I'm on the sidewalk in front of a Taipei book store. A woman is walking past, around thirty-five. I watch her approach, glance at her face, and my mind says: "Is that a Westerner? Is that an Asian?"
For some reason my mind can't distinguish. I look at her face carefully, but can't decide. Then, when a few seconds has passed, my mind says: "It's happened again. She's Asian. Of course."
What's it all about? Somehow I know intellectually that the woman is Asian, but can't tell, at the level of immediate perception, that she is.
In fact this happens to me a few times a month in Taiwan. I will look at a man or woman and not be able to tell if the person is local Taiwanese or a Westerner. Then, within seconds, the fugue dissolves and I realize: "Of course. Taiwanese."
The process from confusion to clarity never lasts more than ten seconds. But why does it happen in the first place? And why does it feel so odd to me when it happens, as if there's some kind of deep and nagging confusion going on.
I have a theory. My guess is that people who spend half their life among their own race, then move to another continent and live many years among another race undergo a shift of sorts in racial perception. What happens, I suspect, is that the mind starts to take the facial features of the new race as the "default" human features--with the result that the new race comes to be perceived as one's own; i.e., it loses its aura as "foreign"; one's sense of difference becomes confused.
In my case, my own race, that race I grew up with, is white-bread American. For nearly twenty years I've lived among East Asians.
Please note that I am not here looking at people of mixed ancestry. It's not a matter of people who have evidently Asian and Western blood. The issue here is different.
It's a commonplace that we typically perceive people of another race as all looking similar to each other. So that the white, black or Latino American first arriving in East Asia will walk the streets and half-consciously think: "Wow. These people really look alike." In an extreme version the thought might be: "How do they even tell each other apart?"
Growing up in a uniformly white midwestern American suburb in the 1970s and early '80s, this is a question I occasionally heard about big city blacks: "How do they tell each other apart?" The question, usually stated with a kind of smirk, was of course tied up in complex ways with the racism of that white suburb. Having created a social order that more or less kept blacks in their own city neighborhoods, it became easy for the white privileged class in the suburbs to perceive black Americans as somehow foreign. And that's just what they did. As often the case with racially-marked foreignness, the feeling that "they all look alike" appeared there as well, but this time applied to citizens of one's own country. (Of course this desire to separate, to project a racially different community as also deeply other, is far from overcome in America. Anyone who doubts it need only consider the shameful nonsense our current president has been subjected to. But issues of how race gets ideologically charged, in America and elsewhere, are different from my topic here, so I won't pursue them further.)
I've learned firsthand that in any case the perception of "similarity" in the features of a different race is by no means hardwired. It wears off quickly with contact, and may even reverse. Yes, eventually people of one's own race may come to look more and more similar to each other. Doubt it? It's happened to me in striking, almost unsettling ways.
Living in Taipei, I try to get back to the States once a year. Once when I flew back to Wisconsin, and was waiting in the Milwaukee airport for my father and sister to pick me up, I got a bizarre lesson in the depth of the racial-perceptual shift I'd undergone. In sat in the arrivals hall, people approaching from down a hallway. With the second or third 30-something blond woman I saw approach, my mind said: "There she is: my sister." When she got closer, I saw it wasn't. In fact the woman wasn't even very similar to my sister. Odd. And she had to get quite close for me to realize.
Next: "That's him: my father."
No. It was just a white American man in his sixties, who, as he approached, really did look quite a bit like my father; but no, as I analyzed the features, I realized they were actually quite different.
So what gives? I false ID'd two more sisters and three more fathers before I started to laugh at myself. In terms of perceptions of white Americans, I realized, I'd actually become Asian myself. Aside from the different hair colors and different sizes (fat or very fat) all these white Wisconsinites looked pretty much the same to me.
This is just one of the anecdotes I could bring up. Many times my perceptual grasp of Western faces has proved suddenly not as sharp as it should have been.
And now here I am in Taiwan, in a country where nearly everyone has black hair and dark eyes and olive or ivory skin, yet I almost never mistake people at a distance. To me they all look quite distinct from each other. And in fact my mind occasionally gets confused as to whether they are not actually part of my own tribe--as with the woman by the book store.
Ideologies of race have proven to be one of the most poisonous of cultural phenomena, and we are unfortunately far from done with the challenge they pose. Yet there are other levels of racial perception, where racial difference is first noticed and marked--"Those people are different from me and my people"--and these levels too seem to be in some degree a construct of sorts, though in this case I'd say they're a kind of cognitive construct rather than an ideological one. I'm sure this question has been studied, though I haven't tried to research it. It's this cognitive shift that I've experienced firsthand. (The ideological shifts I've experienced are another matter: a long learning process that continued through university and beyond, and probably still continues.)
Interestingly, it seems to me that the ability to distinguish racial difference (or at least the perception that such difference is meaningful) only begins in the late toddler stage. It's only approaching age three that children begin to see people of other races as "different", sometimes different in a troubling way, as I know very well from the curious but frightened looks 3- or 4-year-olds often give me here. Infants never. To Taiwanese infants I am obviously just a person: they don't notice my odd facial structure or skin tone as marks of (problematic) difference.
I've raised a various points here, which may have been a mistake. My main questions remain: How is it that our minds construct the basic paradigms of sameness and otherness between different races? How does my sometimes confusing experience relate to these perceptions of sameness and otherness? Where is the fluidity and where the solidity? Do we all carry a somewhat unstable sense of a "default" human race in relation to which others stand apart in difference? Is (as is likely) evolution somewhere in this mix?
Heady questions, and no, I haven't done the work even to look into answers that may have been proposed by anthropologists, etc. I'm just a guy on a street in a foreign city noticing his mind in occasional fugue.
In conclusion I should point out that I understand very well that many people who read this piece will have good reason to say: "Hm, it must be nice being able to consider racial difference from such an easygoing vantage point. It wasn't like that for me." I'm aware of this distance--that it is a heavily charged one--one that makes it somewhat inappropriate for me even to write about what I've noticed. Yet I write anyway. Readers are welcome to tell me if or where I've been insensitive. Aside from in that initial step of writing. Which may in itself be insensitive enough.