Race: It depends on your point of view

I was one of the students hearing Professor Homer G. Barnett’s lectures on the history of anthropology at the University of Oregon the year before he retired. That was more than three decades ago.

Barnett was among the reasons I was in graduate school at Oregon in the first place. He is largely responsible for how we think about innovation today. He tied it in with ideas about culture change and wrote a book using those words in the title. Also, he was on the committee that gave me a handsome scholarship. I had to pay my respects to this scholarly icon and take in his parting wisdom.

"There is no such thing as race," I remember Barnett saying.

In those activist times, I could understand "equality" and "justice" as public values. But he was showing that science came into it through various researchers who had developed classification systems about genetic variation. They showed that people, like plants, can be of mixed and many characteristics. All that was understandable. But the lesson went further.

The one that stumped me was that some people could not see race at all. It wasn’t there. Well, that just seemed impossible. Of course you can see who is in front of you. I was unconvinced, even if a study in Brazil suggested that people there could not see skin color and purported some white people were called black and some blacks white.

I was walking toward the university’s Knight Library when the realization struck me like a thunderbolt. I was about 10 years old, in Miss Bowman’s room at De Zavala elementary school. My classmate, Louis Sanchez, was black in that predominantly Mexican-American school in segregated Texas. How could that be? More to the point, why — knowing for more than a decade — had I not realized it before now? For me, that was the empirical truth behind what Barnett was saying.

It is clear that we are literally conditioned to perceive one way or to not perceive another. For instance, remember the scene in the 2004 movie "What in the Bleep Do We Know!" showing how the native people had trouble perceiving the arrival of the first Europeans to the New World because they had no context for understanding invisible creatures who came in houses from the ocean?

The first native chronicles talked about half-man of no color and half-horse. It is proof that prior knowledge, belief, fear or goodwill shape what we perceive and how we see it. Anthropologists are among those, distinct from others who study policy and politics with a keen insight into how humans put together ideas about the world in which we live.

For that reason I was thrilled that the American Anthropological Association had mounted the exhibit "Race: Are We So Different?" at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul. The cutting edge concept that questions the very concept of race that Barnett was talking about is now key, central, and mainstream. There is no such thing as race nor "racial" differences.

Instead, how we think about something shapes our reality of it.

It is surprising, but this is the first time an exhibition has been mounted in the United States to address race from the biological, cultural, and historical points of view. The timelines, dating from the 1600s to the present, include how recent race-based notions have crept into our consciousness, when some of them did not exist before, as with immigrants (see www.understandingrace.org/home.html).

If there is a great national purpose served by this important project, it is encapsulated in a quote from author James Baldwin, who said, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

The exhibit will be on national tour through 2014. Like Barnett’s lectures, it will instruct us on how to innovate thinking.

(Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail him at joseisla3(at)yahoo.com.)