January 29, 2007
"Race" Exhibit at the Science Museum
I like to go to movies and plays that trouble me. Sure, at times I like to go just for pure entertainment, but I also like to be challenged by what I see and hear. Thatâ€™s the experience I had Friday afternoon, when I went to see the new exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota entitled, â€œRace: Are We So Different?â€?
The complexity with which race is portrayed made me think back to a wonderful course I had as a college sophomore in 1967, entitled â€œThe Concept of Race.â€? It was in the anthropology department, but it was very interdisciplinary. The first third was taught by a physical anthropologist (Robert Malina) and explored biological and genetic concepts; the second third was taught by a cultural anthropologist (Henry Selby) and looked at the diversity of cultures and â€œracesâ€? across the world. The last third was taught by an expert on the peoples of the Middle East (Robert Fernea), who talked about how race is experienced in specific cultures. They were ahead of their time. But I digress...
The Science Museum exhibit had many displays â€“ some were interactive, others used words or pictures to make their points. The most powerful to me were the personal stories. An interracial couple talked about their experience in Minnesota â€“ the double-takes they would get in shopping malls, the stares they would get in restaurants or with their child. A young woman adopted from Korea talked about how her adoptive parents were told by their social worker not to talk about race with their child; and they didnâ€™t. A social scientist commented on the U.S. by saying â€œThis is a world of racial smog. We all breathe it.â€? An American Indian woman said, â€œMy name is Cindy Bloom. Iâ€™m a Cherokee Indian but I am not a [football team] mascot.â€? A woman whose race was â€œindeterminateâ€? [her word] said that people were uncomfortable when they first met her â€“ almost as if they needed to figure out what racial group she belonged to before they knew how to relate to her. Theyâ€™d ask â€œWhat are you?â€? as if her racial designation summed up her existence. A middle-aged African American woman said, â€œPolitically and culturally, race is as real as it gets.â€?
Several exhibits talked about â€œwhite privilege,â€? a concept popularized by Peggy Macintosh in her paper "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" The interviews with Doug Hartmann (U of MN Associate Professor of Sociology) noted that one aspect of white privilege is that white people claim the privilege (or option) of saying they donâ€™t have a race, or that they are part of the human race. For people of color, race is a part of daily experience. They donâ€™t have the â€œprivilegeâ€? of ignoring it.
One exhibit showed 134 Brazilian terms for skin tone. Rich Leeâ€™s blog entry for January 27 talked about links between skin tone and salary in the U.S.
Several exhibits debated the use of race in the field of medicine. Recent studies showing race-specific risks for some diseases (e.g., higher risk for hypertension among African Americans) have suggested that new drugs be targeted toward different groups. However, the exhibit effectively argued that since there is no genetic or biological validity to the concept of race, treatments targeted toward different groups rest on flawed assumptions.
One fascinating display about DNA stated that â€œthe pattern of DNA variation across populations shows a nested subset. African populations harbor some alleles (gene variations) that are absent in non-African populations; however, all of the alleles that are common in non-African populations are also common in African populations.â€? In other words, the gene variations in European and Asian populations are subsets of the variations observed in African populations. There are no gene variations found among Europeans or Asians that are not also found among people of African descent. It makes sense, considering where the worldâ€™s population originated â€“ in Africa. But it presented a new way of thinking about this.
All in all, it was a great exhibit. It â€œtroubledâ€? me â€“ in that it made me think deeply â€“ and I think it will do that for many people who pass through it. I have asked my lifespan development students to see it; Iâ€™ll be very interested to hear what they have to say. One of the background documents for the exhibit contained this quote from Robin D.G. Kelley, historian: Race â€œis not about how you look, it is about how people assign meaning to how you look.â€? I like that, because it puts responsibility for dealing with race squarely where it belongs: in our own hands.
January 21, 2007
I couldn't help drawing connections between my last post (about "The Lost Boys of Sudan") and today's NYTimes story about American hospitality in Clarkston, Georgia. The mayor has decreed that there will be no more soccer in the town park - "There will be nothing but baseball and football down there as long as I am mayor ... Those fields weren't made for soccer." Well, the story behind the story is that the soccer players are refugees living in Clarkston who resettled there from countries such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia, and yes, Sudan. The kids formed a team called "The Fugees" (yes, for "refugees") and played the game they know and love, soccer. The article points out that "their presence brings out the best in some people and the worst in others." Sounds like the worst is winning so far.
January 19, 2007
Lost Boys of Sudan
I encouraged my human development students to attend a screening of the "Lost Boys of Sudan" last night at the International Institute of Minnesota. It was a powerful experience. The beginning of the film tells the story of the war in the Sudan, in which many villages have been decimated and thousands of innocent people have been killed. Many children were left parent-less and found their way to resettlemt camps. Two young men, Peter Dut and Santino Chuor, were moved out of the camps and to the United States - initially to Houston, Texas. In the rest of the film, we follow them through their daily lives and overhear their reflections on their native land, on America, and on the contrast between the two. Let's just say that their transitions were not unproblematic. Some of the challenge came about because of the culture shock inherent in moving across the planet in time and space. They moved from a rural village in Sudan to an apartment in Houston - we watched as they were shown their new home and cautioned not to stick their fingers down the garbage disposal.
But the most poignant part of the documentary was in their longing for home and for the familiar, their own culture, language, and friends. It made me realize how unconscious we can be of our own culture, because it's what we "do" every day. Only when we are hit with a major contrast does what we have cease being taken for granted. I have a large number of international students in my classes this semester. This film gave me a framework for considering the many challenges (academic and non-academic) that they must face every day. I am inspired by their courage and by that of Peter and Santino.
January 16, 2007
To Split, or Not To Split? (or To Not Split?)
In Stephen Wilbers' "Effective Writing" column (Star Tribune, 1-15-07), he wrote about split infinitives. My eighth grade take-no-prisoners English grammar teacher, Miss Mary Buckingham, taught us NEVER to split infinitives. (NOT to never split infinitives.) Well, Wilbers takes a more moderate stance, which I follow in my own writing and appreciate. What I didn't know was the origin of the no-split-infinitives policy. He noted that the origin of this rule was with Robert Loweth, who tried to import his knowledge of Latin into the English language. "Because the infinitive is a single word in Latin, and therefore cannot be split, he reasoned (wrongly, to my mind), it should not be split in English. Before he wrote his unfortunate book, few English speakers gave it a thought." I'll never feel guilty about splitting an infinitive again - if it makes sense to do so. And I'll be a bit more tolerant of my students' usage as well. To quote Wilbers' conclusion today: "So we can say to boldly go in good consencience."
Thanks, Mr. Wilbers!
January 15, 2007
More about Waltham Abbey
Despite the snow, the Waltham Abbey Singers audience tonight was robust and appreciative. I really enjoyed the program, which included the Charpentier Messe de Minuit pour Noel (Christmas midnight mass) and 3 lush motets by Bruckner. My last post had a few comments about my trip to Waltham Abbey, the actual place. Here are some entries from my travel journal of October, 2003.
I returned from London yesterday after an exciting and stimulating visit. It was interesting to observe my own reactions to things â€“ that it was often the challenge and excitement of figuring out how to get places or do things that was the satisfying / most noteworthy part. For example, on Wednesday, 10/1, I took the train from Norwich to Liverpool St. (London), left my suitcase at the Left Luggage, took another train to Waltham Cross, then took the bus to Waltham Abbey. Each of these had its own little challenges associated with it â€“ even making sure I got on the bus going in the right direction from Waltham Cross to Waltham Abbey. For example, I had initially thought about taking no luggage on the 3 day trip (thinking that Iâ€™d have to be schlepping it with me to Westminster Abbey), but then it occurred to me that there might be a Left Luggage at Liverpool St. â€“ so I called the national rail line and found out there was. I found a hotel (the Hyde Hotel, 51 Westbourne Terrace, 3 star rating) on the internet for just over 50 pounds per night. My colleagues were rather horrified and very skeptical about the quality of the place, but I mainly wanted a place in a safe neighborhood, close to the tube, and clean. Well, the Hyde met those qualifications, but it was by far the smallest hotel room Iâ€™ve ever stayed in â€“ and in the basement, to boot. I finally decided Iâ€™d pretend it was a stateroom on a luxury liner, where every square inch is at a premium. It did have a window, but the 8â€? TV had extremely poor reception (rabbit ears in a basement room!) It was adequate, although I doubt Iâ€™d stay there again. (Itâ€™s very good I brought changes of clothes â€“ all the excitement combined with warmish and humid weather meant I sweated through my clothes several times! Thankfully there was a shower in the hotel room.)
The pilgrimage to Waltham Abbey was a worthwhile venture â€“ since it is the namesake of the early music group I sing in. I didnâ€™t realize until I got there that the Abbey was founded around 1060 by Harold, the Earl of Wessex, later King of England. Harold prayed there for success against the Norman invasion, but he and the Saxons met their fate at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. After the battle, Haroldâ€™s love, Edith Swan-Neck, brought him back to the Abbey for burial. No one knows exactly where he is in the church, but he is there somewhere. Here's my namesake.
The church has a long history and is quite interesting architecturally, although of course itâ€™s not a â€œgrandâ€? church on the scale of the cathedrals. But it was worth the visit. Thomas Tallis was organist there at the time of the Dissolution â€“ 1540 - when Henry VIII dissolved all the abbeys in England. Here's Tallis.
January 14, 2007
Waltham Abbey Singers Concert Tonight - free
The Waltham Abbey Singers, under the direction of Brian Link, are presenting a concert tonight at 7:30 at St. Paul's on the Hill Episcopal Church, on Summit Ave. just east of Snelling Ave. The program is eclectic: the Charpentier â€œMesse de Minuit pour NoÃ«l,â€? (which uses French Christmas carols for its themes, including â€œJoseph est bien mariÃ©â€?), three Bruckner motets, some organ pieces, etc.
I sang with Waltham for several years, but haven't been able to sing since July because of the unpredictability of my family situation. I look forward to the concert tonight and hope to see folks there. (It's free, and maybe that snowstorm will wait until it's over -- or at least until it starts!)
In 2003, I had the opportunity to spend a month in England working with adoption research colleagues. One day, I took the train from Norwich to London, and then a combination of underground and bus out to Waltham Abbey (the real thing), which is on the northern outskirts of London. Here are photos of the church and the choir stalls. Thomas Tallis, the inspiration for the Waltham Abbey Singers, was choirmaster there.