Dec 08

Race Matters Exhibit Reflection

While a point brought up over and over again by the Race Exhibit at the Pacific Science Center was that race doesn’t have any scientific backing (that there are no biological traits which are truly unique to any given group and that, at the skeletal level, there are virtually no distinguishable differences between groups), it certainly did address the various components of race, in terms of physical appearance.  The primary of these is skin color.  The primary statement in terms of the exhibit’s thesis about this topic is that the constant change of skin color among groups throughout human past, as well as the immense ethnic inter-mixing of the past century, means that a modern person’s genetic structure has the possibility of being more similar to that of a group of people with whom this person’s skin color is not shared.  However, the exhibit goes on to confirm that various populations have adjusted in skin color and features due to the environments in which they traditionally live.  Melanin, the concentration of which increases skin pigmentation, is necessary to protect from folate photolysis and such conditions as skin cancer and sunburn.  While this fact does present advantages for certain groups in terms of vulnerability to health conditions, it does not make any statement about any further capability of any person based on these traits, or their self-identity.  Thus, it is confirmed that race as we see it (a divider in the potential of people) is entirely social, and that, though this seems obvious to most in the modern world, the past practice of evaluating a person’s intelligence based on skull size is entirely inaccurate.

The most interesting discussion, in my opinion, at this exhibit, was a comparison between the way race is identified in the US, and how it is in Brazil.  While race is viewed as a very specific ethnicity-based identity in our country, the culture of mixed identity, despite apparent segregation, in Brazil has led to it being something much more specific, yet much more focused on the single aspect of appearance rather than heritage.  The result of this is that the view of race there is much more quantifiable for the uses in which it is really useful, such as law enforcement, without having the excessive connotations of heritage and such that exist in American society.  One of the main ways this is demonstrated is through the over 100 words that Brazilians have to describe race, so to say, according to its primary definition as skin color.  I find this particularly interesting because it is an idea that relates somewhat to me.  I am Indian, so the race that I have to mark on most forms that include such a field is Asian.  However, Indians aren’t generally considered Asians, and I even don’t look like what most Americans qualify as Indian.  Having a way to categorize myself in such situations simply by physical appearance rather than by heritage that can be somewhat confusing.  Of course, based on the segregated (though externally not so) society in which we live, this isn’t effective, as many of the companies or organizations that ask this question seek to provide greater chances for minorities to succeed, so as to create a society in which the distinction between minority and majority success isn’t so drastic.  It makes me wonder whether such a system will be apparent in the future of the US, as such measures as complete self-identification of race on the US census have been debated.  Not only would this change the way this entire structure operates, but it would also better allow individuals to form their own identities and be who they truly want to be based on them, rather than a more vague identity which is provided by others and doesn’t necessarily fit well.

Besides the component mentioned above, the most striking parts of this exhibit were those which involved children, sometimes teenagers like me.  There was one particular documentary that was being shown which featured inner-city high school students speaking of the way race impacted their lives.  It was titled What’s Race Got to Do with It?  I only saw a short clip, featuring a mixed white and African American student who had trouble with his hockey team because of his hair.  Of course, stories like this are all too common, as instilling these sorts of beliefs in children is what sustains them, but what is really cool is seeing these students analyzing the situations and looking at how to change them sustainably and effectively.  Another display which neighbored this one (I don’t know whether it was actually created by students, or just made to look that way) was composed of four lockers which had been painted and pasted with different items and quotes, representing different stereotypes clashing with actual cultural identities.  Acknowledging these situations and even discussing solutions to them is one thing, but going further to attempt to discuss them by transcending cultural boundaries and, for example, using literature published by members of entirely different, even opposing groups.  This is a type of discussion which the Internet today and the society it fosters is fueling.  I hope that it will further allow for this integration to be reflected by how everyone views race (or, perhaps, consciously ignores it) or how individuals are asked to self-identify.