Beverly and Bill Lake, who are from a close-knit community “bubble” in Michigan, flew into Seattle to visit their grandchildren. During their week-long stay in the Emerald City, the couple decided to visit the “RACE: Are we so Different?” exhibit at the Pacific Science Center.
Asked if they wouldn’t mind answering a few questions, Beverly glanced over at Bill. He shrugged.
“Warum nicht,” he said.
Beverly shook her head and smiled. “It means, ‘why not?’ in German,” she said.
“He’s not German.”
The duo agreed to meet me at the end of their tour and, for about half an hour, they slowly made their way from station to station together.
After finishing, both agreed that neither had been shocked by the information. Nothing they had seen had generated strong emotions: No surprise, anger or delight.
“To be honest, it’s a rehash of stuff we already know,” said Bill, 75. “It’s just pulling it all together in one place.”
Although the couple agreed that the exhibit did not have the desired “shock factor” to effectively influence someone’s opinion about race, it became clear that details in the displays were jogging Lake’s memories.
It was the display in which exhibit-goers were asked to guess the race of an individual by listening to their voice. Lake’s eyes lit up.
“You can’t!” he said, “You really can’t.” And he began to recount a tale.
Lake had been head of a security outfit in Houston. While sitting inside the guard’s kiosk, he became aware of an electrical repairman who Lake could hear but not see.
“This fellah was talking and he had a very thick Texas twang,” Lake said. “But when he stood up, he was oriental, he was Chinese, and he blew me away!” He stopped to laugh. “I never expected that face and that sound put together.”
The same station featured a factual blurb. Many landlords and employers choose not to lease their property to or hire certain individuals based on their ethnicity.
Lake grinned. A second recollection.
Fresh out of high school, he and a few friends were searching for an apartment in Brooklyn. They found a perfect three-bedroom place, he said, and “One of the guys met with the landlord to arrange everything. He came back and said, ‘They won’t rent to us.’ I said, ‘Why not?’ Well his name was ‘Matarazzo’, it’s an Italian name. And he says, ‘The guy wouldn’t rent to Italians’.”
With 75 years of life experience, the New York native said he does not pretend to be a stranger to the temptation to label by race. During 22 years working as a firefighter, Lake had the opportunity to travel all over the city, and work with people of many different ethnic backgrounds. Categorizing these individuals, he said, became an instinctual reaction.
“When you’re bumping your head up against them all the time, you start to, I guess you kind of get to a point where you’re saying, ‘Oh, those people, they’re like that,’” he said.
As Lake grew older and reflected, “From a peaceful place, where I could really think about it,” he said he’s come to truly understand “That it’s true. We all come from the same place.”
“We all came from one woman” added Beverly, and she pointed behind her at a RACE exhibit station. “It says that, it says that right over there.”