Face, Eyes and Touch

By Thomas Kochman - 04.11.2012

I remember a sign in a store in the ski resort town of Vail, Colorado, which asked customers to remove their ski mask when entering the store.

Behind that request, no doubt, was the association of robberies with “people who wear ski masks” and an attempt to forestall the public alarm and fear that a covered face would otherwise create.

We can now add to the ski mask, the “hoodie”, made infamous now by the role it played in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

The issue there –apart from who wears it—is that it denies access to the face, which people often use to determine whether someone is “up to something or not.”

Because of racism, if the person wearing the hoodie is an African American male, what starts out as a general suspicion, ends up in specific certainty.

The public requirement that people present themselves with an “open face”, at times, goes even further.

Mainstream US culture also asks that people “look them in the eye” when addressing them and especially when learning is required, as in US classrooms.

Not doing so means, “you’re not listening”, or “not paying attention”, either of which, adds up to disrespect.

This takes on additional meaning in the context of a subordinate being chastised by a teacher or adult.

In Mainstream US culture, for example, it means accepting the punishment that is being meted out to you, whether you agree with it or not.

Looking away or down is seen as being evasive and cowardly, making whatever you did that got you into trouble, even worse.

In other cultures, by way of contrast, looking an adult or superior directly in the eye when being addressed or criticized is a sign of rebellion or defiance, and taken as gross disrespect of that person’s authority and position — the opposite of what it means in U.S. mainstream culture.

Add to face and eyes the matter of touch.

A recent article by Mark L. Keam highlights the problems that happen cross-culturally when Korean store owners or their staff in black communities interact with their African American customers.

As Keam points out, “In some Asian cultures, it is considered rude to look at a stranger directly in the eye or to physically touch a stranger in an intentional way.  So when a recent immigrant from Asia who is working as a cashier in a small grocery store refuses to look at his African American customer in the eye or to place the change directly in the hands of the customer, it is not because the immigrant wants to be rude. Instead, the Asian immigrant is actually showing respect to the customer. “

From the African American perspective, however, a store owner not looking at them directly, and perhaps especially, avoiding touch, such as not putting money in their hands when returning change, conjures up the experience that Blacks had in the South of being “untouchable” and, therefore, also the image of being less than fully human.

So how can we move forward in getting and setting things right?

From our perspective, it starts with having a conversation. Not just any conversation, mind you, but one that  deals with topics and issues that are difficult, and up to now, mostly impossible to discuss.

Things that make us who we really are.

Especially things that make us different.