RACE: Fostering Empathy

What does the word “race” mean to you?

At the start of summer, Foundation staff and board members spent an afternoon reflecting on that question and more, as we toured the RACE exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh. As a part of our ongoing work on equity, both externally and internally, the Foundation was one of the many sponsors who helped bring this poignant exhibit to our region, and it was our turn to be immersed in the discussion.

“RACE: Are We So Different?” is a traveling exhibit, a project of American Anthropological Association, that looks at race through the lens of science, history, and personal experiences to promote a better understanding of human variation. Interactive exhibit components, historical artifacts, iconic objects, compelling photographs, multimedia presentations, and attractive graphic displays offer its many visitors an eye-opening look at this important subject matter that we should no longer ignore. The museum’s website states that the RACE exhibit “tells the stories of race from the biological, cultural, and historical points of view offering an unprecedented look at race and racism in the United States,” and as a staff, we couldn’t agree more.

“This exhibit was a powerful reminder for me that race is an invented system strategically used to maintain power while keeping others without,” said Laurel Shulman, Foundation Donor Services Associate. “It made me think that keeping these invisible systems top of mind is necessary if we hope to impart real change in the Triangle.”

The exhibit conveys three overall messages throughout the five rooms of intense information. That race is a recent human invention, that race is about culture, not biology, and that race and racism are embedded in institutions and everyday life. It wasn’t an easy exhibit to get it here, and the museum is proud to be hosting it now, for very important reasons. Emelia C. Cowans, Assistant Communications Director for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, elaborates.

“We started this process eight years ago. This exhibit is expensive, it wasn’t particularly on mission, and we needed the support of the community and sponsorships to make it happen,” she said. “But we saw a real need so we fought for it, and in the long-run, we were overwhelmed with support. I knew that this exhibit would visitors that are more reflective of the community we are here serve, and that it would encourage people -of all races- to start having transformative conversations and experiences. I’m happy to say that we have never been more spot on.”

Spot on is exactly right. Since the exhibit opened in the spring, XX people have walked through its doors. And the demographics are strikingly different than before this exhibit arrived – over 50% of people who have visited are not identifying as white. But more striking, is the feedback they are receiving from visitors as they leave.

“What we are seeing is that this exhibit is fostering a new kind of empathy for a lot of folks, people of all races, of all ages. We’ve heard things like – if only all Americans could experience this exhibit. Hate might take a permanent holiday, “Cowans said. “And – it changed the way I thought and felt, thank you for changing my perspective about race.”

After the viewing the interactive exhibit, visitors can sign up to participate in a cultural conversation led by trained facilitators that is intended to allow groups to respectfully discuss subject matter that often makes people uncomfortable in the hopes that they will leave with new understanding of race, and its impact on everything in life.

Our staff was able to participate in a private conversation, and it was a powerful experience.

“Participating in the cultural conversation was extremely impactful and left a lasting impression on me,” said Lindsay Harrell, Foundation Controller. “I truly appreciated the authenticity and willingness to share personal experiences from everyone in our group, and feel closer as a result.”

The RACE exhibit is providing a space for something that is desperately needed in our region, in our society, right now, said Cowans about what she’s seen and heard from visitors.

“People have a real way to express themselves here! Whether they come to a conversation, or write on a chalkboard, or talk to their child walking through the exhibit – they are expressing how they feel,” she said. “Times have changed. Our society is starting to see a very real identity need – that children of all races, and mixed races, need to belong. To be seen. To see.”

“RACE: Are We So Different?” is open through October, and the museum is hosting several special events that the community is invited to attend. Admission is free, thanks to the sponsorships of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, Duke Energy Foundation, City of Raleigh, Wells Fargo, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, BB&T, Burroughs Wellcome Fund,  Duke University Center on Genomics, Race, Identity, Difference, the University of North Carolina, Triangle Community Foundation, Paul Green Foundation, NC Humanities Council, YMCA of the Triangle; Capitol Broadcasting, UNC-TV,  and Radio One.

We encourage you to visit, participate in a cultural conversation, and spread the word. As a Foundation, we hold equity as a value and strive for it, focusing on people who are most marginalized. We are dedicated to listening and learning about the strengths and challenges of our region, and recognizing the importance of addressing immediate needs and structural barriers. We recognize that this work will never be done, but we will continue to strive for a region where everyone belongs and thrives.

Photo courtesy of NC Museum of Natural Sciences