Jefferson M Fish Ph.D.

Looking in the Cultural Mirror

How Come Other Folks All Look Alike?

Do whites look more different from one another than blacks?

Posted Dec 23, 2009

About 20 years ago I was having dinner at a restaurant in Jakarta, Indonesia with a group of psychologists from various countries. Only two of us were men, and we were both white Americans. The other man was several inches taller than I, significantly heavier, and had lighter colored hair--though we both wore glasses and had short beards. Despite the (to me) obvious contrast in our appearance, the waiter kept getting our orders mixed up; and it became evident that he couldn't tell the difference between us.

The waiter's difficulty represents a fairly general perceptual phenomenon. For example, I would sometimes ask students in my cross-cultural psychology class "Who are more varied in what they look like, whites or blacks?" Among those who felt secure enough to raise their hands, whites said that whites are more varied, and blacks said that blacks are more varied.

Visual perception begins developing in infancy. In general, white babies and children see more white faces and learn to make the fine distinctions necessary to tell who is who, and black babies and children see more black faces and learn comparable visual distinctions.

One of the byproducts of organizing marriage, neighborhoods, and other social categories along color lines is the development of a kind of perceptual provinciality within each group. Early in my marriage, I would sometimes ask my African American wife "Is so-and-so black?" I have become more accurate over the years, but have by no means fully compensated for my early perceptual training.

Psychologists have shown that there are many problems with eyewitness testimony. These difficulties are compounded when a victim has to identify the face of a perpetrator of a different race who was seen only fleetingly during a traumatic event.

Apart from people's perceptual learning, there is an objective answer to the question of whether whites or blacks are more varied in what they look like. In fact, blacks are more diverse in appearance, as is evident to outsiders to the American experience. A woman who was an immigrant from the Philippines told me just this-- "Blacks are more varied."

Why is this so? The cultural answer comes from America's one drop rule-anyone with "black blood" is black. It is a strange rule. It means that a white woman can give birth to a black baby--for example our President--but a black woman cannot give birth to a white baby. The latter might be white in Brazil, and would be classified in various ways in other cultures. But if children of a black mother in the United States said they were white, they would be merely pretending--"passing for white."

The one drop rule explains why there are light skinned blacks and dark skinned blacks, but only light skinned whites (even though, for reasons of perceptual learning, whites are aware of skin color variations among themselves). If we had a different cultural rule--for example, anyone with "white blood" is white--then the race of many American blacks would change, and whites would become more varied in appearance.

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