Politica: Putting a face to identity

Does your face measure up?

During my hippie days in Schleswig-Holstein, my woman friend and I sometimes sat at an outdoor café table on the Reeperbahn (not at half-one in the AM but daytime) and watched people coming toward us down the walk, and tried to guess where they were from. As they passed our table, we listened to hear the language they spoke to test our guesses. As best I can estimate, we had about an 80% hit rate and, most of the time, we were in violent agreement.

So much for automatic framing as neuropsychologists might term it. It works...to some degree...in quite a few everyday situations. Our synapses put together face, dress, pace and dance (nonverbal expressions) to offer an identification, and when the passersby passed by, we added words, the language they spoke, to the mix to confirm. Unfortunately, at the moment, the struggle against unconscious bias has tainted our feelings about this normal and natural process of starting to know something. Certainly we have frames that we have usually inherited and reinforced by use and sometimes bad experiences that lead us to prejudicial thoughts and actions about peoples and their cultures, hence the importance of examining our knee-jerk reactions and developing awareness. Human integrity involves everything we are in the building of our identity as self and others, so there is still much to be sorted through.

In any case, I remain fascinated by the process of identifying others on the basis of my surmises. On my way to Finland, where I am currently lecturing, I spotted a group of young folks in the airport standing about a dozen meters away and immediately surmised they were Finns by facial features. I walked over and asked a question that verified my conjecture. They were able to give me useful information about the train I needed to take at the end of my all too turbulent flights. I have no political intent in this paying attention to my identity guesses, just fascination and curiosity, and sometimes it pays off. On the other hand I am a bit cowed at the prospect of writing about it. Might I lose face by doing so? Why?

Facial and racial identification have a long nasty history. Few of my fellow USians are aware of how eugenics studies at Stanford University and elsewhere, well financed by prominent US industrialists, provided a good bit of "scientific" theoretical grounding for the Holocaust. These along with racially discriminatory laws in the various US States were admired as models and exploited by the Third Reich, Racial profiling got right down to measuring noses to determine race and ethnicity. This kind of thinking is far from dead. It played a role in genocide even half a century later, as the picture above shows.

Being looked at by another is often interpreted negatively. What we admire, may turn into the dire mire of invasiveness or harassment or ignite the fire of jealousy. There is a gender gap in most cultures, sometimes narrow, sometimes very wide. Burkini or bikini? I won't delve into making eye contact here but will shelve it for another reflection–in any case, it is a topic already discussed ad nauseam in intercultural lit, but perhaps with little insight into its bio-emotional dimensions. The dynamics of framing, however, is just beginning to be explored as how it may shape our recognition of identities, and I would like to hear more of others' experiences. Dissertation, anyone?

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