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Steinberg: ‘Just a Jewish guy in a baseball cap and a beard’

Columnist Neil Steinberg says people often say he looks like movie director Steven Spielberg. | Sun-Times/Getty Images

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My wife sleeps later than I do — beauty’s privilege. At home, I use the time to write stuff. On vacation, I go to the hotel gym.

But the oil light went on during our drive East, so I figured an early-morning trip to the Jiffy Lube was in order.

In the waiting room with coffee and the Post, a Jiffy Lube employee, Louis, called my name and began a canned pitch: we should also rotate your tires and change your transmission fluid and . . . .

No, no, no. Just the oil.

That bit of robotic business out of the way, Louis blinked, and seemed to notice me for the first time.

“Did anyone ever tell you you look like Steven Spielberg?” he said.

People tell me that all the time, so much that I have a canned reply.

“I don’t look like Steven Spielberg,” I said. “I’m just a Jewish guy in a baseball cap and a beard.”

He laughed. They always do.

OPINION

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Later that morning, my wife and I visited the Smithsonian’s National History Museum. On the way in, we stopped at the information desk for a map.

“Did anyone ever tell you . . .” the woman there said, “that you look like Steven Spielberg?”

“I don’t look like Steven Spielberg,” I sighed. “I’m just a Jewish guy in a baseball cap and beard.”

Walking away, I was grumbling “Steven Spielberg is not an attractive man . . . .” My wife pointed out that it was just a way for strangers to say something. The lady at the information desk had almost been excited, as if I were some kind of quasi-Spielberg. We talked about “Lincoln.”

To me, there is a queasy racial blindness here. Both the guy at Jiffy Lube and the lady at the information desk were African-American.

Them saying I look like Steven Spielberg is like me going up to any random black guy and saying he looks like Michael Jordan.

People are notoriously bad at identifying individuals in groups not their own. Scientists have been studying this “cross-race effect” for 100 years. With your own kind, you notice details — the curve of a jaw, the bulge of an ear. But another race, it’s just some generic Asian or white guy or Jew. The details blur.

This tendency can trip up the keenest observers. P.J. O’Rourke famously got himself in trouble in 1988 when he published an article in Rolling Stone on South Korean politics that included this passage about a giant rally:

“I was looking at this multitude, and I was thinking, ‘Oh no, they really do all look alike’ — the same Blackglama hair, the same high-boned pie-plate face, the same tea-stain complexion, the same sharp-focused look in 1 million identical anthracite eyes.”

That sparked outrage, and Rolling Stone ended up apologizing.

Cross-racial unease is a driving force in the current presidential race, with one candidate saying he’s going to build a wall, keep Mexicans out, keep Muslims out, dog-whistling white supremacists who are just now standing up, blinking in the unfamiliar light of day. Not recognizing the individuality of other races and ethnicities is what they do.

The question boils down to: do we lump others together so it’s easier to reject them? Or do we squint hard and notice their individuality?

The former is popular because it’s easy. I can make the most rational argument: “Benghazi is actually a reason people should vote for Hillary Clinton, because if what happened there is her responsibility as secretary of state, it’s a reminder that she was responsible for the entire world for four years, and if this one tragedy is the worst people can pin on her, then she did pretty well.”

Now you can either muster mental energy to argue that. Or you can sneer that I’m the member of a group who does this facty-reasony thing, and so can be blithely dismissed. It’s not much of a reply. But it’s all they’ve got. Well, that and a presidential candidate of their own.

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