I feel like I’m always writing that I don’t want to talk too much about myself, and then talking about myself at length. So – you should be used to it by now and have no complaints! <3 Or maybe, you’re not used to me because I haven’t written anything in a whole month! I missed you. Did you miss me? You’re probably reading this in 2027, visiting this website for the first time ever and you’re like “I don’t miss you, who even are you.” The internet is weird.
The Museum Drip motto is that we assess how to make museums more welcoming. One of the important ways we can make museums more welcoming is by ensuring that what’s on the walls, the staff, and visitors are diverse and that they are inclusive spaces. (Hopefully this isn’t the first you’re hearing of that – it’s kind of a big thing.) The idea that “diversity is more than just race and ethnicity” is something that gets co-opted by people who think being colorblind is progressive and pretend systemic racism doesn’t exist, which is unfortunate. Similar to points I’ve argued when it comes to navigating interns, diversifying staff is not a quick fix if we remain fixated on applicant’s resumes and pedigrees. Despite being a college-educated childless white woman who owns Swedish clogs and wears fair-trade-textile scarves, I sometimes feel like an outlier in the museum world. I want to explore that, and the potential dangers and pitfalls of being short-sighted regarding the recent fixation on visible diversity.
So, right, for me to say that I feel like a bit of an outlier in the museum world is like Gigi Hadid saying she doesn’t feel like she belongs in the modeling industry, I get it. And notice I am not using the word outsider, because that wouldn’t be true. I’m a white woman from a white family, I have a Master’s degree and own rainbow-striped glasses frames. I’m basically the avatar for the anti-diverse art museum educator. So what business do I have showing up here week after week to talk about making the museum more welcoming by breaking down barriers and addressing systemic racism?
I’ve toyed with the idea of putting this all out there before, but recently, I had a breakthrough in the very arduous DEAI work I’ve been involved in at the institution where I work. It’s arduous for everyone of course, but our special flavor is that the staff is 100% white. We have had a few contracted front line staff members who aren’t over the years, but for all intents and purposes, the staff is 100% white. It’s an art museum in a fairly rural area so, insert the “you’re shocked?” reels audio here. The breakthrough came from talking about how we are struggling to internalize the concept that systemic racism still affects the way we interact with each other. We were so focused on worrying about the non-existent diversity in our organization that we never stopped to think about the diversity that we do have and how that might affect how we treat each other. We have never taken the time to position ourselves to the work of DEAI and social justice and why it matters to us. My biggest hang up with working with an all-white staff on DEAI: I can’t have trust in the process when I don’t know what’s at stake for my colleagues. Why does this matter to them? What connection do they have to the work that pushes them to take it beyond a place of visibility and performativity? Are there communities, or loved ones, or deep personal values that are holding them accountable to prioritize interrupting systemic racism in the workplace? And if there aren’t, then what do they actually think about doing so? I think there’s a perception that these questions don’t need to be asked because it’s a given that people want to “do the right thing” but it’s like…………….look at the last 230 years of American history.
More “you’re shocked?” content: we haven’t gotten around to having this conversation at my workplace yet. So, I’m going first. I’m the avatar for “Museum Educator.” But I don’t think my formative experiences are as cookie-cutter as how I present today. Have you read The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America? If not, and you care about systemic racism, go buy or borrow it, then come back. This was one of those light-bulb educational experiences for me where things that I knew to be true, but didn’t know why, were suddenly explained. Since graduating high school and leaving my childhood bubble, I have been perplexed by how other white people seem to be so out of touch with the mere existence of people of color in America. I didn’t fully understand, before reading this book, that because of redlining and de jure segregation, there are tons of white people who literally, easily, live their entire lives going to school, stores, doctor’s offices, and restaurants, everything, where they don’t interact with or even see people of color. I knew that I grew up in a place that wasn’t like that, and then landed where I am today, in a place that is like that. I knew that when I started my first museum job back in my hometown that some of my coworkers had a very different relationship with and perspective on the people who lived down the street from my museum that I did, but I did not get why.
Of course, my parents choosing to stay and raise us in that town, and my mom teaching in an inner city, and being raised by open-minded, loving, accepting elders were also part of my equation, in addition to the dumb luck of being born in a town that managed to escape the worst of the de jure segregation. But, the Color of Law was a building block that opened my eyes to why I often feel like an outlier in the extremely white museum world. White people stay in white spaces and enter jobs that are gate kept primarily to people who have always moved in white spaces without ever holistically existing outside of white spaces and so they operate and behave in ways that are acceptable only in all-white spaces. Not an outsider, but an outlier, and the distinction is important.
As a child, when one forms their worldview, I was growing up with friends and classmates of color who had extremely successful families, who were top of the class, who were the smartest, most talented people that I knew (and still know), and the narrative that I learned via history classes and current events, that there was some reason why white people succeeded while people of color didn’t, created extreme cognitive dissonance for me. And not only families of color, but also immigrant families, and families of different socio-economic status. I was fortunate as a young person to regularly find myself in situations where I was the only person who didn’t speak the language, or at times find myself to be the only person who “looked like me” in a room. I think this is my origin story – why I am constantly seeking out those untold, underdeveloped narratives and championing a diversity of perspectives. I know they exist and I know it’s silly when we can’t see them. But where the distinction between outlier and outsider becomes important is that I have the privilege to easily move into white spaces, like the museum world. Something I’ve reflected on a lot over the past two years is the morality of being able to take those formative experiences into a successful career in a space that would rather hear about community outreach and diversity from the museum educator avatar than the people of color that formed my worldview. Do I deserve this?
Ultimately, this is what drives a lot of Museum Drip content. Like…if we could all be invested in inclusion, equality, justice, accessibility and diversity, we could move on with our lives, you know? And it’s what gives me a lot of misgivings about the potential pitfalls of the museum world’s growing obsession with hypervisible diversity – not just from the organizations doing the hiring, but the opinions of the rest of the field who are judging every move and rabble rousing when something doesn’t suit their perception of what anyone is supposed to be doing in this racially charged climate. The truth is that I do feel that I deserve to be here – I have a well-rounded background, the appropriate education, a knack for connecting with people, and an aptitude for interpretation and education. Museums tell the story of people – so “regular people” are an asset, not a detriment. And “regularness” is why representation matters so much in museums and art – because the value is for people to see themselves – so diversity should be a given, in a sense. In a dream world.
So to return to the question of “what’s at stake,” listen, people who work in museums weren’t under some Adam and Eve esque spell until the summer of 2020 when they tasted the fruit of the Garden of Eden and gained awareness of their whiteness for the very first time. Most museum employees didn’t look around in a meeting for the first time in 2011, or 2015 or even earlier in 2020 for the first time and thought “hmm. Seems off.” But it didn’t matter – because it wasn’t news. I’m not saying that every museum focusing on DEAI since 2020 are doing it for performative reasons, but also, we all follow Change Museums. And again, this is by no means an invitation for right wing fools to co-opt a conversation about diversity hires, please see yourselves out. But if you’re focusing on optics, are you hiring the best person for the job? But much more importantly, if you’re focusing on visible diversity, are you actually addressing, as my organization was not, how systemic racism shows up in your culture? Are you taking any time to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of your staff in relation to DEAI work, or are you looking for a tangible bandaid?
All of this to say that folks have been working towards the issue of the lack of diversity in the museum field for years. The progress hasn’t shown much for that work. As the linked article notes, it’s great that large museums are hiring BIPOC diversity officers, but you have to actually hire diverse candidates in other roles, too. Isn’t it possible that our conversation around these issues has been a bit reductive? Isn’t it possible that we’re continuing to reinforce us/them binaries instead of assessing people holistically? Perhaps we might have better results if we could broaden our concept of who does or doesn’t naturally gravitate towards gate-kept spaces like the art world instead of creating avatars for everything. For example, last year I worked on a committee to create funded internship opportunities for students in arts organizations. I had to correct a colleague who stated that unpaid internships are a barrier to “students from underprivileged backgrounds.” No, actually they’re a barrier for all but a tiny percentage of students from the wealthiest backgrounds. Just like how old school museum docents love to say that when “marginalized” school children visit the museum on a field trip, “it might be their only time ever setting foot in a museum.” This leads to the notion that only “underrepresented” demographics benefit from introductory museum programming. Y’all, do you know how many family members I have who have never set foot in a museum and are the farthest thing from “marginalized?”
Maybe by changing the way we perceive who the avatar of a “museum person” is, we will naturally find ourselves opening up these ~hallowed~ positions to people from more diverse backgrounds instead of arbitrarily focusing on visible solutions to a lack of diversity. I don’t know. A museum educator can dream.
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