White supremacy is a phrase that can startle people. For many people, the phrase connotes men in white sheets marching under cover of night fighting anonymously for a minority vision of our society. These white extremists certainly fall within the definition of white supremacy, but they are not the defining aspect of the concept.

What is white supremacy?

White supremacy is a system that maintains the structure with the white culture at the top of society. For many people, this actuality of white supremacy is challenging. There is the cognitive dissonance between their belief that white supremacy is a minority opinion counter to our pluralistic society. Being confronted with the idea that wholly contradicts their original opinion can be jarring. But, being forced to see themselves mentally aligned with such vilified members of our society can seem repugnant and repellent. Most members of our society attempt to perform “anti-racism,” i.e., they act in ways that appear inclusive. So, to learn that their actions and the society they live in is in line with the KKK, well, that can feel either earth-shaking or completely false. Either way, without coming to terms with the reality of white supremacy, people cannot work toward racial equity.

Our cultural structures are so imbued with white supremacy as to have become nearly invisible. For example, the English language has become the norm globally. Even nations that had never succumbed to the English empire, advertisements run taglines for products in English. Coca-Cola anyone? American capitalism is equally pervasive. I would be hard-pressed to imagine a single adult in the world who is without some knowledge of an American product, like a brand, actor, or idea. Western society has become our global given.

What do these economic and cultural givens have to do with white supremacy?

First, English is a language, perhaps the language, of white colonialism, the greatest propagator of white supremacy our society has ever known. Even as the economy of colonialism has largely waned, the language maintains many of those ties. Many smaller languages have given way to the power of English, the language of commerce and success. But, with a new language comes a new idea. The English language serves to support the dispersal of cultural norms as well. Any bilingual person knows that translation is an approximation, at best. And, English has forced many cultural ideas into other societies, leaving much of the pre-English ideas lost in translation.

Economics also has its part in white supremacy. The means of production since the Industrial Revolution has been held by the few, and those few have been white. Even as society has slowly transformed with more non-white people gaining ground economically, largely the system has been constructed to maintain this order. This economic reality can be incredibly jarring for people. Often, the iconic poor white miner is levied as a rhetorical brick against this reading of white supremacy. After all, aren’t there black people with Harvard degrees eating caviar while this poor white miner remains jobless in Appalachia? Of course, both people described certainly exist. But, those individuals do nothing to undo the economics of white supremacy, and in fact, they both serve to support the theory. An Ivy-league educated American black person remains a minority.

Given that most black Americans can trace their history in this nation back farther the many White Americans, the lower rates of matriculation of black Americans at Ivy League institutions should be shocking. Think about this. Black people have been in American for hundreds of years, speaking this language, living in this culture, and yet, someone whose grandparents spoke no English has more likelihood, statistically, of matriculating to an Ivy League school. So, what’s the variable? Race. We live in a society where if you are white, you are unmarked. Therefore, you can live within the scrutiny of color. Now, you might be given a silver spoon and the corner office, but white people are not hamstrung by their race. So, black American is succeeding despite the mark of their skin color, and often as one of very few to follow that path. In the story of the black Harvard grad, there are two hallmarks of white supremacy. The road of being a solo person of color in a competitive field is exhausting and intense. Career and academic isolationism, due to few people of color reaching high levels, maintain the current order. But, even more telling, the black Harvard grad is often seen as a product of affirmative action, as if their merit was not equal to white students. The underlying belief is that the playing field was not equal. Certainly, the playing field was not equal. White people have the ability to move within the academic and economic society without the baggage of race. That mobility is an enormous boon, and likely one of the greatest mechanisms that propagate white supremacy.

This mobility is also underlying the issues of the white miner. That people would see a poor white person as proof that white supremacy exists is the ultimate marker of white supremacy. The argument is that white supremacy can’t exist if there are white people who are poor. The corollary to that argument would be that all white people must be above all people of color. In other words, that argument is complete within the norms of white supremacy, where whiteness is an essential state of being. If whiteness was the issue there, the poor miner could be any color, and the argument would be about the shrinking periphery in our society. But, instead, his poverty is seen as surprising because he is white, i.e., of the privileged state in our society.

What do this poor miner and black Harvard grad have to do with museums?

Whiteness is inextricably linked to the work of museums. Museums are part of the Western (white) society. Often collections are born of the very colonial state that propagated white supremacy. Art museums certainly hold collections born of colonialism, such as Asian and African collections. But, other museums also profited from colonialism. Fossils from all around the world call Western nations home, for example. Even the very idea of collecting and cataloging is a Western one. Denying this history does not negate it, but instead allows this history to subvert any changes we attempt to put in place. After all, we know that the monster under the bed has more power when unseen and threatening; once faced, its hold dissipates quickly.

However, language and translation might be some of the most useful elements of white supremacy that permeates museums. Museums attempt to share ideas with patrons to help them connect to collections (and share collections to connect patrons to ideas). In other words, museums are basically communicators. This places museums in a power position. They have the power to chose what is communicated and how. Often, museums communicate in ways that support the current order, and therefore they support white supremacy.

Museum staff remains largely white, so the nuance of language and the bigger cultural issues of white supremacy often feel academic, which gets us back to our miner and Harvard grad. The class is certainly an issue in museums, but generally, many more white people of lower classes have been able to pass into the upper levels of museum administration than people of color. Diversity and inclusion efforts have brought in more people of color, but the numbers are low. People of color, therefore, become isolated and often disenchanted.

So, what can museums do?

There are many ways, small and large, that museums can deal with white supremacy in their work. First, though, museum professionals need to face up to the fact that white supremacy is a lot more than guys in sheets and that they are part of the problem. Museum professionals need to think about what white supremacy means within society and within their work. Without coming to terms with the fact that white supremacy is a powerful state that has suffused our society, they have no hope of moving towards a racially equitable state.

On Thursday, we will have some concrete examples of white supremacy in museum work.

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