Modern genetic researchers say there is no biological basis for the concept of race, that the average genetic differences between geographic groups such as Japanese, Europeans, and East Africans are too small to be significant. But if race is not a scientific concept, is it still a culturally valid one?
Joanne Rizzi, an exhibit and program developer and visiting Osher Fellow to the Exploratorium, explored the misunderstandings and realities of race with an exhibition she helped develop with the American Anthropological Association and the Science Museum of Minnesota. RACE: Are We So Different? covers the myth and meaning of race. There are obvious differences in the way we look, in skin color and hair for instance, but is race really only skin deep? What about the human experience of race and culture—is it possible to reconcile or at least acknowledge the two concepts?
Joanne told a group of us at the Exploratorium that she was initially reluctant to work on the exhibition because she didn’t think a purely scientific exploration of race would be broad enough to embrace the cultural reality and history of race and racism in America. But the Science Museum of Minnesota kept asking her until she finally agreed to come onboard. While on the exhibit team she initiated a community advisory panel that would become part of the development process and co-developed a series of programs. It was tough going, many people of color were suspicious that the exhibition wouldn’t tell the truth about racism and power. One advisor quit over the prominence of a map, based on genetic evidence, that all humans on earth originally came out of Africa. A Native American, his religious and cultural beleifs conflicted with the scientific views so he left the project.
But eventually what they created allowed many voices and viewpoints into the exhibition. One especially powerful public program were the “talking circles” which brought together groups of people to share ideas about the exhibition with a process that allows everyone to speak. Now the exhibition is on tour, currently in Detroit and spreading out across the U.S.