February break is coming up in the next week for East High School students; a prime time for which to engage them in college visits and field trips as these excursions will not interfere with instructional time. Over the week, I have helped to give students the opportunity to visit Nazareth College, The University of Rochester and the University at Buffalo. Yet, what promises to be perhaps the most enlightening and valuable trip of the week is to the RACE: Are We So Different? exhibit at the Rochester Museum and Science Center (RMSC). Through a scholarship I was able to secure from the RMSC as well as generous funding from the Center for Youth, eight East High School students have the opportunity to view the RACE exhibit for free and learn about the concept of race through social, historical and biological lenses.
So what exactly is race? It’s a word we throw around and think about from time to time, but do we really know what it signifies? An official definition will tell you that race essentially refers to the physical, biological traits that a group of people share. However, such a definition fails to mention a highly important aspect of race which is that, technically speaking, it does not even exist! Race is nothing more than a social construction; a phenomenon developed by society as a way to place people into specific categories as a method of identity. Think about it, the various meanings that have been historically attached to physical features did not just pop out of thin air! They were created and deemed “socially significant” or important by society over the years and have been perpetuated ever since.
Many portions of the RACE exhibit are centered around the very idea that race is nothing more than an abstract concept derived by society that has been perpetuated to dangerous proportions. Already having viewed the exhibit, my favorite part was the display outlining that different skin colors originally developed in humans as a evolutionary response to the differing amounts of vitamin D available in environments across various locations throughout the world. Those who lived in areas that receive a great deal of sunlight (such as Africa and near the Equator) and therefore an abundance of vitamin D developed darker skin tones in order to guard against absorbing too much. Additionally, those who lived in regions that did not see as much sun maintained light skin tones so as to be able to absorb as much valuable vitamin D as possible to remain healthy. The fact that over the years, society has taken a simple adaptation, labeled it and blown it up into the ridiculous proportions that it has reached over the years is not only shocking but very saddening.
Despite the fact that East High School is incredibly diverse and students have the opportunity to come in contact with others who represent a variety of cultural backgrounds, I truly feel that the RACE exhibit is very important for them (and anyone else for that matter) to take part in. Race is definitely one of those sticky subjects that we try to avoid conversing about for fear of possibly being interpreted as a “racist” or for fear that we may unknowingly offend someone. However, such supposedly “controversial” topics that we often ignore are perhaps the most important to engage in dialogue about regularly. If we simply ignore pressing issues because we find them uncomfortable to talk about, we are not only eliminating any hope for change in the future but also actively supporting the continued spread of such negativity. I am so excited to be able to give students at East the opportunity to be empowered by the material they see at the RACE exhibit to begin these important dialogues and subsequently enact powerful, positive change in their communities.