Embracing diversity

Al Shackman and Louise Dice
Al Shackman with little Louise Dice at the FARM Institute last Saturday. Mr. Shackman is a member of the Island Diversity Council. Photos by Amandine Surier

By Amandine Surier - August 30, 2007

"Oh my," said Laurena White from New Jersey as her altered face appeared on the screen of the Human Race Machine, "this is amazing." As she stared at the image in disbelief, the 60-year-old African American real estate agent tried to understand how a machine could project an Asian version of herself. It was her, only different. It was her in a different ethnic group. "I was a little bit taken back," said Laurena after stepping out of the booth, "I guess underneath the surface, we're all the same."

From August 16 through 25, the Human Race Machine traveled around the Island. Accessible at the Agricultural Fair, the Mansion House, and the Farm Institute, the machine rented by the Island Diversity Council was part of an ongoing effort to increase awareness and acceptance of ethnic and cultural diversity on Martha's Vineyard.

Pauline and Elise Baudon
Pauline (left) and Elise Baudon watch the Human Race Machine in action last weekend at Cornapalooza. The two young French women live in London, England, and are vacationing on Martha's Vineyard.

The portable unit looked like a modern photo booth. After taking a snapshot of the user's face, the computer program altered features according to different ethnic characteristics - African American, Caucasian, Indian, Middle Eastern, Hispanic. The machine also had the option of aging faces by 20 years, or projecting the potential face of a couple's unborn children.

"There are a lot of adopted kids on the Island and their parents are very sensitive about how they are treated," said Monica "Skye" Miller who first suggested bringing the machine to the Island. Monica and the other members of the council saw the Human Race Machine as a fun way to get exposure and start conversation about ethnic diversity.

"It was a huge success," said Kim Lawrence, another founding member of the council. "People asked a lot of questions and it was a great way to explain what we were about."

On their way out, each user was encouraged to leave comments on note cards. The cards were then displayed on a small tree. "The comments were 99 percent positive," said Kim Lawrence, "a lot of people showed their gratitude and made donations."

Among the cards on display, some stood out. Shock seemed to be the initial response.

"It freaked me out!" someone wrote on a bright green card, "Amazing tool to embrace diversity."

"Beautiful experience", wrote Simone Kaplan, "the world feels very small after it." Some cards just read "thanks."

One woman thought she looked prettier as an Asian. Most people thought they aged quite well. A lot of people mentioned using the machine in schools for a more proactive approach to teaching culture sensitivity and awareness.

Although the images were not perfect, the concept seemed to win everyone over. "Anything that gets people out of their brain box is good to see," said musician Maynard Silva after using the machine.

Children were especially encouraged to use it and leave comments. They lined up outside the booth with their friends and siblings, bursting with excitement. Then they carefully sat on the grass and wrote about how they felt.

With misshapen letters and spelling mistakes, a little girl wrote, "I look different in a lot of good ways."

"Most people have a parent that is racially prejudiced," said Monica Miller, "for most older people it's like hitting a brick wall; we have to focus on the new generation."

The Island Diversity Council meets monthly. For more information, call 508-696-9530. For more information on the machine, visit humanracemachine.com.

Amandine Surier is a contributing writer to The Times.