Race in the US: Where do we go from here?

"RACE: Are We So Different?" gives visitors a chance to see the biological superficiality of racial classifications.
"RACE: Are We So Different?" gives visitors a chance to see the biological superficiality of racial classifications. AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION

Hurtful words are sometimes voiced by some of our political leaders, either directly appealing to racist sentiments or thinly veiled in the code of plausible deniability. News headlines from one end of the political spectrum to the other are filled with strong images of peaceful and violent protests.

Some of our elected leaders do not seem to understand that their role is to not further divide a nation that is deep in turmoil, confusion and even fear. We know from organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center that hate crimes in this country have reached new highs and that international bodies like the United Nations and international human rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch, have begun to question the commitment of this country to social justice for its minority populations.

As leaders in the profession of anthropology, one thing we know for certain is that a country divided like this cannot be the inclusive democracy that it once aspired to be. We think that these divisions can be overcome and we can achieve our aspirations. But this undertaking cannot be done if ordinary U.S. residents, our neighbors and our colleagues at work, for example, do not have the understanding or the tools to change their thinking and their actions around race.

The American Anthropological Association developed a project called “Race: Are We So Different?” that was designed for teachers to talk with students, parents to talk with their children, colleagues to talk with each other about what race is and is not in the work place, and for community organizations and social justice groups to use the information in their work. This material, and a robust award-winning website, contain the information and tools needed for having these difficult conversations. Two books have been produced as well.

Three versions of the museum exhibit have been traveling around the U.S. for the past 10 years in over 40 cities. It has been experienced by more than 3 million people. The feedback that we have is that this material with a science base has provided a unique opportunity for people from all walks of life to understand the ways that race operates in this country, both obvious and insidious. “Race: Are We So Different?” tells us that our racial categories have little biological significance, but have been used and abused throughout our nation’s history largely to privilege some, while blocking others from a life of fulfilled experience.

The exhibition is on long-term display at San Diego’s Museum of Man and the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul. The six-month run of the traveling version is at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and ends Sunday, October 22. It will be traveling next to Chicago, and next summer it will find a long-term home in Fort Worth, Texas.

Like other cities where the exhibition has traveled, Raleigh has benefited from a robust set of thoughtfully added events, forums, lectures and conversations where a diverse public was profoundly involved. These programs have brought tens of thousands of people who had not been regular museum attendees, and they were in a safe space where residents could ask questions and have conversations they perhaps never had before. It is at these kinds of events that we have seen change happen. People begin to talk to each other across racial, class, age, religious and other kinds of divides.

In addition to museums, we have schools, colleges and universities, as well as boardrooms and workplaces of all kinds where conversations like these need to take place. We need activities that unite us and not divide us. With the exhibition on long-term display in three locations, we are also seeking new ways and opportunities to get this material into the hands of many more people who may want to have these conversations, but do not know how.

The majority of people in the U.S., both white and non-white, know that race relations have worsened. Race is a topic that continues to divide us because most Americans do not understand how the idea of race became a reality that we grapple with every day. Clearly there are those people who do not want to know or understand how deeply the idea of race and racial hierarchies are imbedded in the history of this country, but for the majority of Americans who want to know, the expansion of this project to reach more communities is one way for them to begin to learn.

Yolanda Moses is a Professor of Anthropology at University of California, Riverside and former Board President of the American Anthropological Association. Edward Liebow is the Executive Director of the American Anthropological Association.