The Pacific Science Center’s latest exhibit is both a peek into the world of science and a push toward reclaiming our kinship.
“RACE: Are We So Different?” uses science to pry our thinking about race away from centuries of pseudoscience that sorted people into categories based on surface appearance and loaded with political, economic and social meaning that made (makes) separation and discrimination seem natural and reasonable.
Race is not a biologically accurate or useful concept. It’s true that there is a lot of human variety, but no one trait, such as skin color, defines people the way race is supposed to. Race is a social construct built by people who used it to subjugate other people, and as much as that’s been said in recent years, we keep holding on to race as a way to understand each other, to explain school achievement, athleticism, poverty, health, criminality. And because of all the negatives associated with race, people are often afraid to openly discuss the subject, which only helps keep it alive.
Let me tell you about something that happened to me recently, and not for the first time.
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One day in June, I was waiting in line at a Starbucks in Walla Walla. A little girl next to me said, “Mommy, that man’s face is, is brown.” The mother said, “Don’t say that.” and grabbed her daughter. I held out my arm, smiled and said, “She’s right. Look, I am brown.”
The woman said, “I’m sorry, she’s only 7.”
“It’s fine, really,” I said. “You probably don’t see many brown people here.” The mother seemed increasingly agitated, smiling, giggling, talking over me and not hearing what I was trying to say: Don’t make a big deal of it.
To her daughter she said, “Don’t say that. His face is not bad.”
Well, her daughter hadn’t said brown was bad, but by then I’m sure she’d gotten that idea or something like it. Is that really how we want kids to learn about people? Do we really want to be so uncomfortable ourselves? I don’t think so. (Seeing brown is fine. Linking brown — or any other skin color, hair texture, etc. — to bad isn’t.)
Adults who have any dealings with children would benefit from visiting the Science Center exhibit — teachers and parents (journalists, too). That day in June, I sat down with my coffee, transcribed the conversation and wrote an explanation of how we came to have different skin colors that I thought a 7-year-old could follow, for the next time. The exhibit does that for people a little older. I got a copy of the accompanying book, and went on a press tour, and there were some ideas that I found especially important, often the history beside the science.
Of course, the exhibit has the latest on human migration from Africa, and there is a diagram of human genetic variation that shows we are all essentially Africans. Some of us have mutations that affect skin color (and eyes and hair), that compensate for less ultraviolet radiation in places distant from the equator. But the idea of race is relatively new and got its biggest boost on this continent.
Early in colonial America, servants, regardless of skin tone, often lived together, worked together, intermarried, sometimes worked themselves out of indentured servitude and a few became prosperous themselves. Race, as we think of it today, hadn’t been invented yet. It was a gradual process, and there are some markers along the way.
Three servants escaped from Virginia to Maryland together in 1640. One was Dutch, one was Scottish and the third, John Punch, was African. They were caught, and the two Europeans were sentenced to whipping plus four extra years of indentured servitude. Punch was sentenced to servitude for life.
Slavery existed in many places around the world. The enslaved were the losers in struggles usually, and not much else distinguished them from their masters, and their children weren’t automatically made slaves. America invented racial slavery in which skin determined destiny, and that position carried down through generations. And it was here that the idea of race took deepest root. Seeing Native Americans and Africans as different and lesser made it easier for a “democracy-loving” people to take land and labor from other people without feeling troubled. Our laws have changed tremendously, but we still see the world through the haze created in those early centuries.
Remember the news story recently about the sushi chef who got grief from people because she is white — and a woman, too. Some people thought that was just wrong. In most instances, though, being white is an advantage.
We’ve made progress, most of us can see some of the disadvantages visited on “minorities,” but it’s still hard to see the advantages that come from being white.
This quotation is on one of the displays: “Most of the benefits of being white can be obtained without ever doing anything personally. Whites are given the privileges of a racist system, even if they’re not racist.” — john powell, (he does not capitalize his name) legal scholar.
On a lot of fronts, progress toward equality has stalled, and it’s because we’re looking at our world the wrong way.
The exhibit explains color and other traits that we associate with race and the uses to which they’ve been put, and how our investment in the idea sustains a hierarchy based on color. It uses text from scholars, film clips and interactive stations. There’s a story about it (bit.ly/191F0zB) on The Seattle Times website.
Seattle is going further than the other cities that have hosted the exhibit since 2007. Bryce Seidl, Pacific Science Center president and CEO, said the center didn’t want people to walk away and say, “Oh that was wonderful,” and think it was more relevant to people in Selma or Birmingham.
So the center added a section on local history to the exhibit, and it created a way for discussions to happen before and after viewings by working with local organizations of all sorts, and with Seattle and King County.
Julie Nelson, director of the Seattle Office of Civil Rights, said Seattle has a reputation for being a liberal, progressive place, “but despite that we have the same racial inequities as anywhere else in the country.”
Her office focuses not so much on individuals but on institutional racism, policies, practices and procedures that contribute to inequality, but that can be changed with the right tools, which her offices tries to provide.
Seidl said the center wants to send people back into the community equipped with a new understanding and the tools they need to help the community move away from racism to be the kind of place most of us really want to live in, one in which we truly know and value our brothers and sisters.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org