PITTSBURGH – It’s all about a couple of vitamins.
Our skin takes on a certain hue solely based on where our ancestors lived thousands of years ago in relation to the equator. The skin of those who were closer, and exposed to the most burningly intense ultraviolet rays from the sun, produced melanin. It acts as a protective agent and blocks the UV rays that can destroy folate, a B vitamin.
On the other hand, those who lived farther away had lighter skin, which allowed them to absorb more UV rays and generate more Vitamin D.
Yet skin color, and the wider concept of race, has been a key driver of our politics and culture for hundreds of years. The notion that other racial and ethnic groups are different, or, more pointedly, inferior, led to atrocities like slavery, the Holocaust, the forced removal of native Americans from their lands, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, apartheid in South Africa and on and on. Despite poll after poll that shows young people are, for the most part, more open and tolerant than their forebears, and the fact that the world’s leading democracy elected an African-American as its leader five years ago, race and our “differences” continue to divide and bedevil us.
Barack Obama himself has noted, “Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy.”
An exhibit that opened late last month at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, “RACE: Are We So Different?” takes a forthright look at race from scientific, sociological and cultural perspectives. Developed by the American Anthropological Association and the Science Museum of Minnesota, it is “designed to spark conversations,” according to Cecile Shellman, a communications and community specialist for the museum.
Geared toward a broad-based audience, “RACE” is accessible “for anyone interested in heritage and culture,” Shellman continued, “and learning about themselves, learning about identity, learning about other people and learning how race and racism is manifest in everyday life.”
Although the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is more immediately associated with conglomerations of dinosaur bones, Shellman said the museum also wants to wrestle with contemporary issues, and “RACE” is part of that effort.
“It’s difficult to talk about race and we need to talk about race,” she said, and the exhibit “encourages people to think about it.”
“RACE” bowed in 2007 and was crafted in part because the American Anthropological Association wanted to break out of the more arcane corners of its field and provide some greater illumination on everyday topics.
“We wanted to become more publicly engaged and deal with social issues,” Yolanda Moses, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Riverside, told Carnegie magazine. “We thought we could look at race, what it is and what it isn’t, and be very instrumental in changing the way people talk about it.”
Over the last seven years, it has stopped at a variety of science centers, universities and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. The seven months it will be at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History marks its Pennsylvania debut. During that time, visitors will be able to look at photos, partake of interactive displays, examine relics and hear from experts via video who impart one primary message: There is no biological basis for race.
It is, the exhibit underlines, mostly a construct, born in the 1400s as Europeans started to explore other parts of the world and come in contact with people with different features and different customs. Over the centuries, there have been stubborn attempts to try to devise cases for biological differences between people with different shades of skin, whether through crude skull measurements or eugenics, the belief in “racial purity” embraced by the Nazis. The whole notion of intellectual differences between races was revived with the hotly controversial best-seller, “The Bell Curve,” in 1994, and still sometimes seeps into everyday discourse in more amorphous terms, such as “culture.”
All these theories have been dismissed as bogus by serious scientists and scholars.
Nonetheless, the creation of racial hierarchies has been used to include or exclude people. “RACE” points out how Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps during World War II, and the Japanese themselves were referred to in derogatory terms, such as “monkey men” and “yellow vermin,” while Germans and Italians, with whom they were also battling, were portrayed as misguided victims of authoritarian states, and German-Americans and Italian-Americans were not correspondingly shipped off to camps.
The policy ramifications of race are also outlined in “RACE,” from redlining by banks that made it harder for some ethnic groups to gain a foothold in the housing market, to busing programs that tore many communities asunder in the 1970s.
Visitors will also have the opportunity to write down their feelings about race in cards that are provided. The museum is also establishing a Community Voices Gallery in conjunction with the exhibit that has original photography along with work from venerated African-American Pittsburgh photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris. A host of other special events are planned throughout the exhibit’s run.
According to Shellman, “The museum provides a safe and open space for learning about race and racism. We will consider this exhibition a success if the conversations continue well beyond our walls.”