In this post, Aletheia, Porchia, and Rose want to respond to Elizabeth Merritt’s March 26th, 2015 blogpost entitled On Morning Coffee and Activism that appeared on the Center for the Future of Museum Blog. Here, we want to challenge the idea that race/racism is one issue among many museums get to pick from and address. We want to also clarify the #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson movement and link it to the recent movement, #MuseumsWorkersSpeak. Finally, we will magically tie this discussion back to our first blogpost in this series on the comments Michelle Obama’s delivered at the Whitney’s inauguration. This blogpost thus builds a few convergences because, as Gretchen Jennings just reminded us, “everything that rises must converge”; things that might seem disconnected or are treated as such are actually deeply intertwined.
Like Elizabeth in her response to Starbucks’ #RaceTogether initiative, we agree that milking matters of social justice for corporate gain is indeed worthy of backlash. And as Elizabeth rightfully points out, the public is not duped and knows when a particular establishment is truly committed to an issue or not. The lack of congruence between an organization and its action(s) is visible, causes dissonance, and becomes the fuel for the backlash. Where we depart from Elizabeth’s argument is when she suggests that addressing “issues” pertaining to race and racism in museums hinges on “fit”. In our view, framing race and racism as “issues” that a given museum can choose to address doesn’t depend on whether or not this decision seems to fit with a particular organization’s mission statement. It most likely won’t fit with the majority of museum mission statements out there. In other words, framing racism as a special “issue” that must “fit” an organization’s scope misses the point; racism isn’t an issue among many to choose from at a social issues buffet. Racism, like other forms of (intersecting) oppressions, is a reality already present in our museums, it pervades the whole institution and predates any one of us working there. Choosing to ignore race/racism–and by extension who our museums serve and why–doesn’t mean this reality ceases to exist and bear impact on us.
The problem, for us, doesn’t lie in the idea that Starbucks would want to talk about race, but rather lies in its possibly fraught motives, as previously mentioned, and its method. Let’s face it, being forced into a conversation about race or other such topics isn’t a good idea! Many of us, as part of our jobs and social justice organizing, spend a great deal of time and intention planning for these conversations to occur in as safe a space as possible…because these are realities that require individual and collective healing from. So yes, let’s talk about race together, but not off the cuff at a coffeeshop counter without establishing trust and mutual consent.
But let’s be clear, race isn’t a headline or the issue of the day or week or month. It’s the issue of EVERY day because we never cease to be individuals marked by race in a country that has privileged one race over others. Likewise, #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson, a movement labeled “museum activism”, is no longer about a specific headline; it has come to symbolize something bigger. It has become a platform and bridge for necessary conversations about racial equity, access, privilege, and perceptions of barriers to participation in our nation’s museums. The dialogue it promotes continues to reveal the ways museums keep denying that they have anything to do with race and thus have no role to play in the conversation and action.
Which leads us to #MuseumsWorkersSpeak. This movement, focused on exposing and propelling unjust museum labor practices to the fore, has quickly gained a great deal of attention and prominence, something we are happy and excited about. This movement, moreover, is timely–have you heard about the protests for fairer wages and benefits at the MoMa? Those have been happening THIS week! The appeal and enthusiastic uptake of #MuseumsWorkersSpeak, however, has seemed different than how #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson was received and we wonder if it isn’t precisely because of the idea of fit. It would be hard for museums to deny that they don’t perpetuate unjust labor practices. Most of us associated with the field have paid our dues, a.k.a. provided museums with free labor to earn our current place (note that some of us continue to labor in museums for free and receive our income elsewhere). Museums do, nonetheless, continuously deny association with issues pertaining to race and racism because they don’t think it fits or concerns them. Labor issues thus have a “universalness”/universality to them (it’s something most museum professionals can bond over), while issues pertaining to race seem identity-specific, a special issue, divisive, etc.
So we get excited about the spotlight on #MuseumsWorkersSpeak because it gives us a chance to draw attention to those who might be the most impacted by unjust museum labor practices and those who have already been unintentionally marginalized from museum employment–because they might have never seen museums as a place for them (boom! Magic tie back to our first blogpost in the series). We get excited because the impetus to remedy unjust labor practices in museums, an issue that seems universal and cuts across identities, can be the first domino that helps unravel the chain of employment injustices in museums. So yes, let’s talk about working conditions in museums and infuse the conversation with everything #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson has come to stand for…because these two movements are not separate; they are connected and intersect.
To close, we want to say that movements like #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson and #MuseumsWorkersSpeak are born from a sense of passion and dedication to making museums the absolute best that they can be so that they can have the positive impact they wish to have. Sure, these two movements can be labeled as activism, but to think they are about different “issues” would be a missed opportunity to see the bigger picture of how systems of power operate. Thank you, Elizabeth, for using Starbucks’ #RaceTogether initiative for starting this conversation on your blog, a conversation we wanted to continue here.
 Just a thought: We do worry that labeling people’s concerns and actions to support museums in being fairer and more accessible places for employees and visitors as “activism” can have a negative connotation. To many, activism is seen as confrontational, “aggressive”/visible opposition and/or change through force, something to be avoided and feared. Is activism any form of action meant to destabilize a certain status quo? What are drawbacks and opportunities of calling #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson and #MuseumsWorkersSpeak types of activism?
[Read Part III here]