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As protests rage, African American Museum offers new forum for talking about race

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016, has been closed to visitors for months. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

As mass demonstrations protesting the death of a black man in police custody continue in cities across the nation, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has introduced a digital program exploring race, racial identity and its influence on American society.

“Talking About Race” is a Web-based initiative that uses videos, role-playing exercises and question-based activities to explore the origins and definitions of race and identity. Built on the museum’s long-standing educational work, the project was released Sunday to respond to the current crisis, according to Candra Flanagan, the Smithsonian museum’s director of teaching and learning.

“There’s a moment of possibility and change, and this a resource for thinking in different ways, acting in different ways,” Flanagan said. “But it’s a process. It takes steps and practice and commitment to work.”

Lonnie G. Bunch III, the museum’s founding director who is now secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, issued a statement Sunday acknowledging the troubled times.

“Not only have we been forced to grapple with the impact of a global pandemic, we have been forced to confront the reality that, despite gains made in the past 50 years, we are still a nation riven by inequality and racial division. The state of our democracy feels fragile and precarious,” he said.

Bunch added that lessons from the past can help. “History is a guide to a better future and demonstrates that we can become a better society — but only if we collectively demand it from each other and from the institutions responsible for administering justice,” he said.

The museum’s new project explores inequality and racial division through eight content areas: bias; race and racial identity; the historical foundations of race; whiteness; being anti-racist; community building; social identities and systems of oppression; and self-care. Each section features interviews with authors and activists, questions and exercises, and resources for deeper engagement.

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The videos include activist Verna Myers outlining ways to acknowledge and overcome biases, author Ibram X. Kendi defining anti-racism, writer Eric Liu on understanding power, and late-night television host Trevor Noah interviewing social psychologist Jennifer L. Eberhardt.

Its exercises encourage the exploration of such terms as white fragility, implicit bias and systemic oppression. Links to scholarly essays and interviews are embedded throughout.

Since the museum opened in 2016, the most common question from its 7 million visitors concerns the difficulty of talking about race, especially to children, said Spencer Crew, the museum’s interim director.

“We’re trying to be sensitive to each other, to our life experiences, and in the process we’re worrying about offending and being offended,” Crew said. “What we offer is a beginning, a conversation about understanding a different set of experiences, different ways of understanding the American experience. The more open we are to understanding, the better off we’ll be as a nation.”

The website’s questions and exercises are intended to reach even the youngest students, said Anna Hindley, the museum’s director of early-childhood education.

The African American Museum was designed with emotions in mind

Just like the museum’s exhibitions and programs, the website emphasizes the importance of storytelling, listening and embracing multiple perspectives.

“We try to balance the uplifting [stories] and celebrating differences and talk about systemic parts, the oppression and what happens when we are not listening to each other, don’t fully see each other,” Flanagan said. “How to relate to each other with a sense of humanity. That’s a big part of our philosophy.”

“Talking About Race” is being released as the museum and its Smithsonian counterparts are closed to the public because of the coronavirus pandemic. Crew said the program expands the museum’s mission to a broader audience.

“One of our goals has been to provide information and data to help navigate the world,” he said. “This portal is a perfect example of where the work is headed. It’s a wonderful way to connect to the larger world. More people can access this than can come to the museum.”