'Museum Doctor': Cultural Consultant, Content Designer, Writer
Actually... I'd rather talk about Whiteness.
November 29, 2018
The cultural sector in Europe (and elsewhere) is overwhelmingly white yet it is trendy/prudent these days to talk of diversity. Let's rather speak more about whiteness, white privilege, white supremacy, the construction of whiteness, historically and today. Once we have grappled with why white people continue to rule the (cultural) world in the 'west', despite fast changing audiences and increasingly diverse graduates, then, we will be ready to do something about it- for real.
It's awkward and intimidating talking to a room of majority white people about diversity- everyone looks expectantly at the one or two visible minorities for insight (if we are in the room), or it slides into a confession session or it becomes a journal article.
I have lived and worked for 6 years now in Europe- in Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Although I try to be open minded about different approaches, I am continuously shocked about how acceptable it is to address issues of racism, decolonization, colonial complicity, discrimination, xenophobia- intellectually but never personally. Identity issues are dismissed contemptuously as 'American' or 'politically correct'- the implication being that only superficial idiots are trapped in their own subjectivities. In the cultural sector, many of the white people I encounter like to think of themselves and museums as voices of reason (enlightenment!) against the swelling tides of racist populism, yet rarely consider how they themselves may be contributing to the perpetuation of hostility, inequality, and 'othering' that sets the stage for such movements.
White Europeans, mostly male, hold the power in most museums on the continent. As largely hierarchicial institutions, museums reflect their leaders. For museums to change, they need to change themselves.
So now- I am talking to you. Consider these four key concepts:
People of colour and minorities tend to be locked in a lifelong battle of self-definition: how to reconcile yourself as an individual with how people see you, how to be visible, how to be heard, how to step out without selling out. White people rarely need to consider their identities and how these have contributed to how they react to the world or the world reacts to them. So start by considering your own whiteness- what does it mean to you? How does it affect you? When I refer to you as white- how do you feel? Consider your biases. We all have blindspots- how many of yours are tied to your whiteness?
How does your whiteness affect the benefits you have in life? Don't be defensive- I am not saying you don't deserve what you have, or you're not smart, or you haven't struggled. But consider if you were in a different body- browner, femaler- with different adornment and language and hair- would you be in the exact same place? Would you be listened to in the same way? Would you encounter challenges you don't have now? Read this and thison privilege- try google for many many more.
I know that the suggestion that you might be racist or have done something racist is a scary thought. But it is WORSE to BE racist than to be called racist, and it is MORE uncomfortable, scary and horrible to be the target of racism then it is to be the 'accidental' perpetrator. So if you're called out, don't get defensive or make fun of your 'accuser'- try first to work through your discomfort or guilt to understand. It is within the realm of possibilty that you could have said something, unintentionally of course, maybe even as a joke- that is truly objectionable- even harmful. Figure out what it was, then STOP doing it or saying it. Apologize. Easy.
How often to do we wear our professional identity as a weapon and a shield. We cannot be wrong because we are an expert in this or that. Our PHDs do not turn us into robots; our publications do not give us a 'free pass' in navigating the day to day; we are not above learning from other people. Opening ourselves up to other voices, perspectives- handing over the reigns- does not need to compromise our authority, our credibility, the professional personas we have painstakingly created (yes curators- I am talking to you!). I know you take the public trust put in you seriously, but it is not weakness to consider alternatives- think of it as good scholarship, good leadership and good humanness.
White Europeans tend to have a disproportionate amount of power in the cultural world for a reason. And it's not because they are better...