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There are now 14 comments... what are your thoughts?
  1. Harry says

    Do multi-racial people have an easier time identifying people from all their own races? And do people adopted by parents of another race have an easier time identifying people of their own race or their adoptive parents’ race?

    • It’s not your own genetics, but your childhood experience. A European baby raised by a Chinese family in a Chinese community is going to build up a prototype that’s more diagnostic for East Asian faces than European ones.

  2. Kereth Midknight says

    Is there any point in my trying to correct the use of the term “race” to “phenotype” here? I know this is a discussion of the American legal system, which has severely convoluted and misconstrued both the extent and the validity of the term “race” as a functional construct, but. . .

    • Not really — there’s no error to “correct.” And using jargon instead of ordinary language with the same meaning would be counterproductive.

      It is true that we are talking about visible morphological differences in populations of different geographical ancestry. When U.S. law uses the word “race,” this is precisely what it means. When Americans refer to “race,” this is what they mean. Even the scientific literature on this subject uses the word “race,” rather than phenotype.

      It is true that this does (partially) fit the definition of “phenotype.” However, everyone knows what is meant by “race,” but hardly anyone who isn’t a biologist uses the word “phenotype.” To use the biologist’s jargon instead of the standard commonly-understood word would be confusing, irritating, and unnecessary.

      There is a trend in sociology towards saying race is merely a social construct. But a lot of people are confused about what that means, and this leads to confusion over what “race” means. These identifiable morphological differences are certainly not a social construct — they exist regardless of one’s culture or attitude. But different parts of the world use the word “race” differently, and draw the lines differently, and so each society’s usage is indeed its own social construct. But that’s not the same as saying that “race” doesn’t mean what American law and usage says it means. In our context, it has a pretty straightforward meaning.

      Part of the problem is that “race” has different meanings in other parts of the world. In Europe, for example, it has also been used to refer to ethnicity, but Americans don’t refer to “the Irish race” or “the Jewish race” or “the Slavic race” any more than they’d refer to “the Iowan race” or “the Canadian race” or “the Methodist race” — it’s a really weird construction here, with strong connotations of bigotry. Americans don’t really even say “the white race” or “the black race” so much as they say “white people” and “black people,” less an identification with a group than it is description of a shared trait, if that makes any sense.

      Another part of the problem is that not everybody’s ancestry is predominately one race. What race — what phenotype — is someone whose mother is Chinese and whose father is Swedish?

      That’s part of the problem — especially in America — that our categorization of races can appear arbitrary, once you get beyond the basic European/African/East Asian (“white”/”black”/”asian”) categories. How would you categorize someone from Brazil with plenty of indigenous, african, and european ancestry? Western Asians are typically considered “white,” but what about someone from India with caucasian features but deeply-pigmented skin — is he “white” or “black” or what? Is an Alaskan Inuit the same race as a Nicaraguan Miskito, as they’re both indigenous Americans, though their phenotypes — down to their circulatory systems — are dramatically different?

      All of this confusion leads to the conclusion that race is a social construct. But that’s not to say that race doesn’t exist; it only means that there is no universal definition and delineation of races. Someone who’d say “the Irish race” certainly has a different social construct than someone who says ”

      For our purposes, we’re using the word as it is used in common U.S. vernacular, in U.S. law; and in the scientific literature on cross-race identification. Not to refer to ethnicity, not for any sociological categorization, but merely the gross categories of visible differences in the faces of different populations around the world.

      [Also: Be cautious of a concluding that U.S. law has “convoluted and misconstrued” definitions of race that have only been lately invented themselves. By all means, we should identify confusions and try to clear them up; but engaging in “persuasive definition” is only a tool for pursuing an agenda, and only muddies the waters more.]

      • I appreciate the answer, and it helps explain a lot of what’s going on here. We’re from different disciplines, so I’ll try to keep the explanation on common ground as best I can.

        Your argument (as well as how you carry on the next part of the comic and even the kinds of comments you get) is actually fairly typical of the reason the correction is usually made. “Phenotype” is a wholly distinct concept from “race” in as far as phenotype is a question of appearance and physical form, not a claim to definable genetic identity. I can see that you’re trying very hard to use race in a way that would mean essentially the same as phenotype here, but you keep slipping back on the historical use of the term (i.e. that someone’s “race” as -perceived- by physical traits acts as a marker of their -overall genetic makeup- and thus can be used to discern other, not immediately apparent features). If you were actually talking about phenotypes, the question “What race — what phenotype — is someone whose mother is Chinese and whose father is Swedish?” would be absurd. In layman’s terms, you’re asking “What does somebody whose mother is Chinese and whose father is Swedish look like?” All that should matter is their appearance and form, which that person would definitely -have- (I can’t imagine them not having a shape), and their ancestry is irrelevant. The specific phenotype depends on the individual and which traits they inherited. Assuming that they need to be categorized together with one of their parents assumes, incorrectly, the existence of distinct, relatively fixed population groups.

        The same thing gets repeated in the comic when you start talking about people who are not of the same race as you, as though your own race or phenotype were actually what shapes your perception of others, not what phenotype you are used to seeing. You know that’s not how it works, but habit has trained us all to treat “race” in practice not as appearance but as a matter of identity and group membership. The kind of confusion this creates is evidenced even more strongly by the kinds of comments you’re getting (“What about mixed race people?” for example, suggests that no matter what you mean, your audience is still understanding the concept in terms of “what you are born as” not what you see/are raised with/etc.

        To argue that race is confusing or that it doesn’t make sense is just further evidence of why race has gone out of use as a successful analytic construct (aside from matters of social construction) in scientific literature over the last eighty years, rather than evidence of why one should keep using it.

        Yes, people are confused about the definition of race and racism in general, but this is largely a result of the aforementioned legislation and cold war politics (wow, that’s a train of thought that will make this answer much, much bigger if followed, which is saying something, I know). You are mistaken, however, in thinking that something unique is implied about the term “Irish race” when compared to “black race.” Sadly, the racialization of the Irish, particularly in the history of the British Isles, is far from a matter of culture or “ethnicity.” Races were defined at all levels of specificity in traditional racist discourse, with numerous subdivisions of each of the major races. The Irish were considered to be a subset of the Celtic race, while the English felt themselves to be primarily of Anglo-Saxon origin and used that to justify their superiority. The ways the Irish have been racialized and oppressed derives very much from the exact shame racist ideologies that are used to support American anti-black racism. The same is true of the “slavic race” and yes, even the “jewish race” (who were assumed to be derived from common blood, rather than defined in purely religious terms, selectively considered to be asiatic, from a “spiritually degenerate” strain of arians, of unknown mixed race, or even fundamentally negroid, depending on who attempted to categorize them and when). The fact that we don’t talk about an “iowan race” or a “methodist race” isn’t about our definition of “race” but about the fact that we have not socially constructed those identities as racial (I can tell you don’t like the term, but that’s what social construction actually means).

        Phenotype does have a use in biology, it is true, but when talking about the appearance of human beings, it’s also the preferred term in sociology, cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and most other humanities and social science disciplines. When I’m publishing a paper, if I need to refer to an individual’s appearance or general trends in their outward physical traits, I refer to phenotype. If I’m talking about the way someone is perceived as belonging to a certain population group, or more often, about a fictional group that is defined in the same terms that were thought to define real life human groups, I refer to race. If I were to get those mixed up, I could expect the peer reviewers to send my paper back with a request to have it fixed.

  3. Shashakiro says

    Considering that numerous American laws as well as the U.S. Constitution use the word “race” in this way, I would guess this is a no.

    • Right, because “race” has become a (almost undefined) technical term in U.S. law. This isn’t an explanation of law though. This is about face recognition. Using a technical term from one discipline in an explanation from another discipline, particularly one where that term means something different, leads to a lot of confusion. All the comments about what happens if someone is “mixed race” or “raised among. . .” or so on clearly show that a lot of readers are reading this term as meaning something other than “what you look like” and instead assuming that implies some kind of underlying psychological difference, which is historically carried by the term “race” in a scientific context (hence most scientific literature doesn’t use the term at all these days, except by a minority of scholars who are still trying to argue that such differences exist).

      • Biologically speaking, everyone has their own phenotype, that is to say a unique appearance.
        Race is, however, a group characterization. More precisely, it is a common inference about someone’s ancestry based on certain features which tend to be both heritable and well-conserved in populations.
        They aren’t fixed, and they’re almost certain to diminish in importance as global populations are now more migratory than they’ve been historically, but race, for better or worse, is a real thing. As J. Sakai said, “Race is a social construct, but so is a tank formation.”

        • Right, but the social construct is not the physical appearance but the significance we ascribe to it, and the problem with identification described above is not actually about the significance we ascribe to those features, but the fact that we’re dealing with numerous less familiar but non-diagnostic traits. If this were just about the social construct of race, then somebody would only have trouble making identifications once they were informed of, or able to infer about, the existence of the socially constructed group. Instead, somebody who encounters for the first time a person with x, y, and z traits will remember the person only or mostly only by those traits, regardless of whether or not they think those traits are signifiers of some identity. Then, if those traits turn out to be actually fairly common and frequently appearing together, that person might have more trouble telling people with those traits apart, but only because of the physical traits themselves, not because of the construct associated with them. If anything, once they learn about something called “asians” or “black people” or any other socially constructed group, it will actually be -easier- for them to distinguish those people, because they can begin grouping non-diagnostic traits together under a single feature (i.e. “being asian” instead of “having straight, dark hair” “having a certain skin tone” “having a certain shape of face” “having a certain shape of eyes”), and the better they learn that construct, the more features they can group under it, thus freeing up memory for more diagnostic features.

  4. Hershele Ostropoler says

    Is the effect less pronounced for people who grew up in more racially heterogeneous places?

    A self-serving question from a native Brooklynite, I suppose …

    • The effect appears in infancy and early childhood, and is very resistant to change when exposure to other races occurs later in life. It’s really about the faces you saw the most as a baby, which means the faces in your home.

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