The Exhibit RACE: Are We So Different? Challenges Biological Assumptions and Stereotypes
Race. What is race? What do we really know about race? Why even talk about race?
Here’s what we do know: Race is a short word with a long history in the United States of America. Think of the history of America and our ideas of race together, mixed-up, and ever-changing.
In reality, race is a powerful idea that was invented by society. Race is an enduring concept that has molded our nation’s economy, laws, and social institutions. It is a complex notion that has shaped each of our destinies.
Though there are no biological differences among races of people, race as a concept is very real. “Our perception that who we are lies in our biology is very much a 21stt century cultural construct,” says Chip Colwell, Curator of Anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. “With the spectacular advances we’ve made in DNA science and the profusion of discussion of genetics in popular culture, there is a tendency today to reduce our identity to our genes. We think that all the answers of who we are lie in biology,” he continues. “When, in fact, race is a lived experience and much more complex.”
Throughout history, race developed as a psychological and social construct alongside economic and legal institutions. Religion has played a major role in what race is and has fomented a sustainable impact on Westernized societies. Consequently, as one examines how race developed in modernity, a full analysis cannot exist without engaging the entangled encounters of race and religion, particularly in the United States.
Many of the ideas we now associate with race originated during the European era of exploration. Europeans like Christopher Columbus traveled overseas and encountered – and colonized or conquered – peoples in Africa, Asia, and the Americas who looked, talked, and acted much differently. Naturalists and scientists then classified these differences into systems that became the foundation for the notion of race as we know it today.
In the American colonies, the first laborers were European indentured servants. When African laborers were forcibly brought to Virginia beginning in 1619, status was defined by wealth and religion, not by physical characteristics such as skin color. But over time this would change.
Suddenly physical differences mattered, and with the development of the transatlantic slave trade, landowners began replacing their temporary European laborers with enslaved Africans who were held in permanent bondage.
Soon a new social structure emerged based primarily on skin color, with those of English ancestry at the “top” and African slaves and American Indians at the “bottom.”
By 1776, when “all men are created equal” was written into the Declaration of Independence by a slave-holder named Thomas Jefferson, a democratic nation was born with a major contradiction about race at its core.
As our new nation asserted its independence from European tyranny, blacks and American Indians were viewed as less than human and not deserving of the same liberties as whites.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the notion of race continued to shape life in the United States. The rise of “race science” supported the common belief that people who were not white were biologically inferior. The removal of Native Americans from their lands, legalized segregation, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II are legacies of where this thinking led.
Today, science tells us that all humans share a common ancestry. And while there are differences among us, we’re also very much alike. Changing demographics in the United States and across the globe are resulting in new patterns of marriage, housing, education, and employment – and new thinking about race.
Yet, despite these advances, the legacy of race continues to affect us in a variety of ways. Deeply held assumptions and enduring stereotypes make us think that gaps in wealth, health, housing, education, employment, or physical ability in sports are natural. And we fail to see the privileges that some have been granted and others denied because of skin color.
This creation, called race, has fostered inequality and discrimination for centuries.
It has influenced how we relate to each other as human beings. The American Anthropological Association has developed this RACE exhibit, and History Colorado is hosting it, to share the complicated story of race, to unravel fiction from fact, and to encourage meaningful discussions about race in schools, in the workplace, within families, and in communities.
“Racism persists precisely because people will not talk about it,” says Ed Nichols, CEO of History Colorado. “We are all impacted as human beings by this issue. With the changing demographics in Colorado and the changing attitudes toward identity in our country, we saw the opportunity through this exhibit and our programs to bring the topic of race into a conversational mode – not to highlight strife but to open and enhance communication among Colorado citizens about who we are.”
“Part of the challenge is to create a new vision of who we can be in the future as people; to evolve out of the hierarchy we’ve lived for thousands of years on this planet valuing separation that created a system where a religion, a race, or a country is superior to another,” says Harold Fields, MLK Humanitarian Award winner and founder of Tuesday Night Race Group. “As a former systems engineer at IBM, I would like to see the emergence of America 2.0. That we think we are a color blind society is slumber reality,” Fields adds. “That means we are sleepwalking through life and our social and economic systems, denying the impact of our cultural paradigm and the conscious decisions we have made in this country.”
Consider, Fields says, how your view of a painting can change as you examine it more closely. History Colorado invites you to do the same with race. Examine and re-examine your thoughts and beliefs about race. Join the conversation at History Colorado and help create a new narrative together.
Editor’s note: For more information, visit www.HistoryColorado.org, call 303-HISTORY (447-8679) or visit the History Colorado Center at 1200 Broadway, Denver, CO 80203. Find them on Facebook.com/HistoryColorado and on Twitter@HistoryColorado.