I have a friend named Jessica that I’ve known since middle school. People often assume we are siblings. She’s half Chinese and I’m half Korean.
I have often been mistaken for Jessica’s brother, in part because we share some vaguely-Asian physical traits, but also because I get mistaken for her actual brother, Sam. Sam is a couple of years older than I am, and we actually do look alike.
Sam is a talented musician and I remember attending his senior recital and the reception that followed. At the reception, a long time family friend, a woman in her mid fifties, approached me and congratulated me on my (Sam’s) performance. I wish I could say I corrected her mistake then or even the second and third time she did the same thing that evening. Instead, I stood paralyzed with social awkwardness as another friend stepped in and broke the news to her.
In the uncomfortable silence that results from disclosing my identity, I can’t help but hear that worn racial generalization: “You all look the same.” That phrase stands as an identity neutralizer, a mis-given abstraction, a barrier to veneration.
The woman apologized profusely and explained that she wasn’t wearing her glasses, but it did little to alleviate the discomfort we both felt.
I find it quite disorienting to be mistaken for another person. It is often an honest mistake. However, I am left feeling simultaneously invisible and at the center of unwanted attention. It feels as if my individual identity has been erased or eclipsed by some other person living in my skin. Sometimes that invisibility or eclipsing of my identity falls squarely within the realm of seeing me as a generally Asian looking guy like the few others someone might know.
Yet, for as often as I’ve experienced this lumping together of identities based on my race, I know that I have grouped others together or defaulted to racial or other generalities.
The other day I greeted a black classmate by the wrong name and only later realized that I had used the name of a different black acquaintance. The name I referred to him by was a very stereotypical name for a black man. I had inadvertently given him the “you all look the same” treatment, one that I know from experience is often hurtful and disorienting.
It really is a result of my inattention and it emerges out of carelessness. It goes beyond just forgetting someone’s name and needing to have it repeated. It speaks to a more troubling realization that I can remember someone’s face, but not their name, their appearance, but not their identity.
It’s not so much a case of mistaken identity but rather mis-given identity. I erase a person’s particular identity and replace it with my own generalizations. What’s so cutting about the phrase, “you all look the same,” is the implicit accusation that “you all are the same.” When I mistake– or mis-give– identity, there’s no significant difference between my classmate and any other black man. I’ve communicated that he can be exchanged for any other person of similar description and I’ve disregarded all those things that make him unique.
The icons that adorn an Orthodox Church depict saints who have lived all over the world and through various periods of history. Although the icons often share a similar style, each saint bears particular traits. What’s more, each of their stories are unique. Some were poor beggars, some were royalty, some were nobles, and others were holy fools.
Theologian John Manoussakis has observed that the saints, sometimes called “little christs,” became saints “not in spite of their particularity, but because of it, and thus, they are far from being merely spiritual clones of Christ.” Although they are all created in the image of God and have worked to preserve and treasure that image, they all did so uniquely. He said the saints are “like a single ray of light that, once it hits the prism, is defracted into a multiplicity of unique and different colors” (God After Metaphysics, 38).
The saints are not simply venerated generally, but particularly, according to their uniqueness. Shouldn’t we also honor those living icons around us by listening to their particular stories and getting to know their particular identities, rather than simply honoring them generally?
What if we slow down and pay proper attention to that individual right in front of us? What if we learn to recognize and honor each person’s particular identity? Instead of affirming the statement, “You all look the same,” how can we seek to appreciate and honor the diversity and complexity of God’s image in each person? Let’s take the time to venerate the unique living icons around us.
Article by Jonathan Reavis