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RACE: Are we so different?

By Maryanne George

Few subjects provoke as strong a visceral response as the topic of race. One-hundred-and-fifty years after the United States was nearly fractured by the battle over slavery and more than a half-century since the modern Civil Rights Movement emerged, the University of Michigan is launching the Understanding Race Project.


From January through April, an extensive range of public exhibits, performances, lectures, symposia and more than 130 courses in several disciplines will explore the concept of race and its impacts.  The historical, cultural, psychological and legal interpretations of race will be examined from both national and global perspectives.


Highlights of the project include the “Race: Are We So Different?” exhibit developed by the American Anthropological Association and the Science Museum of Minnesota and “IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas,” a Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit.

Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center; Angela Davis, educator and civil rights activist and Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, New Jersey, are among the dozens of lecturers speaking at U-M as part of the project

The Understanding Race Winter 2013 Theme Semester is part of the project and offers courses that examine national and global ideas about race as well as challenges to racism. Dozens of symposia, lectures and other events are included as part of the semester, which is sponsored by U-M’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

“The Understanding Race Project is as broad and varied as the cultural and ethnic groups that constitute, define, and sometimes divide the human family here and around the globe,” says Amy Harris, co-chair of the Understanding Race Project and director of U-M Museum of Natural History (UMMNH).

“We invite both the U-M community and the public to join the discussion to learn more about how social constructs like race have defined substantial portions of our history and continue to impact our lives today.”

The project is beginning as racial prejudice is increasing in the United States, with 51 percent of Americans expressing anti-black attitudes in Oct. 2012, compared with 48 percent in 2008, according to recent polls by the Associated Press.

The “Race: Are We So Different?” exhibit at UMMNH will be the cornerstone for the theme semester.  Visitors will see a mosaic of photos, graphics, interactive displays and artifacts to learn about the history of the idea of race and to evoke an everyday portrait of what it means to live with race as a reference for personal identity, cultural construct and political constituency.

“The exhibit offers many entry points into the conversation about race,” said Harris. “It’s a compelling way to encourage people to explore connections and learn how they are impacted by race, whether it’s personally, socially or politically.”

More than 130 courses in psychology, history, anthropology, gender studies, Afroamerican and African studies and other disciplines will incorporate race and related subjects.

In November, UMMNH opened the “Race in This Place” exhibit featuring video conversations about race with Washtenaw County residents.  The Understanding Race Project also engages community residents and organizations, and involves all 10 public school districts in the county.

“The conversation about race is local, but the critical debate about race is international,” says Harris, who noted “Understanding Race” would continue after the semester ends in April. “This is a healthy, positive public discussion, regardless of your race and ethnicity, and we look forward to an extended conversation with the community.”



 WHAT: IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas, a Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit

WHEN: January 9-31

DESCRIPTION: The story of people who share African American and Native American ancestry has long been invisible. For 500 years or more, African American and Native people have come together, creating shared histories, communities, and ways of life. Often divided by prejudice, laws, or twists of history, African-Native Americans are united by a double heritage that is truly indivisible.

WHERE: Duderstadt Center Gallery on the University of Michigan’s North Campus, 2281 Bonisteel Blvd, Ann Arbor, MI 48109. The Gallery is open from 12-6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 12-5 p.m. on Sundays. The gallery will be open from 12-6 p.m. on Martin Luther King Day.


WHAT: “Identities in Red, Black and White: A Roundtable Discussion”

WHEN:  4-6 p.m., Jan. 10

DESCRIPTION: This public program will address mixed-race identities from autobiographical and storytelling perspectives and within the context of social and cultural analysis.

EXPERTS: Roundtable panelists express a mixed native identity of some kind — whether that connection is via family ties and/or cultural ties, including:

Dr. Tiya Miles, U-M professor of Afroamerican and African Studies and Native American Studies – Moderator

Dr. Adesola Akinleye, dance scholar and founder of Dancing Strong

Elizabeth Atkins, U-M alumna and Detroit-based best-selling novelist and journalist

Dr. Robert Keith Collins, assistant professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University.

Dr. Philip J. Deloria, U-M professor of History, American Culture, and Native American Studies

WHERE: U-M’s Arthur Miller Theatre, 1226 Murfin Ave., Ann Arbor, MI  48109


WHAT: Morris Dees, Keynote Memorial Lecture, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Symposium

WHEN: January 21, 10:00 a.m.

DESCRIPTION: Morris Dees co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1970 with Julian Bond and Joseph Levin.  Ten years later, the center created the Intelligence Project to monitor organized racist activity and hate groups, and develop legal strategies to protect citizens from violence-prone groups.  NBC’s Line of Fire: The Morris Dees Story reported on his successful fight against the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama in the 1980s.  Subsequently, the center won legal battles against the Aryan Nations, the Carolina Klan, and others.  In 1990, the center established the Teaching Tolerance project, which provides award-winning resources to 80,000 schools and more than 400,000 teachers around the U.S.

WHERE: Hill Auditorium, 825 N University, Ann Arbor, MI 48109.


WHAT: Dr. Angela Davis; “Impediments to the Dream: The Prison Industrial Complex and the Dream”

WHEN: January 21, 2:00 p.m.

DESCRIPTION: Author, lecturer, and political activist Dr. Angela Davis, Distinguished Professor Emerita from the University of California, Santa Cruz, is internationally known for her decades of work fighting oppression of all forms.  She is a founding member of Critical Resistance, a national organization dedicated to eliminating the prison industrial complex.  After her remarks, Dr. Davis will sign copies of her recent book, The Meaning of Freedom.

WHERE: Rogel Ballroom, Michigan Union, 530 S State, Ann Arbor, MI 48109.


WHAT: The Honorable Cory A. Booker, Mayor of Newark, NJ; “Urban Renewal and the Promise of King’s Dream”

WHEN: January 21, 4:00 p.m.

DESCRIPTION: Mayor Booker is successfully marshaling resources to provide New Jersey’s largest city, Newark, with security, economic abundance, and an empowering and nurturing environment for individuals and families.  Booker, a nationally recognized leader, was named to the 2011 TIME 100, in recognition of the many civic advancements he has helped lead in Newark.

WHERE: U-M Law School, Hutchins Hall, Room 100, 625 S State, Ann Arbor, MI 48109.


PHOTO: American Anthropological Association

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