Mining the Digital Landscape, Engaging Communities of Color

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So we know a few things about these digital platforms:

A) There is an immediacy and ability to mobilize or respond vs. the top-down structure of the museum

B) They collectivize people across institutions

C) They archive and preserve (tag, url)

But that’s the platform…What about the people?

What we see is, communities of color filling in their own gaps online.

However, “engagement” does not necessarily mean providing a sense of propriety on the behalf of the community.

Although museums have not typically engaged these groups in productive ways, it does not mean these groups are stagnant in culture production, preservation or presentation. Creatively, they have established online spaces for themselves, circumventing the periphery.

And so, although, I am here speaking specifically to communities of color, this is a model that should be utilized when considering all marginalized groups and social justice initiatives. Simply, what conversations are being had.

Communities of color enact agency in these spaces. Such hashtags as #blktwitterstorians and “Black Twitter” as the social phenomenon that it has become, identify communities that not only participate but create. As cultural institutions––museums, historic homes, national parks––transition to dialogical forms of patron and museum staff interaction, and include more participatory models (think #AskACurator), the online has increasingly made itself a tangible space to the representation of black and brown bodies rendered invisible by history, or visible by the markings of servitude. Communities of color, through online participation, are able to make themselves visible as subjects as opposed to objects.

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So we can’t talk about museums unless we confront our own privilege to collectively be in this room.

(This is one of those no caption needed moments)

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So with studies like this, done by the Mellon Foundation. We have to confront that in these brick and mortar spaces that have historically allowed black and brown bodies entrance as specimen or security, it has neglected these individuals as visitors which impedes on the interest of these communities to participate.

In what ways has your institution prepared itself for the entrance narratives of these communities? And, is your museum willing to sustain interest in these communities not as novelty items to programming, but truly seek to have transparent conversations.

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So not all is lost. And if we return to these digital and social platforms, again, we begin to see how the online allows for communities of color to negotiate space, identity, and meaning-making practices.

There are a few ways that the online is making this possible:

Distributing Responsibility
– As of 2014, Twitter is used by 23% of all online adults, according to a PEW Internet survey
– While not all users may be active, the pervasiveness of the app can be attributed to user-driven content
– That is, the very function of twitter depends on its use
– Responsibility for creating, curating, and promoting content is distributed to all users
– By having a stake in the viral status of individual tweets, promoted through follows, favorites, and retweets, users are responsible for creating their own communities

Democratizing Ideas
– Following directly from the user-generated content model, Twitter can be seen as a meritocracy, where the best content will naturally rise to the top
– A lack of governance or editorial board (issues of abuse and infringement aside) allows for more radical or outsider perspectives to be noticed and heard
– The issues with any meritocracy include access, privilege, and prioritizing of messages that already conform to users’ biases
– But Twitter’s hashtags allow users to explore content outside of their own personal echo chamber

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Encouraging Directness
– Much has been made of Twitter’s 140-character limit on individual tweets, and that limit’s effects on speech and censorship
– While the character limit does force users to abbreviate and self-edit, we might also see this enforced directness as a useful tool for alternative viewpoints
– Without the room to soften messages or debate issues at length, activists and outsiders must be direct in their communication and know their audience well
– There is no room for subtlety or shyness
– Twitter is like the headlines, and alternative communities must develop additional spaces for greater detail (websites, forums, email conversations, etc)

Elevating Collective Knowledge
– Twitter operates as a return to collective knowledge
– While empirical fact is traditionally valued in Western society, Twitter has spotlighted the ways media outlets in particular do not always provide facts without their own biases
– For example, on-the-ground news of activism in Ferguson was not broadcast from a single account
– Rather it was crowdsourced journalism, and through the many tweets of local activists and witnesses, a definitive story, distinct from the narrative of mainstream media, was told
– Again this can be a double-edged sword, as bias and errors are just as viral as truth, but when a community grows large enough and tells a similar enough story, we can understand that narrative as fact. This elevation of collective knowledge again reinforces the distributed responsibility of Twitter, in which all members of a community have a stake in maintaining their online community

I think in this conference alone we’ve witnessed the power of social media to mobilize and we must harness its potential

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Here are a few things to consider:

1) Sweep Around Your Own Front Door
Does your museum support diversity in word but not in deed? Representation matters and diversity “outreach” initiatives are worthless if you don’t practice what you preach. How homogeneous is your staff/board? Are the people of color segregated in certain positions? Are only white, cis, able people depicted in your advertising? Acknowledge the intersectional and systemic oppressive structures that are present in your museum’s internal processes and seek outside support with dismantling them. Being inclusive internally leads to inclusivity in programming, partnership, and patronage.

2) People of Color Aren’t “Problems”
Treating communities of color like things that need to be “fixed” is unfortunately common. Often, it begins with good intentions—“We noticed we don’t have very many Black visitors. How can we change this?” But soon the issue’s being addressed are with less sensitivity and consideration, causing patterns of distrust to emerge or be reinforced.

3) Examine Your Access
How easily can communities of color connect with you? What are the barriers? Are they intentional or unintentional? Have you created roadblocks in your physical and digital spaces? Are you inviting communities of color to collaborate and/or design programs and exhibitions? Ask people what they think of your museum. If it’s viewed as an impenetrable fortress atop an ivory tower, with access granted to a privileged few, you have much work to do.

4) Mind Your Language
For organizations that pride themselves on careful word selection, museums can be strikingly tone-deaf in regard to inclusive language. Carefully examine all writing from program copy to wall labels to social media posts for coded language that suggests exclusion.

5) Myth of the Monolith
Communities of color are extremely diverse, although it is customary for certain groups to be lumped together as if they are connected to a Borg-like hive mind.

6) H*e, Don’t Do It
Communities of color have a large and influential presence digitally, especially in social media. “Black Twitter”, defined by Dr. Meredith Clark as a “temporally linked group of connectors that share culture, language and interest in specific issues and talking about specific topics with a black frame of reference”, has become such a topic of intense interest that the Los Angeles Times recently dispatched journalist Dexter Thomas to cover it exclusively.

It’s not uncommon for the latest ubiquitous vine or catchphrase to originate from digital communities of color. Unfortunately, it’s also not uncommon for businesses to want to tap into these trends, committing cringeworthy culturally appropriative acts and microaggressions. So think carefully about the implications before your staff performs the latest viral dance (a la the “Harlem Shake”) or you declare your latest acquisition “on fleek.”

So if much of this does not make sense, that’s kind of the point. In short, deliberate before you appropriate.

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Here are some resources to check out.


This presentation was in collaboration with Adrianne Russell (@adriannerussell), museum educator and non-profit consultant. Please visit MuseumNext for the official live stream of this talk on day 2 of the conference.


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