Without thinking about it much, Americans have long considered race a matter of biology — something as scientifically real as gravity. So if the exhibition RACE: Are We So Different? did nothing beyond demolishing the idea that "race" originates anywhere but in power and prejudice, it would still serve a valuable purpose.
But this touring multimedia exhibit by the American Anthropological Association and the Science Museum of Minnesota does much more. In a city as riven with racial divisions and racial inequality as Pittsburgh, its stop at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is essential viewing.
You'll learn, for instance, that until the 1600s — long after the trans-Atlantic slave trade began — Europeans had no concept of race; social hiearchies were based on religion and wealth. "Race was not found in nature but made by people in power," reads some of this sprawling but accessible show's copious text. "Racial classification provided a way to justify privilege and oppression by making inequality appear to be the result of natural differences."
Those "natural differences," of course, were ever only skin deep. If the pigments that divide us are adaptive responses to how hard the sun shines at different latitudes, everything else about us is identical. Until 100,000 years ago, after all, everyone was African — and most human genes remain a subset of African genes.
In the British colonies, however, landholders wanted to keep indentured servants and slaves from uniting. RACE dates the first legal use of the term "white" to 1691, in a Virginia law prohibiting marriage between whites and people of other races "for prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue."
It was spurious science, however, that helped sustain the ruling order. By the mid-18th century, Swedish (Swedish!) taxonomy pioneer Carolus Linnaeus was busy classifying humans into four distinct races. He helpfully added that Europeans were "gentle, acute and inventive" while Africans were "crafty, indolent, negligent." ("Racism," says historian Robin D.G. Kelley in one video interview shown in Race, "isn't about how you look. It's about how people assign meaning to how you look.") Infamous practices like skull studies and eugenics followed, as did Jim Crow and other regimes comprising America's wretched history of legalized oppression.
All this has made race real, if only as a social classification; now, we can't imagine America without it. RACE also explores what this means today. In displays and videos that draw on everything from health statistics and the insights of writers and scholars to kids' experiences in high school, RACE tells how racism plays out: in poverty, unemployment, unequal justice and the "tracking" of schoolchildren. (Many displays also encourage visitors to write comments for others to read, and these are often worth perusing.) And thoroughly ingrained is our Linnaeus-like need to classify: As artist Kip Fulbeck makes clear in his Hapa Project portrait series of people of partial Asian or Pacific Islander ancestry, asking someone "What are you?" denies that person's humanity in a particularly thoughtless way.
The Carnegie's incarnation of RACE has Pittsburgh-specific elements. One updates the Pittsburgh Courier's 1961 person-in-the-street series "Pittsburghers Speak Up." Emulating journalist George Barbour and famed photographer Teenie Harris, Lynne Hayes-Freeland and Nikkia Hall asked, "Do you think race relations are improving or worsening in Pittsburgh?" The images rotate out; in those displayed when I visited, some African-American respondents in 1961 (in the midst of the civil-rights era) qualifiedly saw improvement. Most queried today did not.
As text elsewhere in RACE notes, "The legacy of white privilege still runs far ahead of efforts to compensate for it."
"White privilege" — that's an important concept this exhibit embraces. It starts with the idea, still rejected by many whites, that white people even have a race (socially speaking). Understanding white privilege also means understanding that racism doesn't just disadvantage other people — it also benefits you, even if your ancestors never owned slaves, or "came to this country with nothing."
RACE in Pittsburgh also includes the Carnegie's partial reprise of We Humans, its own mid-1950s exhibit that became a traveling educational tool. Unlike RACE, We Humans didn't unmask race as human invention, like money or religion; it merely guided people away from prejudice. When text from We Humans says, "Separation makes races," we understand that the 1950s copywriters were referencing the phenomenon of skin color. Now we know that what really makes race is social separation, and that this complicates things even more.
One display in RACE asks visitors, "How does race affect you at school?" One hand-written answer is from Kayla, a young woman of Puerto Rican and Dominican ancestry whose penciled answer reads: "Don't tell me my color doesn't matter, or that you don't see color. I see color and I [heart] it. I want you to love it too."