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The face of a people

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Race should not be defined by physical appearance.

We all know that different ethnicities have unique identity markers. Items such as food and clothing are relatively easy to assign to different cultures – kimchi (a fermented vegetable dish) originated from Korea; qipaos (a traditional costume) originated from China, and so on.

However, what about the physical features of different races? With the rise of globalisation and interracial marriages, the link between racial identity and physical appearance has become more subjective.

The recently-crowned Miss Japan 2015, Ariana Miyamoto, is the first biracial woman selected to represent Japan in the Miss Universe Pageant. Sadly, her victory has been marred by the racial discrimination she has received from Japanese media. Some Japanese citizens have expressed their preference for a "pure" Japanese representative in this international pageant.


ARIANA MIYAMOTO (CENTRE) IS OF AFRO-AMERICAN AND JAPANESE HERITAGE. 
PHOTO CREDIT: STUFF.CO.NZ

This news item has gotten me thinking about how one's physical appearance is linked to racial identity. What should a Japanese person look like? Or, for that matter, what should a Singaporean, German, Brazilian or Thai person look like?

On a recent vacation overseas, my friends and I joked that we had a "Singaporean radar", which helped us to spot Singaporeans among passers-by. Eventually, we made a game out of choosing a passer-by at random, and trying to guess his or her nationality.  

This made me reflect on the 'default' mental image we have of certain nationalities and races' physical appearance. People who do not fit into these typical impressions have to struggle to assert their identity.


SCIENTISTS CREATED COMPUTER-GENERATED IMAGES OF THE 'AVERAGE' WOMAN IN DIFFERENT COUNTRIES.
HOWEVER, SOME OF THE IMAGES HAVE BEEN CRITICIZED FOR BEING INACCURATE REPRESENTATIONS.

PHOTO CREDIT: DAILYMAIL.CO.UK

Even in a multicultural country like Singapore, racial and national identity is still strongly influenced by one’s appearance. Isabelle Schymyck-Young, 19, a biracial youth, weighs in on the issue.

"People usually can't tell that I am mixed and assume that I am completely white," said Isabelle. "When I'm with a group of my Asian friends, they won't think that I am as Asian as them, even though I am in tune with my Singaporean heritage as I was brought up here."

She continued: "When I am around a group of my Caucasian friends, they won't see me as Asian, even though I don't completely identify with white culture. They might say something problematic about Asian minorities, not realising that I am half Asian."


CHECK OUT THIS VIDEO ABOUT THE STRUGGLES THAT MIXED-RACE PEOPLE FACE. 

How, then, can we create a more considerate and inclusive society?

"I wish that people wouldn't jump to conclusions about race because culture and heritage is deeper than how you look," said Isabelle. "I guess I would like people to treat me just like they would anyone else, with respect and with an open mind, without thinking that they have to label me somehow."

A bit of sensitivity goes a long way when interacting with people who do not fit your perception of a certain race or nationality. One should never be made to feel like any side of their racial identity is overlooked. 

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