By Hannah Heller
A white museum educator is facilitating a conversation about an installation art work, consisting of a group of ten brightly dressed male mannequins with a group of white high school students. The artist has purposefully used patterned textiles in the place of skin color. The students start to describe the figures as “thugs,” speculating they might be drug dealers. Instead of pressing the group on their assumptions about that these figures, the educator pivots to a conversation about class markers, asking the students what they say that makes them think the figures are from a lower social class.
In a different museum, a white museum educator is facilitating a conversation, again with a predominantly white, suburban high school group, about a photograph of a staged vignette with all Black male models. The students engage in a nuanced conversation about the relationship between some negative stereotypes the artist used to convey Blackness (tattoos, loose cash) and some elements that our biased culture does not associate with Blackness (fatherhood, photographs of family). One question is left unasked: what makes us associate cash, or tattoos, or gold chains, in this case explicitly connected to Blackness, with something negative in the first place?
In an interview with another white museum educator, she comments that she feels “awkward” teaching from a particular, explicitly racially charged art work, “because everyone wants me to pick a side… and I can not, I am a neutral facilitator, right? Everything I do is student directed, student centered, student focused. What I think doesn’t matter at all… I have to keep it out. That’s just professionalism.” When asked about what she does when a student makes an offensive or problematic comment, she answers, “my job is to paraphrase, validate, and move on (emphasis mine).”
All of these are real interactions that I have personally witnessed in my investigations as a white museum educator examining the intersection between race, racism, and art museum education, specifically gallery teaching. Individually, each may not necessarily reveal very much, but taken together a picture starts to emerge of the various ways whiteness is enacted in museum education, both on an individual and systemic, institutionalized level, and the ways in which even the most well meaning white museum educators propagate systems of oppression, specifically white supremacy. In this blog post, I hope to introduce myself, define whiteness, and share some of my initial findings in advance of my dissertation research on how whiteness manifests in the way white people use objects to teach about race and racism.
I found myself originally drawn to the intersection of race and art museum education (admittedly exceedingly late in the game) as a result of a personal, academic, and professional transformative experience that happened to me in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri in the summer of 2014. Of course, it was not the first time a white police officer extrajudicially shot and killed a Black person, but the publicization and nationwide protest around this particular event spurred something in me. I began to read about the prevalence of racism in American society, how embedded it is in nearly every institution we rely on. I started initiating conversations with friends and family members, as well as the different museum publics I work with as an art museum educator, probing their reactions to this event and ones like it; many of these conversations were uncomfortable, as it is difficult for white people to openly admit to benefiting from certain privileges simply because of the color of their skin without feeling defensive, or guilty (DiAngelo, 2011).
Given that the museum field is overwhelmingly white (Mellon Foundation, 2015), and after conducting a couple different pilot studies that surfaced instances such as the ones described above, it quickly became clear to me that it’s well past time for white museum educators to assume responsibility for this problem of our own making. While structurally low within the hierarchies of our institutions, we have immense power if you consider how much exposure to our various publics we have, how much we shape the way our visitors, particularly students, experience our spaces. Part of owning this responsibility and rectifying the impacts of our whiteness is making the important shift from defining racist acts exclusively in terms of the victims and start defining our own characteristics as perpetrators.
What is Whiteness?
It is important to note that long before whiteness became acknowledged within the academy as a viable field of study, writers of color had been writing about and defining whiteness for decades. In 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois named “the problem of the color line”– the distance between white and “darker… races of men” to be the problem of the 20th century (p. 41). Ellison (1952/2002), Baldwin (1985), and Fanon (1967) each acknowledged that whiteness is the root of the problem that is racism. And Tony Morrison (1992) in her book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination articulated the impact of whiteness in this way:
It is as if I had been looking at a fishbowl — the glide and flick of the golden scales, the green tip, the bolt of white careening back from the gills; the castles at the bottom, surrounded by pebbles and tiny, intricate fronds of green; the barely disturbed water, the flecks of waste and food, the tranquil bubbles traveling to the surface — and suddenly I saw the bowl, the structure that transparently (and invisibly) permits the ordered life it contains to exist in the larger world (p. 17).
Whiteness, in other words, is the bowl that contains the movement, shape, and form of the fish and water within it. You can miss it if you aren’t looking for it.
While whiteness has been defined in varied ways, it is generally agreed that is a socially constructed racial category, one designed to privilege its members (Giroux, 1997; Karenga, 1999; Roediger, 1999; Stokes-Brown, 2002). For too long it has been defined as an expression of what it is not, an ever shifting, contorting construction of “otherness” (Jacobson, 1999). As Ruth Frankenberg (1996) puts it, “whiteness comes to self-name . . . simply through a triumphant ‘I am not that (p. 7)’” She provides a multifaceted definition of whiteness that addresses three components that feed each other. She defines whiteness as:
… a location of structural advantage, of race privilege. Second it is a ‘standpoint,’ a place from which white people look at ourselves, at others, and at society. Third, ‘whiteness’ refers to a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed (p. 1).
In short, whiteness is not only defined by a position of structural advantage (what we talk about when we talk about white privilege in its many forms) but also a state of being, a position of “unconsciousness,” described by bell hooks (1994) as an invisibility to its members that perpetuates a lack of critical reflexivity, a looking inward, required to truly upend its pursuant oppressive behaviors.
Whiteness in Education
These behaviors manifest in every aspect of society, not least of which in education. There is a large body of research on impacts of whiteness in classroom settings, revealing impacts both in teaching methods, curriculum, and policies. I’ll share a couple studies that illustrate the inequities that can happen when whiteness factors too largely in a classroom or pre-service settings:
- Lowered expectations for POC students, employing a deficit model of thinking (Chubbuck, 2004; Marx, 2004; McCarthy, 2003), and a loyalty to tracking, which has been demonstrated to be a biased form of categorizing students into lower and higher performing levels (Chubbuck, 2004) .
- White teachers in predominantly white settings are more likely to “gloss over” issues related to race than in more diverse ones (Haviland, 2008).
- In treating non-dominant groups with sympathy, rather than empathy or with any critical thinking about the circumstances that contribute to their perceived otherness, it “has had the effect of reproducing the sense of oddness, differentness, exceptionality of these groups” (Dyer, 1997, p. 141).
The lack of critical thinking conveyed in the last point can be observed especially in curricular elements, for example when US students learn about slavery, more often than not emphasis is placed on the experiences of enslaved people, what their lives might have been like, but rarely any emphasis at all on the actual white perpetrators who enslaved them, who was and remains accountable?
My Observations of Whiteness in Museum Education
While well documented in classroom contexts, whiteness is underexplored in museum education, particularly gallery teaching. I began to wonder how museum educators choose– or as the case often is, not choose– to engage with race on their tours and developed two different pilot studies ahead of my dissertation to develop my thoughts, one of which was a comparison study, observing and interviewing two museum educators of color (Marieke and Juan) and two WME (Cara and Kristine) leading tours of work by the same artist to compare how educators of color and White educators treated race using similar art works. This study was just the start (in fact one of my major findings is that we need more time to keep thinking these issues through!), and findings indicated a couple different avoidance strategies, but to start I’ll share one of my major findings around use of language.
Specificity of Language (euphemisms)
Use of language figured prominently as a subtle way educators either purposefully operationalized race on their tours, or, as was the case more often with white educators, softened the focus on race per se.
While the two educators of color were more likely to approach a substantial conversation about race regardless of the racial makeup of their group, they were still aware of the power of language and its place within any contextual work in order to get students on the same page. One example of this is Juan’s aforementioned “agenda” of elucidating agreed upon terms, such as Latino, Hispanic, colonialism, as well as Marieke’s well taken point about “getting people on same page” via a “racism 101” lesson.
On the other hand, White educators often utilized euphemistic linguistic tools as a way of speaking around race, but not necessarily on race itself. Revealingly, neither Cara nor Kristine actually referenced Black people or African Americans by name on their tours, despite that oppressed group being the primary focus of the artist’s work. Instead they relied on euphemisms like “diversity,” class, or status, or strived to make race based references more universally relevant. This speaks to the urgency behind Dewhurst & Hendricks (2016) charge for educators to become comfortable using common terminology associated with conversations about race, such as systemic violence, institutionalized racism, structural racism, construct of race, etc. Too often educators avoid these topics out of fear for speaking out of turn, offending someone, or citing incorrect information (a sentiment voiced repeatedly by Cara). In so doing, we avoid potentially difficult, however productive conversations (Dewhurst & Hendricks, 2016, p. 27).
For example, Cara asked a series of open ended questions about skin bleaching on her tour, seeking to create a link to the artist’s interest in skin color as an accessory, given readily available methods of skin bleaching in the artist’s home country. While this was more or less achieved, nevertheless the arguably more pressing and relevant question of why someone would want lighter color skin in the first place was never addressed. This makes sense given Cara’s overall approach to inquiry with the artist’s work, praising the artist’s goal of drawing people in visually through use of bright, attractive materials. She correlated this with the artist’s interest in drawing the viewer in visually and then gradually letting the hidden message of the work settle in. With her students, she allows them similarly to start with what they see and go from there– a common tactic in museum education:
Oh, let me just start with class and status and like, I see this money, I see money things and like wealth. And I can approach that, I can digest that. And then as you keep looking at it, you realize there’s so much more here (personal communication, March 30, 3016).
When asked about it in the interview, Cara noted the relationship between why a person would want to appear lighter skinned, in order to be perceived as having a higher status within society, but still did not make the connection between light skinned-ness and Whiteness, and why within a nearly all Black Caribbean society, whiteness would still be held up as the thing that is “best.” Put another way, because Cara felt more comfortable couching her course of inquiry solely within her students’ immediate observations, they were never compelled to interrogate more critically relevant issues that may not necessarily occur to them by looking, such as what about white skin is desirable in the first place– a query that has nothing to do with class, but rather the values we construct and apply to skin tone (ie, race).
Kristine was slightly more explicit when referring to race, but when the art became about references to violence against Black people, its relationship to race was silenced. When discussing a piece that makes explicit references to murders perpetrated against Black youths, she referred to “a child” in Chicago who “had been killed,” (note the passive voice) but not the circumstances related to his death. While not necessarily an obvious difference, the language that we use and how we use it can be hugely important as far as representing certain values. Fine’s (1987, 2003) concept of “naming” speaks to the importance of specificity of our language. Not naming forms of oppression can be an inadvertent “means of silencing students” (p. 249).
Conclusion – Power of Reflective Practice
This study was just a start, with a small sample and some very preliminary findings to keep testing. But I think there’s enough there to indicate that there’s work to be done as far as white museum educators thinking critically and reflexively about their practice, and how their racial identity impacts their work. Reflective practice is a super important (albeit often overlooked) element of good practice. Reflection for White practitioners doing this work takes on further nuance.
McIntyre (1997) notes that all too often it is researchers, educators, writers, and artists of color articulating anti-racist discourse (as per my observations this is still still true 20 years later); at the risk of centering whiteness, she advocates for supporting White educators to find their own critical voice against White supremacy (p. xi). Following her study in which she studied White classroom teachers, I argue that in order for White educators to be better prepared to support all students, particularly as demographic research maintains our student body is growing more and more racially diverse, they must engage in reflective exercises designed to “develop a range of insights about their own socialization processes and their own locations as White… teachers” (p. 5). Because whiteness is often invisible or hard to define, White educators have difficulty identifying where it manifests, and in turn, what their responsibilities are as far as countering it (DiAngelo, 2011). Because of this, white practitioners tend to have difficulty with placing the onus of change on themselves. Only when it is made visible can it be disrupted.
So how to do this? Here’s some suggestions, feel free to add more!
- Develop a community of practice. Find some colleagues, sit down over coffee or something stronger, and try to answer for yourselves what it means to you to be white, to be a white educator, to work in white institutions.
- Ask someone you trust to observe you, or record yourself teaching or interacting with guests (with permission!). What can you observe about the choices you make? Do you notice any avoidance strategies around choice of object, language that you use?
- Ask if you can shadow some tours with colleagues of color. I’ve long felt that we have so much to learn from each other in general, and I have learned so much from my POC colleagues specifically around developing a teaching practice that is inherently anti-racist, that is shaped by a need to call out problematic behaviors that we see in our world, our institutions, in the objects themselves– and further, modeling for our students what calling those behaviors out can look like.
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Hannah Heller is an NYC based museum educator, and has taught and worked on research and evaluation projects in several cultural institutions including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc., Whitney Museum of American Art, El Museo del Barrio, the American Folk Art Museum, and the Museum of Arts and Design. She is currently a doctoral candidate in the Art & Art Education program at Teachers College, and holds a MA in Museum Education from Tufts University. Her research interests include developing orientations towards social justice through close looking at art; she believes art can play an active and healing role, especially when addressing difficult topics such as race and racism in a group setting.