Race—Are We So Dif­fer­ent?

Smith­son­ian Nat­ur­al His­to­ry Muse­um, Wash­ing­ton DC (June 18, 2011- Jan­u­ary 8, 2012)

Reviewed by Oana Godeanu-Ken­wor­thy, Kluge Cen­ter, Library of Con­gress, DC

Four years ago, Barack Obama’s elec­tion was hailed as the entry into a pos­tra­cial era for the Unit­ed States. Yet, as recent research indi­cates, racial divi­sions con­tin­ue to dra­mat­i­cal­ly struc­ture Amer­i­can life, from the “high rates of unlaw­ful racial dis­crim­i­na­tion in every mar­ket that has been stud­ied, includ­ing hous­ing mar­kets, labor mar­kets, and com­mer­cial trans­ac­tions” (Kennedy 2011).

The Smith­son­ian exhib­it RACE - Are We So Dif­fer­ent? that closed on Jan­u­ary 8 is a joint project of the Amer­i­can Anthro­po­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion and of the Sci­ence Muse­um of Min­neso­ta. The show sets out to encour­age crit­i­cal reflec­tion on race and racism by exam­in­ing the idea of race from the bio­log­i­cal, cul­tur­al, and his­tor­i­cal points of view.  Since its open­ing in Jan­u­ary 2007, the exhib­it has trav­elled through­out the Unit­ed States, from St. Paul, MN to San­ta Bar­bara, CA.

Poster adver­tis­ing the Race exhib­it in front of the Smith­son­ian (pho­to­graph by author)

The ‘face’ of the exhib­it (image 1) is a still from the video Race­Off, on dis­play inside. In this strik­ing piece of artistry by Teja Arbole­da, frag­ments of human faces slow­ly and imper­cep­ti­bly morph into new faces with slight­ly dif­fer­ent skin tones, a com­ment on the ulti­mate insta­bil­i­ty and irrel­e­vance of the visu­al mark­ers of race, which func­tions as an over­ar­ch­ing metaphor for the project as a whole.

In con­cur­rence with the main exhib­it, the Smith­son­ian Insti­tu­tion orga­nized a host of relat­ed events. There were par­al­lel shows on race in Amer­i­can his­to­ry in oth­er muse­ums, one-time events, such as a talk with philoso­pher Kwame Antho­ny Appi­ah, or a per­for­mance by artist Kip Fulbeck’s, whose Hapa Project is also part of the Race exhib­it. Unlike the his­tor­i­cal empha­sis of oth­er exhi­bi­tions that the Smith­son­ian orga­nized (for instance the Amer­i­can Indi­an Museum’s Indi­Vis­i­ble), the ped­a­gog­i­cal goals of RACE are to edu­cate the pub­lic on the many ways in which mean­ing and pow­er have his­tor­i­cal­ly been attached to visu­al mark­ers of dif­fer­ence, such as skin col­or, hair tex­ture, or skull shape, thus cre­at­ing the idea of race. As such, the dif­fer­ent tra­jec­to­ries of groups and indi­vid­u­als in Amer­i­can his­to­ry are explained by show­cas­ing the impact that the pow­er and priv­i­lege encod­ed in racial dif­fer­ences grant­ed whites over non-whites in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. At a time when race fig­ures promi­nent­ly in polit­i­cal debates over inequal­i­ty in the Unit­ed States, the exhib­it helps fur­ther the under­stand­ing of the cul­tur­al roots and sys­temic impact of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion on the upward mobil­i­ty of var­i­ous minor­i­ty groups through­out Amer­i­can society.

In their pur­suit of inter­ac­tiv­i­ty, the cura­tors’ use of var­i­ous media forms, com­fort­able seat­ing and open spaces invit­ed vis­i­tors to engage with the mate­ri­als and reflect on their own racial assump­tions.  (You can take a vir­tu­al tour of the orig­i­nal dis­play here). Scat­tered through­out the exhib­it, Wing Young Huie’s beau­ti­ful black and white pho­tographs cap­ture the mul­tira­cial dynam­ics and ener­gy of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can soci­ety, while video screens project seg­ments from the 2003 PBS doc­u­men­tary Race-The Pow­er of an Illusion.

(Pho­to­graph by Wing Young Huie, cour­tesy of the Amer­i­can Anthro­po­log­i­cal Association)

Upon enter­ing the nar­row exhi­bi­tion hall, the vis­i­tor is over­whelmed by an array of sta­tions, posters, and flick­er­ing screens. In an alcove on the right side of the room, the intro­duc­to­ry video “Race is an Idea” wel­comes you to the exhib­it and announces the exhi­bi­tion themes. A few steps fur­ther, an inter­ac­tive sta­tion allows vis­i­tors to take a pic­ture of the col­or of their skin and com­pare it to pho­tographs tak­en by oth­er vis­i­tors, in a sim­ple, yet pow­er­ful process by which the most stereo­typed mark­er of race (skin col­or) gets “detached” from the indi­vid­ual body and com­pared to oth­ers, out­side racial labels.  At the next sta­tion, the inter­ac­tive match­ing game “Who’s Talk­ing?” illus­trates (and chal­lenges) com­mon assump­tions about race and accent, by ask­ing the vis­i­tor to match record­ings of voic­es with faces on a screen. In the “Liv­ing with Race” sec­tion, a small the­ater plays a video mon­tage where ordi­nary peo­ple share their per­son­al expe­ri­ences, while a few steps down, the Row House Stoop sta­tion offers the vis­i­tor the pos­si­bil­i­ty to sit down and watch videos about race and hous­ing, or read cards on Native land poli­cies in Amer­i­can history.

As there is no over­ar­ch­ing cura­to­r­i­al nar­ra­tive to the exhib­it, the view­ers are encour­aged to cre­ate their own as they wan­der between sta­tions, look­ing at pho­tographs, push­ing but­tons, tak­ing sur­veys, watch­ing videos (there are more than fif­teen media pre­sen­ta­tions), or even vot­ing. In the Cen­sus sta­tion, vis­i­tors study how var­i­ous groups were cat­e­go­rized in the past by race, and can vote on how race should be con­sid­ered in the next US Cen­sus, in 2020.

(Pho­to­graph by Wing Young Huie, cour­tesy of the Amer­i­can Anthro­po­log­i­cal Association)

A small num­ber of instal­la­tions punc­tu­ate the exhib­it, includ­ing a nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry device for mea­sur­ing skull size and assign­ing race based on hair tex­ture, and a Native Amer­i­can leather vest embroi­dered with the stars of the Amer­i­can flag. The most strik­ing of the few instal­la­tions on dis­play, “Piles of Cash,” show­cased race-based income inequal­i­ty in the U.S. Four tow­ers built of dol­lar bills illus­trate the dif­fer­ence in finan­cial worth among Whites, Asians, Blacks and Lati­nos in the U.S. The asym­met­ri­cal stacks of over­sized dol­lar bills in their glass cage are visu­al­ly and intel­lec­tu­al­ly framed by tex­tu­al expla­na­tions which pro­vide a short his­to­ry of the GI bill and of its impact on access to edu­ca­tion, employ­ment, and prop­er­ty val­ue in post World War II America.

The didac­tic tone and the abun­dance of inter­ac­tive sta­tions, of graphs, posters, and over­ly dense texts and infor­ma­tion charts on some pan­els con­tribute to the gen­er­al feel of the exhib­it as a three-dimen­sion­al text­book for col­lege stu­dents. But as a whole, the mod­ules of the exhib­it suc­cess­ful­ly demon­strate the mul­ti-dimen­sion­al process by which com­mon prac­tices, sci­ence, and law con­tributed to the trans­la­tion of visu­al mark­ers of race into cul­tur­al signs of supe­ri­or­i­ty and infe­ri­or­i­ty, which in turn served to legit­imize priv­i­lege and unequal access to pow­er and rights in Amer­i­can society.

While this exhib­it is mul­ti­lay­ered and thought pro­vok­ing, the orga­niz­ers stayed clear of uncom­fort­able top­ics. On the one hand, vis­i­tors are chal­lenged to reflect on how they per­form or are sub­ject­ed to racial­iza­tion in their every­day lives. On the oth­er hand, in its focus on the idea of race, the exhib­it fails to dwell on the most extreme con­se­quences of insti­tu­tion­al­ized racism. As a result, there are very few visu­al tes­ti­monies of the most dra­mat­ic results of racism in Amer­i­can his­to­ry, whether we are talk­ing about lynch­ing in twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca, or the dis­place­ment or exter­mi­na­tion of entire Native com­mu­ni­ties in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry (when such ref­er­ences exist, they are usu­al­ly rel­e­gat­ed to read­ing cards, incon­spic­u­ous­ly placed on the mar­gins of the exhibit).

Kip Fulbeck’s Hapa Project. (Cour­tesy of Amer­i­can Anthro­po­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion and Sci­ence Muse­um of Minnesota)

From ear­ly set­tle­ment in the New World and the emer­gence of white­ness as priv­i­lege, to the Supreme Court cas­es of the 1920s, on the legal white­ness of Asian Amer­i­cans, to the 2008 elec­tion of Barack Oba­ma, RACE fore­grounds the cen­tral­i­ty of race in orga­niz­ing Amer­i­can soci­ety, insti­tu­tions and tra­di­tions, and invites us to pon­der on its place in past and present def­i­n­i­tions of Amer­i­can nation­al iden­ti­ty.  The “We” in the title is cul­ture-spe­cif­ic, as it pri­mar­i­ly address­es the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of race rela­tions that are the prod­uct of Amer­i­can his­to­ry. While the exhib­it may be less rel­e­vant for peo­ple liv­ing out­side the bor­ders of the U.S., it pro­vides valu­able clues to the process­es of racial­iza­tion that immi­grants con­tin­ue to under­go when relo­cat­ing as they are recast into a new cul­tur­al grid of racial iden­ti­ty. Accounts such as the sto­ry of the Irish, Ital­ians, or the Jews who, from being viewed as almost black in nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca, were rede­fined as ‘white’ on the wake of World War II, illus­trate the insta­bil­i­ty of racial bound­aries and the arbi­trary nature of racial clas­si­fi­ca­tions, while offer­ing insights on how local racial cat­e­gories get altered under the impact of glob­al flows of migra­tion. The diverse top­ics RACE tack­les with­in an Amer­i­can con­text address broad issues that are sig­nif­i­cant with­in today’s glob­al world.

RACE trav­elled to Colum­bus on Jan­u­ary 28. You can find a list of future venues here.

Works cit­ed:

RACE – Are We So Dif­fer­ent? Mary Mar­garet Over­bey, prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor and project direc­tor, 2007. Amer­i­can Anthro­po­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion. 10 Jan. 2012.

< http://​www​.under​stand​in​grace​.org/​h​o​m​e​.​h​tml>.

Race. The Pow­er of An Illu­sion. PBS Films. Pro­duc­er: Lar­ry Alder­man (Cal­i­for­nia News­reel), 2003.

Ran­dall Kennedy. The Per­sis­tence of the Col­or Line: Racial Pol­i­tics and the Oba­ma Pres­i­den­cy (NY: Pan­theon, 2011).

Michael Tesler and David O. Sears, Obama’s Race: The 2008 Elec­tion and the Dream of a Post-Racial Amer­i­ca (Chica­go: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 2010).

Dr. Oana Godeanu-Ken­wor­thy teach­es in the Amer­i­can Stud­ies Pro­gram at Mia­mi Uni­ver­si­ty, Ohio. She works on nation­al images in lit­er­a­ture, film and pop­u­lar cul­ture. She received her PhD in Roma­nia, with a dis­ser­ta­tion on rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the Unit­ed States in ear­ly Eng­lish-Cana­di­an fic­tion. Oana is cur­rent­ly a 2011-2012 Kluge post­doc­tor­al fel­low at the Library of Con­gress in Wash­ing­ton DC, where she is research­ing her book man­u­script on polit­i­cal ide­olo­gies and lit­er­a­ture in the Atlantic world. Her work has been pub­lished in Ear­ly Amer­i­can Stud­ies, the Jour­nal of Euro­pean Cul­ture and in BAS—British and Amer­i­can Studies.