The Oregonian: Portland State University, OMSI exhibit and community confront issues of race
Author: Jillian Daley, Special to The Oregonian
Posted: December 12, 2012

Read the original story here in The Oregonian.

Racism exists because we allow it to, and many people have lost faith in ending discrimination, says Portland State University professor Robert Muñoz Jr. 

"If Americans approached (race relations) like we do gas prices, things would change," Muñoz says. "People get really upset when (companies) change gas prices." 

Kindling that passion for change in race relations may not be easy, but PSU administrators Jilma Meneses and Erin Flynn were willing to try. They saw an opportunity to spur discussion when an exhibit, "RACE: Are We So Different?" arrived at Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in late September. 

Meneses and Flynn invited the community early last week for a discussion and a peek at RACE, on display through Jan. 1. About 130 people attended the talk, including Muñoz, who says people need to leave their comfort zone for change to happen. 

"We need to get out of our circles," he says. "We need to get out of our routines. We need to find a place where that's possible." 

Discussion about race among groups with a history as oppressors or the oppressed is courageous, says Meneses, PSU chief diversity officer. 

"Any time you are talking about race," she says, "it can be very daunting for people." 

The American Anthropological Association created RACE, calling it "the first nationally traveling exhibition to tell the stories of race from the biological, cultural, and historical" perspectives. Debuting in the Science Museum of Minnesota in 2007, the exhibit travels the nation teaching that race is a social construct. 

The exhibit aims to convey that the concept of race is artificial, said Dante James, who was a community conversation facilitator. Race stems from superficial distinctions such as hair, skin and eye colors, but "bones are bones and muscles are muscles," said James in an interview Tuesday. 

"Racial categories and boundaries are not natural but created in response to political boundaries and pressures, and race as the concept we use today was created in the wake of European colonial conquests as justification for domination -- in the U.S. specifically, as justification for African slavery and displacement of American Indians," said James, bureau director of the Portland Office of Equity and Human Rights. "The terms were legally defined, often by the Supreme Court, but not scientifically based." 

RACE aims to inspire dialogue, featuring talking circles, based on a Native-American tradition in which each participant can speak until done while others listen without interrupting. Displays offer up questions such as "Does where we come from tell us who we are?" 

Slaves' shackles are among the artifacts. Interactive displays show how skin and hair work and why they vary widely. Crafts include creating a bracelet with beads representing genetic traits. 

"We're proud to present thought-provoking exhibits that encourage further exploration of ideas," says Amita Joshi, OMSI spokesperson. "We want our visitors to think and talk about important social issues in which science plays a role, and we want to give them the space and the tools to do that." 

By fostering a community conversation, the university, city, United Way and Oregon Health & Science University helped localize RACE, says Chris Broderick, PSU associate vice president for communications. 

"What it lacked was any kind of discussion of what is happening in Portland with race," Broderick says. 

Leaders at the community conversation included PSU President Wim Wiewel and Portland Commissioner Amanda Fritz. Facilitators guided the conversation, breaking the crowd into groups that discussed questions and later shared their conclusions and insights with everyone else. 

"What are you doing? What now is being done? What should be done to advance the ideas we're talking about?" James asked the gathering. 

People need to unite and create opportunities for everyone to realize their dreams, says Dwayne Johnson, president of IDEAL Portland, a group supporting diversity in innovation and enterprise. 

Yet, Johnson, who is African-American, says change doesn't always come in big doses. When he was a child, he recalls, he had a friend who shared his love of computers but whose father was a racist. His friend had to speak up for Johnson, so Johnson could spend time at his house. 

"My friend's not Black," his friend said. "Dwayne knows a lot about computers." 

The boy's father pondered that and said he didn't "get that" computer thing. But he allowed the boys to spend time together, Johnson says, proving some people probably won't do a complete turn-around, but their views may evolve slightly with the right influence. 

"It's possible," he says. 

Mindset Consulting LLC consultant K.A. Lalsingh says the discussion had good intentions but "is not enough." 

Meneses says she wants people to see more needs to be done and to inspire them to do it. 

Ed Washington, community liaison for the PSU Office of Global Diversity and Inclusion, says he believes that will happen. 

"Any time you get people together to talk about these things," he says, "its fine because from the conversation will come action." 

– Jillian Daley