Monday, April 25, 2011

Understanding Race

The Museum of Science in Boston is a terrific place for learners of all ages -- and learning about many subjects. It truly is one of the great treasures of the region in which I live. Saturday I had the privilege of visiting a temporary installation that was timely for me in a number of ways. RACE: Are We So Different? is at the MOS only through May 15; I encourage all my local friends and students to see it if at all possible -- and to allow plenty of time for its engaging activities and exhibits.

The experience was timely for me in two ways. Over the past several months, my (mostly white, suburban) UU church in Bridgewater has been actively involved in a growing partnership with a (mostly black, urban) Baptist church in nearby Brockton. The two congregations are located only a few miles apart, and are enjoying the conscious exploration of what unites and divides the communities in which we reside. It was in this context that I immersed myself -- along with some university colleagues and students -- in the museum's application of anthropology, biology, geography, and medicine to the question of what exactly race is.

The exhibit was timely in a second, somewhat more prosaic way. In recent discussions of demography with second-year geography students, we turned our attention to the subject of race in the U.S. Census. I have posted a lot of articles about the Census during the current "season," including some about race. I was stumped by a very basic questions the students asked, though: Why does the Census include race at all? And the close corollary: Should it continue to do so?

I went to the exhibit, naively hoping to find an answer to one or both of these questions. In fact, I came away with more and deeper questions, but only very partial answers. Before I realized photographs were forbidden, I snapped the one above, of a bunch of people posing in t-shirts. My camera phone being what it is, the point of the shirts needs explaining: each person is wearing a shirt with three different "decade" dates over the past two centuries. Each date is followed by the description of race or ethnicity that person would have chosen on the census for that year. Every person has at least two -- and many three -- designations. The exhibit includes some interesting questions about what to do now, and the implications of continuing, modifying, or eliminating the questions.

The installation's online companion web site is extensive, and I look forward to exploring it more fully. It includes an interesting exercise related to the census discussion above. I was able to complete the race/ethnicity question for myself as if I were a resident of about ten different countries; I did not get the same answer each time!

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