Have you ever wondered what you might look like if you were born a different race? An art project on display at the University of North Florida is giving students that opportunity.
University organizers hope it fosters more empathy and understanding.
UNF’s Intercultural Center for Peace Director Oupa Seane guided me through a series of questions at the Race Experience Kiosk on campus Thursday.
The kiosk is sort of shaped like a large, broken egg — two separate pieces that can be pulled apart and squished back together. On one side is a cushioned seat and on the other a touch screen and webcam.
After I took my photo, I was able to select from a series of races you might see on a census form. The program overlaid the picture of a person from another race on top of mine.
Seane, who fled South Africa as a refugee after fighting apartheid in the early 1980s, said sometimes
Americans can have a hard time speaking openly about race.
“I’m from South Africa and we dealt with race in a very, very open way if you can remember the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” he said. “One thing that I found about Americans is that my fellow Americans are very, very afraid to address race-related issues.”
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up after the abolishment of apartheid. It allowed victims and perpetrators of racial violence to address each other directly, in a court-like manner.
The Race Experience was started after FBI technology used to change the appearances of fugitives who may have altered themselves to escape capture became public.
Seane said it’s not meant to solve problems by itself. Instead it’s supposed to help spark those conversations Americans find difficult to have.
“I had a young lady the other day who said she was from Palatka. Unfortunately where she comes from race is not being discussed so much. To be faced with something like this was a wonderful experience for her: to openly be able to talk about race relations,” he said.
Students don’t just take their pictures and leave. Seane has them answer a short questionnaire before and after they go through the experience.
Sarah Hernandez is a senior studying International Business and Marketing. She was intrigued by the kiosk because of her international upbringing.
“Growing up I lived in so many countries that I had a little bit of an identity crisis. People would ask ‘where are you from?’ and I was like ‘well, I’m Colombian, but I lived here and I lived there. It was just very complicated telling people,” she said. “Where are you from? That’s a simple question.”
Hernandez lived in Brazil, Colombia and Costa Rica before moving to Jacksonville. She said the experience of constantly being misidentified as one ethnicity or another brought her to the kiosk this week.
She said people can learn a simple, but important lesson by visiting the kiosk.
“Even though my features change, I’m still me. So no matter how different people look like, they’re still a person at the core. So, I think that’s what I got from this experience,” she said.
Seane said the data collected from the students’ questionnaires will be put together for a larger poll on race relations on campus following a controversy involving a racist snapchat video.
The kiosk isn’t open to the public, but any student, faculty member or alum of UNF is welcome to the experience on its last day, Friday. The kiosk will be located at the school’s Student Union Building all day.