I hate the way I’m more racist when I’m tired

When I’m tuckered out I am SO bad at not being racist… I do that thing where I get people of the same race/gender/height/bodyshape/hair color mixed up with each other.

And then I do that embarrassed white woman thing where I turn bright red, make up excuses, then keep apologizing way after the time that it’s appropriate to be apologizing. I understand that just makes it worse, but I cannot stop!

Most of the people I know are polite about it. Except this one prominent economist who I keep getting mixed up with the same guy, usually late at night the same day of the same conference… he thinks it’s hilarious and now makes a point of asking me who I think he is (I haven’t gotten it right yet, mainly because I know the other guy by name because he works in my field but I’ve actually seen the other guy more often). I deserve that, though I can’t remember his name right now (whereas I can remember the other guy’s name…).

And I could make excuses that I’m pretty bad with whites too (which is true– I mostly identify people by their height and hair color), but it’s far worse with non-whites.  I’m terrible with names.  I’m terrible with faces (but not terrible enough to believe I have that medical thingy where you can’t recognize faces… I do recognize faces of people I know).

And I know it’s not just me.  I know there’s tons of research showing that when we’re tired or have too much cognitive load one of the first things to go is correcting for implicit biases.  But it’s still pretty excrementy of me.

All of this is to say, I wish I were either less implicitly racist or I were always less tired!!!!!

(And yes, I know that some people are going to say that this post is just making things worse because it makes the problem all about me.  You know, like white women do.  [Because nobody ever says that about white men; they always get credit for just trying.]  But at that point I throw up my arms and say, “I think I am going to ignore that and take a nap.”)

44 Responses to “I hate the way I’m more racist when I’m tired”

  1. Engineer Cents (@engineercents) Says:

    Real question: Do you have mild prosopagnosia?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Nope. Just tiredness, stress, and not enough brain for everything at once.

    • NZ Muse Says:

      I suspect I actually may have a touch of prosopagnosia myself.

      Also, I am Asian but I am quite bad with distinguishing Asian faces too. I just can’t watch movies like Hidden Tiger etc because I can’t tell the actors apart/keep the characters straight.

  2. S Says:

    Some people are better at recognizing people than others. At least one friend suspects I have mild prosopagnosia so I looked into it and concluded no, some people are just not good at some things. Of course the poster may have it.

    I would recommend not worrying about this particular aspect – All x look the same to me. Happens to a lot of people. – S

  3. Leah Says:

    Part of it, I think, is less experience with other races. In a stratified society, you just don’t encounter people with other characteristics, so it’s easier to generalize. If you only have one Asian kid at school, you remember that Harry is the Asian kid even though you’d do better to think that Harry is the kid with the round face and dark framed glasses.

    As a child, I went to integrated schools. I’m still pretty good at telling darker skinned people apart because I knew so many when little. You have to look for face shape, body shape, etc. But when I moved out west? Man, it took me a few years to get the hang of telling apart all the Asian people. I’d rarely encountered one before!

    I also do the same with blonde girls. For some reason, I didn’t know many blondes growing up (maybe going to the integrated school right next to the Jewish neighborhood?). I still struggle with my blonde students until I really get to know them. And someone I hadn’t seen in a few years lost a bunch of weight and grew out her hair — totally didn’t recognize her either. I guess I recognized her by the hair cut.

    What you’ve done is the least mild form of racial issue. Is it really even racism? Are you discriminating against or otherwise holding it against people of other skin colors? Are you ignoring people of other skin colors? If you want to get better, the main thing is to regularly look at pictures of people who you get easily confused. Pay attention to features other than skin tone. You can retrain your brain.

    • Susan Says:

      This is interesting – in my teaching I (white woman) find the hardest students to tell apart are the multiple “sorority girls” (large t shirts, running shorts, long hair in a pony tail, pretty).

      I have had a similar experience a couple of times as you with your economist pair – for me, I felt like it was that I’d made an incorrect “pathway” which for me is very hard to correct, hence repeatedly calling the person by the same wrong name. I finally just apologized and made a joke of it (and eventually got it right. Or the person just started avoiding me…)

    • delagar Says:

      God, this is true for me. I grew up in New Orleans, which is something like 80% black (or was, before the storm) and the rest Italian and such. Very few blond people.

      Then I came here to NW Arkansas, where it’s nothing but blond people — or at least it FELT that way for awhile. Every single one of my freshman classes was filled with these clumps of blonde girls, who all looked exactly alike, and skinny blond / light-brown haired boys. I still have the worst trouble telling them apart. Doesn’t help that I do have (mild) prosopagnosia.

      • Rosa Says:

        I come from the whitest state in the Union, and am a natural blonde myself, but my kid was one of just a few white kids at the daycare and I got used to thinking of him as “the blond one” in the crowd. Then we started public school…first of all, all the white boys had the same haircut. Second of all, half were blond. Third of all mine wasn’t even that blond! I had the hardest time finding him on the playground.

  4. oldmdgirl Says:

    I’m not sure it’s racist to call someone by the wrong name, even if the wrong name is another person of the same (but not your) race. For instance, there are several new caucasian men in my residency class, and if I thought hard, I could probably identify them correctly, but if I were tired or not paying attention, I might not. Similarly, there were three blonde-ish caucasian females in my class last year, and everybody kept getting us confused. Also — not-racist.

  5. Contingent Cassandra Says:

    After many years of teaching in a university with an extremely diverse student body, the good news is that I’m probably about equally good at telling people belonging to a fairly wide variety of racial/ethnic groups apart. The bad news is that I’m not very good at telling people apart, period. I mostly rely on cues like hair color and style, and eyebrow shape, which for some reason I seem to process more quickly/reliably than whatever arrangement of features I assume those who remember faces more easily rely on. My approach means that, like Susan, I’m as likely to be stumped by a bunch of white sorority girls (or fraternity bros or athletes) — who have a tendency to travel in packs — as by a group of students of similar (nonwhite, by some definition of “white”) ethnicity and/or major — who also have a tendency to travel in packs. I think part of it is just the human tendency to sort various things (including people) into categories, a tendency which is probably especially strong in people who get Ph.D.s (because much scholarly work also involves that sort of pattern-recognition/creation). Of course, given the historical/ongoing tendency in the U.S. (and elsewhere) to attribute value (positive and negative) to racial/ethnic group membership, the effect on the grouped person can be negative, even if the reason/motivation behind the mistake is benign.

  6. CG Says:

    Yeah, but when you’re white and the only people you get mixed up are another race, it sure FEELS racist. I had this problem in one of my classes (two dark-skinned, heavy-set men with mustaches). Also, my mixed race kid gets called by the name of other mixed-race kids in his grade all the time. One of those kids is about a foot shorter than he is; one is about a foot taller. He doesn’t get called the names of other kids with dark hair and dark eyes. I guess it’s not racist, but it does feel pretty…categorical.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I think you’ve pinpointed the feeling here. We all mix up people’s names, but when we as white professors do it for our already-discriminated-against students of color, the power dynamics make us feel icky.

    • oldmdgirl Says:

      Yeah agree. I’ve done this happen with both white and non-white people, and I feel especially awful when it’s a non-white person. Also, selfishly, I don’t want them to think I’m racist, which is part of it.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Although it is true that I do this with blonde sororitity girls and tall Mormon guys, I really do do this more with people of other races when I’m tired than I do with other folks when I’m tired.

      And it is pretty horrible for those two mixed race kids who don’t’ look anything alike to be mixed up with each other. It’s very easy for people who are always treated as individuals to say, hey this is no biggie, but it’s not no biggie to be categorized based only on race (or gender, etc.)

    • Rosa Says:

      Yeah, the person it happens to doesn’t know the reason behind it and it would be hard to feel like it’s not about race.

      And I think – as another person with problems differentiating people by looks (no problems with voices, only visual stuff) it can be both at once. I’ve got a face recognition deficit but along with being more difficult when I’m tired or distracted, it’s worse along racial lines for what are probably racist reasons.

  7. middle_class Says:

    I do think it has to do with familiarity (or not) with certain ethnic groups. I grew up in an Asian/Hispanic area and I’m Asian, too. I never get Asian people mixed up. However, when I went to college and finally encountered tons of white people, I got really confused about a certain fair-skinned blonde type. One had been in my class; I think I worked briefly with the other one. It was so bad that every time I bumped into either one, I had to wait for a cue or tip to who this was.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      True confession: #2 also mixes up blond girls who are all named Lindsey and Kylie. I feel kinda bad about this too, but not as bad. In a class of 40 people it only takes me a few weeks to learn everyone’s name, but it’s conscious work.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        And Kelsey. So many Kelseys. In one class I had 3 Lindseys and 2 Kelseys. There might have been 2 Jessicas, too. That was rough.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        But doing it with blonde girls is also a kind of stereotype. :/

      • Leah Says:

        Caitlin (in all its various spelling iterations) is a big one these days. I have had multiple classes with multiple Kaitlins. Worst part is that they all spell it differently. I literally think the spelling whenever I say each one’s name. Kaytlin, Kaitlyn, Kaytlynn, etc.

  8. Sally Says:

    It is interesting. I remember Mrs. Obama talking about being taken for a shop clerk and asked to get something down from a tall shelf. She felt it was because she was black and therefore assumed to be an employee; a racist encounter. Like her I am 5’10″… and I get asked to do that all the time too in stores. I assume it is because I am tall and can reach the shelf. SO… sometimes racism is in the eyes of the impacted person………… I have also mixed the names of my children (different genders), and grand children, different coloring. Same thing you are calling yourself racist for doing…….. but perhaps it isn’t.
    And, yes, I do know about ‘white privilege’, and I have the experience of ‘old white men’ assuming it is their turn because they literally see only themselves when waiting for service.

  9. Happy Says:

    I moved to Hawaii from the northeast with my blonde haired, blue eyed, tall husband. The first time we went home for a visit, I couldn’t find him in a crowd. Apparently, a couple of years where I only had to look for the tall white guy made it impossible for me to recognize him quickly when put back in our native habitat where he didn’t stand out so much. If I could have that problem with my _husband_, I think it’s understandable.

  10. Allyson Says:

    You hit on something I was just thinking about – my three-year old is deciding that every Asian man of approximately the right height is a particular Asian colleague of mine. I feel a bit bad that I haven’t introduced kiddo to enough people of different races. I think it’s a good sign to recognize this, to not defend it, and keep working on it. Thanks.

  11. chacha1 Says:

    I almost never confuse one person for another in the flesh, but I also almost never remember names until I have encountered a person *several* times and actually written their name down, with some identifying context, at least twice. I seriously suck at it, and it baffles me because my memory is really, really good in other respects.

    I wonder sometimes if it is a symptom of latent misanthropy. :-)

  12. Ana Says:

    Really interesting comments about how this phenomenon may be related to unfamiliarity with certain racial/ethnic groups. It always annoyed me BIG TIME when people I interacted with fairly heavily (i.e. not just a prof in a big class) called me the name of the other “same-ethnic-group-as-me” female in their acquaintance even when we looked NOTHING (i.e. several inches, 50+ lbs different) alike. I don’t know if that explanation is enough for me, though—I get brunette white girls confused as well as older Asian men & women and middle-aged African American women, and I’ve lived around & worked with both groups all my life! I agree that the latter two instances make me feel racist, while the first does not, for reasons articulated really well above by Cassandra and CG.
    I suspect I have mild prosopagnosia. I recognize the faces of people I know well, but faces in general baffle me. I can remember Steve, the guy who likes dogs and running and has 2 kids and works on xyz and published in abc, but I couldn’t pick Steve out of a room of people. When people change their appearance it completely throws me off—hair cut, glasses, facial hair—the things I use to keep people straight in my head. And if they don’t have any really vividly distinguishing characteristics for my brain to latch on to, it takes forever for me to attach a name to a face.
    Realizing this about myself made me way more tolerant of when other people get me mixed up.

    • NZ Muse Says:

      Oooh yes, things like haircuts and glasses really throw me off. Once a coworker from my part time waitressing job saw me at the mall sans glasses and recognised me right away and it really surprised me!

      My most awkward moment was, I think, starting a new job, meeting one coworker in particular, a couple days later going to a social event, introducing myself to a girl there, and her being like ‘I’m X, we work together!’ (In my defence… it was a bit dim in there?)

      • Contingent Cassandra Says:

        I had a writing-for-scientists class this spring that was about 1/3 populated by male engineers with dark hair, brown skin, brown eyes, and — at least at the beginning of the semester — beards. Their ethnicities varied (and included Southeast Asian, Arab, Persian, and Hispanic, and perhaps some combinations thereof; reasons for having a beard probably varied from following hipster style to signaling religious identity/expression), but, with the beards, they all looked pretty similar to me. I’d just begun to distinguish them by beard length/texture/etc. when spring break came, and c. 50% of them shaved, or at least trimmed, their facial hair, and I was completely lost again.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I <3 nametags so much.

    • Rosa Says:

      I’m terrible with faces and names – I can’t watch old black and white movies where all the men are white and they all wear hats, but also I am terrible at it in settings where I work really hard to make up for natural disinclination, like when I’m managing volunteers. One of the problems is that I totally classify people. Like I have a stash of over-40 white dude names in my head (Steve-Tim-Tom-Alan-Jim?) and I have a really hard time remembering which one of those names a dude in that group has.

      I think it’s really hard for people on the receiving end to see it as a skill issue and not a power issue or a lack of caring issues. I know I’ve been told a lot that it’s just such an important people skill if you haven’t mastered it, that means you don’t care. Which I know isn’t true.

      I suspect face recognition is like a lot of other aptitudes – we all vary a lot. I’ve become acutely aware of it from hanging out with autistic people the last few years, because it’s considered a typical autism trait to not recognize faces or not look at them. But it’s certainly not a limitation that only comes with autism.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I do though think this is one of those things that those of us who are bad at it really do need to make a special effort on. Even with the blonde sorority girls! Not so much the tall white guys– they probably don’t get mixed up with other people enough. :)

      • Rosa Says:

        It’s so emphasized in our culture that I don’t really believe there are many people who don’t work at it. Lack of aptitude combined with serious work to function at a high level anyway totally explains why things fall apart when you’re tired.

  13. fizzchick Says:

    I have done this in both the kinda racist (Alberto and Alonzo, totally different body types, but only two Latino guys in the lecture class) and less so (lab class with a Kara and Kylie and Kelsey, all tall blonde basketball players who I only saw once a week). Kicked myself for both, but definitely felt worse for the former. It really makes me want to encourage my students to speak up in class more. If you make interesting or thoughtful comments, or even just ask questions regularly, I am WAY more likely to remember your name. But of course, if I do this, even when I’m trying hard not to, it probably makes those students less likely to speak up.
    P.S. Happy, thanks for the fascinating story!

    • Flavia Says:

      TOTALLY. The ones who participate, I can usually find something distinguishing about even if they’re the same “type” as 80% of their classmates. The ones who sit there silently are the ones whose names I learn last, ’cause I rarely have reason to focus on their faces.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That’s definitely one of my problems with the sorority girls. I also don’t cold call on them as much as I do other groups of students, which doesn’t help.

  14. Flavia Says:

    Yup. Like lots of other people here, I have fully as much trouble with “generic white kids” as with those of other races. I’m not bad one-on-one — I may forget a name, but I rarely mix people up — but I’m terrible those first few weeks in the classroom where I’m just scanning the room for whatever big-picture features stand out. I LOVE the dude with the beard, or the girl with a spiky pixie cut (seriously, why do all college girls have long, straight, center-parted hair??), and I learn their names instantly. With the others I really struggle to FIND distinguishing features and remember them when calling on people.

    At my first job, I had two sections of the same survey. For whatever reason, one was almost entirely white, and predominantly female. The other was about 70% African-American. I got students mixed up all the time, but I seriously didn’t care if I confused white-girl Sarah and Emily and Bethany, and lived in terror of mixing up the names of my African-American students.

  15. Leigh Says:

    I’m pretty terrible at remembering men unless I’ve met them a few times, including white men. There are just so many tallish brown haired men in my field that takes a while to remember their names. And then I am a woman, so everyone remembers me since I stand out so easily. I don’t see it as racism because I can’t tell white men apart too.

  16. Cloud Says:

    Are you familiar with the research about WHY we have more trouble distinguishing people of different races than ours? (It goes all ways, by the way.)

    Here’s one link I found after a quick google search:

    I’m sure there are better ones but I’m being called to read bedtime stories!

    Anyway, my strategy is to look for a mnemonic of some sort.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      not the neurophilosophy. but the behavioral and psychological. Categorizing and stereoty0ping is easier on our brains. But it is important that we categorize people fairly and not based on things like race.

      • Cloud Says:

        That link I found last night doesn’t really describe the research I’m remembering. I’ll have to go spelunking and see if I can dig it out. My hazy memory is of the conclusion, not the methods- but basically, the researchers thought that the big differences that tend to go with our constructed racial categories (skin color, type of hair, etc) “overwhelm” our brain’s ability to pick up on the smaller differences and we literally just don’t make the neural connections we need. But I read this years ago, and can’t remember the details, so I won’t swear I’m remembering this correctly.

        Anyway, you’re right: it is better if we can avoid this. I think it is like implicit bias, and surfacing the problem makes it easier to counteract. But, as you’ve pointed out, that tends to go out the window when we get tired.

        In a case like yours where there are two specific people I keep getting mixed up, I try to find photos of them and try to find something I can use in a mnemonic. I had a similar problem with two Chinese colleagues a few years ago, and that worked. Thank God one of them had a small mole on his face. He was the chemist, and chemists work with moles….

        I wonder what my Chinese colleagues use to remember me!

  17. Revanche Says:

    I’m Asian but for the life of me can’t remember which Asian actor is which when there are many unfamiliar ones. And I can barely tell the white pretty-boy types apart in the mainstream shows either, but maybe because I grew up surrounded by white people it’s about 2% bit easier for me to differentiate between them than unfamiliar other-race actors.

    I focus on actors because I was thinking about this cruising Netflix and also I don’t get out much anymore.

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