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Ready. Set. Race.

Posted by Francie Latour  December 9, 2011 06:37 PM

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George Clooney, we're told in recent Hollywood headlines, stars in Oscar hopeful "The Descendants" as a neglectful father and wealthy heir descended from a Hawaiian princess and a Caucasian land baron.

Now, by "Caucasian" the critics don't mean hailing from the North Caucasus, where rebels continue to defy Russia, or from the South Caucasus, where recently a 75-year-old, um, Caucasian woman accidentally sliced an underground cable and cut off Internet access to all of Armenia. What the L.A. Times and Forbes and Hawaii magazine actually mean, to state the obvious, is "white." Ditto for the critics who have wondered aloud how a film shot in Hawaii, one of the most ethnically diverse states in the nation, could have “Caucasians” filling nearly every frame and barely an Asian in sight.

Do we actually know what we mean when we say “Caucasian,” or for that matter, what we mean when we say “white” or “Asian” or “black?” And does it matter? To Michael Baran, it does. Baran, a cultural anthropologist and founder of Cambridge Diversity Consulting, has been studying the shifting language and meanings of race for decades. After years trying to get Americans to wrestle with a subject that makes most of us cringe, Baran hit on a strategy trusted by parents everywhere to get kids to eat vegetables and brush their teeth: He turned race into a game. And the name of the game is Guess My Race.


Guess My Race is available as a free app for the iPad and iPhone; its multiple-choice challenge is to pick the correct race of hundreds of people whose faces unfold one by one in a series of photographs. The subjects were randomly photographed and interviewed on the street in L.A. and Greater Boston, including in Harvard Square, on the campus of Bunker Hill Community College and at a South End flea market. Baran asked each person to identify themselves racially; whatever answer they gave was the "correct" answer. But in this pop quiz, it's often the carefully designed wrong answers that get you thinking.

“I really wanted to find a way to mess with people’s competitive urges, to use those competitive instincts that come out in games as a way to capture people’s attention,” said Baran, who designed the project with award-winning educational games producer Michael Handelman at Playtime Interactive. “The power of race is that it is such a natural way of thinking, and people have a really hard time questioning it. How do you shake people out of that? You have to do something to jar them.” Like, for example:

In order to jar people, of course, you first have to  lure them in, and Guess My Race does that beautifully. It’s the photography that draws players to the faces in in this game. The shots were taken by L.A. amateur photographer Ruthie Brownfield, whose alluring portraits of elderly bathers in eastern Europe were recently chosen to grace the walls of über-hip clothing chain American Apparel.

By combining gaming, art, the subjects’ own poignant words and bite-size nuggets of anthropological insight into how race developed – or rather, how we developed it -- Baran is turning a conversation stopper into a conversation starter. So far the game has been downloaded about 20,000 times, by Baran's count. But many more players than that have used it in schools, religious groups and museum exhibits on race, including Boston’s Museum of Science and the San Diego Museum of Man, where it is on permanent exhibit. Earlier this year the game won a finalist prize at the Games for Change Festival, New York City's largest gaming event, which recognizes digital games designed for social impact.

One of the ingenious things about Guess My Race is not just the way it challenges our assumptions about who is black or Asian or Latino, but the way it gets us to look at the idea of whiteness as the norm -- as the default race, or the absence of race altogether.

"That's a real challenge," said Baran, "because so many white people think there is nothing to say or know about their race, and it goes unquestioned." In one interview with a trendy, attractive blonde featured in the game, he said, "the woman kept saying there wasn't really anything to say about her race, that she didn't have real relationship with it. So I used her picture with all of the multiple-choice answers saying 'white.' "

After a number of subjects identified themselves as Caucasian, Baran grouped the right answer with wrong answers like Negroid and Mongoloid -- all classifications devised by 19th-century race scientists to rank groups by brain size and intelligence. "The point I wanted to make about 'Caucasian' is how common it is but also how problematic it is," he said. "It sounds really science-y, like a biological category of 'white,' but that term comes from a whole body of really racist science. And yet we still use it."

Like any good interactive game, Guess My Race is continually expanding: Players can submit their own close-ups and survey answers for a chance to be added to the quiz. An updated version of Guess My Race should be ready by 2012. And parents, if you're feeling squeamish about explaining to your preschooler what you meant when you muttered about lousy Asian drivers under your breath in the car, or what the people on TV mean when they ask if America will vote for a black president twice, Baran has another app for you. Who Am I?, a race awareness game, is geared toward kids as young as age 3 and their parents to help open up dialogue about physical diversity.

"I'm especially proud of the design of that game, because it's fun, but it also shows parents that there are ways to talk to young kids about serious issues," said Baran, who manages to talk about race with the same affable, news-you-can-use tone as a meteorologist discussing the five-day forecast.

"The research is very clear that kids from a very young age are curious about these categories and what they mean, but parents, especially white parents, are absolutely reluctant to talk about it," he said. "In a way it's understandable. It's such a sensitive topic, and I think a lot of parents believe the way to make the world a better place is to tell kids not to notice race and to be colorblind. But kids are unbelievably astute. They know the world is not a colorblind place. So there's a real danger in not addressing things that kids know to be true."

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Francie Latour writes about race, gender, ethnicity, and cultural identity. She’s written about everything from working-mom guilt to black Barbies as a contributor to The Boston Globe, where she worked for 11 years as an investigative reporter and features writer. More »

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