Humans have tried for centuries to define, explain and rationalize racial categories with scientific, anthropological and personal experience influencing the end results. The Cincinnati Museum Center’s new RACE: Are We So Different? exhibition challenges the viewer to consider all of this and then talk among ourselves.
“One of the most interesting things I find about conversations about race is, if you listen, people are usually starting the conversation from two different places,” says Tonya Matthews, the Museum Center’s vice president of museums. “As in, they have a different base of information or they have different experiences, but what’s funny is that people don’t know they’re having the conversation from two different places. I want everyone to come away with some new information that will get us all on the same plane where we can have a conversation.
“What makes (the exhibit) groundbreaking is not only the topic but the way they address the topic — putting the science, history and culture all in one space is really uncommon. Exhibits have been done on the science of race or on the history of race or on the culture of race, but never actually all in one format.”
Videos, display boards, charts, a floor map, puppets, quizzes, photographs and a host of other colorful, interactive media present information organized into the three main categories. There are more questions than answers in an intimate space that encourages and supports speculation about the answers.
Following are excerpts from signboards, videos and other media that make up the exhibit.
The science of race
Q: Why do we come in different colors?
A. Sunlight and vitamins determine our skin color, not race.
Q: What will humans look like 1,000 years from now? Will there still be lots of different colors?
A. “In thousands of years humans will still come in many different colors but in big cities, where lots of people from different places live and mix, there will be even more ‘in between’ colors and fewer people with striking dark or light complexions.” — Nina Jablonski, physical anthropologist
Race and Human Origins video: “If we were to take the logic of what we now know about human ancestry to its farthest extreme, there basically are genetically two types of people on the earth today: Africans and non-Africans. And those non-Africans are mostly derived from people who once lived in Africa. In that sense, everyone genetically is an African.” — Joseph Graves, evolutionary biologist
It’s All in Genes video: “Biological determinism is the notion that everything that’s important about human beings and the differences between them and their position in the world and so on is determined internally by their biological natures and the differences.
“People said when the human genome project was floated that when we know that, when we see … all the genes, we’ll know what it means to be human. A very famous biologist said that. But of course we won’t know what it means to be human by studying genes. That’s the error. That’s the modern manifestation of what biological determinism is.” — Richard Lewonton, geneticist
Q: Avocado: vegetable or fruit?
A. If you’re from the United States, you probably consider the avocado a vegetable and eat it in a salad with dressing. If you’re from Brazil, you think of the avocado as a fruit and eat it for dessert with sugar and lemon juice. Same avocado, different categories?
“Far from describing biological entities, American racial categories are merely one of numerous cultural-specific themes for reducing uncertainly about how people should respond to one another. The fact that Americans believe that Asians, blacks, Hispanics and whites constitute biological ethnicities called ‘race’ is a matter of cultural interest rather than a scientific substance. It tells us something about American culture but nothing at all about the human species.” — Jefferson Fish, professor of psychology, who came up with the avocado analogy
The history of race
Creating Race: Race wasn’t found in nature but made by people in power. Racial classification provided a way to justify privilege and oppression by making inequity appear to be the result of natural differences.
“Race was never just a matter of categories; it was a matter of creating hierarchies.” — Robin D.G. Kelley, historian
“One of the things that happened with the Age of Discovery is that Europeans had to confront the presence of people in the world about who they’d never known anything before. So the result is that they have to account for their presence. Genesis is not very clear on this; that is, you have to stretch it a good bit to account for people who look quite different from Europeans. So Europeans began to search for reasons to explain why people not only look different but why they live in different ways, why they have different beliefs.
“People in the 17th century did not think about differences between human beings in the way that we think about those differences today. They were more likely to distinguish between Christians and heathens than they were between people of color and people who were white.” — Mia Bay, historian
Inventing Whiteness: Like other racial categories, “White” was created. Its boundaries had been built and protected by those in power and contested by those who were not. The first legal use of the term “white” was in 1691, when the Virginia colony enacted a law prohibiting marriage between whites and blacks.
Creating Race: “It would have been better if America had just looked the world in the eye and said, ‘We hold these people in slavery because we need their labor and we’ve the got power to do it.’ That would have been much better, because then when the power was gone, when slavery is over, it’s over. But what we said was, ‘There’s something about these people.’ By doing that, it means when slavery is over that rationalization for slavery remains.” — James Horton, historian
The culture of race
Q: How does skin color privilege some and hurt others?
A. Native Americans lost 95 percent of their homeland. Housing discrimination, medical discrimination (withholding health care and race-based drug marketing), education, segregation, tracking, tests and standardized test scores.
Playing Indian: Indian sports mascots are part of a history of Native Americans being used as figures of entertainment.
And then there’s Cincinnati.
“The thing that we’re doing that’s specific to Cincinnati,” Matthew says, “is our second dialogue March 10 that’s going to be at the Freedom Center is on ‘Race and Neighborhood.’ Cincinnati is a community that’s very proud of its neighborhoods and very proud of its high school alumni, and that is the way that this community partly defines itself.
“So what are the implications of trying to have racial reconciliation discussions with the undercurrent of, ‘It may not be your skin tone, it may just be that you’re from the West Side?’ How do you have those (race) discussions when there are other social or economic or cultural barriers built into a community? How does the conversation about race get over-laced on top of that?”
Specific social tensions might appear to be an issue of race when it’s really something else, Matthews says, like the neighborhood you grew up in.
“It might appear to be neighborhood but, you know, they didn’t let the Irish live over there for a reason,” she says. “The truth of the matter is that we are so far from the original delineations that it’s all mixed up right now. So the question comes, ‘Does the reason we are separated even matter if the point is to get us back together?’
“It’s really community-building. To really be able to identify with your neighborhood or your block or the people two streets over can be a really good and healthy thing. I think there is a way to build on that rather than to see it simply as a barrier.”
RACE: ARE WE SO DIFFERENT? is on exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal through April 26. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.