Dynamist Blog

ETHNIC AMBIGUITY

The NYT Sunday Styles section has discovered a fairly obvious trend: Among younger people, the all-American look is ethnically ambiguous: light brown skin; brown or hazel eyes; brown or obviously dyed hair.

Looking "American" no longer means looking like Christie Brinkley or Michael Jordan. That thought that hit me in the mid-90s, when I looked across an L.A. nail salon at a man waiting for a customer and thought, "It's people like him who are driving those nativists crazy." He could have been Latino, or Persian, or Indian, or something else. What he wasn't was easily classified as black or white, as Americans were supposed to be.

As a social commentator, I'm all for the trend toward ethnic ambiguity. (I once got a nasty letter to the editor at Reason accusing me of "wanting everyone to be beige.) I'd like to see ethnicity, which is fluid and easily mixed over the generations, replace race, which is rigid and inescapable.

As a blue-eyed blonde with untannable skin, I'm more ambivalent. Benetton ads have no place for people like me, and I'd hate to see a new exclusionary world replace the old one.

Psychologists tell us that people recognize human beauty in every color; it's a matter of symmetry and other signs of health. Researchers also find that people look more attractive to other people the more their features trend toward the human average. (Exceptional beauties are, well, the exception to this rule.) Hence, perhaps, everyone in America does aspire to be beige--something that was as true in the black-and-white 1960s as it is in the beige '00s.

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