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What’s Race Got to Do with It?

By Lauren Monsen | Staff Writer | 23 June 2011
Photo collage of human face comprised of individual features from people of different races (Courtesy of American Anthropological Association and Science Museum of Minnesota)

An acclaimed traveling exhibition, RACE: Are We So Different?, opened at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History on June 18. It runs through Jan. 1, 2012.

Washington — Does the concept of race have any scientific foundation, or is it merely a social construct? What is the so-called “one-drop rule,” and how has it shaped perceptions about racial identity?

These questions, among others, are probed by the traveling exhibition RACE: Are We So Different?, which opened June 18 at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

The exhibition, a project of the American Anthropological Association in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota, is divided into three categories: science, history and lived experience. Personal videos, interactive stations and informational panels invite museum visitors to join a broader dialogue about the effects of race and racism, from experiences in the school cafeteria to buying a home.

“New scientific understandings about human variation demonstrate that human populations are not clearly defined, biologically distinct groups that some people call races,” said Mary Jo Arnoldi, chair of the anthropology department at the National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian’s curator of the exhibition.

The exhibition’s science section traces early human migration from Africa, using current research to reassess widely held beliefs about the origins of physical traits such as skin color and resistance to disease.

The history section traces racism from the pre-Columbus era to modern genetic studies.

The lived-experience section includes the voices and images of people who share their experiences of race, identity and racism.

Displays in the exhibition cater to visitors of all ages. For example, the “Who’s Talking?” interactive station asks visitors to match voices they hear with photos of people of different races to see if they can identify a person’s race by his or her speech. A “Youth on Race” video features teenagers of different races and ethnicities talking about their experiences in the classroom, in the school cafeteria and outside school.

Another video, titled “We All Live Race,” focuses on the role that race plays in everyone’s lives, from an interracial couple living in the Midwest to an Asian-born girl with white adoptive parents to a black woman raising two sons.

Yolanda Moses, lead curator of the traveling exhibition and an anthropologist and vice provost at the University of California, Riverside, described the exhibition’s main objectives.

“One of the things we all worked hard to do in designing this exhibition was to make the section ‘The Lived Experience’ come alive in the personal stories of everyday citizens,” she said. “We wanted people from all walks of life in America to be able to talk about how race is both personal and systemic in their lives.”


The Smithsonian will host a series of programs and events related to the exhibition. One is a July 21 panel discussion inspired by the book Blended Nation: Portraits and Interviews of Mixed-Race America. It will be led by Blended Nation co-authors Mike Tauber and Pamela Singh.

Immigration and intermarriage in the United States have produced rising numbers of multiracial and multiethnic Americans, Tauber said. Yet even today, “there seems to be some confusion among many in the general population as to who and what is considered mixed-race or multiracial.”

“A key question that many multiracial Americans hear is: What are you? Another challenge that many experience is a mismatch between their visual appearance and identity,” he said. Blended Nation presents essays by multiracial people explaining how they define themselves and how they fit into the fabric of society.

The panel’s goal, Tauber said, “is to include the topic of being mixed-race into the larger and increasingly complex conversation” about race in America.

A short promotional video on the exhibition asks some people how they identify themselves.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)

Book cover showing young man in American Indian garb standing in front of tree (Courtesy of Mike Tauber)

The book Blended Nation: Portraits and Interviews of Mixed-Race America is the inspiration for a July 21 panel discussion at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History.