When I heard that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History would host RACE: Are We So Different? in 2011, I was excited at the opportunity to participate. Like the other volunteers recruited for this temporary exhibition, my role is that of a facilitator. I engage and encourage visitors as they wrestle with what many consider profoundly divisive and emotional topics: the relationship of race and racism to science, history, and personal experience.
This role was very appealing to me for two reasons. First, it departs from the traditional approach to learning, where knowledge is transferred from an expert to the student. Facilitation is a matter of encouraging learners to take the responsibility of learning on themselves. Second, I relished the opportunity to engage in a complex, public conversation that would enrich our understanding of how and why race is so deeply embedded in our culture and in our consciousness. Although I approach my work at the Museum as an informed but objective partner to visitors, I am no exception to the conversation. I face the same challenge as anyone: approaching each conversation as a neutral observer despite the preconceived notions and assumptions shaped by our life experiences.
As the son of a diplomat, I spent my formative years abroad, experiencing the rich cultural diversity of the Americas. But it wasn’t until I embarked on an international management career out of college that I began to really understand how race affected my life. My first assignment in Mexico gave me a deep appreciation for my Latino heritage. Ironically, in Mexico I was often told I was not Latino enough because of my years in the U.S. When my career took me to Jamaica, I was often considered there a “white mon,” a contrast to when I lived in the United States where at times I was not “white” enough. These changes in my status seem almost humorous because it would differ with every new country assignment. But the certainty with which people placed those labels is a troubling symptom of deeper problems. I’ve since been trying to do my part in helping to dismantle the race barriers that exist within our communities.
Now that I live in the DC area, I find RACE: Are We So Different? an excellent venue to have a safe and elevated conversation on race. The most successful interactions I have had with visitors occurred when I was able to build rapport in simple but powerful ways: to genuinely listen, to empathize and show compassion, to accept others’ experiences, and to speak only with the aim of enabling more conversation. Through this approach, we create a welcoming learning environment in the exhibition where visitors can encounter the exhibition’s messages about race and test them against their personal experience. This often results in Ah-ha! moments of clarity and insight.
And so if we humans are to solve the many global challenges facing us, a good place to start is to remove barriers that have historically divided us. Our world is more interconnected now than at any time in human history. So a promising global future may well rest on our current ability to value all our human cultural richness, while learning from our past in tandem with our present knowledge. I think RACE: Are We So Different? is a positive step forward.
E. David Garcia, Volunteer, RACE: Are We So Different?