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Beyond black and white: the forest for the trees

"Race: Are We So Different?" 

Beyond black and white: the forest for the trees

I have visited the "Race" exhibit at Rochester Museum and Science Center twice so far, and both times caught college classes crowding the different stations, with students and teachers strolling in pairs or small groups and discussing with one another — and with community members — the heavy things that we must discuss. I witnessed people coming together in earnest to hear each other and to help each other understand, having halting, carefully measured, and at times awkward conversations. The show is a good stepping stone for the community, but made effective only by the patience and respect we are willing to offer each other going forward.

With its heavy focus on reading and listening, the exhibit skews toward an adult crowd. But with adult guidance it could be beneficial for young children as well. The show offers a wealth of information about variations in the human race, covering a lot of ground, from how geographic location has affected human variety, to race as a social construct used to control and shape human society throughout history. People from countless different backgrounds and combinations of cultures convey their experiences via video and in quotes.

One section holds instruments once used to measure differences and define us into ever-increasing categories. Another station discusses slavery and servitude, exploring the literal and legal ways that racial definitions have shackled humans. Yet another offers the historic horrors of segregation and Apartheid, which endure as open sores in American and other cultures, but which we overlook in current situations around the world. Videos playing in a newspaper stand tackle the hideous twin issues of racism and classism and the increasing divides between citizens as they struggle and throw one another under the bus. Viewing the exhibit will be uniquely complicated for each visitor, as well-meaning openness wars with insidiously ingrained prejudices and all manner of memories.

A wall of photographs of people wearing t-shirts defining their full, complex ethnic heritage is positioned near a stand about the U.S. Census, which asks viewers to vote on whether they think the demographic questionnaire's question on ethnic background should include these complexities, be more simplified, or omit the question of race altogether.

Other interactive parts of the exhibit include an individual opinion-based survey on which people around the world we deem as "white," as well as two stands where visitors may look at their own skin under a magnifying camera. At one of these, information is provided about how sunlight and vitamins, not race, determine our skin pigmentation. At the other, a photograph is taken of our flesh, which is added to a digital mosaic of the human prism.

The exhibit vaguely explores how we are still manipulated by the idea of race in a section about the first race-specific drug, BiDil, a prescription drug used to treat African Americans with congestive heart failure, which was approved by the FDA in 2005. At this section, quoted doctors debate whether there is any concrete evidence to support race-specific medicine and treatments, and after reading what they had to say, it seems far more likely that pill developers are just trying to sell pills.

But that's about as far as visitors are guided with regards to how the concept of racial differences manipulates our thoughts and actions today. Missing from the exhibit is an exploration of how ongoing prejudices guide each of us in sneaky ways even today, not only those we deem backwards souls, at whom we can shake our heads. Also not addressed is scripture-based racism, and how perceived rights to specific scraps of land and their resources are bolstered by the concepts of "chosen people" and "manifest destiny."

The ever-increasing problem of classism is touched on in various spots throughout the exhibit, but the connection isn't quite made about the ongoing usefulness of racism by the financial elite to help maintain classism. Racism is a big facilitator of classism; the people hurt by racism are also hurt a great deal by classism as well. We pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, we fight amongst our impoverished selves over scraps. Of particular interest is a wall on which people weigh in about the significance of electing a black president vs. the reality of racism in modern America.

Lacking from the exhibit is a clear delineation between personally learned and practiced racism and institutionalized racism, and the reality that while both must be fought, we cannot defeat one by defeating the other. We cannot feel good about eliminating racism from our daily lives if we uphold racist laws (for example, the disparities in the standards of punishments for the possession and sale of certain substances put in motion by the Rockefeller Drug Laws), merely because they are laws.

Institutional racism makes us incurious about the discrepancies between neighborhoods within the same city. It makes it easier to swallow the story of extremism in the Middle East and Africa and ignore our own. It reduces the innocent casualties to our aggressive resource-grab from whole lives to an unfeeling number. We can easily find anecdotes from soldiers who have said that once in Afghanistan, it became clear that racism was the tool by which our politicians took us to war. Ongoing racism dulls American citizens' sharp awareness of our own selfishness, as well as the bigger threats to us in authority at home.

I left the second visit to the museum curious if any other animal group on this earth has showed signs of discrimination against members of its own species based on physical trait variations. Then I struggled. This is certainly something that we could set forth to study, but to what end? We could try to determine what survival purpose prejudices might serve, but we already know we don't want to live like animals, so we can find no excuse in brutal nature.

We live in a time with more open access to information than ever before, but we have been lazy with it. We already know that technology's potential to connect us has failings, that the explosion of information has also created an illusion of understanding and a new breed of narcissism. Our patience for cultivating depth in our relationships and especially beyond the home, into the community, is steadily slipping. Which is not to say that efforts toward these ends are not being made — this very exhibit is a step in the right direction — but individual initiative needs to catch fire and spread.

Left: A photo from the "Race" exhibit demonstrates how racial categories have changed throughout American history. Right: A young visitor adds her skin tone to an ever-changing palette assembled from visitors' contributions.

PHOTOS PROVIDED

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