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Raced: A trip back, then forward, in time

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 3, 2012 - Professor Teresa Guess has no love for the word race.

"It's my least favorite word in the English language," she says. "I see it as a very politically loaded concept that seems more to divide than it seems to unite."

But for the next four Saturdays at the Missouri History Museum, Guess and people who attend the classes there will delve deeply into what's behind the word, traveling back to a time before the Civil War.

"Raced: Racial Identity from the Civil War to Now," begins at 12:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 4, and continues the following three Saturdays. The classes will apply a critical perspective, Guess says, to how we've come to the idea of "racial" (her quotes) identity.

In what many have called a post-racial society, the ideas of race still persist, says MK Stallings, assistant director of community education with the museum. "Raced" will offer a socio-historic perspective on how those identities developed, including how Irish, German and Slavic people came to be considered white in America.

"Whether we acknowledge it or not," Guess says, "we live in America as if we are a raced people."

And for her, that means holding on to ideas about culture, how people behave, where they live and who they are, despite scientific evidence that race doesn't really exist at a cellular level, but rather as a social construct.

"I think St. Louis is a very classic example of how a raced people live," says Guess, an associate professor, emerita, of anthropology, sociology and languages at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "If you are native to St. Louis, you know what north St. Louis means ethnically. You know what south St. Louis means ethnically."

The series begins by looking at the American understanding of race before the Civil War. In the second week, the class will examine how race was viewed during the Civil War, then how it was viewed after. And in the final week, the class will explore the legacies of the Civil War and the concept of white privilege.

After the class, Guess hopes students will walk away with new perspectives, both on themselves and others.

"I would hope that for anyone in the audience, that they would be able to feel, certainly, less raced and far more liberated after the series. I hope some minds will be changed."

The series costs $30 a person, $25 for Museum members, and the cost includes all four classes. 

Kristen Hare