by Belle Pancharoen
There is a joke that my friend once told. “How do you blind an Asian?” she asked, to which we gave her a confused look. She grinned and answered, “With dental floss!” All of us got the joke right away and I’m guessing you did too. Almond shape eyes that almost appear to be tiny slits on the face when smiling is one of the stereotypical facial characteristics plastered on Asians. We use these visual characteristics to label people into different racial category at a glance, thus it can be said that race is not only socially constructed like many scholars say but race is also visually constructed.
In her article “Seeing Faces, Making Races: Challenging Visual Tropes of Racial Difference”, Terry Kawashima mentions that Sailor Moon looks “white” to some viewers and “Japanese” to others. She concludes that the reason why this is the case is because “we are culturally conditioned to read visual images in specific racialized ways” (Kawashima 2002, p.161). In other words, Sailor Moon looks just as “white” as she does “Japanese” and how we interpret her is based on our own cultural context.
Though, the fact that some people read Sailor Moon as white is understandable considering that her character design consists of the Western trademark blonde hair and blue eyes. Even in an anime where the hair and eye colors of the characters ranges from one end of the color spectrum to the other, when a Western character is put on the screen more than half the time he or she will have that exact hair and eye color combination. Take for example, the Western characters from Free! Eternal Summer. The Japanese characters have hair colors ranging from yellow to black, but all the Western character hair colors are limited to different shades of yellow and brown. How about comparing the facial features of Alex Louis Armstrong to Ling Yao from Fullmetal Alchemist? Isn’t it clear that Armstrong is drawn to represent your typical Western face and Ling as Asian? Why are we so fixated on these stereotypical appearances that they are also reflected in art and media?
Kawashima says that “certain features are highlighted and others suppressed or ignored to ensure a coherent result” (2002, p.164). Perhaps this highlighting of specific facial features and simplifying them is true. Perhaps this is the reason why we tend to say “they all look alike” when we talk about people from different races. I have lost count of the number of times when my friends look at a Korean idol group and say that they can’t tell the members apart. “The other race affect” says that we can recognize diversity in our own race but not with others. Daniel Levin, a cognitive psychologist at Kent State University, says that “the problem is not that we can’t code the details of cross-race faces—it’s that we don’t.”
Let’s face it, despite the fact that we know that these stereotypes exists some of us, for example, don’t like being told that all East Asians look the same. So just because “we don’t” doesn’t meant that we can’t try.
Kawashima, Terry. 2002. “Seeing Faces, Making Races: Challenging Visual Tropes of Racial Difference.” Meridians 3(1): 161-90.
Pomeroy, Steven Ross. “‘They All Look Alike': The Other-Race Effect.” Forbes. http://www.forbes.com/sites/rosspomeroy/2014/01/28/think-they-all-look-alike-thats-just-the-other-race-effect/