At the Science Museum, they came, they saw, they talked about raceby Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
More than 200,000 people visited the Science Museum's exhibit, "Race: Are We So Different". Museum officials say about 2,300 of the people who came through the doors lingered a little longer to share their experiences in talking circles. Earlier this year, a group from a multi-racial church congregation from St. Paul did just that.
St. Paul, Minn. — Nearly all of the dozen or so of us in the group who came to the Science Museum earlier this year were seeing the exhibit for the first time. Racially, the group is mixed, about half Caucasian, half African-American. Some are members of the Unity Church, and others, like myself, are invited guests.
The intent of the exhibit is to demonstrate how, on one hand, human beings are physically, biologically alike, except for a few cosmetic differences and how, on the other hand, these variations divide us.
Throughout the 5,000-sq. ft. exhibit there are numerous kiosks, many with multimedia presentations, that illustrate those themes.
Cecilia Smith is watching a video presentation that portrays several situations in which a person observes an act of racial discrimination and then says something about it. This short video features a black woman and a white woman in an elevator. As a young black man enters the elevator, the white woman makes an adjustment. Smith, who's African American, nods her head knowingly.
"She's hugging that purse," she says
In the video, a black woman notices her white friend tighten her grip on her purse and calls her attention to it.
It's this kind of subtle racial discrimination that Smith has seen in real life. For example, her son and his white girl friend have discovered some of the complexities of raising a bi-racial family in the suburbs.
"His girlfriend has a daughter, who is white. And they have a child together," says Smith. "And so when my grandson is on the playground with (her). And I think about the things that he goes through on that playground. He presents himself as her brother, and he's being told, 'That's not your brother he's black.'"
Before Smith and other members of the group leave the museum, they gather in room adjacent to the exhibit and form a "talking circle".
One at a time, members of the group introduce themselves. They hail from different regions of the country. Some identify themselves by their European ancestry.
"I am a citizen of the world. A child of the universe," says Diane Klett. "My dad used to call me his little Svenska flika, which is his little Swedish girl."
Some of the group members explained that they grew up in areas where everybody looked like them, and diversity often meant meeting someone who was of a different religion. But others had more dramatic experiences.
Metric Giles, a community activist with a lion's mane of dreadlocks, lives in St. Paul and shares his experience. As a child his family spent some time in Mason City, Iowa. It was there that Giles learned the difference between black and white.
"It's as clear as I'm sitting in this room, right here, right now. Sitting in the room with the teacher reading the story of Little Black Sambo," says Giles. "And everyone in the room turned and looked at me. And all of sudden, I knew what white and black was."
After two hours of talk, members of the group hold hands for a short prayer and go their separate ways.
The organizer of the field trip to the museum is the Rev. Ron Smith of Unity Church. Smith, who's African American, has seen the exhibit before and thought it would be good to bring others to see it.
"We were talking about seeing the exhibit, but what difference does it make?" asks Rev. Smith. "Are people transformed and changed when they leave here?"
That's a good question. And I was curious about that, too. So, a few months later I paid a visit to Rev. Smith and a few other people who were in the circle.
Rev. Smith grants my request and he leads me into the church. Unity Church members Diane Klett -- the one who said her dad called her his little Svenska flika -- and Sue Field were also up for the task.
Field, who is white, says the part of the exhibit that still resonates with her is a series of videos in which different people of color talked about their experiences. In particular, Field says she was struck by a message conveyed by an African American woman who identified herself as a mother of teenage sons.
"That you have to teach your black sons differently than your white sons," says Field. "And we're going through that because of our foster son."
Field's husband is African American. They have a biracial daughter and a black foster son who's 16. Field says she and her husband have had "the talk" that other black parents have with their sons. They've told him that if he's ever pulled over by the police, that he should be polite and not make any sudden moves.
Field also says her husband and their daughter have both been stopped by police for no reason. However, she says, her daughter suspects that she and some friends were racially profiled once while driving through Hopkins.
When asked if they thought the exhibit offered any hope that a well-meaning person can change or end racism, both Sue Field and Diane Klett said no. In fact, they felt like the exhibit raised more questions than it offered solutions. Klett says there's only so much one person can do.
"The goodness of what you see in that -- what you take away from, hopefully, is that you yourself first recognize some of your own racism. And that you're able to be truthful to yourself about it. But you're (just) one person," she says.
However, Rev. Smith has a different take.
"...You both said, 'Nah,' and maybe I'm the optimist," he says.
Rev. Smith says he feels the exhibit has inspired him to reach out to get to know people from backgrounds that he's not as familiar with. And he's hoping some of the other 200,000 people who visited the exhibit feel the same way he does.
- All Things Considered, 05/04/2007, 4:45 p.m.