Friday, February 12, 2016

The "Sorry, you all look the same" problem

https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/02/12/why-do-my-co-workers-keep-confusing-me-with-other-people-im-asian/?tid=ss_fb

Let's grant Kuo's arguments—that the kind of misrecognition that she describes is involuntary, but is a kind of racism insofar as it puts seeing race before seeing a person. (I think that despite the fact that you could press her claims, ultimately they hold up.) If this is the case, then how can it be fixed? The author concludes "[the onus] is on white people to learn to make distinguishing faces a priority." This suggests that she views the problem as a lack of effort—that if members of a majority group simply tried harder to properly identify individuals in a visual minority, they could succeed at it; so, they should.

But I'm not sure that this is true. What if, even with special effort, members of a majority just continue to fail to be able to accurately identify those individuals? We could not fault them for not trying. But there seems to be no good way to separate those who are trying from those who aren't: it's a matter of good will "beneath the hood."

And if it is true that special effort would fix the problem, then it's not the case, counter to Kuo's early claims, that such misidentifications are "unintentional." They could have been fixed with the right intentions. White Jeremy doesn't intend to misidentify his minority co-worker; but he never intentionally committed to make the special effort to identify her correctly. And if I'm reading this correctly, that's a failure of intention on his part.

It seems to me that the most constructive action I could take when this happens to me (I'm Asian) is to gently suggest ways that I can be identified as someone different than other people: I have a freckle on my left cheek, I work downstairs and not upstairs, etc. Otherwise, even a misidentifying person with an earnest desire to improve might continue to fail. The burden of wanting to improve falls on them, but if those of us at risk of being misidentified are serious about wanting to improve that state of affairs, we should help enable those who want to get better at it. 

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