Facial discrimination, or, my eyes are playing tricks on me

In three parts

I. Race
One of the unexpected features of living here is that I find that after I’ve been here for a while with no trips to the US or Europe, I find myself paradoxically less able to distinguish race from a quick glimpse of people’s faces. This happens most strongly when I’ve been here continuously for a while, with no trips to the US or Europe. I’ll be walking down the street, see what I think is a white guy, and only realize as I get closer than he’s Asian. Or I’ll see a stranger who looks a lot like someone I know, only my acquaintance is white and the stranger is Asian.

No, no, I’m not making the “I don’t even see race” claim (that’s on the racism bingo card, isn’t it? Anyway, anyone who has grown up and lived here has been as affected by their culture as I am by mine; since they are so different, the different impacts are impossible to miss.

Here’s what I think is happening. Studies have shown that if you’ve never seen all that many people of a given race, they really do all look a lot alike to you (this applies to Asians looking at whites as much as to whites looking at Asians). The common features of race overpower the unique variations between individuals even when the individual variation is objectively greater (genetics shows that the greatest variation in human DNA is within Africa. When you spend more time with people who don’t look like you, that effect goes away. The people you see don’t look like Asians to you, they look like Jack and Le and Wang-Chen. That part didn’t surprise me; I just hadn’t expected it to affect my initial impression of passing strangers so strongly.

II. Sex
I always thought that most adult faces were affected by their biological sex – that is, that women’s faces looked more feminine and men’s more masculine. It turns out I can’t reliably tell those apart either. I know there is an effect (I remember reading that homo sapiens males tend to have heavier jawlines, for examples, and of course there is the Adam’s apple) but it’s much subtler than I’d realized. Most of what I’d been seeing as innate turns out to be the effect of hairstyles and stubble and thicker eyebrows. I saw it mostly vividly recently in a picture of a colleague who was born male and has just officially begun to live as a woman. (You’re supposed to live as a member of the desired gender for a full year before any hormone therapy or reassignment surgery.) He wasn’t much to look at as a man: middle-aged, paunchy, balding, prone wearing to ratty T-shirts and worn jeans. I was curious how she’d look as a woman . As it turns out, she’s much more attractive, I think because she’s put a lot more effort into it: a wig, impeccable makeup, well-chosen clothing.

You can see for yourself: a quick scroll down Transgriot’s blog page shows a number of pictures of women who were born as men or with biologically ambiguous sex, and they all look like women. (Obviously, you have to skip the pictures of Michelle Obama, who is female, was born that way, and manages consistently perfect hair, clothing, and makeup without the motivation of gender reassignment!)

Sex and race have had a huge influence on human history, but it turns out that in physical terms, they’re much less of a factor than I always thought.

III. Me
How can I get in better shape in just fourteen hours? Fly to the Netherlands. If there’s one part of my body I dislike, it’s my potbelly; that’s where I put on weight first and lose it last. Dutch women tend to be big-boned and curvy; they have breasts and wide hips and yes, rounded bellies. Also, sports are very popular in the Netherlands for people of all ages, so men and women are strong and muscled. After I’ve been there for a week, my belly starts to look to me like just a normal part of how women are supposed to be shaped.

Fortunately, being in Taiwan affects my body image less; my basic bone structure is no bigger than women here but there’s more of both muscle and fat on it than women here tend to have or want and I have to go up to size M or L in clothing. But I can’t buy much clothing here anyway because I’m just shaped all wrong for it: Taiwanese women tend to have long torsos that give them tiny waists, where I’m more rectangular. So I might feel a bit more robust than common here, but I think being so obviously out of the norm prevents much unconscious comparison. Where I do notice a change in perception is in looking at my face. You wouldn’t think there would be anything to surprise me in the look of my own face by now, but when I’ve been walking down the street passing lots of local people on the way, if I catch a glimpse of my own face in a shop window, I’m often shocked at how round and pasty-pale it is. The oddest thing about that while people here do have sharper cheek and jawbones than I do, most Taiwanese protect their skin from the sun and are hardly darker than I am, just a shade of paint with a little less red mixed in. But the different is enough to make my own face look strange to me.

Clearly my own perceptions are not as objective as I always thought they were. And clearly, humans are resistant to realizing our own fallibility since I had to move halfway around the world to even notice.

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