Three years ago, Amy Harris, director of the Museum of Natural History, was asked by an Ann Arbor public school teacher to bring the travelling exhibit, “Race: Are We So Different?” to her museum.

Harris brought the exhibit to the University—an action that in part inspired the Winter 2013 LSA Theme Semester, “Understanding Race.”

The theme semester aims to engage students in a discussion about race, through numerous events and activities that are targeted at both the University community and public school districts in Washtenaw County. The University plans to host 90 events, 15 exhibits and is offering 130 different courses related to the theme.

Teachers in Washtenaw County school districts will lead discussions about race in their classrooms before and after visiting the exhibit at the museum, and the University will host a series of monthly conversations.

Harris said she hoped that University students would attend and engage in some of the student-orientated events, such as a Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech by Morris Dees, chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a multimedia presentation, “We Can End Racism,” led by artist Damali Ayo in April.

Among the 130 courses, LSA is offering several new courses specifically created for theme semester. One such course, The Aryan Race: Myth, Truth and Fiction, seeks to examine both how conceptions of race are formed and how they influence our self-perception.

History Prof. Masuzawa, who teaches the course with Associate Prof. Gayle Rubin, wrote in an e-mail interview that the course grew out of a graduate seminar the pair taught with retired History Prof. Thomas Trautmann in 2005 and a desire to reach a broader spectrum of students.

Masuzawa wrote that the course aims to foster a conversation on various ways in which we approach discussing race. She added that looking to the past to explore the history of the Aryan race functions as a good starting point for the conversation.

“We would like students to find such a moment to pause, to think, and to converse, at a little distance from the usual tugs and disputes (about race),” Masuzawa wrote. “Instead, (we would like them to learn) in the company of books, histories and unfamiliar facts.”

Another course, Community Collaborations: Race, Social Justice and Engaged Learning, taught by Associate Prof. Megan Sweeney, looks into the relationship between universities and outside communities.

“It seemed so important to recognize that faculty members have engaged in community-oriented research related to the African American community engagement … as part of the race theme semester,” Megan Sweeney said.

Sweeney said she wants her students to gain an understanding of the history of community involvement and develop hands-on projects that help students explore their own identity in relationship to others.

“There is a great deal of importance in thinking about race and structural inequalities as you work with students who are involved in (communities),” Sweeney said.

Efforts to foster a conversation about race are what drew LSA senior Sara Blanks to coordinate events for the theme semester.

Growing up biracial, Blanks said many people don’t think about racism as much as she does. But she hopes the theme semester can change that.

“I want people to actually have conversations about it,” Blanks said.

Harris, the museum director, said race has always remained an important national conversation and is particularly true in light of the coming inauguration and 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

“It is always a good time to talk about race,” Harris said. “There is a constant stream of things that happen locally and nationally that illustrate that it is important to be thinking and talking about race.”

Harris added that by holding this semester-long conversation, the University has made it a priority to foster a diverse campus which is welcoming for everyone.

“This is another opportunity for the campus to really focus on this issue and talk about it,” she said. “Racism is embedded in our institutions, and in order to make changes, we need to understand that.”

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