Discrimination ‘is more pervasive’: ‘Them: Images of Separation’ reveals negative hidden meanings in pop culture

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Racism. Most of us don’t want to talk about what it means, and we like to think of it as something from our past, an aberration in American culture. We tell ourselves that we have evolved or even that we simply aren’t racist or bigoted and we should all just “lighten up.”

But is that really the case?

The HUB-Robeson Gallery will host “Them: Images of Separation,” a traveling exhibition from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Michigan, through March 1. The collection features items such as posters, books, photos, and even toys and games and shines a light on the hatred popularized in America in the hope of confronting it.

This is not an exhibit about just the past, however; it’s also about the present. Don’t believe me? Go see “Them” and look for a video game called “Ethnic Cleansing” that sold in 2005. It’s one of several items from only the past decade.

“The exhibition ... includes items demeaning to African-Americans, but that is only a part of the exhibition’s larger picture,” David Pilgrim, a professor of social sciences at Ferris State University, said on the museum’s website. “I’m hoping ‘Them’ shows discrimination and stereotyping is not just a black/white issue — it’s more pervasive than that.”

The exhibition is littered with examples of discrimination against and stereotyping toward many groups of people — blacks, Asian-Americans, Jews, women, homosexuals and more. Images of Michael Donald, a young black male hanged by the Ku Klux Klan, and Emmett Till, a black teen beaten to death and shown in his coffin, are particularly paralyzing. Other items, such the “Ethnic Cleansing” game and a book titled “The Six Million Swindle: Blackmailing the German People for Hard Marks with Fabricated Corpses,” which refuses to acknowledge the existence of the Holocaust, will leave visitors incredulous.

An overall lighthearted approach to encouraging hatred and violence against one another is seen throughout the exhibit in its toys, games and some of its advertising materials. The pervasiveness and mainstreaming of radical behavior can be difficult to process.

“Some people who go through the exhibit are uncomfortable, so they laugh a lot, which is disappointing,” said Veronica Cristiano, a Penn State student who works at the gallery. “But for others, it has a great impact, which I really appreciate for this exhibit.”

Maria Rogus, a communications assistant for the HUB-Robeson Galleries, was similarly affected by the exhibit.

“I had the mindset that racist imagery was outdated and that it was ‘just stuff’ and didn’t mean anything,” she said. “After seeing the items in person and in this context, my way of thinking changed. Now, I’m seeing things that I’ve seen several times before and thinking ‘Wow, I never really noticed it before, but that’s actually offensive.’ It’s an awareness that I honestly don’t think I would have developed without taking the time to really absorb what’s on display.”

“Diversity and education are extremely important to us here at the galleries,” Rogus said. “We hope that all of our visitors will leave with an awareness that this kind of hateful language and imagery is a problem that we’re still seeing today.”