Oppression: A Museum Primer

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Photo Credit: nikhil trivedi

As some of you know, we recently collaborated with a group of museum bloggers to draft a joint statement about the responsibility we believe museums have to respond the events like those that took place in Ferguson (i.e., police brutality disproportionality targeting Black men, etc.). We then took this statement a step further with a group of Incluseum friends, issuing critical questions and a call to action (see bottom of this page). We decided that these questions and action steps would guide us in seeking content for the blog. While we will continue to shine a light on the many ways museums are working towards greater inclusion, we will unpack critical issues and assumptions we presented in our call to action–like “oppression”.

This week, our friend nikhil trivedi who among many things is a web-developer for a Chicago art museum, unpacks what is meant by “oppression”, highlighting ways we can all learn, grow and participate in the movements to end oppression…including in museums! This is a longer read than we usually post here, but it’s well worth your time…read it in chunks if need be, and as always, feel free to share thoughts/questions/comments below.

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Many of us who work in museums and cultural institutions are interested in working to end oppression. Even if some of us don’t actively use the word “oppression”, I see many of my colleagues were drawn to this field by the idea that our institutions offer our collections and information to “everybody.” But where do we start? How do we shift our institutions towards a deep commitment to unravel their centuries-old patterns rooted in histories of colonialism, genocide and slavery[1] and work to truly end oppression?

It’s a big, daunting question. In a recent conversation on Twitter about how museums have responded to the movements that have gained momentum since Ferguson, it was clear to me that any meaningful response or participation must come from a place of our institutions being committed to ending the oppression that creates such awful events. So let’s talk about oppression. We’ll talk about how to recognize oppression and what we can do about it, but let’s begin by talking about what oppression is.

Defining oppression

Before we say anything else, let’s start by remembering that we’re all good people. We’re always doing the very best that we can given our life experience. I say this because it can be hard to talk about oppression when we feel personally criticized. Oppression is a large, complicated system. While we are all affected by and participate in it in various ways, our criticism should be focused on the system, and the ways we have been unduly affected by it. Our oppressive thoughts and actions are a product of the system, and while we should always hold ourselves accountable for what we think and do, we shouldn’t lose sight of the larger structures we all operate within.

Oppression is “the act of one social group using power or privilege for its own benefit while disempowering, marginalizing, silencing and subordinating another group”[2]. We’ll look at one piece of this definition at a time.

Power is the capacity to control one’s circumstances. We all benefit from and are hurt by power, whether we consciously choose to or not. A few examples of power include people and groups that have the ability to control:

  • Land: think governments vs. indigenous communities
  • Resources: who has access and to what degree, who pollutes the environment, how it’s decided what levels and forms of pollution are acceptable
  • Labor: who decides the value of ones work, who sets the conditions of labor
  • Culture: media representations, cultural appropriation in fashion, music, and media, whose voices speak about histories.
  • Language: what languages we speak and historically why, the words we use to describe people and who decides on them.
  • Information: perspectives in news, whose voices are presented, governmental firewalls, net neutrality

You can see that power as described here can operate on a number of different levels. Take, for instance, whose voices speak about histories. Scholarly research, often seen as the ultimate authority on history, is closely tied to historical resources and access to them. Personal histories are often not taken with the same authority. In this case, we observe power happening at several levels: there’s the power of the individual researcher/author, dynamics of power in their relationships with people who have familial or communal connections with the history of interest, and the power of academia as an institution. We’ll dig deeper into this later, but keep in mind that each of these levels of power afford a different type of capacity to control circumstances.

Thinking about the police killings that have been garnering attention lately, who had the capacity to control the circumstances in each of those situations, and how so? How were people hurt by power and how did people benefit from it? Or thinking about our field, who has the capacity to control circumstances when museums acquire or display objects from ancient civilizations, particularly when their descendants are still active in our communities? In this case, how are people hurt by power and how do people benefit from it?

When we benefit from power we have privilege, when we are dominated by power we are targets of oppression. Within this context of power, privilege is an advantage or benefit enjoyed by one group at the expense of others. Oppression is the domination of one group of people for the benefit of another group of people. Domination can take many forms, including limiting or removing the power of a person or group (disempowering), treating a person or group as insignificant (marginalizing), prohibiting or preventing voices from being heard (silencing) and regarding a person or group as less important or dependent (subordinating).

Throughout the course of our lives, we will all be simultaneously targets and agents of different oppressions, and I’ll restate: whether we choose to or not. Speaking for myself, as a person of color, hindu, and child of immigrants in the U.S., I’ve found it easier to focus my thought and criticism on the oppressions I’m a target of: racism, religious, and citizenship oppression. As a straight, able-bodied, thin, cisgendered man, I’ve found it harder to focus on the oppressions I’m an agent of: sexism, heterosexism (oppression based on the assumption that heterosexuality is the norm, sometimes called “homophobia”), cissexism (based on the assumption that one’s gender is determined solely by a biological sex of male or female, sometimes called “transphobia”), ableism and sizeism (based on ideas of body norms, sometimes called “fatphobia”). Oppression isn’t as binary as these examples suggest, either. As a non-black person of color, particularly as an Asian-heritage person of color in the United States, there’s a certain degree of privilege I experience as well, and it can be hard to be compassionate and thoughtful about anti-black racism in my own communities. It’s uncomfortable, hard, and challenging, and it can be easy for me to feel defensive. If this experience resonates with you, I’d encourage you to try to be open. Often times, it’s up to the oppressed to speak up for radical change. Social justice movements have encouraged those of us with privilege to accept and understand our privilege before we take action or add our voices to the conversation. It’s important, critical work we can all do, that includes attending anti-oppression workshops, trainings, and conferences, participating in anti-oppression book groups, and using counselling and therapy as spaces to think about how our experiences affect our thoughts and actions.

Recognizing oppression

Oppression can operate differently on a number of levels, and it’s important for us to be cognizant of that. I’ll provide a concrete example below, but first let’s look closer at each of these levels:

  • Personal: as targets of oppression, we often internalize the messages and stereotypes of oppression. Someone doesn’t have to actively be treating us in a dominating way for us to feel like these messages speak the truth about our lives.
  • Interpersonal: oppression can operate in our relationships, affecting the way we act and think with people one-on-one. Consider who gets to control a conversation, who gets silenced, the space we take up, and all the ways we act out microaggressions with each other.
  • Small groups: It can operate in small groups and families–think again about who gets heard, who gets silenced, who has power in a group, and who’s not in the room.
  • Community: Oppression can operate at the community level–who controls what museums have/show and what is said about them, who has access to staff and resources, to what degrees, and who decides how communities and their histories are represented.
  • Institutional: In the context of oppression, institutions are large social structures that hold power: governments, the educational system, news media, the criminal legal system, and other social structures that have ability to control things like land, resources, labor, culture, language, information, etc.

I’ll use a personal experience to demonstrate how these different levels look in a given situation. I once went to a church with my partner after a particular difficult day far from home. We were looking for a quiet place we could relax and process our day. We were a straight-presenting South Asian couple who probably looked in our late-twenties to early-thirties, myself with a nice, full beard. The church was empty, and there was one person working in the small office alone–a white woman probably in her fifties. Since the doors to the main room were locked, she came to the little window to see if she could help us. We told her why we were there, politely asked to be let in, and tried to reassure her that if she couldn’t let us in it wasn’t a big deal. She said it’s not a problem, and came out of the office to the main doors to let us in. Once the security of the walls of her office were removed and we were vulnerably face-to-face, it became clearer that she was nervous, possibly for being there alone visited by strangers she didn’t know. Who wouldn’t be? But in that short face-to-face exchange, she awkwardly said something to the effect of “I hope you don’t have a gun!”

I can’t tell you the amount of heartbreaking disappointment I felt in that moment. I asked myself why she would think that? Was it solely because she’s alone, and how scary it can be to be visited by strangers isolated from any safety resources? Or did even a teeny bit of it have to do with the fact that I was a bearded brown man existing in post-9/11 America?

On an interpersonal level, she seemed to have made judgments about me based on a perceived identity, and wasn’t able to see me as simply another human being asking to enter a church. Her microaggression was based on a hurtful stereotype that Muslim men are innately irrationally violent. That she felt safe enough to vocalize her thought is reflective of it being a shared communal and social perspective. And the stereotype itself is rooted in dynamics of military and economic power between the U.S. government and West and South Asian countries. On a personal level, had I not internalized the harmful stereotypes, her words may not have impacted me as greatly as they did. So through this one short interaction, even in one short sentence, you can see that oppressions affect the way we connect with each other on multiple levels, often simultaneously.

Dismantling oppression

Just as we must recognize the different levels in which they operate, oppressions need to be dismantled at every level. No one level is more significant than another. We need large-scale societal change *and* people like you and I to be self-critical about the ways in which we engage with our partners, children, families, co-workers, colleagues, handipeople, security staff, cleaning workers and anyone we interact with, or choose not to.

At the personal level, we need to remember what I started this post with: that we’re good people doing the very best that we can. Dismantling the ways we internalize oppressions both as targets and agents can be life-long work. But nothing will truly change if we work from a place of feeling bad about ourselves or are afraid. As Porchia Moore suggests with regard to white people working to dismantle racism, which can be translated to other oppressions as well, folks can “let go of fear that not understanding race makes you racist.” No one is “not oppressive.” We are all affected by oppression by the nature of the societies we live in. Once we let go of those fears, we can work to grow beyond them.

At the same time, we need to be self-critical about the ways in which oppressions operate in our relationships. Who do we say hello to every day? Who don’t we? With whom are we consistent in our commitments and with whom are we flaky? How is work divided at home and at our jobs? Is there any work we don’t do knowing others will pick up our slack? Do we often find ourselves cleaning up the messes others leave behind?

At a very basic level, in the relationships in which we are the agents of an oppression, we can begin by asking “how are you doing?” And truly listen to the answer. Don’t try to fix or relate or distract, just listen solely with the intention of understanding. At one point at home, my partner and I listed every task that was required to clean our bedroom, gave each task a point value, and ensured that work was divided evenly. As a boy who grew up with a mother and a sister who would clean up what I didn’t, I discovered I now had a different idea from my partner of what it meant to clean. It may sound like a ridiculous exercise, and may not sound like ambitious work to end sexism and male domination, but it’s necessary. I can’t do the larger work until I dismantle my own thoughts and behaviors first, and work to unravel the ways they play out in my relationships.

In our teams and families, we can be critical of who is leading and why. We can pay attention to and try to shift who is being listened to and whose voice is not being heard, who is and isn’t seated at the table or in the room. We can have conversations with people taking up too much space and compassionately share what we notice.

Much of the same work can be applied to our communities and cultural institutions. We can be supportive of oppressed people being assertive in putting ourselves at the center of the communities we’re in. We can work to make spaces safer and welcoming to oppressed people on terms they define. We can encourage and support work towards oppressed people being visible, prominent and holding power. When oppressive behavior and actions happen, we can push for them to be acknowledged and addressed by leaders. We can hold our communities and institutions accountable for their participation or defense of oppressive structures. Ultimately, we can work towards oppressed people feeling supported, welcomed and powerful in their communities.

The work to end oppression, particularly within institutions whose histories are so inextricably linked with slavery, genocide and colonialism, can feel overwhelming. But I hope I’ve broken down some ways we can all learn, grow and participate in the movements to end oppression. It won’t end for anyone until it ends for everyone, and there’s plenty of space for all of us to have an impact.

[1] Regarding colonialism: why do British museums have large collections of South Asian art? Regarding genocide: why did major American historical museum’s collections of indigenous artifacts grow so dramatically during the peak of genocide of native people[3]? Regarding slavery: how have our institutions benefited from slavery, particularly if slavery was the engine of economic growth in our countries around the same time our institutions were established?

[2] http://www.ncra.ca/equity/ncra-anti-oppression-toolkit.pdf

[3] See Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums, by Amy Lonetree

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nikhil trivedi is a web developer, composer and activist. He works at an art museum in Chicago developing web-based software in Java, PHP and Drupal. After hours, he creates music and art using a number of tools: guitar, sitar, composing noise, sound, and through collaborations with other artists. He’s a volunteer medical advocate for Rape Victim Advocates, and participates in movements to end oppression. When none of that’s happening, he likes to hike, make herbal medicines, and drink warm glasses of chai. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter at @nikhiltri.

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11 comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your personal story. I am sorry, that you were faced with such a “jump-to-conclusion” type of comment. You have, with this well written blog, provided techniques for people, like that lady you encountered, to overturn the “jump-to-conclusion” attitude. Just tonight, I listened to Constance Wu, being interviewed by Kai Ryssdal on Marketplace and noticed how he played out this attitude during the interview. http://www.marketplace.org/topics/business/screen-wars/fresh-boat-star-constance-wu-asians-and-tv.
    Thank you so much for being pro-active in helping educate others be better equipped with communication tools, relationship building skills to help shatter ” microaggressions” towards each other. Recently, I saw Hari Kondabolu and felt very moved by his wit and perspective on race, and well-crafted ways in bring to light perspectives of the underrepresented. After his show, my partner and I discussed alot of issues that I have been faced with as being a minority in US. Your blog came at a perfect time as I have been seeking for strategies to interact boldly and nonviolently with others who make ignorant, oppressive comments towards me or to another human being. Thank you bringing powerful solutions to a topic that needs to be addressed.

  2. […] to our ongoing discussion on power and oppression that we will keep building on (read more here and here). Thanks to Emily for sharing her work and insight with us! […]

  3. […] aesthetic, modes of communication…in short their cultural capital. As we already discussed in this blogpost, this status quo isn’t any one individual’s fault, but represents the ways in which exclusion […]

  4. […] a blogpost post on community building co-authored by one of our friends and regular contributors, nikhil trivedi, Aletheia, and myself. Community building is foundational to creating lasting change. Yes, […]

  5. […] after working together for nearly a year (you can read his contributions to the Incluseum blog here, here, and here)! On Wednesday night, nikhil delivered an ignite talk entitled: Towards and […]

  6. […] was a platform in which museum visitors of color’s voices could be heard. Then, nikhil wrote his epic manifesto on museums and oppression, the Mellon report was released, and Mayor DiBlasio sent waves across the […]

  7. […] nikhil. Oppression: A Museum Primer. […]

  8. […] on museums by examining privilege, oppression (thanks to Nikhil for helping to advance these ideas), and […]

  9. […] be content with simply adopting politically correct language and doing our best not to offend. Dismantling institutionalized racism is time-consuming and painful, and it is not something that any handout (or even this book) will […]

  10. […] been over a year since we published Oppression: A Museum Primer, and it still rings with relevance today. In this blogpost, our collaborator nikhil trivedi […]

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