I point to my boyfriend and his identical twin from across the room.
“That’s him,” I say, “and that’s his brother.” I watch as my listeners search the crowd, looking for them. I see their eyes glance back and forth between the two, and then turn back to me and smile. In addition to the usual “How long have you been dating?” and “How did you guys meet?” I also get an occasional “Can you tell them apart?” I usually just laugh and sarcastically reply that, yes, of course I can.
I didn't think much of this question, and even found it slightly amusing, until I mentioned it to my boyfriend. I thought he’d just laugh and throw it in the pile of twin comments I’m sure he’s received all his life, but he seemed unexpectedly annoyed by it. Initially, I didn’t understand what the big deal was, probably because the question was so obviously a nonsensical one that I didn’t think it was worth reacting to.
But he went on to explain to me that when people make comments like that, he feels objectified, as if just because he’s a twin, he doesn’t have enough of an identity to have a relationship personal and unique to him and only him. It’s like if a Caucasian guy were dating an African-American girl, and someone were to ask the girl, “If you got lost in a crowd with a bunch of other black girls, would your boyfriend be able to find you?”
That last question, if asked in a crowd, would immediately elicit criticism and a condemning reaction. Any offense taken is entirely expected and almost encouraged by the reaction of the crowd. But when people ask me if I can correctly differentiate between my boyfriend and his twin brother, it’s a perfectly acceptable question and it’s classified as “small talk.” If he or his brother were to react defensively to a twin joke, they would be the ones to get strange looks and be silently blamed for creating an unnecessarily awkward situation. In an instant, they’ve been isolated, and their offense is considered out of place.
So where’s the line that determines whether being offended is a right or an overreaction?
Is offense not justified unless it has gone through an entire civil rights movement, complete with a march and a constitutional amendment? Or is the qualification that every single person the certain label encompasses needs to be offended? Maybe it’s not every single person, but just the majority?
But the fact that there seems to exist an implied threshold of what constitutes valid offense is, at its root, the very thing that causes offense in the first place. The reason that people are offended by stereotypes is because they objectify people, reducing them to one characteristic that they may possess. Labeling someone and identifying her entire personhood by that one label sucks the humanity out of her. She is not a person with a right to be taken seriously.
Part of respect is genuinely considering other people’s perspectives, even if they may seem unreasonable to us, because we believe that their thoughts and feelings are just as legitimate as our own. It’s taking into consideration that the person that feels offended by something we said is, beyond any sort of label, an individual, with the capacity and right to feel and think, to take offense and to be heard.
It’s not that my boyfriend loses sleep at night because he’s so hurt about continually being identified as a twin. But I think the trend of his feelings of offense being brushed off could indicate that we forget the foundation of these big, political civil rights issues is the individual. In the end, while fully acknowledging the complexities of historical abuses of power and the multifaceted nature of some of these conflicts, these macroscopic battles are built on microscopic, everyday struggles against disrespect.
The point is, when people ask how to tell the twins apart, friends and family can all chime in: their smiles are different, one has a freckle right next to his eye, the way they hold their eyebrows, the way they greet you. The list could go on forever, but really we all know it just comes down to one thing: Come from the same zygote though they may, they are utterly and completely distinct people.
Grace Koh is a second-year in the College majoring in political science.