Exploring Race in Australia: ‘All Asians look the same.’

There’s an episode of the cringe-y show Two and a half men where Charlie Sheen’s character is trying to pick up these two Asian women. But because they’re sooo identical, he sneakily uses a marker to draw numbers on them so he can tell them apart.

But in a classic sitcom plot twist, these conniving Asian women wash off these numbers, and suddenly, they’re indistinguishable! A crass comedy of errors ensues.

Now I know Two and a half men is a terribly written piece of television trash, so I didn’t expect anything better from it, but I remember watching it with my parents, and them finding absolutely nothing wrong with it at all, it was just a benign half hour of television, a bit of canned laughter and crude humour.

But it just didn’t sit right with me, the punchline of ‘Asian people look the same’ hit a nerve.

When I was in Year 11, I had an Art Teacher who kept confusing me with another girl in the same year level. We looked absolutely nothing alike, except for the fact that we were both of South Asian origin and were of a similar height. Our facial features, choice of haircut, body shape, voice, personality- all completely different. I wore glasses and she didn’t. We even wore different versions of the school uniform.

Yet she insisted, you look like twins!  My eyes literally can’t tell the difference between you two!

Really? You should probably get that checked out.

I wish I’d had the self awareness to say that. But instead I laughed along weakly and flinched every time she called me the wrong name. Which she did for most of the year.

I had a similar experience in Year 5, when my music teacher kept calling me Marini. Marini was another girl with South Asian heritage, except she was from Sri Lanka, whilst my parents are Indian. I remember the frustrating experience of explaining this to the teacher.

India and Sri Lanka? They’re basically the same right? They used to be the same country?

Actually, that was India and Pakistan. And Sri Lanka and India (particularly Northern parts of India where my parents are from) are vastly different in terms of religion, culture and language, so, no, they’re not basically the same. At all.

You and Marini look so similar! I just can’t tell you apart, you look identical!

No, actually, we don’t. She’s about four inches taller, with hair down to her waist compared to my bob, completely different body shape and facial features.

But yeah, we’re both brown. You got that right! We’re just homogeneous brown blobs.


At university, I haven’t been on the receiving end of  this misconception that ‘all Asians look the same,’ but studying Commerce at the University of Melbourne, I’ve heard my fair share of generalizations about ‘the Asians who dominate the faculty.’

I’m so lucky the Asian girl in my assignment group has blue hair streaks, or I’d never recognize her.

Why do they hang out in groups? It’s so much harder to tell them apart that way.

Now, I know that part of this can be attributed to the ‘cross-race effect’, which is a tendency to recognize more easily members of one’s own race, or more appropriately for a multicultural Australian society, the races which we are exposed to. But I also think that part of this is ignorance or narrow mindedness.

It is racist to say that all Asians look alike, because they don’t. Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that it’s racist to have an initial difficulty in visually differentiating people of a race or ethnicity that you aren’t familiar with. But making the conclusion that all Asians objectively look alike is entirely racist because it indicates that you are dismissing this difficulty differentiating Asians from each other as due to a universal quality of Asians rather than your own underdeveloped experience or intellectual laziness.

Dismissing this difficulty of distinguishing between members of an ethnic group as ‘not your problem’ but theirs is also dehumanizing. On a personal level, being mixed up with other South Asian girls like Marini, girls with vastly different facial features, voices, body types, shades of skin and haircuts was frustrating, and it was all because instead of feeling these features were worth noting people categorized each of us as in terms of race in their memories. That wasn’t our fault for ‘looking so much alike’, it was the observers’ fault for not noticing how different from each other we really looked. It’s okay if you have trouble, but don’t turn that into an objective fact about the race you are observing so clumsily. Treating people as interchangeable takes away their individuality.