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Originally published September 26, 2013 at 5:18 PM | Page modified September 27, 2013 at 8:45 AM

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Race exhibit asks provocative question: ‘Are we so different?’

An exhibit opening Saturday at the Pacific Science Center takes a look at what race is — and what it is not.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Exhibit

“Race: Are We So Different?”

Admission to the exhibit is included with admission to the Pacific Science Center (200 Second Ave. N.): $18 adults, $16 seniors (65+), $13 youth (6-15), $10 child (3-5), members free.

Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Closed Tuesdays. Exhibits closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

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At the Pacific Science Center’s newest exhibit, you will be invited to jot down your thoughts about race and your own identity.

To get started, you might glance at a few handwritten slips of paper filled out by others who have seen this exhibit elsewhere.

Perhaps you’ll respond with mathematical precision, like the person who defined themselves as “40% Spanish, 40% German, 10% Swedish, 10% French ... 100% American, and all parts fabulous.”

Or, your answer may more closely resemble one that says, “Race confuses me. It’s like picking a sports team when I don’t know much about sports.”

Be warned. When you visit “Race: Are We So Different?” which opens Saturday, you may walk out the door “knowing” less about race than you thought you knew when you walked in.

That’s because the American Anthropological Association, which developed the exhibit with the Science Museum of Minnesota, highlights information not just on what race is, but what it is not.

“There is no biological reason to classify people as being different,” said Bryce Seidl, CEO of the Pacific Science Center, who has been trying to get this exhibit to Seattle for about four years.

The exhibit runs through Jan. 5, but if it is successful, it will trigger conversations well beyond that date.

To help make that happen, the science center is collaborating with the city of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative to provide trained facilitators to lead workshops that groups can hold before and after they see the exhibit.

Julie Nelson, director of the Seattle Office for Civil Rights, said she had hoped about 60 volunteers would agree to be facilitators, but more than 200 have signed up.

The central message of the exhibit is that what we call races are not separate genetic or biological groups, but distinctions created by people, oftentimes to mistreat or isolate those they regard as different from themselves.

First presented in St. Paul, Minn., in 2007, the exhibit uses interactive displays, artifacts, computer simulations of gene flows and other displays.

Upon entering the exhibit, visitors will see a changing photo display of three faces, their features gradually morphing — skin gets lighter or darker, eyes and lips change shape — making it difficult to draw lines between racial groups.

Another display asks what nationalities are white: Italians? Spaniards? Latvians? Moroccans? Russians? There are no right answers, but the exercise helps make the point that dividing people into groups may tell more about the people doing the dividing than those being categorized.

The exhibit raises the question of whether race remains a useful concept as more marriages between people of different ethnic backgrounds blur — or eliminate — lines between racial categories. Apparently, the folks in the colony of Virginia back in 1691 thought they had an answer for that, writing what the exhibit calls the earliest public law containing the term “white.”

The law decried the “abominable mixture” of races and said any white man or woman who marries a “negroe, mulatto or Indian” would be “banished and removed from this dominion forever.”

This traveling exhibit, which has appeared in more than two dozen other cities, doesn’t deny the reality of race. It would be impossible, for example, to deny the stark reality suggested by a drinking-fountain sign from Alabama in 1931, pointing left for “white” and right for “colored.”

But those distinctions, the exhibit says, come from emotion and prejudice, not science.

In the enlightened Pacific Northwest of 2013, it may be tempting to think of racism as a thing of the past, or something that happened elsewhere.

But Diana Johns, the science center’s vice president of exhibits, said displays created locally will show that the effects of racial distinctions remain everyday realities in King County.

For example, one panel points out that in 2010, the median income for African-American and American-Indian households in King County was slightly more than half of the approximately $70,000 median income for white households.

Compared to other exhibits at the science center, this exhibit is text-heavy, aimed largely at visitors of at least middle-school age. The museum suggests youngsters visit with a parent or other adult who can help promote an understanding of the material.

“Race: Are We So Different?” was created with national sponsorship by the Ford Foundation and the National Science Foundation. In Seattle, Boeing is the local exhibition sponsor, with local support by The Seattle Times and KUOW.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the science center is hosting a series of lectures and other presentations. The first lecture, at 7 p.m. Tuesday, features john a. powell, who spells his name with lower-case letters, scholar, author and executive director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley.

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com

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