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Human Race Machine offers facial mapping

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
November 9, 2010
— What do we mean when we say, "that woman is black," or "that man is Asian"?

A machine that asks people to consider such questions is spending the week at Blackhawk Technical College.


The Human Race Machine, as it is called, is a metal booth with a computer screen, a joystick and some buttons. It applies facial-mapping technology and shows viewers what they might look like if they were members of a different race.


Students—some of them required to do so by their instructors—lined up Monday to see what the machine does. Staff members tried it, too.


Skin tones didn't change much. Eyes changed from brown to blue or blue to brown. Faces changed very little. The result was a picture still recognizable as the same person.


"When you think about it, it doesn't change much because we really are all one race," said student Lea Ann Day, a white woman from Cambridge.


For many, the photographic racial overlay didn't match up well—perhaps because of operator error—resulting in a distorted image.


Students often laughed and giggled at the images they saw. A few gasped when the photo was less than flattering.


"I look the same, just about," said Don Listenbee, a black man from Beloit.


Listenbee is a student in a psychology class that spent time with the machine.


"It was different. It was something I think everybody would want to know—how they'd look like if they were a member of another race," Listenbee said.


Most of the students and staff taking their turns at the machine had the same word to describe the experience: "Interesting." But no one acknowledged any breakthrough in thinking about race.


The point, according to a TV screen on the side of the machine, is that biologically speaking, we are all pretty much the same.


Humans, actually, are among the most genetically similar species on the planet. If you're looking for a wide range of genetic differences, you'd find a lot more in fruit flies.


Of course, we all know that each of us looks different from everyone else. But the machine's message was this: Classifying each other according to race is wrongheaded notion. There's no scientific way to do it.


Decarlos Nora, a black man from Beloit, said the images in the machine surprised him, but "When you break it down, we're all the same. Just different colors."


Nora pointed out that there are characteristics of what some call race that can't be captured in a picture. Raise a child in a white family or a black family, and that child will take on the characteristics of that family, Nora said.


"What a nice, simple way for people to consider being connected to the human family," said psychology instructor Rubina Jan.


The exercise had a practical application for students hoping their schooling leads to employment, Jan said: "Cultural competence is needed to be competitive in the global marketplace."


DIVERSITY EVENTS

Blackhawk Technical College's Diversity Week includes these events:


-- All day today and Thursday and 4:30-8 p.m. Wednesday—The Human Race Machine, in the North Commons on the main campus.


-- 3-4:30 p.m. today—"What Makes Me White," a short film and discussion, in Room 119 at BTC's Beloit Center, located at the Eclipse Center, 444 Grand Ave., Beloit.


-- 4:30-8 p.m. today—America Unites: On Immigration, an open-microphone discussion with a panel of experts from BTC and Beloit College, in the North Commons, central campus.


-- Noon-2 p.m. Wednesday—"Race—The Power of Illusion," a documentary. Discussion afterward. Blackhawk Room (Room 1315), central campus.


-- 11:11 a.m. Thursday—Veterans Day wreath-laying ceremony at the circular drive in front of the main building, central campus.


-- Noon Thursday—"Faces of War," North Commons, central campus. A veteran discusses her struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.


-- 4:30-8 p.m. Thursday—Diversity Matters Workshop, a discussion about power, privilege, prejudice and change, North Commons, central campus.


For links to more information about these programs, go online to blackhawk.edu, click on News/Events on the menu bar and then click on Diversity Week 2010.



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