Art exhibit deconstructs our perceptions of race

By Jason J. Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly

Student groups engage in one of the many interactive displays challenging our preconceived notions of race. (Photo by Jason Cruz/NWAW)

The color of one’s skin is one of the most telling differences between people. In the past, racial identity has been used as a way to divide more than to unite. An exhibit at the Pacific Science Center at the Seattle Center explores these differences. “RACE, Are We So Different?” probes our perceptions of race from a historical, scientific, and social perspective.

According to the exhibit organizers, the exhibition’s goal is “to help individuals of all ages better understand the origins and manifestations of race and racism in everyday life by investigating race and human variation through the framework of science.” The displays deconstruct perceptions that have divided people for ages, while offering up new ways to view race.

“RACE” explores three primary themes: the science of human variation, the history of the idea of race, and the contemporary experience of race and racism.

The exhibit was developed by the Science Museum of Minnesota in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association. It has traveled to more than 25 cities across the United States, inspiring discussion and debate since it was established in 2007.

One of the changes the exhibit initially saw was the election of Barack Obama in 2008. It posed differing views of people about the perception of race with the first African American president in U.S. history, and asked if having a black president meant that America had progressed in race relations.

The one-floor exhibit offers interactive stations, where visitors can read, touch, and view different maps, artifacts, and multimedia presentations geared to provoke visitors into challenging their own perceptions of race. The Pacific Science Center is collaborating with the City of Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative in order to make the exhibit more accessible and broaden the conversation.

Workshops led by trained volunteer facilitators have offered pre- and post-exhibit discussions on the understanding of racial equity in various communities. The exhibit has been visited by many school groups, during which students are invited to leave comments about the displays.

Photographs from renowned photographer Wing Young Huie portray the lives of diverse, working class individuals and communities across the country. The pictorials are a commentary about the realities of color, race, and class in America.

Other thought-provoking moments during the exhibit include a look at the changing view of race in the U.S. Census. One question posed, “Should race be a question on the next census?” In addition, it probes the disparities in earning potential based upon race, looks at the ongoing debate over sports mascots, and studies the relationship between high blood pressure and race.

One of the more interesting interactive media presentations is the “Who’s Talking?” activity.

Visitors hear a voice and must match that voice with the face of the speaker, challenging many preconceived notions of race.

In addition to the interactive and informative activities, there is a historical timeline of events detailing the struggles people of color have had in America. These include the case of Wong Kim Ark, a Chinese man born in San Francisco, who was denied access back into the United States after a trip to China. His citizenship was challenged. After review by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1898, the Court held that children born in the United States generally acquire citizenship at birth.

Another case involves Takao Ozawa v. United States in 1922. Ozawa had attempted to file for citizenship and was determined ineligible for naturalization. The Ozawa case concluded that Japanese people were not a defined race, and therefore did not qualify for U.S. citizenship. These and other compelling cases in the display show the evolution of the legalities of race.

Perhaps the overarching view of the exhibit is that we celebrate the differences, while rethinking the antiquated views of race and color that have been prevalent throughout our society. It is an engaging, thought-provoking exhibit that is a must-see for anyone interested in race relations.  (end)

RACE: Are We So Different? runs through Jan. 5, 2014. For more information, check

Jason Cruz can be reached at

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