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Understanding race

By Carlina Duan, Community Culture Editor
Published February 7, 2013

The Museum of Natural History sits serenely on the corner of Geddes Avenue. A simple, unassuming building of mahogany brick and cream walls, the museum invites visitors to shimmy inside. When you enter, you’re greeted by a solemn map of planet earth, sprawling across the walls. Behind glass cases, Michigan wildflowers and owls peer from branches. A mineral collection glimmers from the hallway, boasting rocks studded with glamorous, jewel-like crystals.

“Race: Are We So Different”

At first glance, typical museumgoer expectations are met. The building is an elementary-school student’s fantasy — prime for exploration, with its dinosaur skeletons, stuffed possums and built-in planetarium. Yet among the “standard” museum gear, the Museum of Natural History will feature a special exhibit this semester — one that ties in with the University’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts Theme Semester: Understanding Race.

The museum will showcase the traveling exhibit “RACE: Are We So Different?” from Feb. 9 through May 27.

Amy Harris, director of the Museum of Natural History, first saw the exhibit in 2007 at the Charles H. Wright Museum in Detroit, and explained the process of bringing the exhibit to campus.

“I thought it was fantastic, but I ruled it out because it was too big,” she said, referring to her initial hesitation to bring the exhibit to the museum.

The exhibit itself was developed by the American Anthropological Association, in partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota. “RACE” takes a new approach to the study of race and ethnicity that Harris hopes will spotlight and enrich conversations about race.

“The exhibit looks at race from three different thematic perspectives,” Harris explained. “One is looking at the science of human variation. Another is the historical concept of the socially-constructed idea of race. And the third is a living exhibit of race — looking at the ways racism is embedded in our institutions, in health disparities, wealth disparities.”

In fact, the theme semester was devised with the “RACE” exhibit in mind. After deciding to bring the exhibit to the museum, Harris and colleagues proposed the “Understanding Race” theme to the Dean of LSA, who then selected the theme out of an array of other proposals.

Harris said she believes the theme semester will encourage necessary discussions about race that are relevant to present day. Harris noted that studies have shown that by the year 2040, people of color will become the majority of the population in the United States.

Linking together a collective audience

Frank Provenzano, who works with Harris on the Understanding Race Project, summarized its necessity: “Race is a part of everything and we need to talk about it in a very reasonable way — without people thinking we’re obsessed with race. We want a healthier national discourse.”

LSA senior Noel Gordon, a student coordinator for the Understanding Race Project and a member of the theme semester student steering committee, noted that conversations about race are especially applicable to the current college-age generation of Americans.

“There are a lot of changing demographics that are happening culturally, politically (and) socioeconomically that are all tied with race,” Gordon said. “It’ll be really important for us to talk across difference, so we can move together to inhabit this new world and take advantage of all the great things it’ll have to offer us.”

In order to help the community better engage in these conversations about race, the creation of the Understanding Race Theme Semester led to the Understanding Race Project, a program intended to link overlapping audiences on campus and in the community. The project involves three audiences: the University campus community, the K-12 schools and the broader Ann Arbor community. Beginning in January 2012, the Understanding Race Project has facilitated dozens of workshops in order to train teachers and administrators in schools across the district to have conversations about race.

As a student coordinator of the project, Gordon has participated and led several of these workshops in various schools across Ann Arbor. He observed the applicability of the theme semester in all three audiences.

“What we’re hoping to do is bring everyone a couple steps closer to having these conversations and appreciation for race based on their personal history,” he said. “It’s been interesting to see (the reactions) of middle- and high-school students who are just sinking their teeth into this issue. Some are anxious; some are scared; some are excited,” he said. “And it’s also exciting to see members of this community who are perhaps older and have been doing this kind of work for a long time.”

A community conversation

Harris shed light on the goals of the Understanding Race Project.

“(We aim) to look at race and to understand it more deeply through the ways it intersects with other identities — such as gender, sexual orientations. … A second goal is not only to look at race in terms of the black-white dichotomy, but to look at it more broadly. A third goal is to include local expertise, so we’re highlighting U-M faculty research as well as community members,” she said.

The theme semester student steering committee accompanies the Understanding Race Project. It’s a student organization on campus that works to captivate all students in various theme semester events and activities throughout the term. The group meets weekly in order to plan the logistics of theme semester events, and also to collaborate with other student organizations across campus.

Public Policy junior Salma Moosa, a student facilitator of the steering committee, described the group’s aim to attract student interest in the theme semester.

“The goal of the semester is that every single student on campus is able to more comfortably engage in a conversation about race than they were before the race semester theme started,” she said, noting that the committee will try to encompass all students within conversations about race — not just students who are enrolled in theme semester classes.

While events are still in the planning stages, they will most likely incorporate and expand connections between race and gender, sexuality, the arts, the culinary field and beyond. Gordon revealed one potential theme semester event that will explore the intersection between race and athletics.

“We’ll be trying to do something around the Fab Five basketball team,” said Gordon. “The Fab Five is an important part of Michigan athletics history, and we’ll look at that conversation intersected with issues of race and class.”

The student steering committee hopes to invite a member of the Fab Five to come to campus to speak and to host a discussion about the evolving nature of race and class in athletics.

Other events throughout the semester will include a LGBT community summit called Color of Change, which plans to delve into the experiences of LGBT and people of color. Additionally, the student steering committee plans to create panels, discussions and lectures that feature both people of color as well as other professionals who have studied race or worked in racial issues.

Outside of the steering committee, the Understanding Race Project also works to implement community events that center around the theme semester. These events include monthly teen science cafés revolving around race and topics such as public health and law, hosted at the Museum of Natural History. Speakers are invited to discuss such issues at these monthly conversations, followed by an audience discussion. Furthermore, the Understanding Race Project has implemented a vast array of film screenings, panels and discussions across local venues such as Zingerman’s, the Hatcher Graduate Library and the Matthaei Botanical Gardens throughout the term.

The Museum of Natural History also created a supplement to the “RACE” exhibit within the museum itself. Titled “Race in this Place: A Community Conversation,” the additional exhibit attempts to highlight race in four thematic areas: education, health, the legal system and immigration. In each of the four areas, the exhibit showcases local community organizations that delve into conversations about race in those areas. “Race in this Place” includes many joint projects with community organizations, including the Neutral Zone’s Students Educating Each other about Diversity (SEED) program.

A metaphor for identity

Danny Brown, one of the co-directors of SEED at the Neutral Zone, described the mission of the program.

“It’s not just talking at kids about diversity,” he said. “But it’s bringing their life experiences into a room together and celebrating difference and discovering how their own lives fit into larger context in society in a way that’s entwined.”

Brown helps lead the program of Ann Arbor high-school students, who are trained to facilitate conversations about youth with other youth in the community.

“(The youth) have intense dialogues on race that focus on, not only people understanding their own race, but how their race fits in a system and what that means in their position in society,” Brown said.

Within the local museum exhibit, SEED teens were also featured in a video alongside community members, in which all discussed race relations within the Ann Arbor community.

The exhibit also features a unique art project created by the SEED youth. Lined behind a glass case, goggles were splashed with various Sharpie colors — featuring bubble letters, drawings of hockey sticks and other graphic designs.

“We ask (teens) to think about their race, gender, social class and other factors, and we ask them after reflecting that to transpose some of those elements of themselves onto these goggles,” Brown said.

The teens then wore the goggles at a weekend retreat, and looked at each other through their goggle creations — examining one another through their constructed identities.

“It becomes a metaphor for identity — identity being a frame for how you make decisions, build relationships,” Brown explained. “It’s also a metaphor for how people perceive you, because while you’re looking at someone’s goggles, other people are also looking at you and making assumptions about your goggles.” In this way, students are able to view their identities through interaction about race with others.

Alex Kime, a senior at Skyline High School, is a SEED student facilitator. He believes working in the SEED program alongside the theme semester has helped him examine his own race in relations to others.

“As a white person, it’s my privilege to not be as affected by race as someone who’s a person of color,” Kime said. “You have to always think about your own privilege, and it’s always an act of unlearning. SEED helped me look at that.”

Student interactions with race are happening within classrooms at the University as well. According to Harris, there are approximately 130 theme semester courses being offered this semester. For Evelyn Alsultany, associate professor of American Culture, these classes offer crucial dialogue about race that need to happen on college campuses in order to make others reflect upon the changing nature of race.

“Through the theme semester, we want to shed light on the different ways of understanding this as part of a larger history of race and racism that we are still in the process of overcoming,” Alsultany said. “If we ignore it or deny it then how (are we supposed) to improve it?”

A legacy of understanding

“As students at this University who are going to be future leaders and citizens, (it’s important) to be able to leave here more in tune to how race manifests today. It might manifest differently,” Alsultany said. “Today, race doesn’t look like slavery. Race doesn’t look like segregation. Race changes over time.”

Alsultany is teaching two theme semester courses: AMCULT 218, “22 Ways to Think About Race,” and AMCULT 235: “From Harems to Terrorists: Representing the Middle East in Hollywood Cinema.”

At noon on Monday in her “22 Ways to Think About Race” class, 70 students packed into the Mason Hall room. Some chatted amiably; some yanked out sheets of notebook paper from bags; others nursed cans of fruit juice. Near the front of the room sat Anthropology Prof. Milford Wolpoff, the guest speaker for the day.

Wolpoff addressed the students with a fierce and raspy voice while presenting a PowerPoint on “The Science of Race & Racism.” He discussed how race is linked to the human evolution, showing slides detailing a history of race in scientific study. Peering at the class, he emphasized in a booming voice that human evolution and race are connected. Next, he detailed the importance of diversity in race.

“Race invariably also means racial prejudice. And we’re never going to get rid of prejudice … but we can and must learn how to celebrate our diversity,” he said. “As an evolutionist, I can say if we all became the same, evolutionists would have nothing to work with. What we need to be successful is variety.”

Part of the larger signature “22 Ways” courses that accompany each theme semester, “22 Ways to Think About Race” brings in guest speakers from various disciplines — including linguistics, communications and medicine — to highlight the ways in which race exists across a wide spectrum of fields. Alsultany hopes that through teaching theme semester courses, she can illuminate the pressing necessity of understanding race in our communities.

“I think it’s important to look at where we are and not deny the progress, but not assume that we are now an equal world,” she said.

For many, the ultimate goal of the theme semester is that its legacy will stretch beyond this semester.

“I really hope that we can take this model of how to talk about a very complicated subject of race, (and apply it to) how can we become less violent as a society; how we can talk about economic disparity; how we can talk about gender in an open way,” Provenzano said.

Harris agreed, noting the change already occurring on campus, including the University’s documentation of faculty research on race; the training sessions on race discussions for teachers and colleagues; and positive reactions to teacher facilitation in race dialogue.

“A stronger community of people committed to racial justice is already forming,” Harris said.


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