The morning of june 12th, everyone in our EU program woke up with a feeling of anticipation. Today is the day we are to leave Metz for a city with more cafés, more historical monuments, more cathedrals, and a much higher population density. After stepping off the relaxing two-hour TGV train and into the chaotic streets of Paris, we headed to drop off our bags in our beautiful hotel located in the famous area of Paris in the Latin Quarter and right next to St-Germain-des-Prés. Surrounded by historically significant churches and fabulous high end shopping, it was a great introduction to Paris: très célèbre et très cher.
After getting settled in, it was time for us to do a follow up visit on a film we had seen in Metz called I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary that gave a compelling depiction of the history of racism in the US through the lens of James Baldwin’s personal recollections during the civil rights movements in the 50s and 60s. We took the metro over to the Musée de L’Homme, a museum that offers insight into the evolution of humans and human society, exhibits objects representing the history of human sciences, and raises awareness about modern-day and future environmental and societal issues. With racism, having been at the forefront of the US political environment lately, especially due to the increased police brutality associated with racial profiling and the problematic discourse used by our president during his 2016 campaign, the timing was perfect for us to visit thought-provoking exhibition at the Musée de l’Homme entitled Nous et les Autres (Us and Them), From Prejudice to Racism.
The exhibition Nous et les Autres is the first temporary exhibition organized by the Musée de l’Homme, offers a fresh perspective about racism, diversity, alterity, and equality of human beings today and throughout history by responding to three overriding questions: What is racism? Why does it exist? And Are all humans racist? The exhibition is especially unique because of its interactive component, it completely submerges the guest to become more of a participant than an observer through the use of touch screen games, 360-degree videos, and creative object display cases.
At first when you walk in, you see a wall filled with terms and definitions of some concepts that are common in the academic world, but sometimes difficult to understand or define concretely. Among them are racism, essentialization, discrimination, and a term that we discussed in length during class one day: ethnocentrism, which was described as “an attitude that involves promoting the cultural characteristics of one’s own group, which are taken as a yardstick for assessing other groups, and regarding the latter’s characteristics as secondary, without necessarily being hostile towards them”.
The exhibition was organized into three main segments: Me and Them, Race and History, and The Situation Today. The first part, “Me and Them” challenges the visitor to reflect on their own sense of identity, the differences between individuals, and how these create stereotypes, prejudices, and racism. The principal element of this segment that stood out to me was a simulation where the visitor walks through various doorways while a sound system simultaneously projects/shouts discriminatory phrases at them.
The second part, “Race and History” began with a room that showed a timeline of accounts and significant dates relating to institutional racism dating all the way back to the 16th century. Most of the older accounts were related to European colonization and slavery, but the timeline also included books written and scientific studies published. The one that stood out to me was published in 1837 and entitled: The Brain of the Negro, compared with that of the European and the Orang-Outang by F. Tiedmann.
As the visitor walks further through the exhibition, three rooms are set up that were projecting films about some of the most significant cases of institutional racism: one about slavery in the United States, one about the Holocaust, and one about the Rwandan genocide. In the “theatre” room that projected the short film about the holocaust, a gas chamber funnel from a concentration camp was placed in a clear display at the middle of the room, which was a truly heinous sight. Directly in front of me sat the vessel that was used to diffuse the Zyklon B which murdered hundreds of thousands of human beings during World War II; the Nazi’s means to achieve their ends of perceived racial purity. Even more stunning yet, the label underneath the funnel stated that it was from the concentration camp at Natzweiler/Struthof, which is the very concentration camp that our group had visited just days earlier. I have studied and read about the atrocities committed on behalf of nationalism, racism and discrimination for years, but the exhibition Nous et les Autres displayed them artfully as a reality which I was forced to confront.
The third and final part of the exhibition entitled “The Situation Today” included a circular table with touch screen computers and head seats placed in the middle of the room. The walls were covered with information, statistics, graphs, figures and images that depicted studies conducted by social scientists which show how certain minority groups still suffer noticeably from unequal treatment and discrimination. Most were conducted by the National Institute of Demographic Studies and concerned immigrants and their integration in the French population. It was especially interesting to see the minority groups that struggled disproportionately with discrimination in Europe in comparison to my knowledge of discrimination in the US, and it was important to see how minorities struggle globally to receive equal treatment especially in the hiring/employment process.
Nous et les Autres left everyone in our group with a much deeper understanding of the importance of the principle of equality. It set up a clear trajectory for how the categorization of one another based on our perceived differences as humans can lead to horrific acts ranging from discrimination to extermination, and used sciences to disprove the legitimacy of racism. Racism assumes the differences between us as humans form the basis for hierarchy, and unfortunately attributes value to these differences that make us unique. I left Nous et les Autres wishing I lived in a world where diversity and equality could peacefully coexist, but also hopeful that exhibits like these and documentaries like I Am Not Your Negro will help raise awareness about this problem and bring us all one step closer.