In this post I'm joined by Aleia Brown, reflecting on our joint NEMA session building on #museumsrespondtoFerguson. The session, including all the conversations leading up to and following, were an amazing opportunity to work with a thoughtful, reflective and passionate colleague whose work I had followed. Thank you Aleia! And of course, please continue to check out the #museumsrespondtoFerguson monthly twitter chats. Here's the latest Storify.
- A volunteer at your museum says, “Those kids in this neighborhood, they come in and I know they’re going to steal something, so I keep a really close eye on them.” You’re the volunteer coordinator. What do you do?
- You are in charge of an annual event and one of your regular vendors shows up selling the Confederate flag. What do you do when you’re a junior staff member?
- You have photographs of your historic house museum in 1930, including an Aunt Jemima cookie jar in the kitchen. Do you recreate it exactly?
How did the session work?
Behind our conversations, we ran a rotating Powerpoint of historic and contemporary images about race and racism in New England. From the Amistad to Henry Louis Gates’ arrest on his front porch, there was much to show. We really wanted conversation and so we began by each sharing, from our own perspectives, experiences with race in a museum. And then we asked participants to share a situation, any situation, where you felt powerful, a time when you felt uncomfortable or out of place. and then a time in a museum, or anywhere else, that you found yourself in a racially charged situation--or an uncomfortable situation.
The questions above are just a sample of the ones we distributed to small groups for conversation, and then circled back to large group discussion. And we got discussion! So much so that almost half an hour after the session ended, folks were still sitting around talking and the hotel staff asked us to leave so they could set up for lunch (see above).
We’ve now had the chance of a month or so of reflection, and wanted to share some of our own learning.
The conversation needs to start now. One participant noted that she felt uncomfortable with having this conversation in a room of mostly white people. We agree that a more diverse group of participants would be great, but we also strongly believe that if we wait for the museum field to be more inclusive to have the conversation, it’s simply too late. Begin now. You can find all our conversation starters here, to begin.
Niceness is overrated. Many of the thoughts shared by participants showed more of a concern for niceness, and a lack of willingness to rock the boat in any given situation. Nice is overrated. We also encouraged participants to think about who benefited from niceness. Rather than challenging racist remarks, niceness effectively ends the conversation. Niceness is often another form of complicity.
Internal conversations are the hardest. When we did a debrief together, a week or so after, we both noticed that groups did not volunteer to share certain conversation starters. Some of those conversation starters were the ones that addressed staff dynamics. Ones like:
- A person of color raises a concern about race in a staff meeting. What do you do if you’re the director? If you’re a peer? If you’re a subordinate?
- Your museum’s education and outreach department consistently prioritizes white museum studies graduates over African Americans with deep community roots and experiences. What do you do?
- Your museum’s security staff is African American and the rest of the staff is white. Each group eats lunch in a separate space. What do you do?
We wished we had recognized this in the moment, and encouraged sharing of perspectives. These are tough issues, not involving visitors in the abstract (if there is such a thing) but the people we work with and see every day.
Get Out There A participant commented that it was difficult to get new groups of people into the museum. Linda was pretty vehement in her response--get out there! The days, if there ever were any, of expecting people to come just because you invite them are over. You--you personally, your museum--you--need to go to community places and meet community leaders in their own places, not in your own, safe to you, place.
Linda: At the end of the session, after some conversation about the risks of speaking out, Aleia spoke passionately from her own perspective about the risks that she takes: that speaking in front of a group of white museum professionals about racism is a risk; that co-leading the #museumsrespondtoFerguson tweet chats is a risk; that writing about the Confederate flag is a risk. She encouraged us all to think about the risks that people take every day to make the world different and to get out of our own, risk-averse heads and step forward. I'll long remember this.
Aleia: I left the session with so many thoughts swirling through my head, but I will just share a few. First, I want to continue to encourage museum professionals to use specific language. In the session, and in other spaces, I often heard phrases like, “we don’t talk about it.” What is it? Racism, anti-blackness, prejudice, white supremacy…? I don’t think we can expect to solve our race-related issues in the field, if we can’t identify and verbalize them.
Second, I hope museum professionals understand that these sessions are not just mental exercises. Racism, in and outside of the field, is a real thing that has real effects on real people. I always wonder if I effectively communicate the urgency to understand racism as something concrete that negatively impacts every aspect of our society rather than abstract. Thinking about social justice is not enough. We have to act in ways that are timely, and beneficial to people of color- who the field has marginalized for so long.
Finally, our session was one part of our journey toward a field that values race equity and social justice. As Linda mentioned earlier, I always look to other risk takers for encouragement and motivation. Shortly after our session Mizzou students gained attention by risking their bodies, their scholarships and much more for race equity. Their actions should embolden us to not only discuss race, but to also take actions to make our field an inclusive and equitable space.
Be the Change
We asked participants to write postcards to themselves, with 30 day resolutions about addressing racism in museums. Some were personal, some were institutional, some were specific and some were general. But all of them were worth attending to. We’ve mailed them out, but we've shared a few in this post. What change will you be making?