The first time a white person mistook someone else for me, I was a teenager being scolded for offending someone I’d never met. I’ve also offended white people by failing to notice a trait, or imprecisely labeling a trait, that they considered to be practically personality-defining. These two types of mistakes are more related than not and shed light onto how “they” truly can all look the same to you.
If you find yourself mistaking one member of a certain ethnic group for another, you can improve by rethinking how you tell people apart.
A Brown Girl in a Headscarf
In my penultimate year of high school, I faced a baffling conflict. My sister’s friend (let’s call her Becky) said her mother (who I’ll call Karen) was really angry at me about the prior evening. I had behaved abominably and ought to be ashamed of myself. After being pressed for details, Becky said that her mom had sat next to a very rude person at the football game. That student, Karen had sworn, looked exactly like my sister, but older. So, the mother-daughter pair had concluded, it must have been me.
About a year later, I graduated without having ever attended a single football game.*
I never did figure out who had so infuriated Karen. What I did get from Becky was that the resemblance of the offender to my sister, and by extension to me, was limited to a headscarf and a skin tone darker than Benedict Cumberbatch’s but lighter than Nyakim Gatwech’s. She wasn’t seeing the traits that would’ve not only told her that she wasn’t angry at me, but also that my sister and I actually don’t physically resemble each other all that much.**
All she saw was a covered head and a face with a brown skin tone.
What Are Even Colors?
After being schooled among few white people and in an environment where most women and girls’ hair was covered anyway, I had no good frame of reference for how to talk about the physical traits most prized among white people. I had to learn to notice the physical traits by which white people differentiate themselves and then to speak of them in an inoffensive manner.
Having been exposed almost exclusively to people whose hair and eyes came mostly in various shades of brown/dark***, I spent my early years classifying hair and eyes as “darkest color” or “not darkest color”****. After having offended a few too many white acquaintances by not knowing their exact eye colors, I trained myself to register a more precise assessment.*****
I also had to learn the language white people use to talk about their own eyes and hair. Eyes I saw as “yellow” or “teal”, for example, are more commonly called “blue” or “hazel”. Even though my family had told me my whole life that I had “hazel” eyes, I was told, with downright anger or condescending amusement, that my eyes were “brown” to white people. A worse minefield than precise eye color terms were those for hair color. People whose hair I called orange or rust called themselves “redheads”, but people whose hair I saw as pale red were “strawberry blond”, and if I used the wrong word, they got really angry.
To this day, I avoid calling hair, especially white people’s hair, by any color term at all. If someone asks me what I think their own or another’s hair color is, I pretend that I’m too clumsily unobservant to have noticed. Even terms they themselves have used for it could be a joke, so I simply say nothing. Getting shrieked at for calling someone’s hair “light brown” instead of “dirty blond” is an experience I’d rather not repeat.
I suppose I could start telling them that I, like them, don’t see color.
Why We See the Traits We See
If you’re white and/or have mostly have had to differentiate white people from each other, you probably use hair and eye color as defining traits. Further, you probably see brown eyes as a single category, dark hair as all one thing, and textured hair as a monolith.
We’ve been trained to see the world this way.
Think of which physical traits are presented as defining on identification documents in the United States, and which variations of hair and eye colors are selectable options. At least half the world has some type of brown eyes, and somehow we’re all lumped into a single category?
Consider how boys and men are asked if they prefer blondes, brunettes, or redheads, despite just how many different human combinations of physical traits fall into the “brunette” category. The overt exclusion of black-haired people from the three categories is egregious given that black is the most common hair color in the world.
Recall the classic children’s game of “Guess Who?” and which traits you have to ask about (and not ask about) to play effectively.
When we’re told practically since birth that a wide spectrum of human variation belongs in a single “dark” bucket, we don’t attune ourselves to the nuances.
Retrain Your Perception
To be able to tell people apart, you have to expand the very criteria by which you tell people apart in the first place.
As strange as this may sound, cheekbones are a great place to start with learning to tell people apart by traits other than eye and hair color. If you notice someone’s cheekbone placement, prominence, and shape, you end up noticing their facial structure and face shape along the way. You’ll also likely notice their skin tone, since seeing cheekbones requires noticing the interplay of shadows and highlights on a face. This article breaks down face shapes from a beauty perspective, but you can ignore the advice and just look at the examples and descriptions.
Skin shade and tone
There’s more to skin than just black and white, or even black and white on different ends with brown in between. Take a peek at the Fitzpatrick skin phototype document from the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency to see some examples of the six skin types used by medical professionals. The Smithsonian has a great image depicting a dozen different skin tones along with scientific information on how and why human skin tones vary so much. Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line has fifty different shades of foundation; click through each shade to see a different matching model showing it off.
On a related note, “tan” isn’t a single skin color, and darker people can and do experience variations in their skin tone based on sun exposure levels. Stop telling people who aren’t ivory-skinned that we’re “naturally tan” or that we can’t be pale from lack of sun exposure. My cousin’s kid had rickets because he’s dark but his family followed standard sun exposure guidelines — you know, the ones designed to protect the very pale, as though skin tone differences don’t matter for Vitamin D absorption.
Hair isn’t just textured or straight. A curl isn’t a wave, and there’s not a single type of curl. There’s a whole system of hair types. Learn to discern different types of hair texture.
Different shades of brown eyes
Some people’s eyes are so dark that it takes more than a quick look to differentiate the pupil from the iris. Others’ are like liquid gold. All those eyes, from amber and honey to mahogany and chocolate, are considered to be in the “brown” category. Brown eyes can be a lot of things.
Eyes aren’t just big or small. Eyes can be deep-set, mono-lidded, hooded, protruding, upturned, down-turned, close-set, or wide-set — not to mention those categories aren’t all mutually exclusive. You can consider the different eye shapes in terms of optometry or from a beauty perspective.
Dark hair differences
Black and brown hair don’t look remotely the same. Brown hair comes in a range of shades. When you stop categorizing all dark hair as the same thing, you can start seeing the variation.
Hair patterns and distribution
One of my favorite things to look at on people is eyebrows, noticing their shape, sparseness, thickness, arches, length, and grooming levels. People’s brow ridges jut at different levels, too.
When it comes to facial hair, it’s not just presence vs. absence of a mustache and/or beard. Even people who we think of as not having facial hair often have some amount of upper lip hair, sideburns, and chin hair.
People vary endlessly. Height, lip shape, nose tilt and width, freckle and mole distribution, overall body build and frame, clothing style, voice pitch and volume, signature hairstyles, outgoing or quiet presence — the list goes on. It’s not hard to tell people apart if you’re looking for what makes them, them.
- My parents would’ve never allowed me to go to a football game. They saw it as an all-American cesspool of freely-intermingled sexes. The cheerleaders’ gyrations in their skimpy skirts was an obvious seduction tactic that encouraged kids to have sex under the bleachers. A football game ranked only just below the prom on the haraam scale. As for prom? That fabled dance was as appropriate for good Muslim girls as an orgy.
I wasn’t allowed out much anyway. The evening of the football game, I was at home having cybersex with random men I’d met on Star Wars forums, not angering moms at sporting matches.
** As non-scarf-wearing adults, my sister and I have had numerous people blatantly refuse to believe we’re “real” siblings. That’s how different we look.
*** Desi people I know confusingly insist on calling eyes that aren’t dark brown “colored eyes”. Desis also obsess over “colored” eyes, to the point where people ask me if those are “my” eyes (as opposed to contacts). When I was a teen, upon hearing that I wasn’t wearing contacts, people implied to me, in a way I’m sure they thought was kind, that a man might overlook my fat body so that he might access lighter-eyed children through it.
I hated that mentality then and I hate it now. Dark brown is a color, not a colorless void, and I have always had a lot more to offer the world than the potential to pass down the genetics that give me hazel eyes.
**** Non-white people can have eyes and hair of all colors, of course. If you take the world population as a whole, though, most people have hair and eyes in the broad category generally deemed “brown” or “dark”.
***** Given that I’m autistic and loathe direct eye contact, plus was raised to believe eye contact with male human beings was inappropriate at best and a sexual solicitation at worst, looking at people’s eyes enacted a steep religious and psychological cost. I adapted anyway.