Are We Really So Different? The AAA Exhibit on “Race”

Did you know there’s a national exhibit that’s been traveling the US since 2007 entitled RACE: Are We So Different by the American Anthropological Association (AAA)? When I heard about it my thinking went something like this, “Oh good. A credible entity getting behind race discourse. Oh no. Why are they asking if race really makes us that different?”

National Exhibition [Source: Exhibit at Museum of Man – discovers.com]

 

As a multiracial woman often scrutinized for being “ethnically ambiguous” my experience of race is of something absolutely differentiating at the same time I find myself constantly butting up against people who deny its salience. So I felt invalidated then worried that an exhibit choosing to lead with the question, “Are we so different?” might prove unhelpful. Studies have found that when misinformed people were exposed to corrected facts they (a) rarely changed their minds, (b) often became even more strongly set in their beliefs , and (c) did so without recognizing how their own desires influenced them. We live in an era when undoing racism means battling avoidance, denial and the inability to understand another point of view. If people see what they want to see, might a national science exhibit questioning the salience of race run the risk of reinforcing rather than challenging the colorblind ideologies that plague us today? Here’s what I mean…

Simply Human?

As I first entered the exhibit at Seattle’s Science Center, a panel entitled Race Off offered me this, “There is no biological evidence that supports racial categories…What are we? The answer is simple – human.” This is something I run into a lot in my research and has become a trigger for me as a multiracial woman and mother. Check out what trailblazing scholar Maria P. P. Root has to say about this kind of language when it comes to our children:

If a child brings up a racial incident at school and meets with an abstract response from her parents, such as, “We’re all members of the human race,” “Race doesn’t matter,” or “We all bleed the same color,” the child gets no help from these pat answers and will be unequipped to deal with hazing, name calling, racial attacks, or other bullying…most children do not want to be confronted by their parent’s lack of competence in an area in which they need a role model (Maria P. P. Root as cited in Nakazawa, Donna Jackson. Does Anybody Else Look Like Me? A Parent’s Guide to Raising Multiracial Children. Cambridge: Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2003. Print.).

134 Brazilian Alternatives

I believe to demonstrate how arbitrary our concept of race can be, a panel against the East wall pointed out that Brazilians don’t identify racially in the same way Americans do. Instead, Brazilians align with a multitude of skin-shades rather than a handful of prescribed races. To illustrate the point, the panel gives an impressive list of 134 “Brazilian Terms for Skin Color.” While I was standing there wondering if this was being presented as a solution to our problems, two white women stepped up and admiringly commented, “Wow! This is amazing. We should do this here.” Now there is certainly a point to be made about the importance of discussing skin color but this long list, while different, does not mean Brazil has transcended issues of race. In fact quite the opposite – a reality the panel only lightly alludes to. Brazil, a nation to which 4.9 million African slaves were shipped during the slave trade (versus 400,000 to the US), struggles greatly with its own form of racism/colorism. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery and did nothing to turn former slaves into citizens. According to their 2010 Census, the income of whites was slightly more than double that of black or brown Brazilians and more than half the people in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (slums) are black compared to just 7% in richer districts. Sound familiar?

Who Gets to be “Mixed”?

Wrapping up my visit I found myself in a corner dedicated specifically to Kip Fulbeck’s The Hapa Project. Fulbeck’s work has been incredibly influential in defining the multiracial experience and bringing visibility to a very underrepresented demographic. But I got the uncomfortable feeling RACE was trying to use it as a voicebox for how all mixed race peoples choose to face questions of racial identity today.

I became alarmed. Why? Because choosing to be recognized as mixed race in America is still not something all multiracial people get to do. We must always remember our insidious history of oppressing especially mixed-race Blacks and Natives for holding a few drops of said blood (e.g. shutting them out of white and its associated privileges, relegating them instead to “lesser” categories of color). And this legacy persists. Do mixed Black children want or even get to identify as multiracial now? Case in point, our very own mixed race President Obama (who is “half” white) checked “Black” as his race on the 2010 Census. Any discussion of mixed-race identity needs to include a conversation about how this idea exists differently across racial lines. I immediately hunted down the exhibit’s content expert and asked if they had a panel explicitly featuring an exploration of the “One Drop Rule” and issues of blood quantum as a juxtaposition to the Kip Fulbeck corner. Guess what the answer was.

Now before I bring the full wrath of the AAA and America’s science museums down upon me let me say there is a lot this exhibit does well. But while RACE is incredibly researched and offers important information we should all know, it ultimately struggles to reconcile its driving science-based theme that we aren’t so different with a very strong demonstration that we definitely are. And this is where the exhibit did itself a great disservice. By trying to remain neutral on a completely non-neutral issue it not only left itself vulnerable to racial messaging but also positioned itself precisely in the danger zone; a place where the race-matters camp finds plenty of fuel for their fire, but the colorblind-postracial camp does too. And everybody leaves the room possibly having discussed nothing and gotten nowhere.

 

~ You can read more of guest blogger Sharon Chang at her MultiAsian Families blog.

 

Comments

  1. Joe

    Sharon, thanks for the excellent post. Even social science often neglects the harsh white-imposed realities of everyday racism in the US and overseas. A Brazilian student of mine points out that Brazil still has some “Jim Crow” segregation, such as having Afro-Brazilian domestic workers use the back doors of apartment buildings and having almost NO Afro-Brazilian faculty at large, major universities, etc.

    Also, the white agents of US discrimination and imposed racial classification and identity seem to be missing from these displays, too. Right?

  2. Sharon Chang Author

    Hmmm yes. Good question. What I observed:

    There was clear acknowledgement of how racism persists and I do recall maybe some light mention of imposed racial classification. But the deep implications of such forced identification did not jump out at me (e.g. the way Census surveyors once themselves marked an individual’s race by visual judgment and gave the individual no choice to self-identify). In terms of calling out white agents of US discrimination, you’re absolutely right. I did not see anything along those lines. I saw a lot of alluding to institutional racism (e.g. racism in healthcare, racial gaps in standardized testing, the resegregation of schools, the US Census, etc.) without naming the names behind those institutions.

    Disclaimer, I didn’t spend exhaustive hours examining the exhibit but neither would the average visitor. And I had the critical eye of a race writer/researcher. I wonder about the experience of non-academic folk who come because they’re interested (with very little race education prior), spend an hour or two, and then leave unlikely to visit the subject of race again any time soon unless they have to. What do they take away?

    • Joe

      Those issues you raise at the end deserve some posts of their own, too. One does have to wonder, and probably conclude (?), that most people uneducated on these issues take away just the superficial meanings, and probably the jazzy display headings?

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