Timely Chicago History Museum exhibition examines the concept of race and its place in our country and our collective consciousness from the perspectives of history, science and contemporary times, all in an effort to demystify, and perhaps disarm, one of the most potent and caustic issues we have grappled with since the founding of our nation.

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By Isaac Jacobs

From the Spring 2018 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

The issue of race is one that has been deeply woven in the American consciousness since the nation’s founding. But why? People are different. Throughout history, these differences have been a source of community, strength and personal identity. They have also been the basis for discrimination and biting oppression.

The Chicago History Museum offers an unprecedented look at the history, science and social experiences of race and racism in the United States with the exhibition, Race: Are We So Different? on view this spring at the museum.

With the election of America’s first African-American President in 2008, many began to hear rumblings of the possibility that the nation was entering into a post racial period in our history, a period where race really didn’t matter. Today, with a White House administration that is often seen as racially divisive, it is clear that race matters in the United States almost as much as it ever did. Race: Are We So Different? offers a timely look at how and why our nation has been, and continues to be, so deeply motivated by race and the issues it triggers. And for Joy Bivins, director of curatorial affairs at the Chicago History Museum, bringing the exhibition to Chicago was particularly important because of the touchstone that race has been in this city’s past.

Says Bivins, “Race, arguably, remains the most contentious and divisive issue in American society. This exhibition is critically important here, at the Chicago History Museum, and now as contemporary events continue to remind us that our claims of a post-racial society are not yet realized...While we share Chicago’s stories, we understand Chicago as a city of national importance and one where the issue of race has certainly shaped our past and present. It’s important to have this exhibition here because race has been, and remains, an important issue in the lives of Chicagoans.”

In fact, says Bivins, the exhibition uncovers many of the contentious debates that remain prevalent in our city today. “(Race) helps us understand precisely why certain issues, such as residential segregation, occurred in our city and in other parts of the nation,” she explains. “For instance, the exhibition provides context and content from scholars about planned residential segregation and the historic denial of financing to certain racial and ethnic groups. Such information helps shed light on issues that still resonate in our city.”

The exhibition tackles the issue of race from three important perspectives. Through the prism of history, the exhibition explores race as it has impacted the evolution of our country, as a set of beliefs and social practices that were taken up in the name of law and science to develop a system that justified slavery and the unequal treatment of people. Through a set of historical vignettes, the exhibition examines  how this belief system in its various forms has helped to shape the course of our country’s path.

From the perspective of science, the exhibition will offer guests an opportunity to learn about our common ancestry, learn about the continuum of human variation and question commonly held notions of race as discrete biological groups.

Finally, from the perspective of contemporary life, the exhibition will examine the social and personal experiences of race in familiar contexts like our communities, schools, legal system and commerce.

With this unique framework in mind, the themes set forth by Race: Are We So Different? help to set an important context for where we are today with the struggle to deal with the pervasive and deep seeded topic. Says, Bivins, “The exhibit themes are extremely important because they help to connect conversations that we are having currently to those we’ve had in the past. What you end up understanding is that we have not progressed as much as think we have. The exhibition highlights how race and racial classification have impacted issues of immigration, wealth accumulation and housing, in addition to other issues.”

The exhibition utilizes a powerful combination of artifacts, historic and contemporary photography, multimedia components and interactive elements to give visitors of all ages the opportunity to think and talk about a topic that touches our lives daily, and in doing so empowers visitors to disenfranchise the negative, divisive rhetoric that those who use race as a weapon promote. Of particular note is the way the exhibition demonstrates just how the construct of race has been utilized not as a valid biological distinction but as a tool (often a political one) to disempower groups, socially and economically, segregate different strata of American society, and to rationalize and justify inequality—strengthening opportunities for some while weakening those for others.

Stations in the exhibition vary. Who’s Talking? is an interactive station that invites visitors to match voices they hear with people of obviously different ethnic origins in photos based on speech patterns and inflection. The results of the experiment are often quite surprising. The Colors We Are allows visitors to scan their skin and watch their shade appear as a color “chip” on a computer screen mosaic next to chips from dozens of other visitors, and An Exploration of the United States Census demonstrates just how our very conception of race has evolved. In the early days of the US Census, race was seen as a descriptor that was often used to enforced segregation, whereas as social, economic and political forces in our country evolved, Census records began to capture race data in an effort to protect civil rights mandates in areas like education funding and voters' rights.

One intriguing station points out that diseases like sickle cell anemia, often associated with African-Americans, are not in fact tied biologically to skin color at all, but other factors like geographic location. Associating diseases inaccurately with a given race, the exhibition suggests, has the effect of stigmatizing the group in question.

In addition to the exhibition, the museum offers public programs to highlight the local ties to Race, the exhibition. A civic talk series will bring together speakers and community experts at the museum to discuss the impact of race and racial segregation in Chicago, and aided by the guidance of facilitators, educational programs tailored for middle and high school students will give youth the opportunity to talk about the history of race in the city and how it continues to impact contemporary life.

No, race hasn’t gone anywhere. As one of the most volatile issues we grapple with as a nation today, it’s firmly at the forefront of our most pressing political debates. And in many ways, we are just getting started learning to deal with the many ways belief systems surrounding race continue to impede our ability to move forward as a cohesive union. Yet Race: Are We So Different? offers powerful tools and perspectives that help unveil the realities surrounding the mystery of race and its hold on the public consciousness in ways that are productive and that quite possibly lead to a place where acceptance can begin. After all, are we really so different?

Race: Are We So Different? is on view at The Chicago History Museum through July 15, 2018. Visit chicagohistory.org to learn more.


Entrance to Race: Are We So Different? at The Chicago History Museum (photo by Colin Lyons).