Last weekend, we went to see the new exhibit, Race: Are We So Different? at the California Science Center. On FriendFeed, I posted some quick thoughts on what I saw, but wanted to let the exhibit soak in before I wrote on it. I do not know how much of what I saw was colored by being black or that I was raised around people from all over the world or just by the fact that I’ve lived most of my life in Los Angeles.
On my first quick walk-through of the exhibit I was overwhelmed. There is a lot of information; lots to read, several videos and interactive media to play around with. The exhibit is very American-centric and seems to be geared toward black/white or white/Asian experiences. The information on the Science Center’s website doesn’t quite prepare you for what you will actually see.
RACE explores the science, history and personal experiences of race, helping us understand what race is and what it is not. The exhibit provides guests the opportunity to think and talk about one of our nation’s most challenging issues and encourages us to rethink our assumptions of race and human variation. Through multimedia, interactive exhibits and imagery, RACE gives guests of all ages the opportunity to think and talk about a topic that touches our lives daily.
I don’t know that the exhibit itself, is actually useful or educational. As I mentioned in my FriendFeed post, my husband (he is Eastern European) said “This exhibit should be titled ‘White People are Bad’.” I didn’t understand what he was saying and I still don’t get it. From an historical context, I guess that could be construed. I teased him saying he was getting defensive. He said, “I’m not from here, I don’t have these hang-ups.” But just from our conversation, I decided to watch the handful of white (looking) people at the exhibit.
I noticed that an older white couple walked through with looks of utter disgust on their faces. There was a lot of eyerolling from them. That was only amusing to me because they were with three little kids, clearly mixed race. Most people visiting the exhibit were Asian or Latino. When they recounted their own experience with discrimination (intended or not), many of the white people there had defensive stances. An older black lady there also had a look of disgust on her face. She said that the exhibit made black people seem “victimized” and that she liked to think that black people contributed to American society beyond MLK and Malcom X. She thought the exhibit was trapped in the 60s.
There was a Russian couple there. They were looking at the exhibit about voices. There’s a story from a black man, who said that when he called for an apartment, he’d be told to come in to get an application. When he showed up, he said people were shocked he was black because he didn’t “sound black” over the phone. Apartments were suddenly no longer vacant. The Russian coupled doubted this. I told them my story as I can certainly relate. I’ve been told “Oh. I thought you were Japanese…or something.” I’ve had the same experience here in Los Angeles finding apartments. I used to rely on my white friends to get me applications. When we were looking for a place to live 11 years ago, I sent my husband. There was one place in Los Feliz. I called the number outside and the lady said come in. I walked in not a minute later and she said the place had been taken. I sent my husband in 5 minutes later and he got an application. The Russian couple excused the lady. They said, “Well, black people tend not to take care of things.” I asked them how long have they lived around black people. “Never, but everyone knows this.” Of course…I was “different”.
As for Asians, I think the exhibit does a large disservice of playing into stereotypes of the “smart Asian”. And judging from the responses, it seemed many of the Asians there thought the same thing. I spoke to two young Asian girls who told me how people just expected them to be smart and the stress of that. They also talked about how since they were Filipina, people also expected them to know not only Tagalog, but Spanish too. I told them how the Filipina painter we had hired was forced to learn Spanish when she moved to New York because everyone assumed she was Puerto Rican. Living here in Southern California, I’ve watched my Middle Eastern and West Asian friends get yelled at because they didn’t know Spanish. For the most part, those two groups were largely ignored in this exhibit.
There was some interesting historical facts on Native Americans. Some very uninteresting facts on sports and stereotypes. The exhibit includes some scientific information, mostly on genetic and environmental impact. There are some tidbits on health mostly focused on black people. Perhaps, if the exhibit room could have been larger, there may have been more interesting information, like what is found on the website.
I want to know what other people think of the exhibit. Or even if you’re interested in seeing the exhibit.
RACE: Are We So Different?
October 3 – December 31, 2009
California Science Center
700 Exposition Park Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90037