SEATTLE — At the Pacific Science Center’s newest exhibit, you will be invited to jot down your thoughts about race and your own identity.
To get started, you might glance at a few handwritten slips of paper filled out by others who have seen this exhibit elsewhere.
Perhaps you’ll respond with mathematical precision, like the person who defined themselves as “40% Spanish, 40% German, 10% Swedish, 10% French … 100% American, and all parts fabulous.”
Or, your answer may more closely resemble one that says, “Race confuses me. It’s like picking a sports team when I don’t know much about sports.”
Be warned. When you visit “Race: Are We So Different?” which opens Saturday, you may walk out the door “knowing” less about race than you thought you knew when you walked in.
That’s because the American Anthropological Association, which developed the exhibit with the Science Museum of Minnesota, highlights information not just on what race is, but what it is not.
“There is no biological reason to classify people as being different,” said Bryce Seidl, CEO of the Pacific Science Center, who has been trying to get this exhibit to Seattle for about four years.
The exhibit runs through Jan. 5, but if it is successful, it will trigger conversations well beyond that date.
To help make that happen, the science center is collaborating with the city of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative to provide trained facilitators to lead workshops that groups can hold before and after they see the exhibit.
Julie Nelson, director of the Seattle Office for Civil Rights, said she had hoped about 60 volunteers would agree to be facilitators, but more than 200 have signed up.
The central message of the exhibit is that what we call races are not separate genetic or biological groups, but distinctions created by people, oftentimes to mistreat or isolate those they regard as different from themselves.
First presented in St. Paul, Minn., in 2007, the exhibit uses interactive displays, artifacts, computer simulations of gene flows and other displays.
Another display asks what nationalities are white: Italians? Spaniards? Latvians? Moroccans? Russians? There are no right answers, but the exercise helps make the point that dividing people into groups may tell more about the people doing the dividing than those being categorized.
The exhibit raises the question of whether race remains a useful concept as more marriages between people of different ethnic backgrounds blur — or eliminate — lines between racial categories. Apparently, the folks in the colony of Virginia back in 1691 thought they had an answer for that, writing what the exhibit calls the earliest public law containing the term “white.”
The law decried the “abominable mixture” of races and said any white man or woman who marries a “negroe, mulatto or Indian” would be “banished and removed from this dominion forever.”
This traveling exhibit, which has appeared in more than two dozen other cities, doesn’t deny the reality of race. It would be impossible, for example, to deny the stark reality suggested by a drinking-fountain sign from Alabama in 1931, pointing left for “white” and right for “colored.”
But those distinctions, the exhibit says, come from emotion and prejudice, not science.
In the enlightened Pacific Northwest of 2013, it may be tempting to think of racism as a thing of the past, or something that happened elsewhere.
But Diana Johns, the science center’s vice president of exhibits, said displays created locally will show that the effects of racial distinctions remain everyday realities in King County.
For example, one panel points out that in 2010, the median income for African-American and American-Indian households in King County was slightly more than half of the approximately $70,000 median income for white households.