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What Is Race?

Above: How would the U.S. Census classify you? The answer to this question has continually changed since the census began in 1790, reflecting changing ideas about race in American society.


Aired 2/15/11

We'll discuss a new traveling exhibit, RACE Are We So Different?, which opens this weekend at the San Diego Museum of Man.

An interactive game about the traits people share yields surprising results that challenge visitors to reconsider the ways in which they categorize people.
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Above: An interactive game about the traits people share yields surprising results that challenge visitors to reconsider the ways in which they categorize people.

Additional Resources

Watch "A Girl Like Me," a youth documentary on race.

Take a virtual tour of the RACE exhibit.

Learn about human variation.

The idea of looking into the history and science of race might have been a powder-keg topic for a museum exhibit just a few years ago. But, America's attitudes and demographics are changing. And at the same time, our cultural and scientific understanding of the different races of humans has improved by leaps and bounds.

A celebrated national exhibition compiled by the American Anthropological Association is about to open at San Diego's Museum of Man. It's called "RACE - Are We So Different?" The exhibit tries to answer that question by using the latest scientific information in biology and history and incorporating it with the lived experience of members of many races.


Dr. Micah Parzen is executive director, The San Diego Museum of Man

Dr. Yolanda Moses past-President of the American Anthropological Association, professor of Anthropology and Vice Chancellor for Diversity at the University of California Riverside.


RACE at the San Diego Museum of Man

Above: "RACE: Are We So Different" will be on display at the San Diego Museum of Man from February 11, 2011 to May 15, 2011.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and listen listen. The idea of looking into the history and science of race might have been a powder keg topic for a museum exhibit just a few years ago. But America's attitudes and demographics are changing, and at the same time, our cultural and scientific understanding of the defense races of humans has improved by leaps and bounds a celebrated national exhibition compiled by the American anthropological association is open at San Diego's museum of man. It's called RACE, are we so different? The exhibit tries to answer that question by using the latest scientific information about biology and history and incorporating it with the lived experience of members of many races. I'd hike to welcome my guests. Doctor Micah Parzen is executive director of the San Diego museum of man. And Doctor Parzen, welcome.

PARZEN: Thank you, Maureen, it's really a pleasure to be here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Doctor Yolanda Moses [CHECK] vice chancellor for diversity at UC Riverside. Doctor Moses, good morning.

MOSES: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, we'd like to invite our listeners to gin the conversation. If you've seen this exhibit, give us a call, tell us what you thought, tell us what you think an exhibit called RACE, are we so different, should which had. Give us a call at 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-5727. Doctor Moses, this is the first exhibition to tell stories from race, biological cultural and historical points of view. [CHECK].

MOSES: Well, it was during my presidency back in the late 90s, and we were trying to think about how anthropology could be relevant to issues in modern America since we had a whole lot to do with the creation of racial science in the nineteenth century, which wasn't quite accurate. So the idea was to redress the record based on what we do so well, and that is look at our history, our lived experience, and look at the role of culture in society. So this was a topic we thought we could weigh in on with a long history of research and ethnographic literature.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Doctor Moses, does this exhibit try to explore or define what is race?

MOSES: Yes and no. It talks about three things about race. That race is about culture and not biology, so it's created. That race is a recent human invention. Upon it was something that was created in the political historical time. But the consequences of us believing in that concept has impact. And it is embedded in our institutions in everyday life today. So we wanted to unpack all of that information, especially for young people so that they can understand how to create the kind of world we want to see because we created a world where race is so dominant, historically.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Doctor Parzen, when you look at this exhibit, what does it tell you? I don't mean specifically. [CHECK].

PARZEN: I think it's very clear from the exhibit, Maureen, that race is a cultural construct that has been reified through the scientific community, and over many years has had enormous implications [CHECK] what I love about the exhibit in particular is that it allows people to express their own experience and tell their own story about race and to do so in a way that becomes part of the exhibit itself for others to view as well. So it's really neat in that regard.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, Doctor Moses, a lot of people, if you ask them what is race, would probably talk about color. Does this exhibit look at that?

MOSES: Oh, yes, because it's the first thing that young people want to know. They say, our students say, well, if there's no such thing as race, then why do we look different? So part of what we do is talk about why we look different, and it's about human variation, and why do we [CHECK] sort of an ah, ha moment for young people who say, oh, that's why. And the whole exhibit is geared toward middle school, high school students, parents, people to have conversations who are not geneticists, who are not biologists, but who want to be the complexity.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I understand. I want to remind our listeners, if they'd like to join the conversation, our number is 1-888-895-5727. Doctor Moses, you talked about that in the United States, primarily, there arose a whole body of pseudoscientifics about races beginning in the nineteenth century. Now, I'm not gonna ask you to go through that.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But I wonder why, why did that develop in the United States , do you think?

MOSES: Well, if we look at our history, a lot of it has to do with how we developed as a country econoMicahlly. And the need to have, two things, one, a cheap labor source, and a cheap labor source could be kept visibly, and also a cheap labor source that had no rights. And so are slavery is the bane of our sort of American existence in that issues of race, issues of color, are also tied up with that economic system. So that's one issue. The second issue is westward movement. We came to this land, we meaning our American ancestors, and moved west. But there were other people here already who were already on the land. And so there had to be a way to justify how a Christian, God fearing nation could treat other human beings in a way that was really less than Christian. So part of the mythology of -- part of the creation was of a justification that was based on chains of being, that there are some people who are human -- better humans than other people. And so it stuck, that's put it that way.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Doctor Parzen, the history of that kind of science has weighed on race and scientific investigations into race for quite some time now.

PARZEN: Yes, it has. Absolutely. And one of the things we explore as a compliment to the traveling show that's here, we have a local race in San Diego component that actually explores the history of race in our own community, it talks about census categories that -- and how these have changed from 1850, when there were just three categories, and you were either black, white, and mulatto, and Native Americans didn't even have a category, they weren't considered humans at that point. And now in 2010, [CHECK] self identifying and being pigeonholed in terms of scientifically evolved racial categories.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How is this exhibit being tailored to San Diego? You just mentioned the fact that you are exploring the concept of race in San Diego in this exhibit. How does that exploration take place?

PARZEN: The local component is certainly our primary means we also have some wonderful public programs, Maureen. We did a excellent poster contest for kids in the San Diego unified school district, high school students and middle school students. We received many entries and had a juried committee that selected 12 of the best, and those are on display as part of the exhibit. So we had a wonderful reception on Friday where many of these students were present with their family, families and teachers and were honor indeed this way. So they're contributing to the exhibit as well. In addition, the local component of the exhibit will live on at the museum of man. So even when the traveling show goes in mid May, there will still be an opportunity for this community to engage in discourse about this critical topic.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Can you describe some of the winning local posters for us.

PARZEN: Yes, absolutely. They were extraordinary. [CHECK] there's actually a it statement that one student made, I'd like to read it if you don't mind. It was a 17-year-old student from Kerne High School, she says, my poster is simple, the idea behind it is that race is not just black and white. Race doesn't have to define who you are. You can just be a stereotype or your own person. Race creates a sense of belonging for everyone. You can be part of a group and have a connection like a family. Over all, race isn't just black and white. It can be what you make it. And I think that was a wonderful message that the exhibit itself sends over, that we can be ham strung by racial categories and let it dominate who we are and how we go in life, or we it let it define our own path.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's interesting. I want to reintroduce my guests, Doctor Micah Parzen is executive director of the San Diego museum of man. And on the line with me, is Doctor Yolanda Moses, she's past [CHECK] and vice chancellor for diversity at UC Riverside. And we're talking about the new exhibit open at San Diego's museum of man, it's called RACE, are we so different? We are inviting you for questions and comments if you'd like at 1-888-895-5727. Doctor Moses, because of the bad history in raising science to try to justify exploitation when it comes to race, hasn't that sort of hampered any scientific exploration into the human races at all?

MOSES: Yes and no. But one of the things that intrigued the national science foundation about this is that they wanted us to probe, to explore. So what we did was to bring together 17 different disciplinary organizations, including geneticists, biologists, law professors, people who generally don't talk to each other about this issue. And we spent two years before the -- we did one thing on this project just talking about if we were to talk about this issue publicly, what are the kinds of things we would say? So we gave each other permission to explore our own disciplinary stereotypes about this issue. And there is a reluctance on the part of scientists to explore this, because most biological or physical scientists don't understand culture. And most culture social science humanists don't understand biology. And what anthropology does is bring both of these disciplines together through our cultural and biological and archeological work. And we are able to create this platform where this discussion can take place that has never taken place before. And that's what's exciting about this exhibit.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Doctor Moses, how sound is our understanding of let's call it the biology of race now. Has it been purged of this scientific nonsense of the past centuries, and what is it that we know in.

MOSES: Well, I think people have their own knowledge. And what we wanted to do is not to preach. We didn't want to have the definitive answer. What we wanted to do was to present the best science of the day, and to let people who are open to seeing it say ah, ha. And to have their own ah, ha moment. What we find is especially from the feedback, and Doctor Parzen may find this too, is that people live in their own sort of little cocoons about what they know they know. And they still talk about relationships with people in terms of blood, and being half this or half that. And that's not how genetics work, but it's how people talk about these issues. So we wanted to give people the appropriate tool, especially young people, to have these conversations of as Micah says, the growing population in this country is about people can mixed ancestry. The categories that we talk about historically are very fixed. That's not the world in which these young people live.


MOSES: And so we have to give them the tools to have these conversations or we will continue stymieing people bringing out of the boxes to talk about issues of identity, from both a living experienced but also from a informed biological perspective.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Doctor Parzen, you were nodding your head when Doctor Moses talked about an ah, ha moment. What kind of ah, ha moments have you experienced from the people who have witness, so far, this exhibit, RACE?

PARZEN: Absolutely. Even though the exhibit's only been open for three days, Maureen, it's been a real pleasure to witness folks coming out, engaging in discourse, saying I didn't know about that. I had never thought about things that way. I had one gentleman who's a colleague of mine in the park, very educated man who came to me and said, you know, I thought I knew a lot about race, and I've learned a huge amount just by going through this exhibit. And I think it's something that really has something for everyone, as Doctor Moses indicated, there's very much -- it's geared toward high school and middle school students so that they can get a lot out of it, and think about others differently, and themselves differently, but there's also for very educated individuals, there's something to be learned. And you know, we feel as a museum that's really the function we should be playing in our community, is facilitating these kinds of ah, ha moments by providing exhibits such as RACE that calls people to engage in discourse about a topic that is relevant to our community, but often swept under the rug. We live in such a diverse community that it's a critical topic that we need to be talking about, and this is the perfect platform for doing so.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're talking about the exhibit, RACE, are we so different that's open at San Diego's museum of man. Taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. David's on the line from La Mesa, good morning, David and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, thank you very much. I had a comment, actually, I'm a free-lance translator here in San Diego. And many folks who translate from English to Spanish will have run up against this issue, that when you are translating the question, what race are you, it's almost impossible to translate properly. Because in Latin America, this concept of clearly defined and exclusionary races between humans does not exist. Of course prejudice exists in Latin America, and color based prejudice exists. Buff this idea of races, when you say raza in Spanish, it means two things. It either means a breed of dog, or it means people in a very exclusionary sense in including all [CHECK] how artificial that concept of race is, when you look at other cultures' perceptions of it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: David, thank you so much for the comment. And Doctor Moses, would you care to comment on that?

MOSES: Yes, David, thank you very much. Because you raise a very interesting point. People ask us, well, why did you just focus on the U.S? Why department you look at what happened in other countries? And I say because the U.S. has its own unique history, and then once we understand that, then we can look at other places and compare them. And one of the things we're finding, as we get more immigrants and we get people coming from other countries they come here and they look at these categories and they scratch their heads and they say, where do I fit in here? Or do I fit in here? And it pushes us as Americans to rethink everything we thought we knew about race because of our inclusionary pluralistic bent. That is, as an immigrant nation, we're constantly bringing in people who have not had this experience, and they're not sure what to make about it. And it's helping us to move differently about these categories as we move forward. [CHECK] because they're not scientifically valid at all.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's interesting.

PARZEN: You know, Maureen, to build on that, I recently had the experience on Friday to give a tour of the RACE exhibit to a very prominent museum director from Mexico. And one of the things we talked about was the idea that this exhibit was virtually unfathomable in Mexico. That to display an exhibit that talks with these kinds of issues openly and really tries to generate discourse about them would be virtually unheard of. And I think that the American anthropological association was very much at the cutting edge of, as Doctor Moses indicated, trying to readdress some of the scientific [CHECK] that's about time we get it right, and we open it up for all of us to talk about in a meaningful and respectful way.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me get in another call. Allen is calling from Northpark. Good morning, Allen, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, sounds like an interesting exhibit. I was interested, in the wars promote indeed my time, [CHECK] currently there's wars in the Middle East. And I think that a lot of that is promoted and put forth to our community here as racial things that come up and justify those wars just as you mentioned the westward movement or the need for slavery. One of the comments in what kind of displays are in your exhibit about the nature of war?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The nature of war. Does Moses, does your exhibit address that?

MOSES: Well, we do have a clip on two issues of war. One, the Japanese internment, how American citizens could be seen as others, foreign uppers and outsiders, and how Americans could not make that distinction. And it happened in World War I with Germans as well, not quite as bad, how Americans couldn't make that distinction, here are folks born in America, second and third generation Americans who happen to look phenotypically like the people who had declared war on us. And so we interned those Americans citizens. We talk about how something like that could even happen. And then the second consequence, we have a whole issue, again, focusing on economics, on what happened as a result of Americans who fought, African Americans issue fought in World War II as American citizens to defend this country who after World War II, under the GI bill, could not get money for housing in this country. So it's just -- it's full of the contradictions that have happened in our history based on the illogical way we have thought about this issue.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Doctor Parzen, one of the ways that this national exhibit is being localized here in San Diego is that you're asking people who see the exhibit RACE at San Diego museum of man to write about their own experiences of race here in San Diego. What are you going to do with those written comments.

PARZEN: Yes. That's been a wonderful component of the local piece of the exhibit so far. There is a white board with several colored markers, and individuals are invited to participate by talking about whether they think race relations are improving in our community, what we can do as individuals and as a collective to improve race relations. We are capturing those every day before we erase them. And will be documenting them and compiling them. So as the exhibit lives on in San Diego, we'll be able to continue to talk about how people felt about race relations in this community. And how they may be improving or not. We also have a wonderful piece that taps into the census data that Doctor Moses has talked about, and there's a huge pile of poker chips where individuals can pick up a chip, and they can say how they them would identify in 1850, regarding the three categories that were in the census, and then in the 2010, involving many of the other categories, [CHECK] we'll also be counting those chips and [CHECK].

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Doctor Parzen, I just want to end on the fact that I know that this exhibit is part of a larger vision you have to enhance the impact that the museum of man has on the San Diego community. We only have about a minute left. But if you could just talk to us a little bit about that.

PARZEN: You bet. I'll keep it brief. We are really reinventing the museum, Maureen of it's been very artifact based oaf the year, and almost to a point of the fetishization of the artifact. [CHECK] but we really want to make the museum true to its tag line of it's about people. So we've tried to transform it, and are actively engage indeed that process to turn it into a cross-cultural communication laboratory of sorts for people thought the community. [CHECK] we just had an interdisciplinary scholarly panel on Egypt, and what's going on there, and to become I site or a hub of discourse, where we can come, regarding key issues for our community, so it's all about relevance.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you so much, Doctor Micah Parzen is executive director of the San Diego museum of man, thank you so much.

PARZEN: Thank you so much.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Doctor Yolanda Moses, thanks so much for being with us today.

MOSES: Oh, it's my pleasure.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And the exhibit issue RACE, are we so different is currently open at the San Diego museum of man in Balboa park. There were some people who called in, we cant get to, I apologize, if you'd like to comment on line, it's Days. Thanks for listening issue join us again tomorrow, right here on KPBS.


Avatar for user 'jmckane'

jmckane | February 15, 2011 at 11:07 a.m. ― 3 years, 2 months ago

When I grew up in the 1950's I was taught that there were only a few human races, caucasian, negro, asian. Now it seems that is "old thinking". Now people are asked to choose their cultural ie: hispanic, Pacific islander, native american, european, african, etc. Are you possiting that the old "race" categories are not anthropologically accurate or relavant? But rather an artificial contruct. Thanks, interesting topic.

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Avatar for user 'Yolandatmoses'

Yolandatmoses | February 15, 2011 at 6:09 p.m. ― 3 years, 2 months ago

To jmckane:
That is indeed "old thinking". Anthropologists and geneticists believe there is only one race, the human race with lots and lots of physical ( phenotypic) variation. People do indeed choose to associate their identities culturally as well. The old categories are not scientifically correct, but still have useage in popular language.

While race is not a biological reality, it is still a social construction. That is, our society, both at the individual and institutional level, operate as if this concept is a biological reality in some cases.These are the kinds of issues that the exhibit explores.


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Avatar for user 'jdm'

jdm | May 17, 2011 at 11:05 a.m. ― 2 years, 11 months ago

I took my bi-racial daughters to the exhibit. While they enjoyed it, they didn't learn anything new because this information (that race is a social construction only and has NO basis in biology) has been around for a long time. It is how my husband and I have raised them. I was first pushed to widen my racial understanding when, as a new mother, I joined a listserv in the mid 1990's called the Interracial Individuals. It was full of interracial folks who were talking about this sort of thing. I find it disheartening that it has taken this long to be brought into the public discourse. Lots of folks have a stake in keeping the idea of 'race' alive and well. People of all hues get a lot of mileage from the idea that race has meaning. In my personal experience, it has been disheartening to see how attached well meaning people are to ideas of difference. People will eventually get it, but there are entrenched institutions that don't want us to.

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Avatar for user 'HarryStreet'

HarryStreet | June 15, 2011 at 5:35 p.m. ― 2 years, 10 months ago

We all breathe air, drink water, eat food for sustenance, and work for a better life. Seems like we have more in common than we realize. We look different, but that's a good think. Can you imagine if we all looked the same?

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Avatar for user 'HarryStreet'

HarryStreet | June 15, 2011 at 5:38 p.m. ― 2 years, 10 months ago

On a more serious note, I do believe the human race will be slow to recognize how much in common we have and that our interests should be shared. The change of global climate, lack of food and water, energy resources is diminishing. This is cause for us to be united as a human race versus nations under flags.

Conservative Americans will fight to prevent that for self-interest in the name of patriotism. This ignorance will keep us from moving forward with the human race.

Not to sound silly, but maybe once we are united as a human race we will be contacted by an intellectual species from other planets. It is logical to assume they have waited to do so for fear of destroying our already fragile societies.

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