Distinguish between ethnicities
June 8, 2008 12:28 PM   Subscribe

Is there any website that shows the physical differences between the faces of people from different ethnicities?

I'm interested in being able to identify the origin of a person based on his facial looks. This is of course difficult, but to a certain extent its possible. For example, I can distinguish between a Kenyan and a Ghanaian and I can distinguish between someone from Vietnam and from Indonesia. Is there any website that has a table of faces of people from different ethnicities and points out which features to look for to correctly place them?
posted by markovich to Human Relations (24 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
It might be difficult to do, since race is a social construct. For example, I am "Canadian" and my wife is Japanese. Our son was born in Japan, and currently holds dual-nationality. Could you tell by looking at him that he is "half-Canadian, half-Japanese"? You would probably say that he is "Eurasion", but that doesn't really answer your question, since you're trying to tell the difference between Kenyans and Ghanians, so saying my son is half Japanese, half European (Eurasian) isn't precise enough. I myself have Scots, English, Estonian and German ancestry. Could you tell that my son has some of that, too, just by looking at him? Even saying my son has "German" ancestry is problematic, because my grandfather was an ethnic German from Silesia, which is now part of Poland.

But, say if we took my son, with his Japanese ancestry, to Kazakhstan, people would probably assume that he came from there, because of the supposed strong resemblance between the Japanese and the Kazakhs.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:51 PM on June 8, 2008

As a Korean who's been subjected to the Wait-Wait-Let-Me-Guess-Your-Ethnicity Game over the years, I suggest you check out http://www.alllooksame.com/.

My favorite is when people (mostly non-Asians) explain why I MUST be Chinese/Japanese/Vietnamese/Filipina because of the shape of my face, skin tone, hair style, eye shape, height, clothes, etc. When they're wrong, it's usually because I either don't follow the "rules" for what I'm supposed to look like ("you're taller/shorter/darker skinned/lighter skinned than most Koreans") or because I'm trying to pass myself off as another group ("You look/dress/talk more like a Chinese person than a Korean. It's confusing.")
posted by yeoja at 1:01 PM on June 8, 2008 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Here's a Facial Map of Europe, created by digitally averaging photos of the (male) faces of many different European countries' athletes. Full size here. See also photo composites of women from eight European countries.
posted by Asparagirl at 1:08 PM on June 8, 2008 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm not asking about what your personal feelings regarding ethnic judgments are, I'm just asking about a catalogue of standard face looks across ethnicities.

KokuRyu: I say nothing about 'Race'. I'm talking of self-identified ethnic groups.
posted by markovich at 1:36 PM on June 8, 2008

I believe Ekman covers different facial actions for different races in (at least) one of his books.
posted by P.o.B. at 1:38 PM on June 8, 2008

Response by poster: P.o.B, I'm not interested in 'Race'. A Ghanaian and a Kenyan are of the same race, but of different ethnicities. Race is an American definition and is not relevant to this question.
posted by markovich at 1:40 PM on June 8, 2008

What's really interesting about Asparagirl's map is that every single composite is way more attractive than the probable mean of the contributing photos. I remember reading something a while back in Seed about how averaging a lot of faces increases perceived attractiveness - see here.
posted by you're a kitty! at 1:51 PM on June 8, 2008

I'm just asking about a catalogue of standard face looks across ethnicities.

The definition of what a "standard face" looks like for any ethnicity (imposed or self-defined) has a high degree of subjectivity to it. It boils down to who is making those catalogs.

Would my face be considered a "standard" example of Koreans? Both my parents are Korean, as were their parents, etc. Since I'd be considered "full" Korean by blood, does that mean my face would be a "standard"? What about my cousins who have different body shapes and skin tones than me and my siblings? Or are physical traits of ethnicity based on nationality? Are my relatives better "standard" representations of Koreanness because they live in Korea? Or am I a better representation because my skin tone is lighter, even though I'm in the US?
posted by yeoja at 1:57 PM on June 8, 2008

There are a lot of scientific papers by forensic anthropologists on relative measurements of facial features etc and they can get quite specific by Point of Origin.

As far as living people I don't think this is something you can learn from a website, especially as so much of what clues us in to a person's place of origin is much more ephemeral. I can usually tell if someone is from Germany vs France or Spain right away but at least 70% of that is by their height, shoes, clothes, hairstyle, hand gestures etc. I can often tell how affluent they were growing up by the same things.

American's are typically bad at this, which I imagine is due to the more fluid culture here. One of the things a lot of European ex-pats I know like the best about America is that people are much slower to judge someone by their upbringing or point of origin or even to notice those things. Everyone is from somewhere else and it's typically unremarkable.

Asparagirl- that map looks like it was made by averaging the faces of the national soccer teams! too funny.
posted by fshgrl at 2:29 PM on June 8, 2008

Response by poster: yeoja: There is a clear difference between an average Ethiopian, Chadian, Kenyan, or a person from the Congo. There is no clear standard, but there are several facial indicators. So PLEASE stop taking this topic like its a personal attack on you and just say 'I don't know' if you do not know the answer.
posted by markovich at 2:31 PM on June 8, 2008

Just wanted to clarify my above comment: you can often tell if a young woman grew up in, say mainstream British culture vs Spanish culture or the US, by the way she dresses and styles herself no matter her race or mixture thereof. Technically it's by he way she looks but is unrelated to her ethnicity.
posted by fshgrl at 2:40 PM on June 8, 2008

You may want to look into plastic surgery as a starting point. This article discusses ethnic features in cosmetic surgery, but doesn't get in depth as much as you would like. Obviously someone had to study that for this article and practice to exist.
posted by pieoverdone at 2:42 PM on June 8, 2008

From that article:

By measuring the position of facial features, such as the lips, brow lines, cheekbones and noses, of people from different ethnic groups ages 18 to 65, the researchers are determining attractive facial features for each group. Lowe's study includes African-Americans, Middle Easterners, Hispanics and Native Americans along with a breakdown of Asian subcultures into Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Hawaiian.

"The goal of plastic surgeons should be to enhance or rejuvenate the patient's natural features," Lowe says. "But we can't make someone look 'natural' if we don't know what 'natural' is for them. Japanese people don't want to look Chinese, and Chinese people don't want to look American. Our goal is to really get to the depths of what is aesthetically acceptable and beautiful for each group."

posted by pieoverdone at 2:43 PM on June 8, 2008

P.o.B, I'm not interested in 'Race'. A Ghanaian and a Kenyan are of the same race, but of different ethnicities. Race is an American definition and is not relevant to this question.
Ok, I meant ethnicities. I apologize I don't have a webiste link for you, but if you seriously wanted to improve this ability wouldn't you maybe take any and all suggestions. At least look into it, weigh it for it's usefullness, and then be dismissive?

Whatever though, just throwing it out there.
posted by P.o.B. at 3:03 PM on June 8, 2008

A friend of mine worked in law enforcement a few years ago when the facial recognition software was coming out. He said that it was uncanny how he could put in a suspect's picture and the software would spit out people with similar last names. Put in a guy who is a US citizen, but whose parents were both from Estonia, and damned if all the matches weren't Estonian. He said that he would never have guessed where the person came from, but that the computer could "see" similarities that we couldn't.

So these differences and similarities do exist, but I suspect that it isn't really relevant except as a genetic curiosity. Every family will have a unique history and genetic "backtrack" to somewhere from which they came.
posted by gjc at 3:11 PM on June 8, 2008

I'm using myself as an example not because I'm taking anything as an attack on me personally, but as a way of inserting a real-life example into the discussion and to illustrate how perceptions of ethnicity can be flawed and subjective.

posted by yeoja at 4:28 PM on June 8, 2008

As you've pointed out, there are certain faces that are particular to each country/ethnic group. Daniel Dae Kim, for example, is instantly recognizable as Korean; that isn't to say that all Koreans share his facial features, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a Chinese or Japanese person that looks like him. To a lesser extent, Ken Takakura has a recognizably Japanese face.

However, those "recognizable" faces are relatively few; among East Asian countries at least, there is a lot of overlap. There are many Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese faces that could easily be found among northern and southern Chinese, many faces that could be Korean or Japanese, etc. For example, Se7en (a Korean pop star) and Gong Yoo (a Korean actor) could easily pass for Chinese or Japanese. So it might be difficult to identify any person's ethnic group from facial features alone, but you could certainly learn to identify the Daniel Dae Kims and Ken Takakuras of the world.

Things get more difficult when you take facial hair into account; different ethnic groups certainly have different amounts of facial hair, but whether they wear it or not (and how they wear it) is a cultural thing. I'm as southern Chinese as they come, but many in China thought I was Korean, and everybody in Korea thought I was Japanese, in both cases because of my facial hair. I've personally mistaken a Hong Konger for a Japanese because he was wearing a goatee.

But yeah, I echo the previous posters in saying that clothing, mannerisms, and language are far more useful indicators than facial features. At any rate, it's certainly an interesting question (that Europe map was hilarious, especially the Belgium guy).

Also, this isn't what you're asking for, but I found the speech accent archive really interesting and along the same lines (but with accents!) Anyhow, it's an interesting question I've often pondered myself, and I look forward to seeing other answers.
posted by pravit at 4:47 PM on June 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Artist's Guide to Human Types: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. I came across these tutorials years ago. (I always meant to post them to the Blue but never got around to it.) It's a guide on how to draw different ethnicities for artists, but it sounds like exactly what you're looking for. For each ethnicity, it's divided into body size and shape, head & face, facial differences, eye color, skin color and hair color. I have no idea how accurate it is (which is one reason I never got around to posting it to the Blue). Also, the author acknowledges that her examples are average models and that most people of that ethnicity will vary.
posted by nooneyouknow at 6:06 PM on June 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

If you can pick up Stephen Peck's Atlas of the Human Anatomy for the Artist, he writes about this stuff in some detail near the end of the book.
posted by theiconoclast31 at 7:08 PM on June 8, 2008

Best answer: Here's one! Page 3 meets your requirements exactly.
posted by peachfuzz at 7:15 PM on June 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I say nothing about 'Race'. I'm talking of self-identified ethnic groups.

Then define ethnicity.

In the meantime, here's a neat little video that describes how hard it is to tell the difference between ethnicities.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:40 PM on June 8, 2008

As others have pointed out with varying degrees of dismissiveness... Race ain't it, as racial distinction is arbitrary, imprecise, and comes loaded with all the worst bits of history. Ethnicity is closer, but ethnicity is largely cultural, and is a pretty poor indicator of what people look like.

More precisely, you are probably looking for strongish correlations between facial morphology / skin tone and geographic origin (or nationality or somesuch). These exist, and I expect you already know that they are at best not very accurate. And I'd expect that in most cases where two distinct groups are hard to tell apart on sight, mistaking one for the other is going to be more insulting than usual. You may have better luck studying accents and ignoring appearance.

In my opinion its not worth pursuing this, since you can always ask someone if it's ever all that important (and it rarely is). But hopefully this will at least stop people from telling you that you're talking about it all wrong.

FYI, I am an American whose ancestors came from a variety of places, none of which would make me the half-Japanese French Latino Jew that I seem to get mistaken for with surprising frequency.
posted by jacobbarssbailey at 5:21 AM on June 9, 2008

You seriously marked "How to Spot a Jap" as a best answer?
posted by peachfuzz at 5:25 AM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

I really appreciated the "How to Spot a Jap" linkage. As a rhetorical point, it was brilliant. I took the OP's "best answer" as a 'touche'.
posted by norm at 9:25 AM on June 9, 2008

« Older New Age Top 10   |   Why does my 12" Powerbook overheat so much? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.