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Is it racist to say that all certain groups of people “look the same”? And other things.

I was in a discussion the other day with a few colleagues, and I mentioned a book I was reading by Phoebe Robinson – No you can’t touch my hair and other things I still have to explain, where she deep dives into black women issues, hair, being called out for “acting white” and so on.

Going off on a tangent here about black hair revelations first…

As a side note, I had NO IDEA black women had to do so much to their hair. I was blown away by the following points she explained:

  • They go every 6-8 weeks to a salon on Saturdays starting from when they’re young, and basically lose a whole day to HAIR
  • Once their hair is straightened, they have to avoid all kinds of water – shower caps in the shower, tight hair covers when they’re outside and it’s raining or snowing, and NOT SWIMMING are all normal things to protect their hair
  • When you see them patting their head, it is because they can’t itch their scalp if it’s itchy, as it causes a lesion in the scalp and the next time they straighten it, it BURNS and turns into a scab
  • When they lean up against a wall with their hair, it takes the shape of the wall and they have to re-pick it out
  • When they sleep they need to oil their hair, twist it, and then tie it up in a cloth so it doesn’t become a tangled hot rat’s nest mess the next morning as they are sleeping and moving about…
  • You do not, ever, EVER ask to touch their hair (not that I ever would), but also, it may be because they have a weave in, and you will NOT be able to run your hands through their hair.. #BlackHairEtiquette #RespectTheWeave. See below:

(By the way, the entire Twitter Rachel Lindsay thread is both hilarious and enlightening as well..)

I already knew about the societal/cultural/professional implications of wearing “natural hair” and very rude implications that wearing dreadlocks means you’re a druggie, etc… but the above points about the CARE that goes into black hair?


I personally just wake up, don’t bother with a brush or a comb, flip my hair around, tie it up in a ponytail or do a bun if it looks like it dried or settled weirdly, and head out the door.

I was my hair, and then let it air dry. I don’t bother or own a hair dryer or any hair products except shampoo and conditioner (which I rarely use)…

I feel so.. incredibly lucky. I let my hair do its thing — if it looks like a curly mess, I leave it. If it is stick straight I wonder what I did…

Anyway, back to the original topic…

I was talking to colleagues the other day about race and cultural things I had no idea existed, and somehow we went off down the road of people saying:

Well it’s really rude when people tell me:

You all look the same! .. BECAUSE WE DON’T.

…to which another colleague replied: Hang on, wait! Let me explain…

This is what she said:

See, it sounds rude when a white person says for example: You Asians all look the same. 

However when I first came here, I had never seen a white person before in my life.

For the first few months of my life, I could not recognize or tell apart white people. They all looked the same to me.

A blond guy looked like another blond guy, and so on.

It wasn’t until I got used to their faces and visually my brain started saying: ohhhhhhhhh …. that I was able to see their faces individually.

So I can empathize that if you aren’t used to working with or being with any certain race or group — Asian, Black, Indian, whatever… they can all “look the same” for the first little while if you aren’t really used to seeing them.

To which everyone just paused and let that sink in.

Coming from a non-white person, it was interesting to hear that, because if you’re a white person saying that, it sounds racist, but the other way around, it doesn’t have the same impact, I guess.

I’m curious to hear if anyone has experienced this personally or can agree / attest to this.

Don’t try and assume you know what culture they’re from…

Also, this Asian co-worker said that she stays away from guys that come up to her saying Chinese greetings, ASSUMING that she is Chinese when she isn’t, and finds THAT offensive to assume all Asians are Chinese.

They say things like:

Nihao!  (and/or adding) ‘CHINA GIRL’ at the end…

..and she replies back:


She also hates it when guys come up to her and try to hit on her as a conversation starter by telling her things like:

You know, I dated a Japanese girl once….

And then my next girlfriend was Chinese. I really like your type.

She said:

Are you f*#*%ing on a mission to collect Asian Pokémon Girlfriends or what??

Get away from me!

LOL. So … don’t use that as a pickup line. It’s ignorant.

..and don’t insult people by assuming other things about their upbringing

A friend of mine the other day called me completely in a vicious rage.

She said:

This one jackass told me at work that I was REJECTING my heritage and culture of being Japanese because I didn’t speak Japanese and hated eating natto.


I’m all like: Back up girl, give me some context…

She then explained that they were talking in the hallways the other day and a guy (Egyptian I think?), overheard her saying to another colleague that she hated natto, a kind of slimy fermented soybean thing, even though it is a thing that Japanese people seem to like to eat. (I feel like they may be the only ones, that stuff is really slimy, I tried it once and gagged.)

Natto looks like this, by the way:

From Serious Eats….

He then said to the other male colleague beside her, NOT EVEN TO HER DIRECTLY:

Oh is she one of those people who rejects her culture and refuses to acknowledge that she is Japanese?


The other colleague saw the disbelief in her face about to explode into rage as she was struggling to control it, and said gently, and very quickly:

NO. NO. She is NOT one of those.

She doesn’t do that.

Not at all. *nervous*

… then she said she gritted her teeth, calmed down and replied:

I would never deny that I am what I am.

I’m PROUD of being Japanese.

Just because I hate eating a certain food from my culture doesn’t mean I deny who I am.

[With a softly implied: “EFF YOU JACKASS” in her tone of voice]

…and then she left it at that and stalked off, fuming until she called me.

I felt really sad on her behalf and upset as well.

Why do people assume these things? Not everyone is the same just because they’re ethnically Japanese. People are born in different cultures all over the world and while they may look one way, they may act another way completely.

What do you think? About any of it? All of it!


  • ArianaAuburn

    I have encountered rude behavior (comments, stupid questions, etc) at work as well. One coworker at my old job asked me “what are you?” and then explained that he couldn’t pin me down to a particular area (where I am from, which race, etc). So I took out my wallet and showed him a picture of my parents and told him “This is what I am!”, smiling. His head exploded and I chuckled. Instead of reporting him or getting offended, I took it as a joke. He turned back to his desk and kept working. It took him a few seconds to realize the mistake he made. Some times you have to give the benefit of the doubt because people do stupid things or say things without thinking.

  • liteadventurer

    Old crusty white guy: “where are you from?”

    Me: “Pittsburgh.”

    Old crusty white guy: *head explodes*

  • Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life

    Sense has a good point – usually when white people are “you’re all alike”-ing, it generally means bad things for the race they’re othering.

    I personally really stink at differentiating faces within or across races but along the same lines, I am awful at even recognizing people I KNOW if I haven’t seen them at least ten times in the last 72 hours. It just doesn’t take in my long term memory. It’s really quite embarrassing and I’m trying to come up with a good reliable way to do better.

  • NZ Muse

    F-ing white people who ‘ni hao’ me. I can’t stand that.

    I seriously think I have face blindness. I remember for the longest time being unable to tell apart these 2 blonde British women at my first job – quite embarrassing. I will say I also struggle whenever I watch movies like Crouching Tiger – sorry, I may be Asian but I still can’t tell half the characters apart.

  • Elle

    For me, you do not, ever, EVER ask to touch my hair, because it feels like you are “othering” me. As if i’m some exotic species you found in the rainforest and I’m not human or I’m just here for your entertainment and enjoyment.
    If we are friendly and in private (and my hair is dry) I might say yes, but people have often asked to touch my hair in front of crowds and proceed to narrate the experience as if it’s a national geographic special. Context and relationship is key (and not walking toward me with your hand extended toward my head). I once had a coworker say that I was being too sensitive and put both of her hands in my to “help me get over myself.” What she didn’t realize is that I told her no because she’s allergic to coconut and my hair was full of coconut oil. Karma = big red angry hives.

    I’m leaving out the people who try to touch my hair secretly, especially on elevators. Grrrr

    But to answer the main question, it is racist if you don’t try to distinguish people. Meeting a crowd of new people is hard for me so I often joke (privately with my husband only) that everyone looked alike. I work hard to identify a trait or feature to distinguish individuals as quickly as possible.

    • Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life

      She totally deserved every single one of those hives.

    • Sherry of Save. Spend. Splurge.

      PEOPLE TRY TO TOUCH YOUR HAIR SECRETLY? WTF !?!!?…. that is just wrong. WRONG. Nuh uh.

      She deserved every hive she got. I hope they itched for a long time and she learned her lesson.

      It is not being insensitive. It is your body, and you have a right to tell people not to touch any part of you. I mean, no one goes and just GRABS limbs or touches people randomly, so why hair???

  • raluca

    To answer your question: yep, it’s racist, but also, we’re hardwired that way it seems – see your colleague’s comments.

    But then, there are degrees of racism: on the one hand of the spectrum there is just benignly not being able to recognize individual faces and on the other hand there are the insane white supremacists who consider anyone who is not lily white as sub-human. The first might offend people, the second one might kill people.

    The thing is, when somebody makes these kind of comments out loud, people around them can’t really tell whether they are incredibly misguided or a Klan member.

  • raluca

    The great thing about globalization is the soon we’ll realize that we’re just one big soup of humanity, all of us just trying to get by and find a bit of happiness. Hopefully then we’ll then manage to stop judging each other by the shades of our skin and start treating everyone as humans.

  • Sense

    Yeah, people really assume too much about others based on their looks. It really is a shame.

    The “cross-race effect” seems to be real. The same effect can be seen in people of different ages–e.g. some younger folks think all older people ‘look the same.’ The wikipedia page on it is fascinating:

    Even though it seems like science has proven that we all do this, it doesn’t make it OK to announce it to someone that will probably be offended to hear that they are indistinguishable from a huge group of other people and are, essentially, faceless. It renders their individuality moot. It’s racist, of course, but mostly it is rude.

    That’s aside from the question you asked, though. Of course it’s still racist if a person of color says all white people look the same! Is it worse when white people do it? I think it might be, simply because we are the ones whose skin color gives us the most advantage in the world. When we assume stuff about people who look different, it usually turns out to be a bad thing for that group of people. We are the ones who need to work the hardest to overcome our (according to that wiki page, scientifically proven, innate) racial biases if the world is ever to reach a point of demonstrable equity.

    (I also found this article on equality vs equity and how we can address best address discussions of inequity interesting:

    • Sherry of Save. Spend. Splurge.

      The other thing is also the cuisine part.. I was asked today if I wanted to go eat “Thai” food in an area I KNEW had no Thai restaurants. I looked at him and said: Thai?.. What’s the name??

      He then looked taken aback and said: Uhh… Maybe not Thai?

      I said: Vietnamese? Maybe Vietnamese?

      THEN HE SAID THEY WERE ALL THE SAME and I was all like:.. dude, Thai is a world away from Vietnamese cuisine.. it is like saying French food is the same as Italian.

      • Sense

        oh no oh no oh NO! Wow. I didn’t grow up eating food from many cultures but I never would have pretended I knew or said they were “all the same.” I cannot imagine.

        p.s. thai is my favorite!! I had a hankering for pad see ew last night and got takeaway on my way home. Delish! 🙂

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