In a famous series of exper­i­ments con­ducted in the 1970s, social psy­chol­o­gist Henri Tajfel asked how lit­tle it would take to per­suade one group of peo­ple to dis­crim­i­nate against another. The answer was almost noth­ing. Hav­ing assigned boys to two groups based largely on ran­dom cri­te­ria, he asked them to play a game. Each boy had to decide how many pen­nies to give to mem­bers of his own group and to mem­bers of the other group. Tajfel found that the boys were more gen­er­ous toward their own group, even though the groups had been defined almost arbi­trar­ily. Thus was born the con­cept of the “min­i­mal group.”

Tajfel’s research informs a new, tem­po­rary exhibit at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. Titled “Us and Them,” the exhibit explores the sci­ence of racism and prej­u­dice. The ques­tion at its heart is why, when biol­o­gists have swept away the ratio­nale for cat­e­go­riz­ing humans by race, does racism per­sist? The exhibit draws on genet­ics, his­tory, psy­chol­ogy, soci­ol­ogy and anthro­pol­ogy to answer that ques­tion. And in both its con­tent and its struc­ture, “Us and Them” reminds vis­i­tors how far soci­ety has come since the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury, when UNESCO declared that there was no bio­log­i­cal basis to race and that the con­cept was purely a social construct.

Us and Them:
From Prej­u­dice to Racism

Through Jan­u­ary 8, 2018
Musée de l’Homme, Paris

The mul­ti­me­dia, inter­ac­tive exhibit, pre­sented in both French and Eng­lish, is divided into three parts. The first is designed to make peo­ple ques­tion their own prej­u­dices by explain­ing the psy­cho­log­i­cal con­cept of essen­tial­ism. Essen­tial­ism is the ten­dency we have, as we move through and clas­sify a com­plex world, to reduce oth­ers to a sin­gle descrip­tor (“woman,” “black,” “immi­grant”), thus mak­ing it eas­ier to nav­i­gate that world. A mock-​up of an air­port lounge, in which pas­sen­gers walk through dif­fer­ently labeled doors, reveals how context-​dependent that choice of descrip­tor is. Hav­ing been con­fronted with the idea that a per­son may belong to more than one group, vis­i­tors are then forced to reflect on whether fixed groups — includ­ing races — with mea­sur­able dif­fer­ences between them even exist.

The exhibit moves on to explore how race has been con­structed in dif­fer­ent soci­eties at dif­fer­ent times in his­tory and how those con­structs have been taken up by states to jus­tify insti­tu­tion­al­ized racism. It does so through a few 20th cen­tury exam­ples, includ­ing Nazism in Europe and the Rwan­dan geno­cide of the 1990s. To learn about each one, vis­i­tors must enter a win­dow­less, claus­tro­pho­bic enclo­sure, re-​creating what it feels like to be on the receiv­ing end of that racism.

The final part of the exhibit brings the story full cir­cle by ask­ing what racism means today. It is only at this point that genet­ics enters the dis­cus­sion. Vis­i­tors are reminded that, from geneti­cists’ per­spec­tive, human races don’t exist. For instance, there is roughly the same genetic dif­fer­ence between two Euro­peans from the same vil­lage as there is between a Euro­pean and an African. The vis­i­ble dif­fer­ences between us are the cumu­la­tive result of genetic, envi­ron­men­tal and cul­tural influ­ences over long peri­ods of time, but rarely do we con­sider these fac­tors together, which can lead to dis­crim­i­na­tion on the basis of one or another. A “data room” dis­plays recent sta­tis­tics illus­trat­ing that dis­crim­i­na­tion, by show­ing, for exam­ple, that the chil­dren of immi­grants to France enjoy fewer employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties than peo­ple whose par­ents were born there.

Resist­ing racism is part of the Musée de l’Homme’s own his­tory. Not long after the museum first opened in 1937, France was drawn into the mael­strom of Nazi aggres­sion. Researchers at the museum set up a resis­tance cell that was even­tu­ally dis­cov­ered and dis­man­tled in 1941, after which its mem­bers were either exe­cuted or deported. Indeed, it was around that time that the term “racism,” as it is now under­stood, entered com­mon usage in Europe in response to Nazi anti-​Semitism.

“Us and Them,” which coin­cides with an influx of refugees into Europe and renewed debate over immi­gra­tion in the United States, could not be a time­lier reminder that racism is still a prob­lem. The exhibit treats a dif­fi­cult sub­ject with sen­si­tiv­ity and intel­li­gence, bring­ing the lat­est sci­en­tific find­ings to bear and explain­ing why we will always have to be on guard against our inher­ent ten­dency to see black and white where there is only gray.

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