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'RACE: Are we so different?'

New exhibit tells the history of race and racism

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Many people have been led to believe there are four races, and it is by those racial definitions that people are identified and certain behaviors explained. In the past, segregation determined, and oppressive acts were undertaken against, those who were considered to be of lesser rank strictly by skin color.

But what if there were no such concept as race, no such difference in peoples except the color of their skin - which may be the result of environmental exposure, not DNA?

The Lakota have an expression, mitakuye oyasin, which means ''all my relations'' and is many times understood to mean ''we are all related.'' That expression includes all natural objects, animals and humans, and is not far off from what scientists and humanists have discovered.

The consensus of opinion and scientific findings is that our ancestors were African. The scientific conclusion is that human variation is a part of nature, and that what we call race is not. Race is explained as a concept created by society over a period of hundreds of years.

Newly opened to the public is a Science Museum of Minnesota exhibit titled ''RACE: Are we so different?'' that brings together and explains theories and findings from science and the humanities to explore the phenomenon called ''race'' from both perspectives. The exhibit, which opened on Jan. 10, provides information that is intended to help people of all ages come to an understanding of the origins of what we now call race and how that has manifested itself upon society as a whole; additionally, it's meant to open debate and dialogue on a personal or public level.

The American Anthropological Society, in cooperation with the museum, constructed the exhibit. It will remain in St. Paul until May 6.

The exhibit is filled with information of an historic, humanistic and scientific nature. The interactive exhibit takes the visitor from African origins to how

society views specific health issues, migration patterns, the various colors of the skin and how people live with race. There is a human variation video, an explanation of how genes traveled, the history of human (mis)measurement and a section that asks why race is on the U.S. census.

Another section, which explains the history and controversy over the issue of sports mascots that impacts American Indians, has a special location in the exhibit.

Museum staff say the comments that visitors offer have not only been positive, but that most people spend time in discussion with others and leave the exhibit changed in some way.

Comments like ''I will never look at other people the same way again,'' and ''I had no idea that athletic ability was not race-related,'' were heard.

''We will provide a level playing field for the public to have discussion across a divide that is current and up to date and accessible. We should not talk about this from the privileged few; we want parents, teachers and children to have that conversation,'' said Yolanda Moses, chair and vice provost for diversity and conflict resolution and a professor of anthropology at the University of California-Riverside. Moses is on the RACE Project advisory board.

The exhibit explains that sickle cell anemia is not an illness related to only black people. It is an illness suffered by people who have a not-too-distant genetic trait with people who reside in areas where malaria is prevalent.

The exhibit also explains cross-cultural race, has an area dedicated to the science of the skin and to the history of creating race, and includes a stop on the exhibit tour titled ''History Separate and Unequal.''

The 5,000-square-foot traveling exhibit will visit various locations throughout the country, staying at least four or five months at each location. The exhibit is booked until 2011.

To learn more about the RACE Project, visit www.understandingrace.org.

Scientific scrutiny provides insight into the folly of ethnic grouping

The concept of race among peoples was created by social norms and cannot be explained by any scientific data, theories or discoveries.

How people look at each other is societally based. It is learned behavior.

Race is about culture and not biology because, as the Science Museum of Minnesota's ''RACE: Are we so different?'' exhibit points out, all humans share a common ancestry - everyone can claim African origins.

The exhibit is the outreach project that will spread contemporary thinking about human existence by biologists, anthropologists and other scholars. The exhibit was conceived by the American Anthropological Association with the museum.

The AAA states that race is an inaccurate way to describe human variation. Race and racism, however, is imbedded in our institutions and our daily lives. It shapes how we view ourselves and other people; it affects everyone's lives; who people befriend, date or marry; shopping habits; sports preferences; one's choice of schools to attend. Subtle variations of racism include institutional racism, which is unspoken and learned racist behavior that is at times not conscious but still adversely impacts its victims.

''In the early part of the century, race was biologized. We were on the edges of some conversation about rebiologizing race and we hope that this exhibit keeps that from happening. If this exhibit is successful it will not let us fall into that trap,'' said Columbia University Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs Kenneth Prewitt.

Alan Goodman, president of the AAA and professor of biological anthropology at Hampshire College, said he was interested in knowing whether race was real.

''With this project, we have discovered it is not real,'' Goodman said.

''We cannot divide people into groups in any reliable way. We need to separate out this idea of race from reality that is in front of us.''

The project gives people the tools to sort out and make sense of their own lives, project advisers said. It project brings together cultural, historical and biological discoveries in a way that has never been done before.

''What's striking about this project and exhibit, as a historian, is that it has integrated various perspectives into a compelling understanding of how race and the history of the concept are brought together,'' said Thomas Holt, University of Chicago.

''I try to convey race is about practices and lived experiences and that is reflected in this exhibit,'' Holt said.

''Doing the experiment struck me how movingly this replicated the cross-results of race and raises the issue of what is thought of as our progress around issues of race, and challenges that. I think those who leave the exhibit should think about that,'' Holt said.

Young people are caught up in race relations and the part they play in the concept of race separation and tradition - a concept created, the scientists argue, by society over hundreds of years.

When a black child looks at dolls of different colors and picks the white doll, it speaks volumes about how race is perceived.

The exhibit shows a film of a young black girl who says she hates her skin color. One student said she used cream to make her skin lighter.

''This exhibit gives impact about how we live every day. At some point, it almost drove me to tears. When I saw the videos I thought of myself as a child,'' said Janis Hutchinson, professor of anthropology and African-American studies at the University of Houston.

Hutchinson said she grew up using ''colored only'' water fountains, something that had an impact on her life.

''Things haven't changed that much, and they should have. I hope this exhibit will change that,'' Hutchinson said.

The group of scientists and anthropologists who put together the concept and details of the RACE project exhibit and brought ideas from various disciplines to the dialogue were charged with being part of the larger debate on race.

''This is a beginning dialogue with a new set of folks. The challenge here is how do we use this exhibit and Web site [www .understandingrace.org] to begin to develop a consciousness and begin to engage in dialogue so we come to a better understanding of the social meaning of race so when someone says to me 'I'm not a racist' when they use language that is racializing; how do we point out that those are culturally learned patterns,'' asked Arlene Torres, associate professor of anthropology and director of Latina/Latino Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

''This is the beginning of a new and much-needed conversation,'' she said.

New thought processes and theories are being brought together in one place, according to Mary Margaret Overbey, principle investigator and project director for RACE. ''We feel we captured all the knowledge in this area. The reactions I have seen to the information and this program makes the point that we are all African. The idea of race itself is a human creation and a very recent concept,'' Overbey said.

The exhibit and Web site will provide current and up-to-date information in an accessible way for the public to continue the discussion on race.

''Almost 10 years ago, we wrote an article, 'Why anthropologists are not talking about race.' We go back in history and we are part of the problem,'' said Yolanda Moses, University of California-Riverside.

''Science and society worked hand-in-hand with anthropologists and scientists reflecting a lot of the social values of the 18th, 19th and part of the 20th centuries.

''We have been pushing back against that. It has been a struggle. It is worth stepping back and look at where these ideas have been imbedded, in state [and] immigration [laws] and in the archaic notion of race and in terms of our academics,'' she said.