True Colors

A new exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota shows that race only matters because we say it does

LAST FALL, producers of the reality television show Survivor segregated contestants by perhaps the most provocative measure anyone could conceive in 21st century America: race—black versus white versus Asian versus Hispanic. If they’d been able to see “Race: Are We So Different?”, opening January 10 at the Science Museum of Minnesota, they would have learned this emerging scientific conclusion: race is a fable, a folk belief with origins in colonial America, and of no help in biologically sorting the peoples of the world. Scientists were enlisted to prove racial differences—a great boon to slave-owners, colonizers, and others who sought to differentiate themselves from those they were selling or subjugating. But they never proved anything, and most modern scientists now believe we’re all one race. One species. Or, as Bob Marley sang, “One love, one heart, let’s get together and feel all right.”

“To the best of our knowledge, humans came out of one particular place in Africa and populated the world from there,” says Robert Garfinkle, who spearheaded the exhibit. In moving and mating around the earth, it appears that human tribes never isolated themselves enough to form true sub-species, or races. Skin color, hair, and facial features develop independently and are no more meaningful in dividing us than whether you can wiggle your ears. In fact, most physical variation exists within so-called racial groups, not between them. A Norwegian may have more in common, genetically speaking, with a Nigerian than with another “white” person.

“Race,” which will tour the country after its debut in St. Paul, is the first national exhibition to talk about the issue from scientific, historical, and social viewpoints. It tracks the origin of the term to the New World, where colonists used it to differentiate themselves from Indians and blacks. Slave owners, notably Thomas Jefferson, later called for scientists to justify these perceived differences, laying the groundwork for our present race-based society, where racial assumptions have become so embedded that we give them almost no thought when we check black or Asian or Caucasian on a paper form.

“Race” can feel like reconciliation. The exhibit was conceived by the American Anthropological Association (AAA), whose branch of science was once a major source and promulgator of racial theories. More recently, however, anthropologists have led the charge against such ideas. To some visitors, this feel-good message—that we’re more similar than different—may smack of scientific activism; they may suspect the AAA and the Science Museum of latching onto this thesis, then seeking evidence to support it. Garfinkle, who, for the record, is white, refutes the accusation but understands the skepticism. “Race is a very charged topic, and it often looks like it has an agenda attached to it,” he says. “People are suspicious of organizations that want to invoke race in some way.” Nevertheless, insofar as clarifying race’s scientific underpinnings can eliminate racism, Garfinkle is all for it.

Of course, cutting the biological legs out from under race still leaves plenty of things supporting the concept, including racial identity—a cultural pride that Garfinkle acknowledges can often be valuable. At the entrance to the show, several dozen responses to the question of “What is race?” are overheard. Each answer is different. None of them suggests the term is meaningless. “You can’t take race out of the equation and have the world work,” says Garfinkle. “It will be an evolving change in the society.”