When They All Look the Same to You

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 texture

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.

Eye shape

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

People have all kinds of things going on with their hairlines, from the presence or absence of baby hairs to differing shapes.

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.

Other traits

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.

Semi-Snarky Endnotes

  • 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.

When They All Look the Same to You

11 thoughts on “When They All Look the Same to You

  1. 1

    Well, I had a bit of a revelation reading the above article. I don’t know the eye color of a single person I know. I can’t even tell you what eye color I have without looking in a mirror.

    I’ve spent my entire life seeing people through a haze of a light version of prosopagnosia, face blindness. Unlike some sufferers, I don’t have a complete inability to recognize faces, but it takes me a long time to start recognizing a person. Even then, I tend to only recognize people in a certain context. If I know you from weekly gaming sessions, I still won’t recognize you if I run into you in the mall. There’s no hope for me recognizing someone if I haven’t seen them in a few years. I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with people who clearly knew me that I have no idea who they were.

    It’s one of the reasons my books don’t tend to have a lot of descriptions of people. I genuinely have no idea what most people look like.

    (Trying to explain to a person of color why I have mistaken them for another person of color, without it being interpreted as the “You all look alike to me!” racist cliche, is a fun minefield! I mean, they do all look alike to me, but it’s not a racist thing, just a basically everyone thing!)

    Reading your article, I tried to remember what the eye colors of the people I do recognize are. I don’t know. Not my sister, brother or parents. The only “person” whose I color I could immediately think of is my cat, whose eyes are this incredibly bright shade of blue that it stands out, even in my fog-addled brain. I wonder how I do recognize their faces if I’m not registering the individual parts? Hmmm.

    1. 1.1

      From what I know from friends who also have prosopagnosia, they rely on things like people’s voices, the way they move, hairstyles, and so on to ID people.

      1. Yeah, hairstyles work well for me, at least for women. There are so many different hairstyles and they’re such different shapes! Male hairstyles, at least locally, tend to be really similar, though, but beards are great for men who aren’t clean shaven.

        But everything gets chucked in the trash when someone changes their hairstyle. At a community college where I worked, a coworker came in with a new hairdo, and I started talking to her like she was a student, because I failed entirely to recognize her. *sigh*

        1. I don’t have prosopagnosia, so I don’t usually have trouble recognizing people, but “face shape” seems to be an important cue. I’m reminded of the time a friend with hair that was at the time usually light to medium brown (she varied it often, and it’s now usually teal) and is somewhat tightly curled — about a 3C or so, I think — came home from the stylist with her hair blonde and completely straight. It was bizarre; we all knew who she was, but our brains were saying “are you sure? because it doesn’t quite look like her?” and it was an odd sort of cognitive dissonance.

  2. 2

    I am white (at least by USA standards), but I have a hard time telling people of any race apart (however you define race) unless I know them pretty well. I guess it’s a kind of prosopagnosia. I generally have an easier time identifying people by how they move than by their face.

    And I can’t see eye color. I don’t even know my own — I have to get really close to a mirror and look closely to see anything color-like, and even then, it looks like a mish-mash of unidentifyable hues. When I have to put down an eye color, I always have to ask someone to look and tell me. I’m absolutely astonished by police reports where they specify someone’s eye color. It seems as unlikely as being able to identify people by just looking at the fingerprint patterns on their fingers — from across the room.

  3. 3

    I pretty much know what “desi” means, largely because my neighborhood has a lot of people from south Asia, and restaurants called “Desi Village Indian Restaurant” and “Desi Chaat House”. But 99% of Americans won’t know. So you might want to reword “Desi people I know…” and “Desis also obsess…”

    1. 3.1

      I’ll happily link it out to a definition just in case, but my blog isn’t intended to be below 101 level, and I hope people will look up terms they don’t know, just as I do when I read anything.

      I can’t imagine someone commenting on a scientific blog to insist that a scientific term needs to be reworded out of a post because most people don’t know it.

      1. Some South Asian people find the use of “desi” by non-South Asians appropriative, which is why I say “South Asian” instead.

        Great article, though! As an autist with prosopagnosia raised in a mostly-white suburb, I have had problems with the prevailing United States scheme for categorizing people’s appearances, but you’ve really opened my eyes to the bad paradigm underlying some of my difficulties.

  4. 4

    Well, two reasons: for the benefit of well-meaning non-South-Asian people like Mark Mandel up there who “pretty much” know what “Desi” means, and as a reminder that even when the speaker is justified in using the term, not all of their audience will know if it isn’t explicitly stated that it’s not a word people not members of the group it refers to should use.

    Most North Americans know not to use the “n-word” if they’re not Black, whereas many North Americans who aren’t from a South Asian ethnic background think it’s actually more polite for them to use “Desi” rather than “South Asian”. Those two examples have very different histories & reasons why members of the out-group ought to leave the term in question for members of the in-group, but most internet-savvy people from anywhere are familiar with the “n-word”.

    Put more simply, people aren’t going to stop using your stuff if you don’t inform them that it’s not theirs to use.

    1. 4.1

      This is the first I’m hearing it claimed that it’s appropriative for non-Desis to use, by the way. I’m partial to “Desi” as a term since I’m a Diasporan with muddled nationality claims and background. It’s incredibly hard to find a good shorthand for my family origins that isn’t general like “Desi”. It’s why I can’t “go back to where I come from” — it’s hard to put a neat little pin on a map of where I’m “from”.

      If you’ve got friends who’d rather you not use it for them, then don’t use it for them? I wasn’t the one claiming that it’s “my stuff” that others need to be informed not to use. This strikes me as similar to the discourse around the word “queer” or “slut”. It’s a good idea to not call someone those terms unsolicited and without permission, but it’s equally not a good idea for an out-group member to tell in-group members to not use it on principle, either.

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