By GLEN S. FUKUSHIMA
On Wednesday morning, April 29, I woke up to receive several congratulatory emails from friends informing me that my name had appeared in that morning’s “Style” section of The Washington Post.
Sure enough, on the top left corner of Page C3, in a caption under the photograph next to that of Caroline Kennedy, U.S. ambassador to Japan, my name appears: “Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) arrives with Glen S. Fukushima.” Five photographs were prominently displayed under the headline “The Japan State Dinner,” referring to the gala dinner that President and Mrs. Obama hosted at the White House the previous evening for visiting Japanese Prime Minister and Mrs. Shinzo Abe.
The only problem was that the photograph above the caption showed not Sen. Hirono and me but Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento) and her son, Brian!
How is it that the most authoritative newspaper in Washington, D.C. could confuse two members of Congress who don’t even look alike, especially when one of them, Mazie Hirono, is the first and so far only Asian American woman senator in American history?
Surprised as I was by this incident, I was even more surprised to learn that such cases of Asian American members of Congress being misidentified are not rare. On a March 26 telecast, C-SPAN showed Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Los Angeles) but mistakenly labeled him using the nameplate for Rep. Mark Takai (D-Hawaii). And, 13 hours later, C-SPAN showed Sen. Hirono on the screen but misidentified her by using the nameplate for the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).
Perhaps a pattern is emerging? As Warren Rojas noted in the March 27 issue of Roll Call, “C-SPAN appears to be having real trouble differentiating among Asian American lawmakers.”
In social psychology, the “cross-race effect” refers to the tendency to recognize more easily members of one’s own race. This can have real-world consequences detrimental to minorities. For instance, experiments have demonstrated that in police lineups, white victims will have a higher probability of erroneously identifying the suspect for a crime when that person is a member of a minority group.
In order to reduce such bias, Britain has a law that requires police to include the suspect in a lineup with at least eight other people who share similar characteristics to him or her. This forces eyewitnesses to use their memory of the suspect’s features, not the suspect’s race, as the basis for identification.
As it happens, this month, May, is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month — a celebration of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States. The month of May was chosen to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843, and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. The majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants.
Asian Pacific Americans now comprise nearly six percent of the population of the United States and constitute one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups. There are currently 13 Asian Pacific Americans serving in Congress, including one out of every nine representatives from California.
Having been in this country for nearly 200 years, Asian Pacific Americans have been proud contributors to American society, and three served as Cabinet members in the first Obama Administration. Is it too much to ask that mainstream media organizations correctly identify at least those Asian Pacific Americans who are members of Congress?
In the second decade of the 21st century, surely it is high time to bury that old canard, “All Asians look alike.”
Glen S. Fukushima is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. He has served as deputy assistant U.S. trade representative for Japan and China and as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.