New Memphis Exhibit Says No Matter Our Race, We Aren’t So Different

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(Memphis) It's a small but powerful word, and even in 2014 the word race still speaks volumes in America, especially here in Memphis.

Dr. Eli Morris is senior associate pastor at Hope Church in Cordova, the nation's second largest Presbyterian church.

"I was born and raised in Memphis. I love this city. I wouldn't live anywhere else, but part of our signature DNA, if you will, is this dialogue or difficult dialogue about race," Morris said.

Some might argue that decades after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed in Memphis, a stigma and ongoing racial resentment still lives here.

They say it resonates in our battles over school mergers, politics, the renaming of Confederate parks and protests from outside groups such as the KKK, and there's even racial division seen in our churches.

Rev. Rufus Smith, who's African-American, is the new senior pastor at Hope Church in Memphis, the nation's second largest Presbyterian church.

"Our churches are continuing the conversation (about race) and not only continuing the conversation to change the systemic roots that keep producing the same results. We've made progress, but the church is critical in helping us continue to make that progress," Smith said.

Several Memphians have experienced some form of racism that cuts deep.

Alfredo Pena is a Latino-American. He works at Workers Interfaith Network, an advocate for low-waged workers, and he's a member of Latino Memphis.

Pena was born in the United States and went to school here, but he says whether representing a local worker or trying to get a Tennessee driver's license for himself, he still gets asked if he's in this country legally.

"He stopped me and asked, 'Are you even legal in this country and can you prove you're legal here and were born in this country?' To me and right there, it upsets me, and right then and there I noticed there's a lot of work to be done in this city, " Pena said.

Pat Mitchell Worley is communications director for the Memphis Music Foundation and hosts the Beale Street Caravan syndicated radio show.

Worley is African-American and her husband, Billie, is white.

"I've been married for almost ten years to a white man from the West Coast, and for him there's nothing unusual about an interracial couple. But we get looks and with that said, we've had people make comments. I've had people say to me that I've betrayed my race and it really comes back that they'd prefer for me to not have someone who loves me before finding someone who looks like me," Worley said.

Eric Hughes is well-known Memphis blues entertainer who is white. He says some nightclubs have occasionally closed their doors to him because of his race.

"You might have a club that says we got enough white guys playing right now or some folks say these white guys stole the black people's music, but the music is so much bigger than that, trying to look at it on racial terms makes it small. So, it can be hurtful, but I remind myself, my predecessors (black blues musicians) went through the same thing, at least worse," Hughes said.

An eye-opening traveling exhibit at the Pink Palace Museum called "Race: Are We So Different?" explores what we think we know about race in America and why those thoughts are wrong.

Steve Masler is the Pink Palace manager of exhibits. He introduced the race exhibit to members of Hope Church and says society invented the idea of race.

"The reason there is such a thing as race is because we made it and it's part of culture," Masler said.

The American Anthropological Association helped develop this interactive exhibit that looks at race through the eyes of history, science, and experience.

It shows distinctions are created by people or groups, oftentimes to mistreat, deny access, or isolate those they regard as different from themselves.

But take a close look at one display and you'll see how its hard to draw the line of race if a person's skin gets lighter or darker, or their eyes and lips change.

"The reason that is true is who is black, who is white, who is Asian? There is a huge variety within any population," Masler said.

But what may surprise you even more is the exhibit says there's no scientific basis to separate black, brown, yellow, or white people, and we all share a common ancestry.

"The fact is everybody in this room is 99.9 percent of the same genes as everybody else or more," Masler said.

In other words, only one-tenth of one percent is all that separates any of us, whether you're black or white.

The exhibit shows the practice of treating people differently according to their skin color is based on prejudice, fear, and ignorance, and reveals the reality - and unreality - of race.

Ronda Cloud is marketing and public relations manager at the Pink Palace.

"I want children to know this and I want them to grow up with this knowledge there's no such thing as race," Cloud said.

Race, a small word that some Memphians such as Alfredo Pena, Pat Mitchell Worley, Eric Hughes, Rev. Rufus Smith, and Dr. Eli Morris hope will one day stop having such a large impact.

"Local Memphians need to know about their culture and learn to accept that we are all the same. We are all the same," Pena said.

"There's good and bad in all of us and you just have to recognize and accept it and it usually has nothing to do with someone's skin color," Worley said.

"Like I said we (Memphis) are still recovering. We have a long way to go, but one thing that brings people together is music and I enjoy being part of something that brings folks together," Hughes said.

"And beyond that, we believe God made one race, the human race," Smith said.

"Race is not about skin, racism is about skin, it's about sin. It's just about people who have been broken inside and I think we do have to get past some things and we've got to learn to embrace." Morris said.

The Race: Are We So Different exhibit opens Saturday, February 1 and runs through Sunday, May 4, 2014 at the Pink Palace Museum.

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