Can Exhibits be Allies? Part II

In this continuation to her first post Can Exhibits be Allies Part I, Diana Falchuk digs deeper into the concept of allyship and how museum exhibits can act as allies. As a reminder, these posts represent Diana’s reaction to the Race: Are We So Different? exhibit. We appreciate her perspective and look forward to further exploring racial issues in museums on our blog.

Image from RACE: Are We So Different? exhibit, now at OMSI in Portland, OR

Image from RACE: Are We So Different? exhibit, now at OMSI in Portland, OR

One of the most clear explanations of allyship came to me in an article given to me by a professor and mentor just last year, when my intentional journey toward allyship had just begun: Andrea Avayzian, in her article Interrupting the Cycle of Oppression: The Role of Allies as Change Agents, describes an ally as “a member of a dominant group in our society who works to dismantle any kind of oppression from which she or he receives the benefit.” Allyship happens across race, gender, sexual orientation, nation of origin, ability, age, religion, socioeconomic status, and more. Being an ally, Avayzian explains, requires “taking personal responsibility for the changes we know are needed in our society, and so often ignore or leave to others to deal with.” Allyship is a process, not a destination. A black friend of mine recently commented that it’s not like you wake up one day and, poof! You’re an ally! It requires being vulnerable and taking risks. This means calling out something oppressive (a comment, a policy, an act) even if you offend other white people. It means listening to people of color and knowing you will put your foot in your mouth from time to time (like I do). Being an ally means being accountable to that. It’s sometimes about stepping back (so your voice isn’t the dominant voice) and also about stepping up to stand with people of color – solidarity.

For me, like for many white people who benefit from being the dominant group in this society of ours, being an ally to people of color is something that requires practice. That’s just how white privilege works: White people aren’t the targets of racism, so we don’t experience it directly. We often feel, as I have felt, that naming differences like race somehow reinforces those differences. Don’t say it or you will encourage it. Allyship requires that we name these differences – that we validate what people of color have been feeling and experiencing since Anglo settlers stepped on this continent. We need to agree to sit with the discomfort of our privilege, so we can support our friends, neighbors, colleagues, and acquaintances of color, and work toward the shared benefits of equity. We have to become conscious and commit to taking action.

This means that when my friends, colleagues, and classmates of color get followed at the mall by sales people who fear they’re going to steal, get stopped by a police officer for no reason, or get told to “calm down” when they speak with conviction at a public meeting, I need to intervene, to stand-up, to speak out. White anti-racist writer and activist Tim Wise recently put this in concrete terms on the podcast Blacking It Up: If our society had paid any attention to remedying the double-digit unemployment and predatory mortgage lending in communities of color for the last 30 years (and before), we might have avoided the economic mess that so many white people are in today. But more importantly, as one of my mentors likes to say, allyship returns white folks to their humanity. You can’t feel human if you’re standing by knowing that so many other people are suffering in exactly the areas of life that you are benefiting. To draw from my Jewish cultural history, our shared humanity is why non-Jews resisted the Nazis and why an increasing number of Jews worldwide, including me, oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

To get back to the exhibit, how is it an ally? Calling out institutional racism and disproving the false notion that race is genetic is big and important. At the same time, the exhibit misses a critical opportunity for allyship by not naming the War on Drugs and the mass incarceration of black and brown people. This issue has horrific, long-term impacts on the emotional, social, physical, and economic wellbeing of communities of color, and that has been ignored in the media and in politics just like slavery, convict leasing, and Jim Crow. (Again, I believe the exhibits team did this for a reason and hope to find out what this is all about.)

There are key moments that offer opportunities for visitors to act as allies. Several stations ask visitors to respond to specific questions (e.g. What you think about using American Indian and Alaska Natives as mascots?) and invite you to add yours to a box; staff then enter comments into binder full of comments for all to read. I wonder if the reason staff read through comments first is to weed out anything that is violently racist, like a threat, but racist comments weren’t omitted completely, as they are not in reality. Most of the comments stood in solidarity with people of color, which made the voices of those who reaffirmed racism seem like the minority (instead of the status quo). This was allyship.

A video installation at the end of the exhibit, and the conversations I’ve had with students in the days since we saw the exhibit, tell me that the exhibit in fact ignites allyship. Titled “We All Live with Race,” the installation includes a park shelter type of structure housing a rounded bench facing a video loop of people of different races talking candidly about how race and racism affects their lives. When I sat down, a middle aged white man shared about how, growing up in the south in the 60s, he and his family had been engaged in racist activities without being fully aware of it. White dominance and black subservience was so ingrained that he never heard anyone question it. 20 years later, on Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday, he caught a replay of a civil rights march on TV. Looking at the march, he realized that the whites on the sidelines protesting the multi-racial march were “his people.” They could have been his family. (They likely protested some march or another.) He made the connection between his neighbor growing up treating the black gardener as if he were property in the 60s and the fact that he had so few black colleagues in corporate America in the 80s. Once he became aware that race and racism were engineered to hold down (often violently) people of color for the benefit of all white people – including him – he started seeing race-based inequities everywhere in his life. He changed his line of work and made other real changes to his life. The man’s journey was a journey of self-other solidarity, a journey toward allyship.

In all-class and one-on-one conversations since viewing the exhibit, I am noticing this process of allyship unfold within and among my students. This plays out even as they support each other in agreeing that the exhibit didn’t go far enough to address specific kinds of institutional racism. (Visitor interviews before and immediately after the exhibit indicate that people’s understanding of institutional racism was not changed by the exhibit. So, if you had less understanding, you still had less; if you had greater understanding, you still had that same level.) Allyship happens when white students share about the ways they see racism playing out in their lives, sometimes sticking a toe or a foot in their mouths; allyship happens when students of color share about racism playing out in their lives and white students listen intently, asking for clarity or voicing their anger in solidarity. Their process looks a lot like mine; it’s a beautiful thing to see.

Diana Falchuk is a consultant, artist, and educator with 12 years experience developing, managing, and teaching arts-based programming and policy, primarily in partnership with the juvenile and adult justice systems, and through museums. She is a part-time instructor in the Museology Graduate Program at the University of Washington where she is also a second year Masters of Social Work student interning at the City of Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative. You can contact her at diana@dianafalchuk.com

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4 comments

  1. […] UPDATE: Part 2 of the “Can Exhibits Be Allies” post is now up on The Incluseum. Check it out! […]

  2. […] your posts Can Exhibits be Allies Part I and Part II represent a fabulous set of writings about museums, race, and the Race: Are We So Different? […]

  3. […] Robert Garfinkle led the project team that created the exhibit Race: Are We So Different? The discussion below is a continuation of his first post, Allyship and the Race Exhibit: Reflections Part I, which acts as a reply to Diana Falchuk’s recent reaction to the exhibit (Can Exhibits be Allies Part I and Part II). […]

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