because of the unusual hair colour). Not sure, but it’s not just about the attractiveness alone.

    They aren’t, but at least in American culture, I think they try the hardest to fit into a certain ideal.

    Yes, but I was referring to the fact they chose the same dressing style (haircut, makeup, etc.) Many non-white women do exactly the same (not the same style, but tend to follow a desired “look”, whatever might be what is popular among their group- and by “group”, I don’t mean race).

    All women try to fit beauty ideals, but it seems white women go to a larger extent. Probably because they have the best chance of actually meeting them.

    Hmmm… But the ideals were made to fit them, in a way, because they are seen as the “norm” (just like whites often see themselves as “universal” and a “norm”). However, I am not sure if white women (in general) have the best chance of meeting the beauty criteria, especially given the fact beauty standards tend to be rigid.

    What white women do have, is a belief they might meet the beauty criteria if they try. It’s what cosmetic and other companies like, because it makes them buy. An overweight (or whatever) white woman has no chance of looking like Heidi Klum, and one would argue that a tall and thin black woman looks more like Heidi. However, because racism pay so much attention on skin colour and other “racial” attributes, it makes this overweight white girl believe she can be like Heidi. (Without even questioning whether Heidi Klum is really THAT hot).

  20. Hey now…. I didn’t call either Africa or Norway a country or continent. Just two different regions, which they are. Come on, I’m not Sarah Palin. I can still compare the two regions, without thinking they are both countries.

    No logical misstep here! 😦

  21. Mira,

    “I think freckles go with pale skin. And many people with really pale skin also have light hair (and eyes). “

    Yup, it’s just a general lack of (eu)melanin.

    I didn’t know redheads were considered unlucky in some cultures. They should be considered lucky since they are rarer.

    “Yes, but I was referring to the fact they chose the same dressing style (haircut, makeup, etc.)”

    I know. 🙂

    “An overweight (or whatever) white woman has no chance of looking like Heidi Klum, and one would argue that a tall and thin black woman looks more like Heidi. “

    Most people don’t think this way — they are judging on base characteristics such as skin and hair color. In that sense, many more white woman are closer to the beauty ideal than black women (which I just found out a couple of years ago… here I was thinking the average woman didn’t have anything on me ;)). A brown-haired or overweight woman can just dye her hair or lose weight.

    “However, because racism pay so much attention on skin colour and other “racial” attributes, it makes this overweight white girl believe she can be like Heidi.”

    Right.

    “(Without even questioning whether Heidi Klum is really THAT hot).”

    Is she? I admit, I don’t pay attention to who is considered the “it [white] woman” of the moment, so I had no idea she was thought to be very attractive. She is quite plain without make-up.

  22. AJ,

    “Hey now…. I didn’t call either Africa or Norway a country or continent. Just two different regions, which they are. Come on, I’m not Sarah Palin. I can still compare the two regions, without thinking they are both countries.”

    Well, in making that comparison, whether you are aware of it or not, you were implying that the two regions are somehow equivalent. A person growing up in Africa can be in one of numerous societies and countries, each with its own distinct social atmosphere. Norway, as a specific country, is much less broad in scope.

  23. Yup, it’s just a general lack of (eu)melanin.

    True, but I guess I’ve never really thought about it, since there are many people I know (in my family, for example) who are really pale skinned, but have dark hair and brown eyes. It’s almost a norm for us. And there are many blue eyed people in my country, but blondes or even light brown haired people are relatively rare. (That’s one of the reasons I hate those “melanin charts” you can find when you, say, want to choose a sun cream. They don’t list my type, never. All they have is “very light skin, light hair and eyes” and it’s not me!)

    I didn’t know redheads were considered unlucky in some cultures. They should be considered lucky since they are rarer.

    Who knows? It’s a known cultural phenomenon: what is rare is either considered “sacred” (or attractive), or weird and bad.

    Most people don’t think this way — they are judging on base characteristics such as skin and hair color.

    Yes, but that’s because of, well, racism and the whole concept of race. There’s nothing “real” about it.

    A brown-haired or overweight woman can just dye her hair or lose weight.

    Hmmm… No, not really. I could never look like Heidi Klum, even if I wanted to (I don’t). I am way too short, I have a different body shape, etc, etc. These are not things that can be “corrected” with dieting and hair dye.

    Once again, the notion that Rosie O’Donnell looks more like Heidi Klum than a black model does, has a lot to do with race and racism and little with “facts” and “reality”.

    Is she? I admit, I don’t pay attention to who is considered the “it [white] woman” of the moment, so I had no idea she was thought to be very attractive. She is quite plain without make-up

    To be honest, I don’t know. Many people talk about her, so I listed her (but you can replace her with another white woman who is considered the (white) beauty ideal). I do think she is a bit manly looking, but then again, many models seem like that to me (women with strong jaws seem to be popular these days and it’s a manly characteristic in my book… So I never got the appeal of Keira Knightley or Olivia Wilde. But that’s just me, I guess).

  24. Mira,

    “Hmmm… No, not really. I could never look like Heidi Klum, even if I wanted to (I don’t). I am way too short, I have a different body shape, etc, etc. These are not things that can be “corrected” with dieting and hair dye.”

    I know, just talking about in the eyes of others. 🙂

    If you did all of those things, in the eyes of many, you would look more like Heidi than would someone like, say, Naomi Campbell. Simply because you’re white.

    Which is, of course, the main topic — with All X People Look Alike™ syndrome, any woman who can be classified as “white” looks similar to any other woman who can be classified the same way, whether they actually look similar or not.

  25. To Alee,

    Yeah, it did make them seem equivalent. I’m mostly referring to what people “look like”. White in Norway, darker in the Africa. I couldn’t say Europe, because not all are white skinned there.

  26. AJ,

    “I’m mostly referring to what people “look like”. White in Norway, darker in the Africa.”

    And what about North Africa? Plenty of people in those regions that are similar in skin color to a Norwegian.

    “I couldn’t say Europe, because not all are white skinned there.”

    And you shouldn’t have said Africa either, since not all are “darker-skinned” there. 🙂

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