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A Lesson on Race

Updated on August 8, 2017

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit an exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science. The exhibit is called RACE: Are We So Different? It is a poignant look at the concept of race, causing some much need inner reflection of one's own views. I went one time with my husband, and we spent nearly two hours in one section. I have been back two more times in order to view, listen, and read everything the exhibit had to offer. This is what I learned.

1) Race is a relatively new concept: Classifying humans by race is fairly new if we were to look at the history of humans. Arranging people into groups based on physical features did not occur until the 17th century. Previously, wealth, nobility, language, and religion determined one's status. For example, even though Pocahontas had darker features, she was quite desirable to the white man given her royal symbol as an Indian princess. In all, race by physical traits is a social construct and not a biological one.

2) We all have roots from Africa: Hundreds of thousands of years ago, modern humans developed in the area of Africa. Thousands of years later, a large migration took place in which humans started spreading all over the globe. In time, factors such as climate and geography changed the physical features of humans to look differently than their ancestors. Therefore, there you have it. We can all go back to Africa to find our roots.

3) The term 'Caucasian' has quite an odd origin: In 1795 a German scientist, Johann Blumenbach, used a skull of a woman who lived in the Caucasus Mountains (located in modern day Georgia and Armenia) to exemplify the "white" race. Blumenbach believed that people in this area were the world's most beautiful people and thus this particular skull modeled whiteness. According to Blumenbach, the "Caucasian" race occupied Northern Africa, Europe, most of the Middle East into part of India with the people in North America, South America, and the rest of Africa and Asia being the "lesser" and "uglier" races. Ever since then, the terms "Caucasian" race and "white" race have been used interchangeable. A few years later, a guy by the name of Samuel Morton concluded that the "Caucasian" race was superior intellectually based upon the size of their skulls. Today, there have been many studies to debate over whether these theories led to scientific racism.

4) There is no clear line to separate races: If you were to walk from South Africa all the way to the Scandinavian countries in Europe, you would see no clear distinction in which one race becomes another. Instead, you would find a blend of colors that leads into the next almost like paint samples on display at a hardware store. This awareness leads to questions like when does white really become white and when does black really come black. For example, do you consider the people of Syria to be white? What about the people of Greece? Regardless of your answer, the people of Greece have physical characteristics resembling Syrians. Where do we draw the line?

5) Africa tends to be lumped into one: Knowledge of the different languages, cultures, and ethnicities of the African countries is widely not as known as it would be for other continents. There are many unique cultures and countries that make up Africa. Instead there is a widespread misconception that Africa is pretty much one, gigantic country. For example, if you were to pay attention to your language would you be more likely to say, "That African boy in my class," "That family from Africa," or "Just landed in Africa" (see here) versus pinpointing a specific country or section. When compared to how we discuss other areas of the world, we often do not converse with phrases like "That European boy in my class," "That family from North America" or "Just landed in Oceania". We, rather, specify the country. The culture and language between Canada and Panama are just as different and far apart than that of Algeria and Seychelles.

6) Race alone and health are not connected: There seems to be many assumptions that race can define health when in actuality environment and geography are better predictors. For instance, "being black" does not predate that you will have heart disease. Rather "being black" in America does. The reason for this has nothing to do with the color of one's skin but instead environmental stressors and factors placed upon women and men of color. In fact, if you were to examine black people in America and Africa, you would find a wide range of vastly different health issues. Likewise, the sickle cell gene is often found in areas where malaria is prevalent, such as equatorial Africa, the Middle East, areas near the Mediterranean, and India; therefore, suggesting that this health defect is due to geography and not race. There are a number of other examples which show that using race as precursor for healthcare can have its repercussions.

7) Children are quite susceptible to negative stereotypes: Researchers conducted studies in which they showed children of color two dolls - one with light skin and one with dark skin. These children were asked a series of questions, and they responded by choosing a doll. Almost all of the children selected the doll with dark skin when the question related to a negative conception: Which doll would you considered to be bad? On the other hand, almost all of the children picked the doll with light skin when the question related to a positive conception: Which doll would you rather be your friend? These studies shed some light on the psychology that from a young age people of color learn from society that they are bad and getting suspended and going to jail are part of their expectations of themselves. These learned behaviors can carry on into adulthood until the behavior is unlearned.

8) Teachers of color have faced hardships for something unexpected: I have read and heard of students of color facing difficulties in schools: disproportionate suspensions, lack of resources and qualified teachers, segregated schools, and poor hygienic conditions, but I was unassuming of some struggles teachers of color have reported facing. These teachers discussed that some schools and administration expect them to play the role of the "tough, black teacher" or "black mama." Consequently, they are given larger class sizes of students with more behavior problems and presumed to be able to deal with it in class.

9) Native Americans are largely not flattered by mascots depicting them: Young and old generations of Native Americans are typically not thankful for the use of their culture in American sports. Defenders of these names and mascots argue that they represent respect and honor of the Native American culture. Nonetheless, some of these names and mascots were adopted in a time (i.e. Braves 1912 and Indians 1915) when Native American culture was being suppressed. Thereby, these mascots were of the mocking nature when they paraded on the sidelines. Now, they have come to just be accepted, but Native Americans simply do not like other cultures using their symbols. I read this analogy at the exhibit and it resonated with me. I'm going to paraphrase. Imagine another country taking a symbol of America (the flag, Statue of Liberty, the bald eagle, a president) and using it to depict a sports team. If I know Americans, we wouldn't be pleased. How dare they steal our identity!! This idea is the same in regards to Native Americans in sports.

10.) The housing market has not been favorable to people of color: I could spend a lot of time on this one, but I am going to try to be brief and suggest that you do some research on your own. After the devastating effects of World War I and World War II, Americans were ready to live outside cities in suburbia America, a representation of comfort and the American dream. However, there was a shortage of housing due to a number of reason. Thus, Levittown (as well as other communities throughout the country) came about - affordable housing outside of the city. These communities, mostly for veterans, were perfect....for white families. Even though it was unconstitutional, homes were very, very rarely sold to black buyers. They were denied and harassed. Therefore, black people did not get to reap the benefits of the equity of these houses which now sell for as up to seven times the national median income. For the ones who did manage to own a house in Levittown, they were unable to sell the house for much of a profit because "no one wanted to live in a home of a black person." Finally, when the Fair Housing Act came about in the late 60's and permitted black families to buy in these communities, the houses were no longer affordable. How does this affect people of color today? What do you do with equity? Use it to make your life and your family's life better. Going to college, taking care of the elderly, passing it on to your children and the cycle continues.

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