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OMSI exhibit challenges child welfare workers, volunteers to view race in a different light
Liz Lair said the exhibit helped strengthen her commitment to speak out on behalf of those oppressed or discriminated against.

A video shows a blonde child running to play with an African American classmate, but her mother stops her and directs the girl to join the white children on the playground. The little girl looks back at her mother, frowns and asks "Why?"  The camera freezes, leaving the question to hang in the air.

That and other thought-provoking questions face visitors to the OMSI exhibit "Race: Are We So Different?"

Seventy-five people – from Department of Human Services managers and Child Welfare line staff to community volunteers and church ministers who work with youth – challenged themselves to examine race from different perspectives on Oct. 31 as they toured the exhibit and then participated in talking circles to share their reactions to the exhibit and experiences concerning race.

The exhibit, developed by the American Anthropological Association in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota, is open to the public and continues until Jan. 1. It gives visitors the opportunity to learn about race through interactive exhibits, historical artifacts, iconic objects, photographs, multimedia presentations and graphics.

Margaret Carter, former state senator and now community engagement coordinator for DHS, saw the exhibit as a good link to the state's Safe and Equitable Foster Care Reduction project.  Through that project the state Department of Human Services, Juvenile Court Improvement Program and Youth Development Council, with the support of Casey Family Programs, have joined with 11 counties and Oregon's federally recognized tribes to safely and equitably reduce the number of children in foster care. The project focuses on reducing foster care entries and increasing exits, placing more children with family members, reducing the recurrence of abuse and neglect and reducing the disproportionally high representation of Native and African Americans in foster care.

After viewing the exhibit, Bobby Bridges said he was struck by how quickly Native Americans were displaced compared to how long the nation has been dealing with the resulting racial issues.

DHS and CASA staff members also are participating in "Knowing Who You Are" training, which provides curriculum to help them support the healthy development of their constituents' racial and ethnic identity, and some said the exhibit was a strong complement to that training.

Liz Lair, for example, said the exhibit and the Knowing Who You Are training have inspired her to be a voice for change. "Small courageous conversations lead to larger conversations and address bigger issues," said the distance learning trainer for Child Welfare. "We need to realize and honor where people are on their journey to undo racism. A single voice can influence some people moving forward in their journey."  

Some of those who visited the exhibit said information about the removal of Native Americans from their land was what resonated most with them. "The notion of superiority and how that came about," angered Lee Coleman, a DHS district manager.

Bobby Bridges, a student at Portland State University, felt similarly. "It took 30 years for them to take over half of the United State," said Bridges, who is working toward a master's degree in social work. "How long is it going to take to get over this racial issue?"

Some of the participants referred to a quote used in the exhibit and attributed to historian Robin D. G. Kelley. "Racism is not about how you look, it's about how people assign meaning to how you look."

One participant was reminded of another statement she'd heard: "If you don't think racism exists, get in the car with two young African American men and drive around." As the mother of bi-racial boys, Aniko Campbell, who is Sen. Carter's assistant, was chilled by those words.

Some of the participants mentioned the video "A Girl Like Me," which showed African American girls talking about common perceptions: "Every black female has a big butt," says one girl in the video. "Bad hair is hair you have to relax because it's kinky," says another.

(Photo Credit, The Oregonian)
Child advocate Steve McCrea said the exhibit "underscored for me the degree to which the oppressive use of power is central to the operation of our modern culture."

Gloria Fluker, a child advocate, said the African American girl holding the white Barbie doll in the video brought back painful memories about how the doll can affect an African American girl's self image. "It demonstrated that what was still is."

The exhibit stirred the memory of racist actions and discrimination for some participants and many expressed frustration about how hard it is to create change.  Fluker, who identifies as African American and Native American, said that by speaking out she sometimes becomes the issue, and she lamented that more people don't speak up.

PSU student Bridges said he has felt more protected because he's black. "We have affirmative action. … But if I'm in a position, then I feel it's my obligation to speak up." Although he has a responsibility to support his family and knows that speaking up might mean risking a job, "I feel like my greater obligation is to everybody else."

Steve McCrea, a child advocate, said he was most struck by the lengths to which respected scientists and politicians have gone to bolster and try to "prove" concepts of racial differences, often flying in the face of well-known evidence. "This exhibit is a breath of fresh air," he said, "in that it encourages the average person to re-examine what they think they know about race."

And while society often focuses on perceived differences, the exhibit points out the commonality. "Science tells us that all humans share a common ancestry and the differences we see among people are gradual variations, not discrete categories of different peoples," exhibit contributor Robert Garfinkle of the Science Museum of Minnesota wrote in a prepared statement. "The truth is: human beings are more alike genetically than virtually any other species on the planet."

Simple words to the same effect resonated with these visitors, all of whom work on behalf of children. Several of them mentioned the notes from children in the exhibit describing themselves not by race but as "just a person."

Highlights of the exhibit

  • Who's Talking? is an activity with surprising results that invites visitors to match voices with people in photos based on speech patterns and inflection.
  • An exploration of the United States Census demonstrates how our conception of race is ever-changing and has morphed throughout American history according to social, economic, and political forces.
  • The work of photographer Wing Young Huie, which captures – in ways large and small – the lives of diverse individuals and communities across the country.
  • The Living with Race Video Kiosk, where visitors can hear people talking about their experiences with race and racism. Examples include a person talking about becoming aware of her white privilege, another talking about growing up Korean in a white family, and yet another discussing what it’s like to be a part of a multi-racial couple.
  • Youth on Race is a video featuring high school students relating their views of racial identity and how they differ from those of their parents.

For more information, visit www.omsi.edu or go to www.understandingrace.org.