The Alpen-Adria-Universität in Klagenfurt, Austria was the setting for this year’s (2019) Association for Philosophy and Literature in association with Theory Culture and Society Journal conference. Academics came from all over the world.
Wednesday evening [29th May] was the opening ceremony and between the welcoming speeches and the flowing glasses of wine I found myself the only black person in the room. But this was not a problem; indeed why should it be a problem? An academic conference need not resemble the United Nations or serve as a platform for a racial identity parade or ethno-national representation. Rather, academic conferences are market places for ideas, where scholars discuss their thoughts and worldviews and where the racial or gender identity of those present matters less. Incidentally, this conference covered a range of subjects, including post-colonial theory and African political resistance, amongst others. But somehow race became an issue in an unlikely manner. The distinguished scholar, Achille Mbembe had been invited but he was not due to arrive from South Africa until the Friday and so for now, I held forth, the only black person at the conference.
But I had not even noticed the fact that I was the only black person in the room until something happened. As I chatted with fellow scholars, nibbling on the snacks and sipping the wine, someone approached and asked me about my work on the Postcolony and particularly my recent work The Critique of Black Reason (2017). Looking bemused, I shook my head, slowly. No, not me, I gestured. You are not Achille Mbembe? They asked. No. I am not. This was my fault of course for mislaying my nametag. But it did not stop there. Once briefly alone a lady walked up to me, slowly and deliberately, sizing me up and smiling expectantly: I know you’re not him because I do not see people swarming around you, she said. She meant of course that she had suspected I was not Mbembe, because I lacked the celebrity attraction often evidenced by fellow scholar ‘fans’ hanging around a celebrated scholar. I discovered not long after that this curiosity had become a talking point around the conference corridors: Is that him or not, people asked.
Finally, on the Friday, the great man duly arrived, much to my relief. After his lecture, I went up to him. ‘Hello’, I said, ‘my name is Achille Mbembe.’ We shook hands, him wearing a look of undisguised incredulity. Is there really another Achille Mbembe, I have never heard off, he seemed to ask himself, is this man in front of me my dopplegänger? – his expression seemed to indicate. Then I explained. In the preceding few days, many had mistaken me for him. The penny dropped. We burst out laughing, but soon repaired into a state of seriousness, both concluding that this was no laughing matter. But how serious was this episode? Were we taking too seriously a matter of the utmost facetiousness, an encounter that should pass into inconsequential oblivion, as fleetingly as it had happened, a source of mild amusement, or did the episode tell us something about the problem of facial recognition, and indeed racial facial recognition, the problem of racial bias, the very kind of subject that some of us were at the conference to discuss?
Cases of mistaken identity are not new; they happen all the time: both inter and intra-racial kinds, but they often pass as quietly and as quickly as the apologies have been lodged and laughed over; so why take this case seriously when it is a normal part of social intercourse? The tendency to read too much meaning into racial encounters remains an enduring problem in race discourse, as is the tendency to over-explain seemingly normal encounters where race just happens to be an accidental or coincidental part of that encounter. Not everything is about race even where people of different races are involved. But then again this is the problem with race, a terrible invention that stands precariously on a pinhead, easily tilted one way or the other by the slightest wind. Race is a shadow that is cast even against the light of reason to darken normal proceedings and social encounters, whether the intention is there or not.
The question is why did many mistake me for Mbembe? Apart from the fact that we were both black men, African, spectacle-wearing and shaven-headed, neither of us could see the resemblance that others had seen. But then again, we would not see the resemblance that others had seen because our perspectives are different. I am me and I know myself as distinct and different from anybody else and the same goes for Mbembe. I am not Mbembe and Mbembe is not me. Yet, these scholars were not racist at all; indeed many were fine people, whose acquaintances I was happy to make. But perhaps this was a case old-fashioned racial stereotype that breeds unconscious bias, the kind that causes some to see resemblance between people of the same race even where those involved see vast differences between themselves.
Several studies have shown the problem of racial recognition, which exists in cases where people find difficulty processing the faces of other races. This is the ‘other-race-effect’ as it is known, propounded by many scholars such as Jennifer Eberhadt who discusses this very idea in her new book titled Bias: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think and Do (2019). Eberhadt goes further than the usual ‘familiarity explanation’ to suggest that there is also a neurological explanation for this phenomenon. She and others argue that a part of the brain, the fusiform area, is responsible for processing face recognition and this area of the brain is the source of the difficulty. This is debatable. But whether neurological or not, familiarity remains an important factor in face recognition and also in reducing stereotypical attitudes towards other races. Even if you are married to an identical twin, there comes a point where you are able to differentiate your spouse from his or her twin. Indeed, the idea of unfamiliarity was once thought to be responsible for prejudice: people prejudged others on the basis of a lack of sufficient knowledge about them or on the basis of insufficient information about them; but one can still be prejudiced even where all the facts are in (Allport: 1954).
So, familiarity alone is not enough to remedy this problem and indeed familiarity ‘breeds contempt’ and so often comes with its own baggage. It is possible to be familiar with other races but remain distant from, or be uninterested or disinterested in them in any meaningful way to the extent that one merely retain familiar (stereotypical) views about members of that race, even after years of interaction with them. Armed with these stock characteristics, one merely imposes these on a member of the race in question where there exists the merest hint of resemblance. Genuine positive interest, feeling (fellow-feeling), sensitivity, empathy and so on must accompany familiarity as an important component about recognizing other races. We are less likely mistake an individual of one race for another when we take the time to know the distinguishing features and characteristics that subsists among them, in a way that familiarity with identical twins helps to reduce mistaking one for the other.
But even this will not eliminate cases of mistaken identity, since as already mentioned: mistaken identities are a fact of life. This is where the neurological explanation becomes rather valid as a universal phenomenon. But how the fusiform responds to faces as a neurological fact can still be separable from face recognition as a sociological fact and it is the sociology of facial recognition that informs the psychological responses to other races. In other words, implicit racial bias is not a merely psychological phenomenon, but also psychosocial.
Not every white person makes the mistake of racial misidentification, so the idea that the explanation for this phenomenon is essentially neurological is contested. The other point is that the problem of inter-racial face recognition appears to be more prevalent among white people than among other races and black people are perhaps the most victims of mistaken identity, ranging from the benign to the tragic.
An example is a recent case of an American television presenter who mistook the actor Samuel L. Jackson for another African-American actor, Laurence Fishburne, prompting the former to exclaim: ‘We don’t all look alike.’ This is the benign kind of racial misidentification. However, many cases of racial misidentification have not been as benign but have lead to disastrous results such as miscarriages of justice and death. Examples of the history of such cases, particularly in the US are too many to mention. But one example worth mentioning is the case of Jennifer Thompson who was raped in 1984 by Bobby Poole. During her ordeal Thompson had made conscious efforts to study the features of her attacker for a possible identification in the event that case came to court. The case eventually did come to court, but before then when a group of likely suspects was paraded before her, Thompson picked the wrong man, an innocent man, Ronald Cotton. Cotton served 11 years in prison for this crime, (which he did not commit) based largely on Thompson’s identification of Cotton as the man that had raped her and it was on account of her eye-witness testimony that Cotton was convicted. But as it turned out, this was a case of mistaken identity. Cotton was only released after DNA evidence exonerated him.
It is however worth mentioning that a central aspect of the Thompson case was that both Cotton and Poole were black and there is no doubt that this fact had a significant bearing on Thompson’s mistake. Looking at the pictures of both men some might see a resemblance, but the resemblance was minimal or indeed negligible or at least not sufficient enough to lead to the grave error of mistaking the one for the other in such a serious case with serious consequences for the one that was convicted. Indeed, had this case had been brought to court half a century earlier, Cotton would have been sent to the gas chamber and that would have been the end of that.
So what happened to Thompson’s attempt to memorize her attacker’s features and why did she get it so horribly wrong when it came to picking him out in a line of likely suspects? The answer is perhaps this. When confronted with a line of black suspects, all the distinctive features that Thompson had memorized suddenly disappeared into a racial fog. Those features then became a matter of secondary consideration now relegated to the racial connection that both men shared, a connection steeped in perception of black criminality. Any black man would do, since they all look alike and act alike. Her identification was now no better than a guess or throwing a dart and hitting any rough and ready black man on the line since the conviction of any one of them would just as achieve the justice that Thompson now sought and for 11 years, this peculiar form of justice appeared to have been served. The darker and meaner the look, the more likely it is to convict a black defendant. Indeed, Thompson was reported to have said: ‘Gosh, I mean they’re such rotten people, and you’re both here in front of me.’ She went on to say that it never entered her mind that she might be identifying the wrong man. Even if it did, the fact that these men, in front of her, all black, were by this very fact all ‘rotten’ men, so sending any one of them to jail would ultimately serve the demands of justice on the basis of their blackness and the perceived black propensity to criminality. This is precisely that has been expressed regarding the Central Park 5, a group of youths wrongly convicted of and imprisoned for a crime that they did not commit. Many still claim that they deserve their jails terms because they were, in any case, criminals.
In cases of mistaken identity, we start with a type, (a type of person that we know, have seen, a face, its prominent features and contours: thickness of lips, form of the nose, shape of forehead and cheekbones – high or low, – hair colour, texture, short, long, kinky, straight, Afro and so on). We select these out of which we create a stereotype (same features always found in persons of the same race), which we then impose on any individual that fits the type. These features then become like pieces of a jigsaw that we put together to solve a puzzle, like racial profiling. It is a kind of inductive reasoning in which we move from something known, like: all known Muslim terrorists have been Asians, some bearded, sometimes wearing long gowns, to the conclusion that the man in front of us at the airport who is Asian, Muslim, bearded and wearing a long gown is a likely terrorist. In identifying the person in front of us, we merely recycle certain known facts, physical features, for example and their regular associations (bearded, Asian Muslim terrorist or rough looking black criminal), now conjoured up in the imagination to fit the man before us. Therefore, in processing faces in which we end up making the ‘mistake’ of misidentification, this happens because unbeknown to us several salient ingredients have intruded into our thought process to produce an identikit type. We become like artists drawing someone from memory, which means we see not the person before us but a person in our imagination, an individual formed by a process of aggregation of persons with similar characteristics. As such the person in front of us becomes a mere representation of an amalgamated type of persons we have met, known or constructed in our mind. The fusiform may be at play, but it draws its raw materials from experience.
There is no doubt that it is a grave error to mistake Chinese for Japanese or Koreans for Singaporeans, Indians for Pakistanis and yet people do; and no matter how much it is claimed that these ethnicities look alike from the outside, it is also the laziness of thinking and the racial biases of outsiders that is largely responsible for these mistakes. Matters are made worse when the blame for the error is placed on the shoulders of these ethnic groups rather than on those making the mistake.
Perhaps, my experience at the conference had nothing to do with racial stereotype at all but all to do with the projection of goodwill onto the one (myself) who is mistaken for another (Mbembe). But from where did this goodwill come? Presumably, it is goodwill that Mbembe had built up over the years on account of his works, which was now being conferred on me, the lesser-known scholar. I should therefore be grateful that I was being mistaken for him. But this will not do. This is merely to see the benign side to racial mistaken identity. But the problem remains because the whole thing runs on a spectrum from the benign to the catastrophic. And so if a phenomenon carries the inherent risk of possible catastrophe – racial mistaken identity leading to miscarriage of justice or destructive forms of racism – then its benign expression becomes no more than an aberration or an exception merely that proves the rule. A mistake is a mistake and mistakes are never a good thing even when they are benign, or rather, there can never be such a thing as a good mistake. Therefore to be mistaken even for a great scholar takes something away from the one who is mistaken for that scholar. This is notwithstanding the fact that this is an honest mistake.
Even family resemblance in the Wittgensteinian sense does still allow for shades of difference. As already mentioned, except in cases of identical twins or where there is very close physical resemblance between two people (the one being a spitting image of the other) resemblances that lead to mistaken identities are often caused not by what is perceived but what is brought from previous experiences onto the object of current perception. A may look like B, but A is not B and this is important.
We all have our prejudices and biases, which is an inevitable part of being social creatures. An aspect of this kind of thing is what Gadamer (2004) calls having a ‘horizon’, which he describes as ‘The totality of all that can be realised or thought about by a person at a given time in history and in a particular culture.’ For Gadamer, ‘the concept of horizon suggests itself because it expresses the superior breadth of vision that the person who is trying to understand must have. To acquire a horizon means that one learns to look beyond what is close at hand – not in order to look away from it but to see it better’. This ‘seeing better’ is more likely to happen through a process that I earlier referred to as having sensitivity and genuine interest and positive familiarity with other races, which would hopefully allow for a clearer vision particularly in matters of close encounters with others. Where our horizon is limited or our mental ceiling is low, then our understanding of the world around us becomes curtailed or fuzzy, leading to mistakes of different kinds. In this sense, according to Gadamer ‘understanding is the fusion of the past and the present horizon. Indeed, the present cannot be formed without the past. Past and present cannot exist without each other and ‘understanding is always the fusion of these horizons supposedly existing by themselves.’
But merely transferring and imposing the past on mass or as a block onto the present, cannot achieve fusion. We achieve fusion when both the past and the present are regarded as distinct but related entities, where both are fused together and in doing so we can see where and how they are also different even when they appear to be similar. In this way the present or the person before us is brought into sharper focus as something or somebody unique and different to the past or to other person we have known or imagined. Hence, according to Gadamer ‘All that is asked is that we remain open to the meaning of the other person’, so that we do not fall into the mistake of making ‘a judgement that is rendered before all elements that determine a situation have been finally examined.’ Fusion consists in the examination of all relevant facts or factors, of seeing difference in sameness, difference between people even where they may look alike. But where this differentiation fails to take place, then the present will always be nothing but the past, the individual will disappear into the group and one black person will be like all other black people.
Lastly, it is curious that Western philosophy, which is predicated on the idea of the individual as the basic unit of philosophical analysis, from the epistemological, metaphysical, political, moral standpoints and upon which theories of value, the self, theories of rights, autonomy and agency is based, is suddenly abandoned when it comes to seeing the individuality in other races. When Thompson looked at the possible suspects of men that may have raped her, her memories of the actual man that raped her suddenly disappeared and all that she could see was a race of men anyone of which could have raped her. She obviously would have liked her attacker convicted but she could not tell who the real culprit was. All she knew was that he was black and before her was a group of black men. She ended up helping to convict a race rather than the individual that had assaulted her. This is how destructive racial misidentification can get, even though it has its benign side. The problem, as already mentioned, is that with racial categorization, the individual often disappears into the group only to emerge wearing the characteristic mask of the group that others have constructed for him or her. As much as I may resemble him, I am not Achille Mbembe.
Allport, G (1954) The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge Mass: Addison-Wesley
Eberhadt, J. (2019) Bias: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think and Do. New York: Viking
Gadamer, H. G. (2004) Truth And Method. 2nd edition. Trans. J. Weinsheimer and D. Marshall. New York: Crossroad.
Gadamer, H-G. “On the Scope and Function of Hermeneutical Reflection” (1967) In Philosophical Hermeneutics. pp.18-43. Linge D.E (editor), (1977). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Mbembe, A. (2017) Critique of Black Reason. Durham: Duke University.
Gabriel Apata is an independent Scholar with a PhD from Goldsmiths College University of London. His research focuses on the intersection between Western philosophy and social theory and African thoughtword. It examines the impact of Western influences on African cultures and how Africa has both resisted as well as assimilated Western culture into its world. He has published in academic journals as well as works of fiction. He is currently working on a book: The African Condition and the Anthropocene.