Kahla Bell-Kato is a Communications Intern with Solid Ground.
A major part of Solid Ground’s work involves understanding how concepts of race and racism affect our communities as well as our organization. In order to promote ongoing awareness and education about racism, members of the agency’s Anti-Racism Initiative (ARI) attended the exhibit RACE: Are We So Different? at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. As the agency’s new Communications Intern, I was invited to attend with the group.
Developed by the Science Museum of Minnesota in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association, RACE: Are We So Different? features interactive quizzes, multimedia presentations, images and artifacts designed to break down social, historical and scientifically flawed concepts about race.
One of the first aspects of the exhibit I came across brought me face to face with America’s modern race classifications presented through the United States Census. The display asks visitors to select between four choices of race classifications to be used for the Census. The first three options introduce various ways to obtain race statistics such as checking a box or filling in the blank – one being the race category question from the 2010 Census. The final option votes to remove the race question completely.
As a recent graduate, I appreciate statistics. At this point of my experience with the exhibit, I believed we weren’t quite ready to remove the race question from the Census. Statistics gained from the Census root out disparities within the system in order to provide equal employment opportunities, allocate funds for education, housing and medical services, as well as determine gaps in wages and financial inconsistencies such as meeting credit needs. I wondered how we could fight racism without having the numbers to prove race still plays a part in our policies.
With this in mind, I selected option three, which asks those filling out the Census to write in their race, ethnicity or ancestry in a blank rather than select from predetermined race categories. I was in the minority. Over 39,000 people who visited the exhibit voted to remove the race question completely from the Census. I would discover why, as I made my way around the rest of the exhibit.
Americans tend to believe that racial categories have remained unchanged throughout the centuries. However, after leaving the Census display, I was taken on a journey through the History of Race in the U.S.A. section of the exhibit that describes the changing perceptions of skin color throughout the implementation of the U.S. Census.
Classifications of race have been fluid throughout the history of the United States, clearly demonstrating how race is a cultural construct – rather than innate biological and genetic differences – designed by beliefs commonly held at the time of classification. These race classifications were created to justify the oppression and mistreatment of specific groups of people.
Race categories in the Census contain far more meaning than simply indicating the color of one’s skin; they denote a history of dominance, repression and racist stereotypes about who a person is or isn’t based solely on race. For example, the 2010 Census combined a total of 53 questions originally featured on the 2000 Census long form questionnaire to a mere 10 questions. Once questions regarding work, income, transportation and education are removed, one can assume that the race question – which constitutes one-fifth of the 2010 Census – becomes a catch-all for determining a person’s socioeconomic status.
I realize that the history of racism is too embedded within the Census and in each racial category to allow it to remain. While statistics can be beneficial, in my view the negative implications of racial categories hurt more than help. The Census does not create racism so much as it mirrors how we think about race. Race is cultural. We created it, and yet we continue to perpetuate the belief that race is a real thing that separates us and makes us different from each other. We are not so different.
If we continue to preserve this false notion by presenting race classifications in the Census or any other questionnaire, then we will continue to declare that we deserve different treatment and access to opportunity based on our skin color. However, if we change what we believe about race, then the policies will change along with it. Education is the key to understanding what race is, and more importantly, what race is not.