There is no question that the idea of race has had a profound impact on Western history, particularly the American experience. A museum exhibit in Boston helps attendees see that race is a social construct:
Developed by the American Anthropological Association, the exhibition draws on science and culture, history and politics. It surveys race as concept and the almost always unfortunate consequences that concept has had and continues to have.
Race is a relatively recent term, dating from the Age of Discovery, with its many European encounters with non-European others. (Of course, go back far enough, and we’re all non-Europeans, humankind having originated in Africa.) The first legal use of the word “white’’ in America wasn’t until 1691, when the increasing importance of slavery added a whole new dimension of complexity to the concept of race.
A better word than “concept’’ would be “construct.’’ That’s what race is. Black and white and yellow and red aren’t biological categories as, say, male and female are. Race is more of a social, or even psychological, category, as class is; and, like class, it owes far more to culture and society than it does to genetics.
Sociologists would say the same thing about race: it is a construct based on skin color, not inherent biological characteristics.
I would be interested to know if a museum exhibit like this changes people’s minds about race. There would be an easy way to find out: give a pre-test including questions about race to all those who enter the museum. When the visitors leave the museum, give the same test and also ask which visitors went through the race exhibit. Compare results and see if the group that went through the race exhibit have different views.