Examining race and how it impacts relationships and life experiences will serve as forefront of the Winter 2013 Theme Semester, Understanding Race.

The virtual exhibit “RACE: Are We So Different?” — which was developed by the Science Museum of Minnesota in 2007 — will be featured in the University Museum of Natural History starting Feb. 9 and serve as part of the foundation of the theme semester.

The exhibit combines interactive features, graphics, photographs and historical artifacts to address the “everyday experience of living with race,” according to the project’s website.

Amy Harris, the Understanding Race faculty co-chair and director of the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, said she proposed LSA incorporate the topic of race into the Winter 2013 Theme Semester after confirming that the exhibit was coming to the University.

“I think it will be a fantastic opportunity for students to talk, to learn more about the socially constructed concept of race,” Harris said. “What they’ll learn at the exhibit is that there’s not biological basis for the idea, that it’s something that society has created as a way of separating people.”

Harris said she was approached by a high school teacher from the area who suggested bringing the exhibit to the University so her students could be exposed to learning more about race issues.

“What’s great about it is that it gives people all kinds of ways to start talking,” Harris said.

Harris said the three primary themes in the exhibit are science, history and lived experiences. To supplement the visiting exhibit, the museum will also be incorporating a self-developed gallery, “Race in This Place: A Community Conversation,” which will open on Nov. 16.

The gallery seeks to address issues revolving around race in health, immigration, the education system and the legal system. It includes video, art and interviews with citizens about race in Washtenaw County, according to the Museum of Natural History’s website.

“We recognize that it is a national focus,” Harris said. “We wanted to incorporate into people’s experience a look at what’s going on in our local community around race … The focus is to identify what the issues are but more importantly who is working on trying to make things better.”

A condensed version of the exhibit will be brought to the University to accommodate the space limitations at the museum. However, Harris said nothing has been removed in the process of condensing it.

The Understanding Race Project faculty at the Museum of Natural History trace student perception on race throughout the exhibit to see how their views have been impacted and examine how people have formed relationships.

Involvement in the Understanding Race Project goes beyond the LSA theme semester and includes a wide range of community involvement among Washtenaw County’s 10 school districts, the Ann Arbor District Library and the Ypsilanti District Library. Harris said community efforts have been underway since January 2012.

“The purpose of it is to stimulate a national conversation about race,” Harris said. “It’s been so successful and popular … Our vision for this exhibit is to use it as an opportunity to encourage conversations about race not only on campus but also in the Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County community and in the schools.”

She added: “I hope that every student at the University of Michigan will see the exhibit. I hope that they will take part in some of the amazing programs that they are lining up.”

Education graduate student Clara Ng-Quinn, an Understanding Race Theme Semester graduate intern and an Understanding Race Student Steering Committee adviser, said 133 courses in the LSA Winter 2013 semester will incorporate race and relate the theme to a variety of topics.

“The ultimate goal of the steering committee is to engage as many students as possible in this theme of understanding race through big events, through small events, through discussions, bringing speakers in, bringing performances in,” Ng-Quinn said.

She would not release specific details for events because they are still in the planning stages and there are no definite details yet. However, she did say there will be three to four major events that will relate to a wide variety of audience members in addition to smaller niche events and collaboration with cultural student organizations.

The steering committee is analyzing how sexuality, class and gender relate to race. They are trying to relate those sub-themes into the courses offered as part of the winter 2013 semester. Ng-Quinn said though some subjects obviously relate to race, other topics, such as women’s studies, will incorporate aspects of race through their relative topics, such as gender and class.

“My hope, at least, is that this theme semester will provide opportunities for students to engage in discussions about race in a positive environment and to hopefully chip away that stigma about talking about race,” Ng-Quinn said. “I really think that race is something that is useful to talk about; it doesn’t matter what race you are.”

Ng-Quinn said any student interested in joining the collaboration effort is welcome to join the student steering committee.

Noel Gordon, an LSA senior and student steering committee member, said the committee is looking to incorporate race into various aspects of student life, from medicine to sports to art.

“One of the things that I would like to achieve is to really make issues of race salient to people as they sort of understand it,” Gordon said. “It’s equally important to make sure students find conversations about race very accessible to them and relevant to them.”

Gordon said students might refrain from having conversations about race in fear of saying something wrong or offensive, and promoting open dialogue is important to removing stigmas.

“If we don’t have these conversations in sort of genuine and authentic ways, while admitting that some people will probably say the wrong thing in the process, then no one’s ever going to learn anything,” Gordon said. “It’s important for me … to help students understand that it’s okay to make mistakes while talking about race because that’s the only way we’re ever going to get to a better understanding.”

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