Racism Deconstructed

Racism affects everyone: 53 percent of blacks and 56 percent of whites in Jacksonville said that racism is a problem, according to Jacksonville Community Council Inc.’s eighth annual Race Relations Progress Report.

It’s a topic with which Jacksonville continues to struggle, said Maria Hane, executive director of the Museum of Science & History. And it’s one of the reasons she decided to bring “RACE: Are We So Different?” to MOSH.

The exhibit, created by the American Anthropological Association, is being presented in Florida for the first time by MOSH, partnering with the Mayo Clinic and JCCI.

The exhibit has been on display in more than 30 cities, including Washington, D.C., where Hane viewed it before deciding that it needed to come to Northeast Florida.

The JCCI report localizes the exhibit to the Northeast Florida community, and the production is an anchor to JCCI’s report, Hane said.

Through interactive multimedia, the exhibit presents the history of the concept of race and the contemporary experience of racism in the United States, Hane said. Race is not a science-based concept or a biological construct, but a social construct, she said.

“I feel that the concepts of race were socially constructed by people, so they can be undone if there is the political will to do so,” said Yolanda Moses, chair of the exhibit.

Changing hearts and minds is what this exhibit is about. People need to be educated about the depths of racism before they can begin to understand how to change it, said Moses, a University of California anthropology professor.

“Even if individuals get rid of their own personal prejudices, there is still structural racism to be dealt with,” Moses said. “That is the racism I worry about.”

It’s the type of racism that has historically privileged certain groups over others and continues to do so. People need to understand how deep-seated these structural activities are in society, she said.

“Being white, I grew up with the privilege that it was no big deal,” Hane said, “but that is not how people of color may feel.”

She said the exhibit humbled her. It validated how she feels about racial categorization — putting people in slots and falsely assigning value to those slots.

“I don’t like it. But I am conscious that it is insulting to someone else, and I am embarrassed by it,” Hane said.

The historical approach the presentation uses offers the opportunity to show how laws and social values played out in supporting the U.S. racial hierarchy that privileged white skin over others, Moses said.

In 1790, there were three racial choices on the U.S. Census: “white,” “slave” and “other,” Hane said. Those categories have been the infrastructure to national policies on education, housing, public policy and even health and medical research, she said.

In an effort to put the exhibit’s message on a local level, MOSH created “FACE RACE,” which features 14 diverse community leaders and their DNA results, from a company called 23&Me. The results show the diversity in the participants’ faces, skin colors, hair colors and ancestral genetic mapping.

“I’m hoping that once we understand our common roots, we will develop more understanding, tolerance and respect for each other,” said Parvez Ahmed, director of the Center for Sustainable Business Practices and a University of North Florida associate professor of finance.

A few years ago, Ahmed, who is Muslim, was at the center of a controversy after he was invited to become a member of the Human Rights Commission. As such, Ahmed was one of Hane’s first choices to participate in “FACE RACE.”

Ahmed said he knew his heritage was South Asian, and the DNA results from 23&Me didn’t surprise him. There have been different patterns of migration for centuries in India and the Middle East from conquerors and traders, he said.

Ahmed’s results came back 97.7 percent South Asian, .4 Native American, .3 African and 1.5 unassigned.

“No matter how different the person is on the surface from me, the person still has more in common than different from me,” Ahmed said. “So knowing that, it is disappointing to see the type of divisive discourse that we have around racial issues.”

Humans are 99.9 percent the same genetically, Moses said. It’s called genotypic variation, and as Homo sapiens, people are different from other primates, she said. It’s similar to being a flower; there are many varieties, blends and hybrids, Moses said.

“When you cut us, we all bleed the same,” said Ju’Coby Pittman, CEO and president of the Clara White Mission.

Pittman, another participant in “FACE RACE,” said she was surprised and elated by her DNA results. Pittman said she knew she was African, but now she knows she’s also Saharan African, European, East Asian and Native American.

“I embrace that, because I am a person that embraces culture. It is astonishing to know that I am a part of all those different cultures,” Pittman said.

The world’s widest genetic variation can be found in Africa, Moses said. She said her favorite part of the exhibit is “Out of Africa,” because it shows that, while we are variable as human beings in terms of skin color, we all began in Africa.

Frieda Saraga, president of the local chapter of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays, has wondered her whole life if she was anything other than Caucasian.

“For years, it interested me, as people have always asked me what race I was. Especially during the summer, a lot of people ask me if I am African American or Indian,” Saraga said.

After participating in “FACE RACE,” Saraga was amazed to learn that she was 99.9 percent Eastern European and one percent North African.

“There is a very strong individual experience when you go through this exhibit. As you move through each interactive [station], you experience your own self-reveal of what assumptions you carry with you about race,” Hane said.

Hane’s favorite kiosk is the game “Who’s Talking?” which includes photos of six people with different skin and hair color and six different voices. You have to choose which face goes with which voice.

A unique element of the exhibit is the amount of time people are spending at each kiosk or station, Hane said.

The exhibit is designed to provoke conversation, so there are places where people can sit down and talk between kiosks — and contemplate, Hane said. She said that with most exhibits, museum-goers usually spend about a minute at each kiosk or station, but with “RACE,” they’re taking three to five minutes at the separate components.

There are reaction stations feature 5×7 note cards, with a question on each. Folks can flip through and read what others have felt, which brings a present voice to the overall experience, Hane said.

“We are especially interested in young people learning about the issue, because they are growing up in a country where diversity is going to be the norm, and there should be no topic that is taboo,” Moses said.

Youth experience racism in a different way, and the younger generations don’t have a direct connection to the Civil Rights Movement, Hane said. The youth voice is one of the strongest because they are the next generation, she said.

The topic of affirmative action is presented in chalkboard format. A youth video, set in a cafeteria, focuses on segregation, asking, “Where do you sit in the cafeteria?”

Community leaders like Ahmed said they hope the timely exhibit creates conversations around Northeast Florida.

“I hope citizen groups, education institutions and others take advantage of this exhibit. Not just to go and see the exhibit, but to actually come back and have a conversation on it,” Ahmed said. “I think that is the best you can hope for — anything that requires us to change our existing world views has to be done through dialogue.”

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