R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Church Ladies, Magical Negroes, and Model Minorities: Understanding Inclusion from Community to Communities

We’re excited to publish a new post by our regular contributor Porchia Moore. In this post, she discusses assumptions and biases that hide beneath the use of the term “community.” How do you use the term “community” at your museum? Who comes to mind and doesn’t come to mind? This post is in line with many others we’ve been publishing lately about the power of words (see here and here for examples). Thanks, Porchia!

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Hands-down, museums do great work in benefit of their communities. Being a part of a community is a wonderful feeling. A large part of good museum work is being able to connect well with surrounding communities. Yet, often, communities are referred to as one giant, monolithic Community with no real distinction between members of any one group. Therefore, “The Community” is reduced to a single mass wherein each thriving set of communities comprised within are regarded as a single unit. There are four established common ways to think about community:

  1. A geographical place or region
  2. A group of people residing in a certain place
  3. An area of common lifestyle
  4. An organizing ideal or interest

I first began speaking publicly about the ways in which museums utilize the term “community” at a Lightning Talk I gave at Museum Computer Network in 2014 and again at a presentation (with Rose and Margaret Middleton) on the power of language to help foster inclusion at the American Alliance of Museums in 2015. Largely, I began to ask critical questions about “the who” of inclusion engagement and policies because I discerned a clear pattern in the context of inclusion discourses, in that, Community” becomes code for discussing black and brown visitors.

In this context, “The Community” might represent a program or exhibit being executed “for” a group to satisfy a complaint of exclusion or to affirm some endeavor on behalf of the museum to demonstrate inclusion. There seems to be separate goals, understandings, and perceptions about how to address the needs of “The Community” of visitors of color. In addition, we are prone to speak about the best way to engage or create participation within “The LGBTQI Community.”

In truth, while it may seem like an issue of semantics, I contend that if we want our engagement and inclusion policies to be strengthened it is time we begin to dig deeper into our understanding and use of this term as well as our goals and intentions for community work. While I am in no way advocating that we cease using the term “community” or that we cease working towards inclusion of communities, I am asking us to think critically about how a model of creating a one-off program or exhibition “for the Community” reinforces a structural system which in spite of many of our efforts does not always work toward the goal of inclusion.

Singularly, it is especially important to consider the ways in which respectability politics is silently embedded into identifying community. Respectability politics is the practice whereby marginalized groups (1) internalize dominant group messages and practices and (2) advocate that their members align their behaviors and appearances to this dominant group. Respectability politics intrinsically upholds dominant group ideals by policing members of marginalized groups or admonishing them with reminders to show that their values and societal contributions are continuous and compatible with the white, dominant mainstream. In short, the marginalized group does not reward culturally authentic behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs. What I wonder is: How does the museum uphold and support respectability politics?

One way I think this occurs is when museums seek partnerships and identify community members from marginalized groups who reinforce white normative values. Examples of these community groups include churches, organizations with long histories of service or philanthropic roots, essentially, any group viewed as being comprised of community members who are distinguished or deemed “good” or “acceptable.” Are churches viable community members? Absolutely. So are fraternities and sororities and groups with philanthropic roots. By all means, continue to work with and include these community members. These are not only valuable partners and co-creators; but great sources of authority. However, do not fail to recognize the other communities that exist in your area that tend to fall outside of your purview.

Why do some groups and not others seem like preferable partners? What biases and assumptions are operating in your outreach process? How do your well-intended outreach efforts serve to further marginalize communities that do not appeal to white, dominant norms/values/preferences?

When we fail to think critically about our notions of community, we uphold very real and problematic stereotypes of respectability associated with visitors of color. Reliance upon African-American churches, for examples, is in many ways a kind of cultural heritage- Magical Negro trope where there is an eager belief in the “goodness” of individuals within church groups and places all of the hope for the success of a diversity and inclusion plan on them. Not only can the churches not bear this burden; it will ultimately prove to be an unsustainable inclusion-working model.

Did you know that African-Americans are the fastest growing demographic of atheists in America? As such, this changing religious landscape will have a direct impact on how museums identify and reach out to communities of color and civic-minded groups. Furthermore, these same ideals of respectability politics might apply to the “Asian Community” in the ways in which expectations for this group adhere to tropes of the Model Minority.

This brings me back to my early intention, which is to highlight that when we think of community, let us avoid the tendency to think of monoliths. “The Black Community” does not exist. “The LGBTQI” Community does not exist. “The Latino Community” does not exist—at least not in the ways that can genuinely help us think of and usher deep inclusion. Actually, there are networks of relationships within these complex identity groups, all sharing varied interests, common struggles, mutual ideologies, complex and unique identities and behaviors, and more.

How can we take greater risks and make more meaningful choices to approach and engage the complex networks of community members of larger identity groups? Who are the members who operate within your communities who fit into unique pockets of identity and ideals that you have yet to tap into? When we ask these question we help to dismantle respectability politics and increase our chances for a more sustained inclusive model.

Porchia Moore, is a doctoral candidate dually enrolled in the School of Library and Information Science and McKissick Museum’s Museum Management Program at the University of South Carolina. She is the recipient of the Cultural Heritage Informatics Leadership fellowship as endowed by the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Grant. Her work employs Critical Race Theory as an informative framework for interrogating and exploring the museum space as a means to advocate for inclusion in the museum world. In addition, she is interested in the intersection between culture, technology, information, and race. She is a 2013-2014 Humanities, Arts, Science & Technology Alliance & Colloboratory (HASTAC) Scholar. Currently, she serves a two year appointment to the Professional Development Committee, which helps design and plan the annual conference for the South Carolina Federation of Museums. She regularly presents on race, culture, and museums at conferences such as Museums and the Web and Museum Computer Network. She is an avid lover of museums, having explored museums from Malaysia to New Zealand and back. Follow her on Twitter @PorchiaMuse

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