Race. Are we so different?
It’s the question posed by a provocative new exhibit driving much conversation at the Chicago History Museum.
Its answer: There’s no such thing as race.
Really? In a nation where race blares from every arena of society?
A brainchild of the American Anthropological Association, the traveling exhibit presents the jolting assertion in a 5,000-square-foot, multimedia earthquake shaking loose difficult conversations.
“You know, race is a complicated topic,” says Joy Bivins, director of curatorial affairs at the North Side museum.
“One of the things this exhibit does is try to problematize our ideas about what these things we call each other really mean. What is their basis in reality?” Bivins said. “What is . . . their economic, political and social history? It covers it in a way that really gets visitors to think, ‘How does this play out in my own life? What are the advantages and disadvantages that come from these titles we have chosen to call each other?’ ”
Launched in 2007, the nationally lauded exhibit is here through July 15.
Twenty years after the nation’s anthropologists first issued their historic Statement on ‘Race,’ America wrestles with strong divisions on race, immigration and political ideology.
The scientists, with that May 17, 1998, treatise, had hoped to sway the federal government from America’s obsession with race as a limiting category. As debate raged over the white, black, Hispanic, Asian or American Indian check boxes of the U.S. Census, the group had proclaimed:
“In the United States, both scholars and the general public have been conditioned to viewing human races as natural and separate divisions within the human species based on visible physical differences. With the vast expansion of scientific knowledge in this century, however … evidence from the analysis of genetics … indicates ‘racial’ groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes.
” ‘Race’ as it is understood in the United States … was a social mechanism invented during the 18th century to refer to those populations brought together in colonial America: the English and other European settlers, the conquered Indian peoples, and those peoples of Africa brought in to provide slave labor. Ultimately, ‘race’ as an ideology about human differences was subsequently spread to other areas of the world,” they wrote.
The exhibit postulates that race is a fictitious security blanket used by one segment of society to feel superior to another and to justify discrimination and cruelty. Genocide, as in Nazi Germany’s Jewish Holocaust of 1933-1945, is one resulting manifestation.
“The removal of Native Americans from their lands, legalized segregation, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II are legacies of where this thinking led,” states a riveting, introductory narrative.
“In this one, you listen to the voices, making determinations about who’s speaking, based on what these individuals sound like,” Bivins said, guiding a tour on a recent day.
“The first voice you hear is a Jamaican woman,” she said. One viewer reviewed the photos of individuals of diverse “race,” selected one, then learned the owner of the voice wasn’t the “race” she had picked.
The exhibit is unprecedented in that it is the first to dissect race from a biological, historical and cultural perspective. In one section, history professors weigh in, noting the civil rights movement of 1954-1968 ignited America’s last revolution around race.
“Racism is this very complicated system where science, religion and philosophy are used to justify inequality and hierarchy. Racism is not simply that kind of visceral feeling you have when you see someone who is different from you. It’s about how people assign meaning to how you look. That’s learned behavior,” UCLA History Professor Robin D.G. Kelley said.
“Race In Chicago: Politics, Power and Hierarchy,” is part of a lecture series around the exhibit, which Joy Bivins, a West Englewood native who has been curator for 15 years, notes is particularly relevant to the most segregated city in America.
“Chicago is really a good study in terms of what it means for certain ethnic groups who are considered outside of the category of whiteness to become white, as new groups arrive. In the late 19th century, when you had eastern and southern Europeans moving here, they were not considered white,” Bivins said. “That process of becoming white is always in opposition to another group that comes. The way this city was settled and decisions were made about where people could live were, unfortunately, based on race. It’s just a construct. But it has real implications for our lives.”