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23 May 2012 @ 10:49 am
Facial Recognition  
So. I know the classic racist cliche is "all those people look alike." And the inability to distinguish people of another ethnicity from each other is a fairly standard marker of prejudice.

I have moderate to severe difficulty telling faces apart in general; I tend to run with context, haircuts, and broad categories, and if those change or are too close to someone else's, I can't tell people apart without a lot of familiarity. (I've occasionally mistaken my sisters for each other, or not recognized them immediately, after not seeing them for more than a year. I only have two.) And this difficulty gets worse with PoC, especially if my brain keeps categorizing hairstyles I'm less familiar with as roughly the same thing.

This is a minor inconvenience when it comes to watching movies with a bunch of white guys in suits who I keep mistaking for each other. This is a problem when it comes to my inability to recognize people I interact with on a semi-regular basis. If I've been sitting next to someone in class three days a week all semester, I should be able to recognize them when passing them on campus, and often I can't.

I do not want to be the person doing the "all you people look alike!" thing to PoC. Even if I'm not phrasing it like that. Even if it's true for white folks too.

Does anyone know a way I can fix this, or work around it better? "I'm terrible at recognizing faces and remembering names" may well be the simple truth, but if there's a way to fix this, I'd really rather do so, rather than keep assuring PoC that, hey, it's not my fault I'm confusing them with other PoC. It's not like I have complete face blindness--I can recognize most people I deal with on a regular basis, if I do so in multiple contexts--so I'm hoping there's some way to make this better.
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Alexkaberett on May 23rd, 2012 04:42 pm (UTC)
+1. I'm faceblind too, and while I DO recognise people it is, the OP says, based on voice and body language and dress and hairstyles and context. I didn't recognise my mum when she got a haircut; on one deeply embarrassing occasion I told an anecdote from my chemistry class to someone... who'd been in that class with me for six weeks at somewhere in the region of 4 hours a week (and there were only about 20 of us). I still don't recognise all 20 people in my geology class, and I'm in fourth year.

Honestly, the thing that I've found is the best way for me to handle it is to explain it: "Hi. I'm really pleased to meet you, but I'm also faceblind, so if I blank you in future it's nothing personal. I'd really appreciate it if you could introduce yourself to me at the beginnings of conversations the first few times we talk [or whatever], if that's okay?"
Being the ramblings of D.gmdreia on May 23rd, 2012 04:43 pm (UTC)
This same thing happened to me with my mom, when she dyed her hair!!
the kind of beauty that movespapertigers on May 23rd, 2012 07:07 pm (UTC)
my friend's son is faceblind too, and he was visibly upset when I went to visit after not seeing him for a few months because I'd cut my hair and lost weight. he's known me his whole life, and it took him a while to cope with my suddenly being unfamiliar.
Fade M.fadethecat on May 23rd, 2012 07:12 pm (UTC)
I managed to not realize for some weeks that a classmate had not left the class, and another classmate joined, but that she'd just had a haircut. A classmate who I'd been sitting next to for the whole semester at that point, and spent an entire previous semester in a class with. And the class size in both cases was under twelve people.

Sigh. Though usually I don't fail at it quite to that extent.
Fade M.fadethecat on May 23rd, 2012 05:12 pm (UTC)
It is! But I am hesitant to say that I have it outright, because 1) no official diagnosis, and 2) in self-diagnosis tests, I usually come juuuust on the normal side of the dividing line. (I took one test that said ranking below 60% correct meant you had it, and I came in at 65%, so...yeah.)

And I am a bit wary of claiming disabilities I haven't been officially diagnosed in on account of reading up on symptoms online, given some of the issues that can cause.
the kind of beauty that movespapertigers on May 23rd, 2012 07:15 pm (UTC)
I don't think you have to claim the disability specifically; most people would require an explanation/description even if you did, so you could just offer a description of your specific issues without the label. for example: I'm not faceblind, but I have a visual impairment that makes it difficult for me to distinguish discrete objects in a "busy" visual field, especially if there's movement. I can drive and navigate in a crowd, but I can't visually separate people/things well enough to identify them. there's probably a name for that (I received medical treatments for it as a child), but I don't know what it is. I usually just tell people I can't distinguish individual objects in a crowded space.
Fade M.fadethecat on May 23rd, 2012 08:46 pm (UTC)
Ah, that's a good point. And "mild face-blindness" is usually pretty self-explanatory. (I might recognize people! I might not! I try!)
Alexkaberett on May 23rd, 2012 07:20 pm (UTC)
I don't have a diagnosis either, but in my case it's sufficiently bloody obvious (and is sufficiently plausibly comorbid) that *shrug*, my other disabilities have a bigger impact on my day-to-day life, I don't feel bad about claiming this one?
Being the ramblings of D.gmdreia on May 23rd, 2012 04:40 pm (UTC)
I am a little bit face blind too
I do this too... It's easy for me to confuse someone with one particular face shape, hair color, and eye color with someone else who looks similar, especially if they DRESS similarly.

It's just twice as awkward and embarrassing if the person is a POC.

I often don't recognize people if I see them "out of context", such as if I pass a coworker on the street.

Most of my recognition cues tend to be based upon things they do to set themselves apart from other people - I have one friend I might not recognize without her waist length magenta hair - but in settings where people dress really uniformly, it can be hell.

I'm glad I live in the SF Bay Area where so many people have unique hairstyles, tattoos, and piercings. I am pretty "conservative looking" myself but all the "uniqueness" makes it easier for me to recognize people.

Edited at 2012-05-23 04:42 pm (UTC)
Anne: Big Damn Heroesnetmouse on May 23rd, 2012 04:53 pm (UTC)
The " marker of prejudice" is to assert a group of people really does look indistinguishably alike. you're not doing that - you're recongizing something about yourself.

If you're getting t know someone new, does it help to look at a variety of pictures of them, from different angles, with different hair and clothes?

If you find it is, one way to deal with it might be to tell someone you have trouble like this and, as you get to know them, ask if there's a pool of pictures of them you can look at. If they are already well known, an image search on google right before an event where you will see them might also boost that familiarity.

I've actually been playing with the idea of doing a portrait gallery of the authors of color active in sf, to try to reduce the incidence of people getting mistaken for other people with similar skin color.

Beyond faceblindness, this sort of thing arises from a lack of exposure and repetition, including unfamiliarity with different hair and makeup styles used by people of different ethnicities, and how that changes appearance. Studying might be able to help, especially right before an event.
Fade M.fadethecat on May 23rd, 2012 05:10 pm (UTC)
*nods* But at the same time, I realize that with a casual acquaintance just not recognizing someone--or, augh, mistaking one author for another at cons, which is something I fear I will do--the fact that it's a blindness on my part doesn't necessarily make it sting less for the person I'm misidentifying.

That said, I like the idea of studying pictures ahead of time. Especially if they're pictures of people in multiple hairstyles/from various directions and so forth! I've found that sometimes helps when, say, I'm visiting a friend cross-country who I haven't seen in a few years; I'll dig up a picture of them to study beforehand, so that I don't walk pass them in the airport while they're trying to meet me.
TheSquibbonsquibbon on May 23rd, 2012 06:47 pm (UTC)
It's possible to explain that you're not good at facial recognition without claiming an official diagnosis. I've got prosopagnosia too, but I don't like explaining the whole deal with it to everyone I know. I find that saying "I'm sorry, I've got a really bad memory for faces! It may take me a while recognize you on sight. Can you remind me of your name? Thanks for being understanding about it." or something similar usually works pretty well and that doesn't involve claiming a diagnosis if you're uncomfortable with that. I've never had anyone indicate that they thought my memory issues had anything to do with their race, and if someone was quietly thinking that without speaking up seeing you say the same thing to white people from time to time would hopefully help to clear it up.
Fade M.fadethecat on May 23rd, 2012 06:55 pm (UTC)
That makes sense. I was sort of hoping there was a magic solution--or at least a solution that would avoid the awkwardness in the first place--but I can at least try being more vocal about that up front.
Zeborahzeborahnz on May 23rd, 2012 08:14 pm (UTC)
I similarly have difficulties recognising people but don't think I really have prosopagnosia exactly. It's milder than that, plus partly it's not recognising people, partly it's not remembering names. (And it's partly that much of the time I don't *actually* care about the people, I just want to get through without awkwardness.) And there's one particularly baffling instance I have where I've got two colleagues I've been working with for years, one with white hair, one with black hair, and I can't unaided remember which of them is A and which is B: I've had to create a mnemonic and recite it to myself every single time I need to figure out who it was who just talked to me.

What helped me a bit was simply the intense practice I got when I was teaching English as a second language, first in New Caledonia (which, depending on the class, had some heterogeneous racial mixes) and then in South Korea (which didn't). I started out by writing notes next to the class roster (I remember one class I had three girls who I distinguished because one wore pink glasses, one blue, one green, but sometimes I'd sketch a chin shape or somthing).

And I remember substituting for a day, and being able to remember everyone's names within that one-hour period based only on where they were sitting. --Relative positions of things is something that I notice/remember better than other visual markers, so this started me thinking that maybe I need to learn to recognise people by different markers than other people do.

I still need to think about it huge amounts though. I work in customer service and if I'm helping someone and need to go away to get something and then find them again, I have to consciously work through how I'm going to recognise them again before I leave them. Basically, for me, it doesn't come naturally so each time I think I'll need it I have to explicitly think about it.
Jamjamiam on May 24th, 2012 05:35 am (UTC)
I have mild-to-moderate difficulties, too. But basically what you want is to bring your faceblindness for PoC up to the same (admittedly not great!) level as your white faceblindness?

I think, honestly, that the best thing to do is look at lots and lots of PoC faces. For example: there are a lot of livejournal and tumblr feeds dedicated to posting daily or weekly pictures of gorgeous non-white faces. You could quietly subscribe to one or two of those, so that you'd have at least one really striking PoC face scrolling down your browser window every day. Okay, it's still generally only the "beautiful" subset of faces---but I do find that the breadth of what is considered attractive is a lot wider on PoC blogs.
Fade M.fadethecat on May 24th, 2012 02:24 pm (UTC)
Yes! Or improve both, but at least getting them to equal points would reduce the chances of hurting someone by my failure to recognize 'em. And I love that idea. (Especially if they sometimes post multiple pictures of one person? I notice my faceblindness especially when that happens and I can't figure out how you'd know it was the same person, if the haircut has changed or what not.)

Could you recommend some communities that do such things? My search abilities are not great.
Jamjamiam on May 24th, 2012 03:48 pm (UTC)
Sure. Disclaimer, though: like all blogs, these often go idle and stop updating randomly after a year or two.


This one's specifically about hair care, but a nice breadth of faces tend to come attached:


And of course, the ones I used to follow have stopped updating. So I have to hopscotch people's profiles to find good LJ feeds.

It's much easier to find tumblrs:


Here's a nice article on tumblrs:


Edited at 2012-05-24 03:48 pm (UTC)
Fade M.fadethecat on May 24th, 2012 03:55 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much! Just going through a portion of the archives every day for a while may help, with the ones that have stopped updating.
sugar_for_sugar: Unicornsugar_for_sugar on August 26th, 2012 09:02 pm (UTC)
Oh bloody heck, I made a post about the same problem here, only I was so full of shame and angst about it I wasn't half as clear in my head about what the problem was and the post was this humiliating anxiety storm wherein nobody, least of all me, could figure out what I was talking about. Because of something someone said to me once, I was sure I was erasing people because I couldn't always tell exactly what their ethnicity was, and I was so uncomfortable about not being able to recognize faces readily (POC and non) and just... basically I was convinced I was both racist and just generally socially inept.

Thank you so much for making me feel less like a total freak. I still cringe when I think about that post. I'm glad I made it because it was a start in helping me figure out how much of my journey as a racial ally was being impeded by personal abuse issues, but it was not exactly comfortable. I turned not being more culturally aware sooner in life and not being a perfect ally instantly and instinctively into another thing to flog myself with more or less, and was getting reinforced in a couple progressive spaces I was hanging out in for a while-- for a time any issue of race just put me in the mindset of needing to do penance more so than needing to learn... good gods listen to me I swear I'm not nearly as big a loser/jerk as I sound.

But yes, anyway, thanks.
Fade M.fadethecat on August 26th, 2012 09:43 pm (UTC)
If there's one thing I'm slowly learning in life, it's that it's a lot easier to deal with a problem after it becomes clear it's Not Just Me. That many people suffer from something isn't exactly for the better, but...it's a way to pool resources and work out more easily how to fix things.

I'm glad it helped.