Oppression: A Museum Primer–Update

It’s 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 clarifies and expands on three points that were discussed in the article.

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This past year has been particularly difficult with heartbreaking mass shootings and police murders. Since Oppression: A Museum Primer was published I’ve talked to a lot of museum workers about what stood out for them, and what they had more questions about. People appreciate the tone and thoughtfulness with which the ideas of oppression, power and privilege are laid out. And there are a few points that could use more clarity, particularly related to the idea that we are all good people and to institutional oppression. I’d also like to share some anti-oppression resources at the end of this post.

We’re all good people

Many people I’ve talked with feel mixed or conflicted by the assertion that “we’re all good people.” People have called it generous, some have questioned it entirely. I’d like to make clear that oppressions at their very core are about erasing each other’s humanness. When we’re unable to see other people as fully human–as the mutually loving, joyful, cooperative beings we come into this world as–we’re capable of doing really awful things to each other, and justifying horrendous acts of violence. Even willingly, even if we have an understanding of oppressive dynamics. It takes incredible will and constant intention to undo the oppressive behaviors we’ve learned in our lives, and that are reinforced every day by the world we live in.

As oppressed people, when we call someone in on their behaviour, we often hear the refrain “but I’m a good person.” Yes, of course you are. And being good people doesn’t preclude us from acting and behaving in oppressive ways. We need to be unshaken in our own goodness, so that any criticisms of our behaviors aren’t taken as personal attacks. “Yes, you’re a good person, and you did this thing. Let’s talk about it.”

Another piece to the “but I’m a good person” refrain that’s worth unpacking is: as opposed to whom? If one is using the refrain to explain oppressive behavior, who are they defining their goodness against? Who are they finding comfort in distancing themselves from? An anti-oppressive world includes the capacity to build relationships with people who might be far outside the communities we are a part of. Who get’s pushed further to the margins when this refrain is sung?

Institutional oppression

Some great conversations have taken place, and new resources have come out in the past year that talk about oppression in very clear and concise ways. Race Forward has a great series (https://www.raceforward.org/videos/systemic-racism) on systemic oppression, that talks about the wealth gap, employment, housing discrimination, government surveillance and incarceration. In a video about a report that discusses how the media covers race, Jay Smooth lays out the different layers that oppressions operate very clearly:

I think for museum workers, institutional oppression can often feel really abstract, so it’s important to dig in a little more into what it looks like. At the public forum “Kimono Wednesdays: A Conversation,”  a discussion criticizing an MFA Boston exhibition that exoticized Japanese clothing, Ryan Wong said “institutional racism means a lot of people looking at this and signing off on it.” In our institutions, lots of people are involved in everything we do. Institutional oppression is when our museums engage with marginalized people in dominating ways, and no one in our institutions have the power to speak up, or to be heard. For example, is there a gallery in your museums that documents American or European history that doesn’t feature any people of color? If they are featured, are they addressed by their names? People of color and our identities have systematically been erased from our histories, dominating them with white narratives. Has this gallery been acknowledged and talked about in your institution? Those feelings of an elephant in the room that no one feels comfortable bringing up are good indicators of where institutional oppression may be operating in your museum.

Links to training resources

When we first published this post, we wanted to include links to specific organizations that people can look for anti-oppression trainings and resources. Here are a few, including some that were shared out by attendees of Museums & Race after the convening:

In the end, the purpose of taking on our work from this perspective is about relationships. Building and strengthening our relationships with our visitors, donors, co-workers, volunteers, board members, and everyone involved in making our museums what they are. Perhaps that’s ultimately the the role of our institutions, to free oppressed people of the burden of teaching oppressors about their privilege.

What sorts of actions have you taken, or commit to take, in relation to this article? In your personal lives or at your institution?

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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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