How do we deal with the past without perpetuating racism in the future? In their newest exhibit, “Sorting Out Race: Examining Racial Identity and Stereotypes in Thrift Store Donations” the Kauffman Museum in Newton, KS seeks to explore this question. For the past five years the Kauffman Museum has collected various donations from thrift stores for their exhibit, which officially opened Saturday. The goal of this controversial display: to teach how items from the past, which were crafted from racist stereotypes and perceptions, can affect our perceptions in the future.
Forum Friday, Feb. 27 was dedicated to exploring this topic. What was clear from the forum, which featured Annette LeZotte, the Director of Kauffman Museum, and the discussion since, is that this is not a simple question. In fact, it’s rather complicated. If anything this exhibit has left us all with more questions than answers. What do we do with a doll, tea towels, flags, or books that depict a race in a negative way? How do we teach and educate ourselves to be more racially sensitive? Who do we hold accountable to discern what is appropriate and what isn’t?
In all things, we must find balance. With regards to history, as we learn and confront all the ugliness of the past, it can be easy to fall into either the ditch of cynicism or triumphalism. Often we either dwell in the sins of the past or ignore the bitterness of the truth to protect our own ego. The trick is to walk the road between these ditches carefully as to not to fall into either one. As the famous author and poet Maya Angelou once wrote, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
With respect to the forum this past Friday, this was the balance that was attempted. The Kauffman Museum exhibit is seeking to reconcile history by using the negative images of the past as teaching tools and to sort out these items that may influence negative stereotypes. Whether or not this balance was achieved is debatable. Will getting rid of all the racist products and artifacts of the past aid in the expunging of racism, or will it leave people unequipped to deal with this form of racism since they have never encountered it?
These thoughts now call into question finding the balance between the known and the unknown. If a child plays with a doll that perpetuates racist stereotypes but is too young to understand the stereotypes that the doll preserves, should the doll still be taken away? Is the secret to ending racism the bliss of ignorance or the power of knowledge?
As Dr. Annette LeZotte suggested, “I didn’t know” is not a get out of jail free card for perpetuating racism, however, there must still be patience and grace. Unawareness must be greeted with education and consideration. After all, wasn’t there a time when all of us weren’t aware of how our actions or preconceived notions prolonged racism? Ignorance and color blindness are not the answers to ending racism, but then again, neither is seeing a person only for their color and pretending to know how stereotypes and racial profiling affect them. We must acknowledge race and then be willing to see beyond it and to know more.
Of all the balances we must seek, perhaps this is the most important. We must not become what we fight against. Much like extreme pro-life advocates bombing abortion clinics or feminists practicing misandry, in our ambition to obliterate racism we must also consider how we might perpetuate it. It might be talking too much or not enough about race, having one friend that isn’t the same race as us, summing up racial history in heroes, months, and holidays, museum exhibits, or maybe being too afraid to mess up or offend someone to speak out and work towards ending racism.
If there was any fault in the presentation on Friday it was trying to tackle an issue so large and complicated in less than thirty minutes while still allowing many differing opinions and voices to be heard. Whether you agreed with the message of the presentation or not, we must wrestle with these questions and seek to find balance and truth. It may be unclear at times, but in the end, we are all working towards the same goal; a world where stereotypes, preconceived notions, and racial profiling are eradicated. The mystery on how to achieve this goal will be revealed once we find the balance to make it possible.