• courtesy Illinois Holocaust Museum

There are plenty of things to look at in “RACE: Are We So Different?”, a traveling exhibit that originated at the Science Museum of Minnesota and has now settled in for three months at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie. There are charts and pictures and videos and buttons to push and explainer text to read. If you stop a few times to say, “Huh, I did not know that,” the staff of the museum, and also of the YWCA Evanston/North Shore, which is cosponsoring the exhibit, will be pleased. But what would really make them happy is if you left feeling better equipped to have a serious and honest conversation about race in America, preferably with someone whose skin tone is not the same shade as yours.

“In our society, we talk about anything,” says Eileen Heineman, the racial justice program director at the YWCA, “but when we talk about race, we’re paralyzed, or we say we’re tired of talking about it, or we become polarized. We have to talk about it. We have to accept that race has a huge impact on all of us.”

The exhibit takes the position that race is more of an idea invented by human beings than an inherent personal characteristic formed by genetics. At the very beginning of the exhibit, there’s a photo of a group of people wearing T-shirts that identify how they would be classified by the U.S. census at different points in history. (“1930: Mexican, 1950: White, 1990: Hispanic White.”) An interactive map shows the spread of both humans and genetic variation from east Africa; as time has gone on, we’ve actually become genetically less diverse.

  • courtesy Illinois Holocaust Museum

Throughout history, humans have used different strategies to justify racial discrimination. The exhibit walks visitors through all of them. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the Great Chain of Being theory was much in vogue (exacerbated after Europeans began staking territorial claims on the New World and displacing the people who were already living there and then importing slaves from Africa), but during the Enlightenment, “race science” took over. (These studies applied to Jews, too, and the Nazis used them to justify the Holocaust.)

More recently, there’s been the argument that racial inequality is less a problem than economic inequality. The exhibit challenges this notion by showing the connections between race and class: housing covenants and limits on eligibility for the GI bill in the 1940s and 50s prevented African-Americans from buying homes, or locked them into bad mortgages, which meant they couldn’t build up home equity the way their white counterparts could. (A point the exhibit makes graphically by showing stacks of fake money representing the average wealth of whites, blacks, Asians, and Hispanics.)

“We’re still dealing with the effects of history,” says Heineman.

“The exhibit challenges your assumptions,” says Kathy Slaughter, the YWCA’s director of development. “For instance, that map over there shows that sickle-cell anemia is geography-based, not race-based. There’s more genetic variety within groups than between groups.”

The exhibit challenges other stereotypes: in one display, visitors listen to a recording of a person talking about his or her life and then, given a choice of a series of portraits, have to guess who is speaking. In one of the recordings, a woman speaks about the difference between living in Jamaica and living in New York; it turns out she’s Asian, not black, as one might assume. (“There are all kinds of people in Jamaica,” she explains.)

Over the next few months, while the exhibit is in residence at the Holocaust Museum, there will be more than 20 different discussions, lectures, readings, films, and performances at the museum and at various churches and schools in Evanston, Skokie, and Rogers Park, and every student in the sixth through eleventh grades in the Evanston public schools will visit the exhibit. Most of the events and field trips were arranged by the YWCA; it provides the outreach, Heineman says, while the museum provides the space and technical know-how. The museum has never worked with an outside partner before, and the YWCA has never done an exhibit, but the two organizations have enjoyed working together.

The exhibit has been touring for the past seven years, but this is the first time it’s come to the Chicago area. (“Maybe Chicago didn’t want to deal with race?” jokes Arielle Weininger, the museum’s chief curator.) Several YWCA officers saw it in other cities before it came here and have heard stories about the effect it’s had on different communities.

“In Rochester, New York, there were huge racial issues,” says Heineman. “It changed the tenor of the dialogue. It educated people. It made it less scary to talk about race. It gave people tools to hear other people’s stories, not to be threatened or cast blame or feel guilt. It taught them to say, ‘This is my experience as a white woman, and it’s different from yours as an African-American man.’ You learn that other perspective exist and they’re just as real as yours. We shouldn’t have conversations where it’s only white people talking.”

It’s too soon to tell whether the exhibit will have that sort of impact here—it only opened last Saturday—but, given recent events in Saint Louis, it seems particularly well timed.

“Someone asked if it came here because of Ferguson,” says Weininger. “We’ve been planning this for three years. But from the beginning of this country, race has always been an issue.”