'What are you?': Exhibit explores role race plays in our lives
Tens of thousands have visited the Pacific Science Center since the Sept. 28 opening of the exhibit “Race: Are We So Different?” The exhibit, running through Jan. 5, is prompting people to examine the role that race has played in their lives.
Seattle Times staff
Tabitha Jensen, who is white, remembers having a crush on a black character in a TV sitcom and being surprised by her father’s hostile reaction.
Christina Humburgs, who is African American, remembers growing up in Seattle and having relatives tell her that in downtown shops, she should keep her hands visible so she wouldn’t be accused of shoplifting.
And John Jessop, whose father is British and whose dark-skinned mother is from the Azores Islands off Portugal, said it was the hurtful comments of others that cemented his own sense of being mixed race.
The Pacific Science Center exhibit “Race: Are We So Different?” is putting people in touch with memories of the role race has played in their lives — whether or not they realized it at the time.
The exhibit, which runs through Jan. 5, is intended to prompt an examination of what race means in society today, and how it should be regarded in the future.
Jensen and Humburgs are among 180 people trained to assist discussion in groups seeing the exhibit. Jessop was in an Edmonds Community College group that toured the exhibit the day it opened.
“Race: Are We So Different?” was developed by the American Anthropological Association with the Science Museum of Minnesota, where the exhibit debuted in 2007.
It is built on scientific observations that indicate races are not separate genetic or biological groups. Racial distinctions, it suggests, are drawn not by science, but by emotion and prejudice.
As of last weekend, more than 60,000 people had visited the science center since the exhibit's Sept. 28 opening. Many or most of those visitors saw the race exhibit, said Crystal Clarity, the center's vice president for marketing and communication.
Clarity said it appears the exhibit is drawing more first-time visitors, older students and adults than are typically seen at the center.
To extend the reach of the exhibit, the science center has worked with the city of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative to encourage groups to discuss their thoughts about race before and after seeing the exhibit.
It also asks those groups to commit to actions that will promote racial equity.
Jensen, 37, is executive director of Teen Feed, which was formed in 1987 to help meet the needs of homeless youth in the University District and has since expanded to South Seattle and Auburn.
She opted to get involved in the exhibit to gain a better understanding of obstacles faced by young people of color, who made up 62 percent of the homeless youth in a King County count earlier this year.
Jensen was a girl of about 10 in Milwaukee, watching “The Cosby Show” on TV, when she mentioned she had a crush on Theo Huxtable, the “Cosby” son played by African-American actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner.
She can’t recall exactly what her father said or did. But she remembers he was angry in a way that indicated she had run up against a powerful taboo. And she could tell her father’s reaction was triggered by the character’s skin color.
“In the neighborhoods I grew up in, I didn’t see black people,” she said. “I remember somehow getting the message that black people are more criminal — that they just naturally are like that.”
She also remembers her mother explaining that people should marry within their own races “because it’s just easier for everybody.”
Humburgs, 62, grew up knowing of the civil-rights movement partly because of the attention surrounding a 1961 visit to Seattle by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Although she was young and didn’t attend, she could see from the community’s reaction that this was an important moment. And civil rights was often a focus at Mount Zion Baptist Church, which she attended.
“We didn’t see a lot of overt racism in the Central Area, but we didn’t venture too far out,” she said.
The fence along East Madison Street outside Broadmoor, about a half-mile north of Humburgs’ home, was a visible reminder there were parts of town where she might not be welcome.
Looking back, she’s sorry the generation of African Americans preceding hers faced so many restrictions on the kinds of careers into which black faces would be accepted.
“So in some ways, we lacked the role models that could have shown what the possibilities could be,” she said.
She is a retired longtime city of Seattle employee whose last work was with the Race and Social Justice Initiative.
Although there has been progress in many areas of civil rights, Humburgs said some basic societal attitudes have changed little. And she made sure to pass along to her children the cautions she received about being careful not to do things that could lead to trouble.
She’s glad the exhibit is getting attention, but it is also reawakening some pain, calling attention to continuing examples of racial disparity in jobs, housing, education and other areas.
“It just makes me very sad,” she said.
Jessop, a student-government leader and trustee at Edmonds Community College, grew up in “a predominantly white, upper-middle-class” San Diego neighborhood.
“Every teacher I had was white,” he recalls. “Until I went to high school I had never even met one black person.”
Jessop, 50, is an electrician who returned to college for a career change and is interested in business.
He remembers seeing race riots on TV growing up, and even some “pretty nasty” clashes at his own high school when African Americans were bused in from another part of town.
When he was little, he spoke Portuguese with his mother, as did his older siblings. But when teachers sent word home that they shouldn’t speak Portuguese at school, Jessop’s father told the kids to stop speaking it at home also.
Even so, Jessop said, it didn’t occur to him that his mother’s Mediterranean background made him different from his peers. Everyone came from somewhere, he reasoned.
And yet, there were times he felt excluded and did not know why.
It wasn’t until he joined the Navy — and heard other servicemen call him derogatory terms for Mexicans — that he understood what his skin color meant to some.
Since then, he has gradually felt less connected to the “white world.” On forms asking race, he marks “other.”
He was saddened to see, at the race exhibit, that in areas such as housing, employment and criminal justice, racial disparity still exists. He had thought — or hoped — that by now racism occurred only “in isolated incidents.”
Over time, he personally has become more comfortable with his “mixed” identity. He notes that as a college trustee, his photo is on the school’s website. “And you’ll see I’m not white,” he said. “I’m tan.”
Micaela O’Brien, who grew up in Magnolia with a Filipina mother and a white father, has another take on the mixed-race experience.
O’Brien, 28, remembers feeling “confined and placed into a box” as people examined her features and asked, “What are you?”
“I was constantly finding ways to legitimize the entirety of my racial identity,” said O’Brien.
O’Brien, another one of the discussion facilitators for the exhibit, is quick to point out that she isn’t the appointed spokeswoman for mixed-race people, and that everyone’s experience is different.
She can recall times that she didn’t feel at home in either Filipino or Caucasian groups.
And on forms that ask race, checking a box marked “other” can feel “otherizing,” she said — more isolating than inclusive.
For her, an important experience was learning of the Mavin Foundation, a Seattle-based nonprofit providing resources for those of mixed heritage.
With Mavin’s encouragement, O’Brien helped form a “Mixed Identity Student Organization” at Western Washington University, where a similar group had gone out of existence some years earlier.
She has since earned a master's degree in social work at the University of Washington and is now a temporary case manager for Aging and Disability Services, a division of the Seattle Human Services Department.
Looking back, she doesn’t regard people’s attempts to categorize her as mean-spirited racism, but rather the consequences of Americans’ “social construction of what race means” and the perceived need to categorize, identify and classify groups of people.
MaSanda LaRa Gadd, 54, grew up in white neighborhoods north of Seattle.
In her world, educational opportunities, career paths and housing choices were all there for the taking.
“It seemed easy,” she said. “It didn’t occur to me that people of color would have a challenge at these things.”
Race wasn’t discussed at her home, and Shoreline High School had a grand total of one black student when she was there. In retrospect, Gadd says, she sees that she lived in a world built on “white privilege.”
Even through college, she can remember having only a single nonwhite teacher.
She began to learn more about other cultures, at home and elsewhere, after college as she took, and later led, tours to Egypt and Israel.
She now works as a life coach, helping people focus on their goals and passions.
Her commitment to fairness and equality prompted her to join the recently formed Race and Leadership Coalition, based in Redmond.
When she heard about the race exhibit coming to Seattle, she volunteered to be a discussion facilitator. And she took her 20-year-old son, Zachary, to increase his awareness that racism — both overt and subtle — still holds some people back.
Zachary, a budding rapper, has met and become friends with people in various races through his music experiences.
He’s exploring a career as a performer but is also studying audio engineering and music theory as a backup, and he’s working as a buser at a seafood restaurant.
He knows that racism still exists but said the exhibit made him aware of its pervasiveness.
To him, the idea of limiting or mistreating people based on their skin color makes no sense.
“The way I grew up,” he said, “my parents were like, ‘Everyone is a person. So why would you treat anyone different?’ ”
Jack Broom: email@example.com or 206-464-2222