Race: Are We So Different?

By Museum of Us

American Anthropological Association

The Museum of Us' Race: Are We So Different? Google Arts and Culture exhibit explains the origins of race and racism, and helps us understand how to deal with them in productive, enlightening ways. Most of what we think about race is based on myth, folklore, or assumptions unsupported by genetics or biology. 

Race: Are We So Different? Exhibit (2020) by Alexander AdamsMuseum of Us

The Race: Are We So Different? exhibition was created by the American Anthropological Association. Their intention is to bring “together the everyday experience of living with race, as an idea, the role of science in that history, and the findings of contemporary science that are challenging its foundations.” The Museum of Us brought a live version of this exhibit to San Diego In 2015.

For more information about the American Anthropological Association’s project, please visit their website Understanding Race. For more information about the exhibit at the Museum of Us, please visit Race: Are We So Different?.

Race: Are We So Different? Exhibit (2020) by Alexander AdamsMuseum of Us

The Museum of Us now invites you to join our Google Arts and Culture exhibit, Race: Are We So Different?, which is an extension of our live exhibit and provides a virtual platform to further explore the history of race.

As we move through the exhibit we will be discussing issues of racism in our society, and more importantly connect these social issues to our everyday life and social world. Please join us as we talk more about the origins of race and racism, as well as how these issues impact us today.

Race: Are We So Different? Exhibit Census View (2020) by Museum of UsMuseum of Us

The history of race has long been intertwined with biology, despite data showing that race is unsupported by genetics. The Museum of Us’ Race: Are We So Different? Google Arts and Culture exhibit deconstructs the historical notions of race and contends that it is a socially constructed term created and reinforced by those in positions of power to maintain status-quo.

The Museum’s exhibit will focus on three key areas:
1. Race is a recent human invention
2. Race is about culture, not biology
3. Race and racism are embedded in institutions in everyday life.

Eye Color / Race (2021-08-01) by Museum of UsMuseum of Us

What is race? Race is a socially constructed category of people who share biologically transmitted traits that a society considers important. Much of these biological differences, such as skin color, are superficial and arbitrary; but we make race important because of the social meaning we attach to biological differences.

Race / Categories Quote (2021) by Kelsey PickertMuseum of Us

The invention of race is only a few hundred years old. In the late 1500s global trade brought the world’s populations into greater contact with one another. By the 1600s, European scientists and scholars began to use the term race to categorize different groups of people together based on skin color.

The American Anthropological Association adds that race is a recent idea created by western Europeans following exploration across the world to account for differences among people and to justify colonization, conquest, enslavement, and social hierarchy among humans. Today, those in positions of power can construct notions of race and determine which groups have access to resources and which do not.

National Geographic Special Issue: Black and White (2018-04-01) by National GeographicMuseum of Us

Race is often still falsely attributed to biological difference. All humans share a common ancestry despite exhibiting biological variation.

Did you know…Studies show that most of our genetics are similar, with variation in only a fraction of 1% of our genetic makeup. Much of these small genetic differences in DNA are a result of geography and random processes. They do not impact us biologically, but human beings have socially constructed these unique differences in physical attributes to categorize groups of people by race. Science has shown that there is actually more physical difference, such as hair and eye color, eye and nose shape, and height, within racial groups than between them.

Global Map by Skin Color Variation (2021-08-01) by Museum of UsMuseum of Us

One predominant physical attribute, skin color, has historically been most associated with race. Science has shown that variance in skin color has very little to do with race and has much more to do with geography and environment.

Research shows that Indigenous populations that live closer to the equator have darker skin, while those who live farther away have lighter skin. This is because equatorial regions of the Earth receive more direct sunlight than polar regions. Skin color is an adaption that protects us from the sun or exposes us to it. Anthropologist Nina Jablonski adds that “skin color in any population is a balance between the need to protect folate (a B-vitamin) and the need to produce enough Vitamin D.”

The variance in physical traits found today is also the product of migration throughout history. Studies have shown that trade routes have existed for over 800 to 1000 years. As a result, genetic characteristics once common to a single place can now be found across the globe. Furthermore, cultural adaptations and technology have also altered our genetics and physical features over time.

The Story of Man Through the Ages (2021-08-01) by Museum of UsMuseum of Us

Even the Museum of Us has wrongfully constructed notions of race. In 1915, eighty-seven busts were created for the Museum as part of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The exhibit, The Story of Man Through the Ages, linked racial differences with biological characteristics. The Museum of Us displayed the busts with only their name, age, and assigned race without telling their history or stories. Yet race is not biological, but rather socially constructed and changes over time and place.

Matokvwapi Bust sculpture (2021-08-01) by Museum of UsMuseum of Us

The photo displays Matokvwapi, age 65, who is labeled as “Teton Sioux.” The term is considered offensive as it was used by French colonists to describe the Dakota people.

Inter+FACE Installation (2021-08-01) by Christopher VitoMuseum of Us

The Museum of Us still displays three of the original busts to highlight the museum’s historical role of reproducing biological notions of race. In 2015 (one hundred years after the Panama-California Exposition) the Museum of Us worked with the AJA Project on Inter+Face to explore how race, representation, and identity have been experienced both in past and present San Diego. Take a look at this video to learn more about the Inter+Face project.

Carl Linneaus (1777) by John Sebastian MillerGarden Museum

Race changes over time and place: Race is not a fixed, monolithic term. It is a complex and highly variable concept that changes over time. Scientists helped create the notion of race more than a century ago to organize the world’s physical diversity into distinct racial types.

Did you know…In the 1600s Swedish scientist Carolus Linnaeus (shown in photo) created four racial groupings based on geographic region and skin color. Linnaeus believed most of the non-white groups to be sub-species of humans, and created four racial classifications: 1) Americanus, 2) Asiaticus, 3) Africanus, and 4) Europeanus.

Hapa Project (2021-08-01) by Museum of UsMuseum of Us

The Hapa Project, created by artist Kip Fullbeck, asks people the question “what are you?” Hapa, which can describe someone of mixed ethnic heritage with partial roots in Asian and/or Pacific Islander ancestry, emphasizes the social construction of identity over time. The project highlights the identities of multiracial and multiethnic groups, and challenges traditional notions of race rooted in biology such as Linnaeus’ racial classifications.

To learn more about the Hapa Project, we invite you to visit our live exhibit Race: Are We So Different?.

Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply (2021-08-01) by Museum of UsMuseum of Us

The meanings and importance of race also change by place. For example, race may be defined differently by various categories of people within a society. Throughout much of the 20th century, for example, southern states labeled anyone with as little as 1/32 of African ancestry as ‘colored’ despite their physical appearance. The creation of racial categories allow people to rank others in a hierarchy, giving some groups more resources, power, and prestige than others.

Did you know…In 1900 it was common for people of Irish, Italian, and Jewish ancestry in the US to be labeled as non-white. Irish immigrants were even portrayed as poor, brutish, and ape-like. They were not treated with the same privileges granted to whites despite sharing similar skin color. It was not until 1950 that they were viewed and categorized as white.

Census data and identity (2021-08-01) by Macalester College in St. PaulMuseum of Us

The U.S. Census: The U.S. Census was one of the first legal government programs that categorized people by race.

In 1988, the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program at Macalester College in St. Paul was created to “encourage the academic success of students of color and to increase the diversity of future college teachers.” Their project, as shown in the photograph, highlights the changes in racial categorizations on the U.S. Census over time.

The U.S. Census only recently allowed individuals to check more than one box when identifying their race. The change in survey practices was a result of the shifting U.S. demographic of increasing racial diversity and miscegenation (mixture of races).

For more information by the Pew Research Center, take a look at their report on Race and Multiracial Americans in the U.S. Census.

The Stoop (2021-08-01) by Museum of UsMuseum of Us

Institutional racism: Race and racism are deeply embedded in social processes and institutions in everyday life. It comes into being because members of society believe that physical characteristics matter in how we structure society. Those in positions of power have historically used race to justify colonization and enslavement. Thus, despite race not being rooted in biology, it has powerful impacts for our everyday life.

Recognizing diversity and difference between groups of people have led to conflict, particularly when people associate physical appearance with behavior and character. Throughout history, these associations can make social interactions with one another fraught and complicated.

George McClellan and Samuel Morton (1843) by Auguste EdouartMuseum of Us

Did you know…American scientist Samuel George Morton contended in 1839 that intelligence was related to cranium size? He believed that God created whites to be the most adept to intellectual endeavors, with Native Americans and African Americans having a different brain structure than their white counterparts. These thoughts produced in American academia laid the foundation for future notions of scientific racism.

War And Conflict (1918-09-04)LIFE Photo Collection

What is whiteness? Whiteness is a social construct that maintains hierarchical boundaries. It is protected by those in power and contested by those who are not.

Whiteness was used to control and exclude minority groups in the United States between the 1870s and 1930s. For example, in 1879 the Carlisle Industrial Training School attempted to “civilize” Native children through schooling. They assimilated them into whiteness by forcing them to learn American culture and traditions, dress like whites, and speak English only.

Louisiana Purchase Exposition (1903) by Missouri Historical MuseumMuseum of Us

Similarly, the St. Louis Fair of 1904 even had living villages, or human zoos, comprised of other cultures from around the world to demonstrate the lack of civilization by non-whites and uphold white superiority.

Halftone (2021) by Ainu GroupMuseum of Us

The largest of the living villages was the Philippine village, which included Christian Visayans, Islamic Moros, and “pagan” Igorote, Bagobo, and Negritos. The exhibit covered 47 acres with more than 1,000 Filipinos per day and was supposed to demonstrate stages of civilization. For example, the Igorot village was portrayed as one of the least civilized groups at the exhibit.

Did you know…The 1915 Panana-California Exposition at Balboa Park wanted to have a living village similar to the St. Louis Fair of 1904 with “live Igorotes,” but were not allowed due to the Philippine Assembly’s Anti-Slavery Act. Instead, the exhibit displayed “artifacts” during the Exposition.

Ota Benga Head Bust (2021-08-01) by Brandie MacdonaldMuseum of Us

The St. Louis Fair of 1904 similarly featured an exhibit on Africans such as Ota Benga, a 24-year old Congolese man. In 1906 he was placed in the Bronx Zoo’s monkey house in the role of a savage, even being displayed in the cage with apes. Shortly after he moved to the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum after public backlash over his deplorable treatment, and then to a close-knit African American community in South Carolina. Unfortunately, Ota Benga took his own life in 1915.

To learn more about Ota Benga and the use of cannibalism in dehumanizing populations around the world, you can visit the Museum of Us’ Cannibal exhibit.

The Magic Washer (1886) by Museum of UsMuseum of Us

Additionally, America’s great economic growth brought many immigrants to the United States as a source of labor. Unfortunately, once their labor was not needed migrants were frequently banned or deported. For instance, the Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1882 was a longstanding act that banned Chinese migration and prevented them from ever becoming citizens after the Gold Rush of 1848. Much propaganda, such as the poster here, created caricatures of Chinese workers in an effort to ban them.

Board game:Leave it to Beaver Money Maker Game (1959) by Hasbro, Inc.The Strong National Museum of Play

Media and culture also uphold ideals of whiteness. Many cosmetic products of the 1930s used whiteness as the standard for beauty. It became very popular for women with darker skin to bleach their skin lighter, which is a practice still done today all over the world.

In the 1950s-1970s much of television idealized images of white American middle-class families. Television shows like Leave it to Beaver and The Brady Bunch epitomized whiteness and the lack of diversity in Hollywood.

Racism Quote (2021) by Kelsey PickertMuseum of Us

The Invisible Knapsack: Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack argues that whites have not been subjected to the same prejudice and discrimination experienced by other minority groups. Their historical legacy as colonizers have instead led to privileges in society, such as the American legal system being created by and for whites.

This privilege is generally invisible to those in positions of power as it is deeply embedded into social institutions and behaviors. Unlike whites, minorities are more likely to see the social, political, and economic disadvantages of whiteness because it impacts their everyday life. Racism and whiteness ultimately need to be discussed as a byproduct of historical and institutional processes that maintain the unequal access to money, power and prestige.

Race: Are We So Different? Exhibit (2020) by Alexander AdamsMuseum of Us

Race impacts our everyday life and social world. The Museum of Us’ Race: Are We So Different? Google Arts and Culture exhibit provides a glimpse of the complex social issues regarding race, but we must continue to have an open, honest, and productive dialogue about race and racism to actively combat racism in our society.

To learn more, there are additional resources at the conclusion of this online exhibit. You can also visit the Museum of Us’ in-person exhibit and our other virtual exhibits:
• Race and Social Stratification
• Race and Education

Museum of Us Entrance (2020-08-03) by Kelsey Pickert (Photographer)Museum of Us

Reflection Questions:
1. What impact has race had on your own personal lived experiences?
2. What are some important parts of your racial identity?
3. Did you learn about the history of race in school? If not, why do you think that is?
4. How can we challenge racism and be an upstander to positively impact the community?

Nissan Foundation Thank You (2021-08-01) by Museum of UsMuseum of Us

Credits: Story

Developed by the Education Department at the Museum of Us, 2021

Thank you to all of the educators, community members, BIPOC relatives, and community organizations and partners who were generous with their time, energies (emotional and physical), expertise, and kindness. We are grateful for all of you and are able to do this work because of you.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
United States of Culture
From Yosemite to Broadway, take a trip around the States with more than 530 American institutions
View theme
Google apps