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.understandingrace.org/home.html>.

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.