Friday, January 24, 2014

are we so different?

Late last month, I had the opportunity to attend an exhibit at the Pacific Science Center called RACE: Are We So Different?, a project developed by the American Anthropological Association. This exhibit has been travelling around the country since mid-2007, and it landed here in Seattle this year (see the project's website if you're interested in future locations). I'm fortunate enough to work for a semi-government agency, which allowed me to attend the exhibit for free, as well as sit in on a post-exhibit workshop about ways to combat institutional and structural racism.

I had mixed feelings prior to my visit. On one hand, I was eager to attend for a number of reasons: my love for museums, my fascination with history, and my interest in race, diversity, and culture -- particularly from the standpoint of a parent through transracial adoption.

On the other hand, I was somewhat nervous. I didn't know how I would feel after viewing this project. Would I feel sad? Would I be angry? Would this change my perspective in any way?

The crowds were large that day. I worked my way though the exhibit alongside individuals and families of different races, ages, and sexual orientations. I saw an older white couple with their young, black granddaughter. Several same-sex couples with their children. Single moms. Young adults. We'd all gathered at this place to learn about the history of race and diversity in this country. And not just race as a skin color, as I discovered while moving through the hall. "Race" in the context of so many things: blood type, distribution of wealth, medical care, location, schooling, crime. The exhibit touched upon every aspect of life that makes us different from one another.

Each topic was heavy. From the Japanese-American internment to the loss of Native American land, every example stirred up emotions inside of me that I still can't quite put into words. But two places in particular stood out to me in the exhibit hall that day:

The first was a compilation of video interviews from adults who spoke about their experiences with race and racism. One of these speakers was an adoptee from Korea. Her parents brought her to the United States in the late 70s/early 80s, gave her a traditional American name, and then raised her in their predominately white, suburban town in northern Minnesota. Here, she had very little interaction with other children who "looked like her." She was expected to assimilate, and when she experienced instances of bias, she didn't receive the support she needed from her parents -- who failed to understand that these interactions were racism.

The second was another video, this time of high-school aged children who were speaking about their experiences in their school cafeteria at lunch time. They spoke about the "unsaid rules" of the lunch room and where people sat. What struck me in particular about this were the comments from the mixed-race teens, who admitted that they didn't feel comfortable sitting with one race over another because they were often teased about their skin color or being mixed. It ended with one of the young ladies saying how she wished it wasn't like this. She stressed to her peers that it was up to them to change these invisible boundaries and continue the hard work of their parents and grandparents toward racial equality.

You can probably guess why both of these examples stood out to me.

The first gave me a sense of understanding as to how far we've come with regard to transracial adoption and ensuring that we raise our children to understand and embrace their culture. I realize that not all situations are picture perfect, but in general, adoptive parents are far more educated than they used to be about the complexities of transracial adoption. (See my dear friend T's recent post for a much more eloquent piece on parenting a child of a different race and/or culture.)

Yet, the second video left me wanting more. While we've come a long way since the 70s and 80s (in every aspect of race/equality), it became clear how much farther we have left to go. We still live in a world where even children who've been raised to be open and accepting of others have a hard time erasing those lines that have been so firmly drawn for centuries. I shook my head as I walked away from it, asking myself, "How will we ever fix something that's so engrained in our society, to the point where even our children unknowingly participate?"

I clearly don't have the entire answer to this question. I don't think anyone does. But as I looked around the room that day and examined all of the diverse faces, I realized that the short answer is to keep doing things like this. We keep educating. We have conversations. We encourage our children to do the same. And we focus on the big picture. Not the "so-and-so is a biased person, and I need to change his or her perspective" picture. Instead, we focus on the structures and the institutions that hold us down. We fight for legislation that provides us with equal rights. We encourage organizations to become more inclusive.

Most importantly, we stand for each other. While the content of the exhibit was sometimes heavy and overwhelming, it only took a second of me glancing at the other attendees to force myself to become uplifted again. Looking around the room, I couldn't possibly believe that inequality CAN'T be fixed. Because even though we looked different from one another, deep down we all wanted the same thing... and I (want?) have to believe that a majority of people want that same thing, too.


Lollipop Goldstein said...

I'm glad you wrote about this exhibit. I got to see it once, but had to move through it faster than I wanted. Then it was at another museum in the area a year later, but I missed it that time. It sounds fascinating.

Becky said...

I have found myself worrying more and more about this as my boys have gotten older, particularly now that my oldest is in public school. It is (for around here, at least) a diverse school, but still I wonder about the ingrained racism he experiences. I don't know how to give him the words to discuss it. And I don't know how to tell him to address it. It makes me angry. And scared. And so damn sad.

Geochick said...

Thanks for writing about this exhibit. It's coming to my city in the fall and I'll be sure we check it out!