Teaching America About Race

American Anthropological Association kicks off public program to educate citizens about humans' differences and similarities.
January 11, 2007

One thing is certain: Americans have strong perceptions -- and misperceptions -- about the meaning and significance of race. Attempting to poke holes in prejudices and provide the latest scientific and scholarly understanding of the issue, the American Anthropological Association has created an interactive educational program called RACE: Are We So Different? Also featured is a traveling museum exhibition, and project organizers are developing educational materials for teachers and organizing future conferences.

“We have taken a comprehensive look at race in America and have spent five and a half years pulling this together,” said Peggy Overbey, the program’s project director.

The project's Web site presents quizzes, timelines and other interactive activities designed to consider questions on the history of race in America, human variation across the planet, and race as a “lived experience.”

The interactive timeline is especially helpful, as it allows students to track race in America as it evolved in government, science and society. For instance, clicking on  “Government: 1830s-1850s,” opens a page that explains how the U.S. and Mexican governments handled race differently after the Mexican American War.

In another section, titled “Lived Experience,” users can test their knowledge of facts and stereotypes concerning race and sports. While the anthropologists generally emphasized race as a cultural construct, they acknowledged that physical variations can be found in different groups. One question and answer read: "Blacks dominate basketball because they are taller and can jump higher." "Partly True." It went on to explain that some studies have found that black athletes have relatively leaner bodies with more muscle mass, broader shoulders and larger quadriceps compared to whites. However, it is not known if this pattern found in elite athletes can be applied to the white and black populations in general.

The museum exhibit recently opened at the Science Museum of Minnesota, and Overbey said that more than a dozen other museums have expressed interest and have already signed letters to host the exhibit through the middle of 2011.

Janis Hutchinson, professor of anthropology at the University of Houston, said that the exhibit brought back personal memories of segregation and hit on several issues of race that continue to dominate American discourse. “This exhibit gets at the impact of how we live our life every day,” she said.

Both the exhibit and the Web site underscore three key themes:

  • How we define race has changed over time, and its very concept is of recent human invention and shaped by groups that hold power.
  • Race is a cultural phenomenon that places people into groups according to arbitrary biological and cultural characteristics. Race does not accurately describe human variation.
  • Race and racism are embedded in our culture and shape our understanding of ourselves and those around us. Racism is less overt than in the past, yet discrimination continues and racism holds sway over many of our daily choices.

At a news conference Wednesday, several advisers to the program weighed in on the issue. “We can conflate the idea of race as a lived experience, with race as genetics,” said Alan Goodman, president of the anthropology group and professor of anthropology at Hampshire College.

Jeff Long, a professor of human genetics at the University of Michigan Medical School, said that, because of recent advances in genetic sequencing, scientists have learned a great deal about patterns that can be found in the human genome. “These patterns are not captured well by our classic definition of race,” he said.

Those who avoided science in college need not fear getting lost in a sea of unfamiliar terminology. The Web site carries a list of terms from genetics and biology to carry you through the tough parts.

Arlene Torres, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that she feels the project will give students a better grasp of race, the history of racism, and how people can discriminate without really knowing it. “My hope is that this exhibit and Web site are a new beginning for a discussion about race in America,” she said.


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