Seven Ways to make the Museum System a Better Place for People of Color

The following post is as much candid reflection on the status quo in museums as it is,we feel, a call to action. Hannah Hong Frelot names the inequitable status quo in museums, focusing in on pervasive racial inequity, and presents the ways we may address these inequities directly. A trap for museums is to fall into complacency. Just because aggressively racist behavior may not be occurring in museum offices or galleries, does not mean that insidious, unintended, or micro-aggressive oppression isn’t happening and excluding people of color regularly. To dismantle this deeply rooted oppression, it will take allyship from museum workers/supporters on the individual and collectively organized level as well as alignment with larger anti-oppression movements, in other words, action. We strongly encourage you to follow more of Hannah’s writing, which you can access though links in her bio.

* * * *

While recognizing that…

…Since their founding, museums have been a space of white privilege,
…generally speaking, black people don’t feel comfortable in museums–culturally, as well as a measure of self-protection,
…there is a feeling of general (13) consensus that museums cater to the elite and educated,
…and the many other entrenched; interlocking reasons museums are not currently en masse drawing in as racially and culturally diverse crowds, as, say, Disneyland, or Southcenter Mall…

This short thought exercise is in debt to and a riff on its many forbears:

1. Naima Lowe’s Thirty-Nine (39) Questions for White People.

2. This Guerrilla Girls Poster (Note: Asian Pacific American Heritage month is May)

top10token

3. The Whitney Biennial for Angry Women.

4. Every fabulous person I’ve ever worked with, at a museum or otherwise, who acknowledges these issues and addresses them in any way, writ small or large, possible, whether that’s by supporting POCs, examining their own privilege, curating art and programs that include multicultural, especially underrepresented or undervalued perspectives, and to everyone in the struggle.

5.
The Wing Luke Museum, Seattle, WA

lung-4door-sedan-no-title_l

Lung On (shown standing next to a sedan in John Day, Oregon) whose story is featured in the exhibit Grit, at The Wing.

6.
The Northwest African American Museum, Seattle, WA

The Owls Club team was 1938 state softball champion and 1939 Seattle champ - featured in the exhibit Pitch Black at the NAAM.

The Owls Club team was 1938 state softball champion and 1939 Seattle champ – featured in the exhibit Pitch Black at the NAAM.

7. Danielle Henderson’s fabulous Five Ways to make Seattle a Better Place for People of Color.

Without Further Ado, my Seven (7) Questions for White Museums/Seven Ways to make the Museum System a Better Place for People of Color:

1. Does the People of Color (POC) contingent make up only the ‘bottom’ tier of employees in the organization and not the top? Do white decision makers affect policy change, primarily impacting the many-hued bottom tier, and ne’er the opposite?

2. If they exist in that upper tier, are POCs in middle management autonomously and vociferously making decisions, or expected to comply with the white majority?

3. Is the museum’s visitor base less racially diverse and more white than the city or neighborhood’s demographics? What about museum staff?

4. Is diversity ever talked about as a value of the organization, or as a desired outcome?

5. Do exhibits focused on “general” (or white interest) get top billing while “special interest” (or POC exhibits) receive limited marketing or outreach directed only to that specific/”special interest” POC community?

6. Do POC staff get asked to throw away garbage or clean up by management and board members more often than white staff, even if they’re not custodians?

7. How many POC are on the board, and if their numbers are less than whites, are they comfortable and given ample opportunity to have an equal voice to whites without fear of dismissal, censure, or reprisal for disagreeing or “pushing” a POC agenda?

*~*

1. Question, and be disturbed by, a lack of people of color and a variety of ethnic backgrounds in your staff, board, and audience. If you’re not questioning, you’re actively preventing diversity from happening.

2. Pursue diversity — racial, economic, gender, sexual orientation, ability, etc. in staffing (Take a hint from SNL, y’all).

3. Provide support to the POCs you have on staff:

  • value their perspectives equally to whites;
  • don’t allow white voices to dominate the conversation or belittle/drown out POCs;
  • respect and learn different cultural communication styles;
  • allow significant room for independent decision making, leadership, and trust in POC capabilities/authority to lead
  • read this: 28 Common Racist Attitudes and Behaviors that indicate a wrong turn into White Guilt, denial, or defensiveness.

4. With diversity in the board there will be less chance of making a hugely culturally tone deaf or off-color (haha) institutional decision.

5. Program, curate, and advertise to and for racially and culturally diverse audiences.

6. Beware of tokenism. Tokens can feel isolated and, as a result, feel pressure to be subservient and nice and not apt to oppose the powers/decisions that be even if they impact them negatively. While it’s better to hire a token POC than 0 POC, be aware that they probably know your end game–making the org appear committed to inclusion of different ethnicities without enacting any POC-led initiatives or changes to the white status quo–and resent it, and will inevitable experience burn out and move on.

7. Know that despite the controversial nature of affirmative action, busing, and other race-based initiatives to integrate and create community between different races:

  • diversity is a-ok to hold as a value–it won’t bite!…hard
  • not taking action towards diversity unequivocally means you will not have diversity.

Hannah Hong Frelot is a writer, critical thinker, agitator, and provacateur. Find her thoughts on visual and pop culture, postcolonial strategies of resistance, intersectional studies, and other eclectic topics at onjouissance.blogspot.com. She also fights against racism with her Situationist International Racial Awareness Coalition for Hope and Action, offline and online at s-i-r-a-c-h-a.tumblr.com.

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2 comments

  1. […] be bolstered by initiatives to support and retain workers of color at all levels. This list of seven ways to make the museum system a better place for people of color is a great place to […]

  2. […] color, actual people of color don’t seem to be looking at the work. Why is that? There are a few reasons, namely that the audience, staff (save service jobs), and donors for museums tend to be white, […]

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