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Monday, October 10, 2016

Political Correctness and How I Learned Chinese People Don't "All Look the Same"

宁泽涛 Ning Zetao, Chinese Olympic swimmer. Image source.
Several years ago, one of my friends posted a family photo on Facebook, and another friend commented, "Wow, you look so much like your mom!"

I remember thinking that comment was sort of ... awkward. I would never say something like that, I thought to myself. Because the girl who posted the photo is Asian. To me, of course she looked like her mom because ... well I would never say it out loud, but don't Asian people pretty much all look the same?

So this post is about white people who really don't want to be racist, but have some ignorant beliefs like "Asian people all look the same" and think those beliefs are objectively true statements that we're not allowed to say out loud because of "political correctness." And I'm going to use the word "we" because I'm white and I'm guilty of some of these same biases.

Growing up, I pretty much only interacted with white people. In school we learned about segregation and the civil rights movement, how there was racism back then but fortunately Martin Luther King Jr. fixed it. Schools used to be segregated, which was horrible and unjust, and completely different from our school because there was one black girl in my social studies class.

I never thought of my school, church, etc as "all white" because it was easy to name a few people of color I would see there sometimes. I didn't realize that, if you can name offhand all the people of color, then yeah, it counts as "all white."

Anyway, when we come from that kind of environment, it makes sense that our brains aren't able to tell Asian people apart- it makes sense that we would think they "all look the same." But the important thing is, it's not actually true that "Asian people look the same." It only seems true because our experience is very very limited.

When we only have a few people of color in our lives, it's not really necessary for our brains to remember that much detail about what they look like. We just think "Jeff is a tall Asian guy" and that's perfectly adequate because we only know one tall Asian guy. Obviously when we look at him we are able to see all of his unique facial features, but it has just never been necessary for our brains to actually pay attention to those specific features and remember them. We're good at doing that for white people, but for other races, we have just never really had a need for that skill.

Because yes, it is a different skill. Recognizing white people's faces is a different skill than recognizing Asian people's faces. If we congratulate ourselves for how not-racist we are because we "don't see race," spend the vast majority of our lives interacting with only white people, then realize we have trouble telling Asian people apart, and conclude that Asian people just inherently look MUCH MORE similar to each other than white people do (but we're not racist or anything, some of our best friends are Asian guys named Jeff)... well we are being ridiculous. Just because our brains have never had to learn that skill doesn't mean it's actually a difficult skill.

I moved to China in 2013 and started working as an English teacher. My students were adults and they weren't given a fixed class schedule- they just signed up for whichever classes they had time for any given week. So I never knew which permutation of students would show up. And at the beginning of every class, I would go around and ask all the students their names. (English names.) And I did my best to remember. People like it when you remember their names.

Well after a while of doing that, Chinese people no longer "looked the same" to me. I'm serious. I don't mean "well yeah they look really similar but I am able to tell them apart"- I mean "these people look completely different- why on earth did I ever think Asian people looked the same?" There were times I would think to myself "everyone in this room is Asian" or "everyone here has black hair" [except me...] and it felt so WEIRD to think that, because part of my brain still interprets "everyone here is Asian" as "everyone here looks very similar and it's hard to tell them apart" but the reality that I see isn't like that- they don't look similar to me at all.

And there was one time I had two students, Summer and Sarah, who did look very similar. For a while I thought they were the same person- I thought there was one student and I could never remember if her name was Summer or Sarah. Then one day they both happened to be attending the same class, and I realized they were two different people. And the whole thing struck me as so weird- just a few years before, I would have responded to the problem "two Chinese women look similar and I have trouble remembering which is which" by thinking, well yeah, obviously, because Asian people look really similar. But it wasn't like that at all. They didn't look similar because Asian people all look the same. They look similar because they just happen to look similar. Asian people in general don't look similar at all.

Or the time I was doing an English activity for kids, and one of my colleagues said she would be bringing her daughter, whom I had never met before. So I get there and there's a few kids there already, and I see this one little girl, and I'm like, WOW yeah that is DEFINITELY her daughter. (And yes, she was.) And again, it surprised me because a few years before, I would not have been able to do that. A few years before, I thought Asian people pretty much all looked the same. I wouldn't have been able to identify which ones actually do look similar on account of being directly related to each other.

Anyway, the reason I'm talking about my experiences here is not so you can be like "wow isn't Perfect Number amazing, she moved to China and somehow overcame the incredibly difficult challenge of telling Asian people apart." No, white people don't deserve congratulations for being less racist than usual. I'm talking about this because I've realized that recognizing Asian people and telling them apart is actually not hard at all. I only thought it was hard because my own experience of the world was so limited- not because it actually is hard. Seriously, all it takes is interacting, day after day, with dozens of Asian people whose names you need to remember- after that, the idea that they "all look the same" is just blatantly absurd. They don't look the same at all.

Really, it's about training our brains to focus on particular features. Our brains have to learn which aspects of people's appearance are most useful to remember for purposes of identifying who someone is. And the set of features we learn to pay attention to if we only interact with white people is not the optimal set of features for identifying Asian people. For example, among white Americans, there is significant variation in hair color and curliness. Our brains learn that paying particular attention to someone's hair color and curliness is very very useful for the task of identifying people. (I remember in middle school gym class, when we all had to wear swim caps in the pool, and everybody's hair was covered up and it took me a second to figure out who everyone was- my brain wasn't used to identifying them by their face alone.)

But if we use that same strategy for Asian people, it won't work well. The vast majority of them have straight black hair. Our brains are storing that data about their hair color and curliness- which is pretty useless for identifying Asian people- at the expense of noticing features which actually are useful. I don't know exactly what features those are, because all of this is happening subconsciously. Give it enough time, enough experience, and our brains will figure it out automatically. It's not actually hard. It's only hard if our brains have never had to learn it before.

And maybe now is a good time to mention I work with vision systems for robots. (And yes, there have been times when this problem has literally happened to an AI system- the system trains on data where white people are better represented, and ends up outputting results that are pretty racist.) Pretty much my entire job is teaching a computer how to tell which visual data is important and which parts to ignore. The robot may have a camera or a 3D sensor, which returns hundreds and hundreds of numbers representing colors or coordinates in 3D space, and I have to teach it how to figure out what the hell it's looking at. Our brains work in a similar way. We get the raw data from our eyes, and we ignore most of it and just focus on the parts that are important. We have to ignore most of it because there's just too much. That's what's happening when we look at people's faces and decide if we recognize them or not. Our brains have learned which parts to pay attention to and which parts to ignore. The problem is, if we trained our brains on white people, we will suck at it when it's time to recognize Asian people. (Or any other race.)

But it's easy to think our experiences are "normal", to be completely unaware that the dataset we've used to train our brains to identify people was incredibly limited. We think we are able to see people clearly and in an unbiased way- we don't realize how much visual data we're constantly ignoring. (And we ignore it because it's not useful if all we need to do is interact with white people.) We think we are objective, and the fact that we have trouble recognizing Asian people means that, in an objective, absolute sense, Asian people basically all look the same.

And we don't want to be racist, but we believe that's just an indisputable fact, that Asian people look the same. And since we don't want to be racist, we never say it out loud in public. But sometimes we complain about political correctness- how it's so unreasonable that there are things that are just objectively true (like "Asian people all look the same") but we're not allowed to say them.

See, we white people have completely misunderstood "political correctness." We think it means "there are many things which are just OBVIOUS, they're COMMON SENSE, we all KNOW they're true, but we're not allowed to say them because some over-sensitive minorities are going to get all upset. We're not allowed to tell the truth because those people are so unreasonable and easily offended. So unfair."

It's not like that at all. When there are things we're "not allowed to say" because they're "not politically correct", it's not because "some unreasonable person is going to get offended", it's because those statements are actually not true and they promote ignorance and hatred of minorities, which does real-world damage.

It's understandable that we would believe those "politically incorrect" things. For example, it totally makes sense that, if we interact almost exclusively with white people, we will have difficulty with recognizing Asian people. Our limited experience of the world causes us to regard certain stereotypes as being reasonable and true. That's not our fault. It doesn't mean we're bad people.

But it becomes a problem when we don't realize we're not objective, when we think that we have the truth and the "easily-offended" people who enforce "political correctness" have it all wrong. It becomes a problem when we internalize the message that "these things are true, but we're not allowed to say them", when we don't want to be racist so we try to remember the list of statements which, for arbitrary, nonsensical reasons, we're not allowed to say out loud. It becomes a problem when nobody ever teaches us "the reason you shouldn't say this is because it's NOT TRUE, and you only think it's true because your experiences are so limited."

It becomes a problem when we believe it's literally true that, by some objective measure, there is less variation in Asian people's appearance than there is among white people. That's absurd. (How would you even measure "variation" anyway? What does that even mean? Sure there's less variation in the features that our brains have trained us to pay attention to, but so what? That's our own problem.) It becomes a problem when we look at someone's face and have no idea we're so biased, no idea that we concentrate more on certain features while completely ignoring others, no idea how much information our brains are just throwing away. (Again, we need to throw a lot of data away. There's just too much. And if we mostly interact with white people, the strategy we develop concerning which facial features to notice and which to ignore will work really well for identifying white people, but it will be awful when it comes to other races.)

It becomes a problem when we are too afraid to say anything about race at all, because we've seen how other white people have gotten in so much trouble for just making the most obvious, self-evident statements. They said things we agree with, things that "we all know" are true, and for some reason everyone got upset about it. So we make sure we never say those things, but we don't really understand why. Or we make apologies which boil down to "I should have known better than to say that out loud", when we should be saying "I actually believed this, but now I see how ignorant I was, I'm sorry."

White people: We're not unbiased. We're not "objective." Just because something seems like "common sense" doesn't mean it's true. It may mean we have far too little experience and we have no idea what we're talking about.

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One more thing: In China, I've heard Chinese people say "white people look the same" or "black people look the same." It's the same idea- when your brain hasn't had enough experience interacting with a particular race and needing to identify individual people, it will be really hard for you.

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