Tuesday, March 1, 2011

RACE- Are We So Different?

"[Racism] is not about how you look, it is about how people assign meaning to how you look."
                      ~Robin D.G. Kelley, Historian, quoted in the exhibit

On Sunday, I visited an exhibit at the Museum of Science titled, RACE-Are We So Different? This traveling exhibit spoke to so many issues that are important to me. Issues that are hard to put into words.  Issues that, when written about on a blog, can be misunderstood when not worded exactly the right way or placed in their proper context. Issues that I will continue to speak up about because they are so important.

In a previous post about the book A Beach Tail, and a later post in response to a conversation happening in the blogosphere, I tried to express my feelings about the lack of books about "People of Color."  Even as I wrote those posts, I struggled with word choice. Who was I to label someone else's identity? Yet, I attempted to do so because I had to convey my point somehow and the only way to do it was to use terms that readers would understand.

I am not an expert on race. I am a person who is deeply concerned about people's ability to identify themselves however they choose and to be treated equally and with respect. I am not identified as a Person of Color, African American, Latina, Asian-American, or any number of other artificial labels that can be placed on a person's identity. When labeled, I am called Caucasian. I have always been uncomfortable checking that box on official forms. I pause every time. Not because I am not proud of my heritage but because I do not want be labeled and boxed in. Does anyone?

The exhibit put words to many things I already felt and illuminated some ideas I did not fully understand or could not explain. For example, 

"There is no gene for “race.” There are no qualitative genetic differences between perceived races. (Emphasis added). However, it is possible to trace geographic ancestry using DNA. Since humans expanded out of Africa, genes have changed in small ways in every part of the world. Each of these small changes is a marker for a person’s ancestors who lived where the changes occurred. To a geneticist, these changes are like mileposts along a path, leading first to the people in a local place and then back to the African source. Each genetic change tells only a small piece of the story about human history. A scientist must look at many pieces of DNA to get a reliable story."

Biologically, there is no such thing as race.

If someone had asked me if there is a gene for race I would have said "no." But I had honestly never considered the question in quite this way. I knew that DNA traced all of our ancestors to (East) Africa, but for some reason I never put quite a point on the question of a "race gene."

I think I am fairly well-informed person. I read tons. I talk to lots of interesting people. I move outside my comfort zone and travel to places many people will never see. I've analyzed my own experience of race and culture while living in the U.S. versus living in the Philippines. I relish the differences of culture and the sameness of humanity. I pay attention.
I have so much to learn.

I soaked up as much as I could from the exhibit, though I want to go back and spend more time. I strongly encourage you to do the same. For my local readers, the exhibit will be at the Museum of Science until May 1st. It's also at the Discovery Place in Charlotte, NC until May 8th. For readers in other states, an exhibit tour schedule is available here. For those who do not have access to the exhibit, much (if not all) of the content is available online at the RACE- Are We So Different website. There's  a special section for kids age 10-13. and a variety of resources for families, researchers, and teachers. Please learn more and spread the word about this important project.

One final quotation from the exhibit:
"Race is the least important aspect in determining character, yet it is often the most significant factor in how we are perceived."


  1. I hope I get a chance to check out the exhibit. It sounds fascinating Also, I love the quotes that start and finish your post. As always, you do a great job dealing with sensitive issues.

  2. Thanks, Alison.

    If you can't get to the exhibit, the website has lots of great stuff. I just liked the interactivity of the exhibit.

  3. Michelle, I will check out the exhibit online. It sounds really thought provoking. Also, thanks for commenting on my 30 Days post the other day at our blog. Since you obviously have an interest in diversity and the world at large I'll point you to an article I wrote summing up our mission. You can find it here: http://www.leeandlow.com/images/pdfs/bri.pdf

    It's a bit long, but you will find it informative.

  4. Jason, Thanks for your comment. (I apologize for not responding sooner- it went to the spam folder. I just found it).

    Readers, Jason Low is the publisher of Lee and Low Books. I've mentioned Lee and Low on this blog several times. Please check out his article listed above. Please support Lee and Low's efforts by purchasing their books or asking your local school or library to puchase them.
    Taken from Jason's article:
    "Reading stories is like planting seeds. The walls of intolerace and racism are pushed aside by the knowledge that grows from seeds rooted in young people's minds."
    Well said, Mr. Low.