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Race-focused project aims to facilitate open dialogue

By Ash Natarajan, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 8, 2013

Is race a social construction or based on biological differences?

The University has introduced the Understanding Race Project, in order to discuss race in detail and raise awareness about racial injustice.

Through April, the project will feature a comprehensive agenda of public exhibitions, lectures, films, performances, discussions, symposia and courses, all geared towards analyzing and interpreting race.

The project was inspired by the “Race: Are we so different?” exhibit created by the American Anthropological Association in partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota. By providing insight into the science behind race, the history of race and the lived experience of race, the exhibit examines the effects of race as an economic, political, and cultural concept. A condensed version of that exhibit will be on display at the University’s Museum of Natural History from Feb. 9 through May 27.

In order to engage students in the greater Washtenaw community, the project has trained representatives from the ten Washtenaw County school districts to guide discussions about race and the exhibit with K-12 students.

The project, with support from the National Center for Institutional Diversity, also seeks to engage the community of Washtenaw County through monthly conversations, which will create a safe place for community members to discuss race, and facilitated dialogues at the exhibit.

Kira Berman, assistant director for education at the University’s Museum of Natural History, emphasized the role of the younger generations in ameliorating and increasing awareness about issues surrounding race.

“I think we are trained not to talk about race, and, in fact, in order to solve any problems about race we need to talk about it more ... Looking forward, the youth will be the people involved in this change,” Berman said.

Zarinah El-Amin Naeem, community engagement liaison for the project, highlighted the individual reality of race and the necessity for discussion about the topic.

“Everyone in America, whether you are a person of color or white, is affected by race on a daily basis,” Naeem said. “I think race and racism forces me to seek answers to bigger questions about the nature of humanity and our current lack of empathy for those ‘outside’ of our supposed group.”

Naeem also said that the project is intended to motivate people to resolve racial conflicts in their own communities.

“Our hope is that the Understanding Race Project serves as an educational and a motivational tool,” Naeem said. “We want to open minds around issues of race, eliminate myths, foster broader understanding of how race and racism affects us all ... We hope people are inspired to join the racial justice movement and improve our communities from within.”

Harris believes the project will create a strong foundation for carrying on the open philosophy about race even after the semester is over - the new courses will continue to be offered, and those trained in facilitating discussions about race will continue to hone their skills.

“We are (making an) investment in our community in terms of skill-building and awareness raising,” she said.

Amy Harris, director of the Museum of Natural History, said the theme semester strives to broaden students’ perspectives on race.

“Among our goals, one of (them) is student engagement, and another goal is to create as many opportunities for people to have discussions race as possible,” she said.

The project is a major part of the winter theme semester, Understanding Race. This semester, more than 130 courses explore the idea of race through historical, psychological, legal and cultural lenses. The semester is organized by the Museum of Natural History, The Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, The Ginsberg Center, The Program on Intergroup Relations, and the School of Social Work.