Written by Stephanie Chang, Summer 2011 intern.
What is race?
This difficult and complex question is posed to all visitors at the beginning of the exhibition, RACE: Are We So Different?, at the National Museum of Natural History. Visitors of all ages, many of different ethnic and racial backgrounds are thrust into an educationally packed exhibition that essentially boils down into three ideas:
1) Race is a recent human invention.1
2) Race is about culture, not biology.2
3) Race and racism are embedded in our institutions and everyday life.3
These ideas are quite revolutionary, and certainly challenge most, if not all, social conventions today. As an APA youth, I can safely say that my life has revolved around race. Everywhere I go, my race precedes me. People see the differences, think about the differences, and make sharp distinctions. Likewise, I am just as guilty of these categorizations as well—I notice my differences, realize I am different, and I am sure that I, subconsciously, encourage these distinctions. My race makes me who I am, what makes me unusual, and unique. Race is what makes me different, a key factor that I use to define myself.
So to be told by this exhibition that race is a social construction and that humans are perhaps, more alike than different, most certainly gave a nice jolt to my nervous system. Really, is race purely a human invention, unfettered from biological differences? The visual differences between us are almost enough to seriously ponder this question—it is hard not to believe what the eyes tell you. But I suppose this is what this exhibition is here for: to begin challenging these notions and to finally take a step towards unity and acceptance within the human race.
The Asian Pacific American Program invited a group of 19 students from AALead to view and tour the exhibition, helping them challenge their ideas about race that were possibly similar to my own. AALEAD is a group based in the Maryland and D.C. area that focuses on leadership and empowerment within the APA youth community. The students, ranging from ages 11-14, worked through a scavenger hunt created by the APA Program interns. The activity took them through key stations addressing the main ideas of the exhibition. Some were shocked at what they had found (“Cool—We’re all from Africa?!” one youth asked me), others seemed to just soak it all in. At the end, they were asked to draw two objects. One was a locker depicting their ideas about race, ethnicity, and diversity (inspired by the lockers featured in the exhibition). The second drawing they were asked to make was a self-portrait similar to the style of the Hapa Project. In this activity, I asked them to include a short reflection about themselves. Many of their responses were rather insightful and downright inspiring. One student wrote, “I don’t have any personal opinion toward any race and culture. I just think any race is amazing.” Another adorned her locker with the words, “Everyone is different. Race: We are all equal.”
It was an absolute delight to work with AALead. The students showed a tremendous amount of thought and interest in the complex topic of race, demonstrating just how perceptive the youth of today actually are. I am excited, along with the entire staff of the APA Program, to continue working with groups such as AALead. In doing so, we hope to cultivate discussions about issues surrounding the community today and perhaps, begin to revolutionize the answer to the very question of what is race.
Click here to view more photos of APA Program interns giving tours to student groups visiting the RACE exhibition.
1 Beckrich, Amy, Gomez, Felicia, Jones, Josephy, and Overbey, Mary Margaret. (2007). Race: Are We So Different? A Family Guide to Talking About Race. American Anthropological Association.