“They all look alike”

Earlier this week, as I walked on the treadmill in our hotel fitness center, a young woman whose appearance indicated she is of a different ethnic heritage than I am came up to me and smiled.  With an accent that suggested she is probably not a US-native, she said, “I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed the talk you gave yesterday.”  Giving a talk is an unlikely thing for anyone to find me doing on any day, but since on the “yesterday” she referred to I was traveling and most definitely not speaking, it was obvious she had mistaken me for someone else.  Returning her smile, I replied, “No, that wasn’t me.  I was flying yesterday, not speaking!”  Her smile turned to a puzzled frown, and she said, “Really?  You look just like the speaker.”  Clearly disappointed, she turned away.

It is not the first time in my life I have been mistaken for someone else, but with a recent much-discussed news story about the outrage of a famous actor who had been mistakenly identified as another equally famous actor of the same race (“we all look alike?”) fairly fresh in my memory, foundational concepts of social psychology immediately came to mind: in-group bias is a human universal and the Other-Race Effect is common to all racial/ethnic groups.  Daniel Levin, a cognitive psychologist at Kent State University, is just one example of the many researchers who have found, across decades of research, that humans as a species are poorly equipped for distinguishing between the members of groups other than their own.

In situations such as the ones experienced recently by the famous actor and me, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that the mistaken identity is the result of racism – and certainly this could be the case in any individual situation – but research indicates that, in general, there is no correlation between racism and poor performance in cross-racial identification.  There are many theories to explain why this is so, but the most likely seems to be that it is a simple matter of focus and coding: when we see cross-race faces, we code the race-specifying information first, which lessens our ability to note the individuating information.  Whatever the underlying reason, the research clearly tells us that leaping to the conclusion that racism is the cause in such as situation is unwarranted (unless additional information supporting that conclusion is known), and in fact, making such an assumption could, in itself, be a result of racism.

I’ve been reading Brené Brown’s “The Gifts of Imperfection,” and this incident also brought to mind the many amazing gifts of growth and learning my Cross Cultural Awareness students gave to one another, and to me, when they were willing to be open, authentic, and vulnerable in our class discussions.

I recall one powerful conversation when a young woman of African descent, who self-identified as Black, shared that one of the most painful periods of her life took place when she worked as a cashier.  She shared that many of the customers who she perceived as White chose to place the payment for their purchases on the counter rather than in her hand, and that she knew this was because they were racist and did not want to touch her.  Two other black females in the room nodded and expressed empathy; they, too, had experienced encounters during which they perceived that a person of a different race did not want to touch them.  Their shared pain was clear and heart-felt.  A white female responded, “I am so sorry.  I always count out my payment on the counter, because it is easier to see that I have the correct change that way.  It never occurred to me the cashier might think I didn’t want to touch her.”  The members of the class made a pact to think more deeply about their behaviors in situations that involved an option to touch or not touch, and agreed in future to choose touch whenever possible, to avoid unintentionally causing pain or offense.

But then the conversation took a different turn when a fourth black female student asked the original speaker, “Did any of your black customers ever count their change on the counter?”  The answer was that she didn’t know; she had never thought about it or paid attention in same-race encounters.  Another learning moment opened when the challenger then asked, “Is it possible that, in at least some cases, you might have been making a prejudiced assumption that the reason they didn’t touch you was racist?”  The shocked reactions to this question made it immediately clear that this was not a possibility that had ever been considered, and the ensuing discussion provided “lightbulb” moments for several members of the class.

It took me back to memories of another class, another conversation, and a dear friend to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude for the way my adult life has developed.  Bridget (pronounced “Brigette” – please get that right!) and I met in church, and I can only think that our friendship was divinely inspired, because in that place and time, there was little in the natural world that could account for it.  Our personalities and life experiences were as different as they could possibly be, and the external circumstances were not ones that would seem to have encouraged us to trust one another, but somehow we just seemed to know that our hearts were safe in each other’s keeping, and we shared deep things that we had never shared with anyone else.  She often said that I was the “whitest white girl” she had ever met; certainly our skin colors were at the opposite ends of the black-white continuum, and we were both well aware that many of our life experiences had grown out of that difference.  Sharing our past experiences – and having new ones together – gave us both invaluable opportunities to learn and grow in new and unexpected ways.

It was Bridget who encouraged me to return to school as an adult learner after a seventeen-year gap.  She had already taken a few of the community college extension evening offerings at the local high school, and it took all her powers of persuasion, but she finally convinced me that I could handle (or should at least try!) the psychology class that she had enrolled in for the next semester.  I had been raised in a time when the term “adult learner” didn’t even exist, and although I had been an excellent student and always expected to attend college while growing up, I had been told, and long believed, that I had given up my shot at higher education when I chose to marry right after graduating from high school.  Almost two decades out of the classroom, I had no confidence that I could successfully return.  But when Bridget made up her mind that something should happen, there was no changing it, and persuade me she did!

That class changed my life in more ways that I could possibly explain – I was fascinated with the subject and enamored with the learning – but the most pivotal moment came on the last day of class and was provided not by the teacher, but rather by a classmate.  As Bridget and I were gathering up our materials at the end of the final class period, a fellow student – a black female – came up to us and said, “Before we leave, there is something I have to tell you.”  We stopped our packing and gave her our attention.  “I have always been told, and have always believed,” she said, “that I could never trust a white person, and that there was no way a white person could ever be my friend.  But I have been watching the two of you interact the whole semester, and seeing your friendship has changed my mind and my heart.  I now know that what I was raised to believe is not true.  Real friendship between people of different races is possible.  I learned a lot in this class, but I think that is the most important thing I learned, and I just wanted you to know.  Thank you.”

Bridget and I were both stunned; we’d had no idea anyone was observing our interactions.  I don’t know if that moment had the depth of impact on her that it did on me, but I do know that it was a defining moment of my adult life, and nothing has given me greater joy than the fact that out of that moment eventually grew a decade of facilitation of learning moments for others.

I am also immensely grateful that, because of these experiences, I was able to respond to the “they all look alike” moment earlier this week with grace rather than anger.  I am keenly aware of how fortunate I am to have had encounters that have enabled me to be open to the enrichment that comes from diversity.

Thank you, Bridget.


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