New museum exhibit explores science of racism

‘Us and Them’ examines why prejudice persists

Science of racism exhibit in Paris

BLACK AND WHITE  A new exhibit at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris asks visitors to confront their own prejudices. This “category cylinder” highlights the psychological tendency that people have to classify other people into discrete categories.


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.

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.

More Stories from Science News on Science & Society