January 20, 2011
Race, Propaganda, and SchoolkidsBy Peter Wilson
A new exhibit opened this week at the Boston Museum of Science (MOS) called "RACE -- Are we so different?" [Caps in original.] The exhibit offers a fascinating window into the fun-house mirror world of race theorists, racial "scholars," and a good part of the anthropology profession. Even a sympathetic reviewer in the Boston Globe admits that "there's a wearying didacticism to the show," and it's no surprise that the didactic lessons about race are all slanted toward the left.
Mark Feeney of the Globe is surprisingly critical:
Whether the cause is good is another question. I'm not thrilled that liberal public school teachers bus in students to have the latter's notions about race "subverted" or "exploded." A few examples from the Minneapolis appearance of the show offer insights that middle-school students might gain:
From the Globe:
A typical exhibit, in an online video, shows students from Cambridge attempting to guess the racial make-up of people in photographs. In one case, students guess "Filipino," but in fact, the young man is "Hawaiian, Chinese[,] and German." According to the show's creator, the American Anthropological Association, this undermines our racist belief that seven billion humans fall neatly into four or five categories. (Duh!)
Feeney inserts his own absurd example, noting that "white" children use "flesh" or "peach" crayons to color in their skin, but "surely, no child -- Caucasian or otherwise -- has ever instinctively reached for peach when coloring in the Caucasus Mountains." Say what?
The main lesson the show wishes to impart is that race is a "social construct" with no basis in biology.
In the online resources linked at the RACE website, anthropologist Eric Thompson writes, "Because race is taken to be a kind of biological fact by our students, teaching that race is 'a social construct' works as a discursive strategy to shake their thinking."
In another link, John Hartigan writes, "The starting point for most anthropologists who critically engage general assumptions about race is that it is socially constructed."
Both Hartigan and Thompson discuss at length a 2005 New York Times op-ed by colleague Armand Marie Leroi, who asserts that "the consensus about social constructs [is] unraveling." Leroi writes:
This theory has quickly gained widespread acceptance. When I began to describe Lewontin's theory to my sixteen-year-old daughter, she completed my sentence and was entirely familiar with this self-evident truth. (On the previous night, however, she was unaware of a document called "the Federalist Papers.")
Leroi opens and closes his essay with a discussion of the concern that the 2004 tsunami had killed all the members of an isolated group known as Negritos on the Andaman Islands:
Hartigan, however, sees evil intent in Leroi's concern:
It seems that anthropologists attempt to have it both ways. We are urged to mourn the loss of indigenous cultures, but if we use the word "race" to describe culture or lineage, it becomes racist -- because of the history of racism and slavery -- to mourn the extinction of an ethnic group.
And what about that MOS show title: "RACE -- Are we so different?" It is intended to be a rhetorical question, because differentiating is bad. But aren't we constantly being lectured to celebrate diversity because difference is good?