The Nation We Make Together (Part I)

It has taken me two years to write this post. It is the reason this blog was created, but it wasn’t until recently that I found the words and the courage to write it, unapologetically. We’ve had a lot to contemplate, here at the blog, and we’re excited to finally share the conversations we’ve been having to hopefully, as always, inspire thoughtful consideration and critique of the field. In a two-part post (because we know how much you love those), Amanda and I explore what it means or what it could look like when we bring our vulnerabilities into “the institution.”

For me, it all begins with American history, the National Museum of American History (NMAH) to be exact. It is what made it so difficult to finally find the words. NMAH was the first museum to welcome me here in D.C. as an intern, to embrace me, and I learned so much in my time there. So this piece is written from place of love, gratitude and appreciation to the many who continue to guide me, and does not take aim to destroy but in hopes to rebuild, together.

“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” —James Baldwin

 

I am writing this after another verdict, during our country’s Independence Day celebrations, amidst our current political landscape. I am writing because until we come to terms with the psychological and emotional impacts of institutionalized racism on all of us, none of us are free.

Building Houses on National Memory

On a recent trip to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, I noticed their advertising for the now newly opened exhibition, “The Nation We Build Together.” I have not seen the exhibition since it’s opening June 28th, however I was struck by a few things during this last visit, that culminated in a number of anxieties exemplary of how whiteness constitutes national memory, and undergirds our institutions. On a banner above the south entrance, a collage of faces can be seen—across various ages, races, and eras. It is an obvious attempt at American patriotism, one that says despite our differences we’re all in this together. Among those faces was Emmett Till’s, a story that even in typing his name, it evokes imagery of his face that brings me to tears. See, the problem with national memory—that is fueled by nationalism in its very origins—is that not all of us can exist in it, not in our full humanity at least. Not everyone’s story will make it, in favor of a primary singular narrative.

I moved to Washington, D.C. to attend grad school, sure that my work would best be served in a museum-setting but as many young professionals not exactly sure how and in what ways. I was fortunate that a course my first semester granted me access to NMAH, as it was taught by a curator and held in the Museum once a week. It was my first real exposure to a museum on a national scale. One particular assignment from that course always stayed with me—we were tasked with observing an exhibit: What was the context for the exhibit? Who stopped at the exhibit? How were they discussing the exhibit? I chose the exhibit located on the main lobby floor of NMAH. I had never had the “National Museum” experience being from Chicago, and was fascinated to learn what the experience was like for audiences. It’s a small exhibit along the wall, that pays homage to 1960’s America through popular culture. I observed quickly, in a span of a few hours, that this case was overwhelmingly frequented by older white visitors and in a twist, white families. It was a moment of nostalgia for them to remember JFK, the Beatles, and a few major headlines. It was a moment that caused me to look around, and for the first time ask “where are we?,” as visitors and within the narrative.

The following spring, I interned at NMAH with a curator, who I continue to be grateful to today. She was sure to point my attention to the work that she did to secure certain stories existed within the Museum. It was also during this period that the blog was born.

 

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” —Zora Neale Hurston

 

Decolonize This Place

For people of color, it is at this intersection of feeling and reality, that we repeatedly learn that we are in an overwhelmingly white space. It is at these moments that we come to understand our existence through the prism of whiteness. In a book I am reading,—which I’m sure my Instagram followers are tired of seeing me post—The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture by Kevin Quashie, I am challenged to consider the capaciousness of black humanity that exists beyond equating black life with resistance. For Quashie, and I agree, “These assumptions are noticeable in the ways that blackness serves as an emblem of social ailment and progress.” (Quashie, p. 3) Although, Quashie specifically examines black being, I think aspects of his argument do apply to the collapsable nature of marginalized cultures, accessible only in the ways that they fold into and/or propel white narratives forward.

In NMAH, blackness is legible as a resource and marker of market capitalism that upholds progress in American life and history; a phantom of entrepreneurship and innovation.  In this way, we are left to understand blackness as a problem in either instance. Objects centralize the story, so things are made but we are never truly revealed as to by whom and how these things came to be; without these intersections objects are born out of a function not from people, not from labor, and are condensed into a singular narrative. The National Museum of African American History and Culture has a presence in the museum, an exhibition space there as a preview for its coming arrival in 2016, that now stands in for the existence of black life and resiliency secluded from American history despite its clear proximity.

The basis of Quashie’s argument is that blackness or “to be black” is defined through acts of resistance, as a result black subjectivity is restricted to the ways it contributes to public discourse through its expressions. Blackness is expected to and limited by what it can tell us about about race and racism, which is also evident in its absence in the museum. Quashie, therefore, argues for a reexamination of black existence that is attentive to black interiority, that is present as well alongside public acts of resistance. Quashie borrows this definition of interiority from Hortense Spillers (as he should), it is “the inner reservoir of thoughts, feelings of desires, fears, ambitions that shape a human self; it is both a space of wild selffullness, a kind of self-indulgence, and the ‘the locus at which self interrogation takes place.'” (Black, White, and in Color, p. 383 in Quashie, p. 21)

To consistently see ourselves as enslaved or as historical markers of segregation, for example, perpetuates our existence as only knowable in opposition to whiteness. However, Spillers’ point in regards to self interrogation is not only toward the institution but is also applicable to ourselves—the marginalized folk. Our presence has been obscured and erased from our cultural institutions for so long, and through years of trauma, that we’ve similarly come to understand ourselves in this opposition to whiteness. We don’t always recognize the toll this work of representation takes, or the ways by which we stop seeing ourselves for our full humanity in the process. Quashie pushes this argument further in a critique of Du Bois’ concept of “Double Consciousness”:

“In double consciousness, the twoness of black subjectivity does not represent another consciousness,  that is free and wild; instead, the twoness is a kind of pathology, a fractured consciousness that is overdetermined by a public language of black inferiority…In this characterization, agency is limited to resisting public discourse, and the black subject seems to possess no interior worth speaking of.”—Kevin Quashie

 

It is not enough that we find agency in our oppression. To decolonize the museum we must leave home. And for the institution, how then can museums offer pathways to selfhood for their visitors?

Leaving Home

Conceptualizing this post has been a slow realization for myself. I have stakes in keeping things the way they are, because this feels familiar—this feels normal. However, I’ve been challenged with confronting my own vulnerabilities, which until recent contemplation I was unaware of just how much I feel encouraged to protect the institution despite my work of inclusion. For communities of color, this work looks like us seeing each other and acknowledging the possibilities for social justice and equity in collaborative solidarity work. To do that, I’d have to accept the full range of your humanity that exists in the way that I would like for you to see me. For cultural institutions this looks like abandoning linear progress narratives that arc so as to always have a “happy ending,” or the inclusion of marginalized groups beyond that one particular holiday or specialized program. This self interrogation relieves whiteness, and therefore our institutions, of its perceived neutrality. Whiteness is not the basis of my existence.

This may seem simple or even obvious, but we underestimate the veil of security that nationalism and national memory affords us. Nationalism presents a clarity of self, whereas vulnerability is considered a liability to our survival. (Quashie, p. 77) But how do the stories we tell change the narrative when we consider the potential of our relationships to ourselves and one another in acknowledging our vulnerabilities? Could you see the expansiveness of my humanity? Seeing Emmett Till’s smiling face on a banner amidst other figures in history, knowing the ways in which the horrific events surrounding his life mobilized the Civil Rights Movement, was traumatic, and falls short of the thoughtfulness it’s meant to inspire when the institution fails to provide space for our humanity alongside these stories. In that brief encounter, we are meant to understand him as one destination in our nation’s story. As I mentioned, I have not seen the new exhibition since it opened and to be honest I don’t know if I will. I don’t know if my psyche can handle being jolted between slavery and civil rights narratives. However, here’s to hoping that we also exist somewhere in between.

Leaving home requires that we forego what we think we know—a sense of security wrapped into a tidy narrative. Our trauma is too great for that.

 

 

*All views expressed here are my own, and not the opinion of anyone else or institution.

The Language of Diversity and Inclusion (Part 1)

Amanda and I were fortunate to have the opportunity to speak at the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) conference in Cleveland this month. We were invited as part of a young thought leaders session on diversity and inclusion. Our presentations were a moment to think through the language of diversity, and how we foresee the move toward intersectionality in the field.

I’ve been working through my own frustration with the over-saturation of the terms ‘diversity and inclusion’, intersectionality, and community that are often without the depth of meaning that allow for us to put them into real action.

RAR AAMD PPT-2 Extract 3.001

Diversity

From its inception has been overly relied upon to do the work of changing our perceptions and the place of people of color within our institutions. A textbook dictionary definition of the root word diverse states, “showing a great deal of variety; very different.” ‘Diversity’ initiatives in this way are shortsighted. The cliche of diversity becomes a burden on people of color that only requires the appearance of change. (i.e. the diversity committee, comprised of all the folks that are “diverse,” diversity does not mean black and brown people, etc.)

 

RAR AAMD PPT-2 Extract 2.001

Intersectionality

The problem with diversity is it’s uncomfortable, and not in the way doing the work of shifting our paradigms for ‘diversity and inclusion’ initiatives should be. ‘Intersectionality’, as it has been taken up, has become a way to bundle up difference with a bow. Kimberlé Crenshaw, legal scholar, gave us this term in her critical essay “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color” in 1989. Knowing the disciplinary origin of this term is important because intersectionality has always been about systems of power and privilege that are enforced upon particular persons in our society. (i.e. doing the work of inclusion should be difficult. If it isn’t, you’re doing it wrong.)

RAR AAMD PPT-2 Extract.001

Community

But as language travels so does meaning, and instead we’ve settled on a definition that sanitizes difference so to not have to critically examine the consequences of power on those differences. Diversity in this ways does not inquire into how to deal with difference but contains it. If we, in museums, are to do the work of intersectionality, we must examine our privilege and power; and it starts with putting meaning into practice. It is how we come to find and know our community.

RAR AAMD PPT-2 Extract 2.001

It is easy to settle for the community that looks like you, and that you can assume you know; rather than to ask the questions that would cause you to confront your own ignorance. Communities are ever changing, and for that we should never settle.

(Thank you again to AAMD for having us for their centennial conference convening.)

MuseumNext Indianapolis 2015

The 2-day conference collaborated around strategies toward inclusivity and the responsibility of the museum as a learning environment to deepen its engagement. So what do we learn by being inclusive?

The 2-day conference collaborated around strategies toward inclusivity and the responsibility of the museum as a learning environment to deepen its engagement. So what do we learn by being inclusive?

https://storify.com/2brwngirls/museumnext-indianapolis-2015

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.