I am white, and I have an embarrassing secret.
Two decades ago, I had the occasion to travel for several months in Black Africa–Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, and Zaire.
The first few weeks after my arrival, I was shocked at my lack of ability to recognize people; everyone looked the same. I couldn’t tell people apart. I thought something was wrong with me.
More than twenty years later, I found an explanation for my problem through watching a television program. In this episode of The Good Wife, trial lawyers discover through the use of a consultant that it is difficult for most white witnesses to make accurate identification of black perpetrators, and equally difficult for most black witnesses to make accurate identification of white perpetrators.
This problem, as I have recently learned, is called “Difficulty with Cross-Racial Face Recognition.”
After spending approximately three weeks in East Africa, I finally became able to recognize people and tell them apart. I think what happened to me here as an adult was a reproduction of the experience all of us must go through as babies, yet none of us remember. It is clear that we learn as babies to recognize best of all those we grow up around, most particularly our family, and our own race. Recent research shows that it is in the extremely precise judgement of the micro-measurements of the face (which vary by race) where recognition takes place.
When I traveled in Burundi (four years before the war with Rwanda), one person I spent time with told me, “I could never step over the border into Rwanda, or they would kill me.” When I asked why, he told me, “They would just take one look at my face, and kill me.”
This person was a Tutsi. At that time, not only did I not believe my acquaintance, but I could not tell the difference between the Hutu and Tutsi. Now, many years later, the differences are clear.
Now I live in North Africa. When traveling with my North African husband (who is Caucasian), I find people in certain regions speaking to him in the Berber language. He doesn’t speak Berber. My husband explains, “They just see my face and assume that I speak Berber.”
I lived in North Africa for many years before anyone pointed out to me the facial differences between Arabs and Berbers. Sometimes I can clearly tell them apart; other times not. But even now, my recognition doesn’t even come close to those who were born here.
A few years ago I went to a wedding in a small village high in the Atlas Mountains. That weekend I noticed something I had never seen before. Everyone in the village had a very distinctive cranial shape, and a very particular set of ears. It was distinctive enough that even if I saw someone who looked like that back in America, now I would ask them, “Are you, by any chance, from this particular village in the Atlas Mountains?”
I finally understood why Americans (or maybe just me) are particularly bad at racial face recognition. In most Old World countries, people have stayed in the same locations, and intermarried primarily with the local group for a long-enough time to develop very, very precise micro-racial characteristics. Each village, even 20-30 miles away from each other will have very particular characteristics. People from these countries are quite used to looking at people in this way, and recognizing which area they are from.
In America, we are not at all used to looking at people in this way. Since we have immigrants from all over the world, everyone is entirely mixed up. We have unlimited micro-varieties within every race. If a black African or white European came to America, he or she would no doubt be able to look at many Americans of their own race, and know precisely where many of their ancestors came from.
One important difference in America is that most people, even within their own race, have intermarried with others from many different locales. So many of their micro-features would no longer be the same as might be associated with a particular European or African village. Americans have always moved from one part of the country to another on a regular basis, as well. In addition, many more interracial marriages are occurring. For all these reasons, people are “mixed up” in America, and Americans are not used to recognizing people by looking at their micro-characteristics and trying to categorize where they are from. But, as babies, they become used to looking at the micro-characteristics of their own race, in order to recognize family members.
Animal micro-recognition is similar. Years ago, I used to wonder how biological researchers in the field could watch a troop or a herd of animals, and recognize each animal. They all looked the same to me.
Later, after we got two cats from the same litter as pets, I began to see the subtle differences in their faces and bodies, especially when there were several neighborhood cats who looked close enough to my own cats that I called to them by mistake. Now I never make that mistake as I immediately recognize much more subtle differences, even from a distance.
New information is now being publicized about a condition called Face Blindness. People who suffer from this condition are unable to visually recognize their own family members or close friends. The short linked-to video on Face Blindness also explains the opposite condition, which is called being a Super Recognizer, meaning that one is able to recognize and remember every face he has ever seen. These people are able to tell you where they saw a face, as well as being able to recognize a photo of any of those people taken at any point, at any age, during their lifetimes.
Through this new research, I now see that recognizing faces is a learned skill for most people, an impossible challenge for people with face blindness, and incredibly easy for super recognizers.
My hidden secret perplexed and embarrassed me for many years. But now that I understand why I had this problem, I no longer feel so guilty! Thankfully, in my older years I’ve now learned to recognize much more than I noticed in my younger years.