‘Sorting Out Race’: Traveling exhibit features thrift store finds that reinforce stereotypes

The Kansas African American Museum has a new exhibit of thrift-store finds that reflect historical attitudes and cultural stereotypes about race. Admission to the museum is free this Saturday afternoon in celebration of Father’s Day.
The Kansas African American Museum has a new exhibit of thrift-store finds that reflect historical attitudes and cultural stereotypes about race. Admission to the museum is free this Saturday afternoon in celebration of Father’s Day. The Wichita Eagle

The general operation of a thrift store is taking in unwanted or old items to be resold for a couple of dollars.

Some pieces can serve as a time capsule to a different time in history—and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Among racks of mom jeans and nostalgia, are, at times, items that showcase racism.

In the traveling exhibit “Sorting Out Racism: Examining Racial Identity and Stereotypes in Thrift Store Donations ” curators collected items from thrift store donations with racist connotations. Of the 500 or so items collected, about 130 made it into the exhibit that originated at the Kauffman Museum at Bethel College in Newton.

Leia Lawrence, who came up with the idea while managing a thrift store in Newton, said the exhibit grew from a box she kept in her store where she deposited items donated for resale that were racially charged.

“It took a number of years to pull together, but the end result has been really amazing and powerful for people,” Lawrence said.

The exhibit, which will be on display at the Kansas African American Museum through Aug. 21, circulates around one central question:

“Are these objects harmless reminders of historical attitudes or do they continue to perpetuate negative stereotypes about race?”

Executive director of the Kansas African American Museum Denise Sherman said she doesn’t have the answer to that question and neither does the exhibit.

“There were things that made me think differently, made me consider things differently,” Sherman said. “You might not see that [an item] is a problem because you are not aware of the deeper meaning.”

Materials provided by the Kauffman Museum to the host museums say the exhibit is about finding answers to the question individually by mulling over “how historical objects have an impact on our contemporary views.”

“It really depends on what your interpretation is. What would be a celebration for some might be an exploitation for others,” Sherman said.

“Sorting Out Race” sits on the first floor of the museum, right by the entrance. There’s an immediate prompting to walk through the posed thrift store front. In the front window, there are items typically found in resale establishments—vinyl, dresses, vintage board games, etc.—that aren’t necessarily racist.

One of the things Sherman said was important about the exhibit is that it doesn’t pertain to racial stereotypes of just one group, but many.

“The exhibit goes clear across the gamut of all cultures, ethnicities, racial stereotypes and things like that,” Sherman said.

Once the threshold has been crossed, the materials begin to reflect clear or subtle racial stereotypes, exhibit materials say. There are dolls with black face, postcards and some photographs.

Each display has an educational element, some defining terms like stereotype and others describing the cultural theories that shape the modern perception of race.

Mixed in with retired sports memorabilia, like the pre-1970s logo from the Kansas City Chiefs, is a section about how popular food items brand products with identity stereotypes. Lucky Charms from General Mills, for example, uses the image of a lucky leprechaun to market the marshmallow cereal.

“When people are using these images as a caricature or to make fun of people, I think that’s harmful,” Sherman said.

Part of the exhibit explores the cultural implications of the “Mammy” archetype, rooted in American slavery. The symbol, considered an anti-black sentiment by the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University, was used to perpetuate the idea that black women were happy in slavery. In some forms, it was a caricature and a fictional representation of black women who labored in white households in the South. At some point, the exhibit points out, that imaginary character would grow into the Aunt Jemima on the bottles of maple syrup and boxes of just-add-water pancake mix.

Although the exhibit has only been open to the public since June 1, Sherman said people have received it positively for the most part.

“People are really excited about it,” Sherman said. “The comments have been that this really gave them an opportunity to think through their own personal, professional and societal views.”

But, she said, people aren’t always on the same page when it comes to defining what is racist.

“You really have to understand our history and where some of these things derive,” Sherman said. “Cultural sensitivity and cultural competency and awareness is very important because what may or may not be offensive or resonate with you or maybe even be a powerful celebration could be negative to someone else.”

Lawrence said her work with developing the exhibit didn’t stretch much beyond visualization, but she said she hopes it has an impact on the people who see it. Mostly, she wants people to see how racism isn’t just about how people interact with each other.

“People think racism is interpersonal,” Lawrence said. “But what I think the exhibit shows is that the problem is just as much a part of our culture.”

The museum, 601 N. Water, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $3 for children in elementary school, $4 for youth in middle and high school, $5 for seniors age 55 and older and $6 for other adults. Throughout the 90 days of the exhibit, the KAAM will host a variety of speaking events and conversations based on the exhibit.

“I would like to encourage everyone to come out to hear the conversation because the exhibit becomes actually a visual backdrop to where we really need to dig deeper,” Sherman said. “It’s one thing to see them and start conversations, but it’s really more important to assess our own assumptions and biases and views to expand our perceptions.”

Upcoming Events

Saturday - Museum admission is free from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday for a Father’s Day celebration. Light refreshments will be available.

July 11 - “Signs, Symbols, Artifacts and Mascots” is a community conversation presented by Michael Birzer. It begins at 6 p.m. and will last until 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 10 - “Reclaiming Stereotypes: Mammy to African Queen” is the final community conversation associated with the “Sorting Out Race” exhibit. The conversation is from 1-3 p.m.