Simple Steps to Increase Equity: Considering Gender Pronouns

A human brain is basically a pattern-deciphering machine. People make millions of judgments daily, mostly unconsciously. Their brains match all new inputs against all the data that resides in their brains. When the first white flake falls from the sky, they don’t consciously match this information against all the memories in the brain. But, unconsciously, they are connecting this image to frames of reference in their minds. They need not fear invasion by cold, wet aliens; it’s just snow, they know. (For some of us, that’s scary enough.)

Our mental framing devices are constantly evolving. Babies quickly acquire the frames to understand that eyes mean humans, for example. But, later, we learn that things that look like they have eyes might be inanimate.

Some of our most central frames are imbued with social norms. Consider the question about how you identify. You likely spent the first couple decades of life honing your identity. Your style, for example, might be incredibly important to how you see yourself. I, personally, have a strong correlation between my identity and my style. I see myself as an outgoing, rule-breaker, and my style is part of that. For others, punctuality might be part of their personality. Musical taste, hobbies, vocal intonation are other examples of how people externally express their identity. And, each of those external expressions is imbued with social constructs. By choosing those expressions, people are engaging with other people’s frames of reference (even if unconsciously.)

External identity markers are based on choice. Other identity markers are inherent to people. Gender, sexuality, race, and class are all accidents of birth. The way you express and live these characters are likely a mix of nature and nurture. The way we perceive other people’s gender, sexuality, race, and class often come down to our frames of reference.

Gender can be particularly hard. Many people have a frame of reference formed in youth that suggests two genders.  When we get input that goes against this frame of reference, we can feel confused, confounded, or even incensed. All of a sudden, our accepted frame of reference is being called into question. But, destabilizing your frame of reference can be an important way to evolve your thinking. Confronting new ideas about gender can feel like you are coming against your most deeply held beliefs about your identity. But, other people’s gender identity isn’t about you. It’s about them. Learning to be flexible in thinking and communicating about gender is a way of increasing equity in the world.

Sometimes it is helpful to remember that our frames of reference are culturally constructed rather than absolute. Gender, for example, is considered differently in many societies. A friend recently mentioned Fa’afa, an element of Samoan culture, as well as gender in New Zealand,  that is completely different than the binary concept of gender many Americans perceive as a given. In reading some of the resources she passed on (see below), I was struck at how different this conceptualization is my own. This is not a question of debating rightness between any one way of seeing gender. Instead, the frameworks in Samoan/ and Maori society highlight how culturally constructed mine is and therefore helps me remember that my ideas are not absolute or immutable. When you have a hard time thinking about someone who is different than a frame of reference you know, remember the binary is a construct of our society and not an element of all human societies.

Even in our own society, our conceptualization of gender can be more than a simple duality. Look at this example of how gender is expressed in common spoken American English:
 Person 1: What time did this letter come in? Who sent it?
Person 2: I don’t know. I didn’t even see the Postal worker
 Person 1: So, you don’t know what they said?
Person 2: No idea. Just call them and stop bothering me.

In this example, there is one postal worker who is referred to as them. In spoken English, when a gender is not known, we turn to the collective nouns, they/them. This linguistic norm is so naturalized, you might not realize that you do it. So, when you have problems using a collective noun when a person has expressed their pronouns to be they/them, think of this example. You can do grow to change how you use pronouns.

Like all things human, there are many ways of seeing the world. Remembering that our conceptualization is culturally constructed can help you learn to evolve your way of thinking. Evolving your frames of reference can be an essential way to improve the ways that you interact with others. It can make others feel more welcome, but it can also help you connect with many more people.

Resources about Fa’afa and Gender in New Zealand:

A Video about Fa’afafine

Maori approach to transgender (often included with LGBTQ+ under the term ‘Takatapu’ )

This is part of an ongoing series about small actions you can do to increase your ability to increase equity in society.

The previous post was:

Simple Steps to Increase Your Ability to Fight for Equity

 

User-Experience Design/ Service Design: Planning versus Feedback Tools

While many people are focused on the testing/ feedback tools, there are other tools that user experience designers/ service designers use to collaborate and plan within teams. These tools can be broadly broken down into tools/ processes that help shape a project (i.e. expand ideas) and ones that refine a project (solidify an idea). The ideal project uses a balance of tools from all four quadrants of the diagram.

User-Experience, Customer Experience, Servuce Design, and Disentangling all the Types of Design

Design is about solutions. Many different design fields have systems that help practitioners efficiently and effectively find solutions.

Why systematic solutions?

Think of houses. There are many types of houses, but they are all basically four (or more) exterior walls and something on top.  But, that said, even the most cookie-cutter neighborhood has differences between houses. Systems don’t close down creativity. Instead, they help designers maintain their creativity while sidestepping pitfalls/ or requiring wasted-time.

Why so many types of design? 

Existence is complicated, and designers need to solve for all those complications. Most design practices come out of a need. Industrial design, for example, came out of solving problems encountered thanks to the industrial revolution. In recent years, human-centered design has been discussed in many different fields. Human-centered design is a practice that overlaps many design fields. HCD can be applied to industrial design, for example, HCD car design.  By practice, service design and user-experience design are naturally human-centered.

User-Experience Design is more product-focused, partly due to its origins. User-Experience Design comes out of technology, with designers focusing historically on user interfaces. Historically, UXD used quantitative and qualitative data to help designers develop more user-centered products.

Service Design is focused on the experience, by looking holistically at touchpoints through the process. SD uses qualitative data to understand how an experience plays out over time. Unlike UXD, Service designers often focus on the broader environment and the processes that occur within those environments.

An analogy might be that the UX designer bakes the wedding cake that is best for the bride, and the service designer is the wedding planner to develop the best wedding for all. Both are important and connected, but slightly different in their approach and output.

What is the relationship between SD, CX, and UXD? 

While SD and UX have been different fields, where do they fit intellectually? Some scholars see them as partially overlapping fields. Other scholars and practitioners, like myself, see UX as a subset of SD.  UX is product related, which is used by people in spaces (Customer Experience) which occurs in environments (SD). Go back to the wedding metaphor. The wedding cake is a product people at the wedding eat; that relationship is not unlike someone using an app on a phone (perhaps less sweet). The interior design is about the space of the wedding. The look is modified to develop a certain feel in the space; this is exactly what customer experience designers consider. The person who deals with the overall experience is the wedding planner. They don’t have one product or feeling, but instead ensure all of  the wedding works. Service design is similar, it is about everyone coming together for the customer.

As the world moves from products to services/ experiences, UXD and SD are moving closer together. Both fields are higher orders of design, as defined by Richard Buchanan in his 1992 book Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. According to Buchanan, UXD and SD are focused on interactions, not just objects or users, and as such are higher order designs. Many tools like the SD blueprint, mapping an experience over time, has become valued by UX Designers.

For Thursday, we will look into different practices to consider how museum professionals can use them.

Cognitive Dissonance as Part of Equality Work

Working towards equality in society requires many skills, not the least of which is the desire and ability to challenge one’s assumptions and beliefs.  Many people think they are flexible thinkers. However, their flexibility usually has limits. Most our cognitive flexibility is tested in neutral or non-emotional settings. Think of the 21st-century skills like critical thinking and problem-solving. Each of those skills requires mental flexibility. But, most of the problems we solve don’t touch our core ideas of identity. Truly working on improving equity in society is beyond thinking outside the box. It is about realizing the box is not a box at all.

Equity is being used here to cover issues related to diversity, access, and inclusion in order to create a society in which all people are treated fairly respective of who they are. All people have beliefs and assumptions that are biased. Many people are learning to reconsider some of their biases. But, they often only focus on conscious assumptions.

For example, they might learn that certain terminology they have been using is wrong, like Transgendered is not the correct term. But, many people don’t dig into the underlying unconscious feelings they may have. In this case, transgendered is grammatically incorrect just as Italianed-American is incorrect. However, the phrase transgendered sounds as if the state of being trans was an action or a choice. Being trans is neither just as being female is not a choice for people who identify as such.  For many people, intellectually changing terms is easier than actually facing their underlying assumptions. Therefore, someone who might use the word trans can still act in ways that are inadvertently or intentionally anti-trans. Most people have many unconscious assumptions about gender that are intertwined with their own identity. Being able to act in ways that are truly trans-supportive requires unpacking and facing these assumptions.

How do you do this? Firstly, seeing that your ideas are biased is essential. Comparing your assumptions with a contrary idea (i.e. an idea disruptor) is an important way to be able to face your biases. The contrary idea creates an unpleasant feeling and results in changes in attitude and beliefs, i.e. a cognitive dissonance. Without changing these underlying assumptions, you often still act in the same way you would have before facing an idea disruptor.

Most diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion training focuses on superficial ideas, and therefore does not result in changed actions. That is partly because facing one’s underlying assumptions cannot occur via external action. You need to do the work yourself. But, when you do, your actions towards equity will be transformed.

 

 

Simple Steps to Increase Your Ability to Fight for Equity

Recently, I was asked about how to help someone grow their understanding of equity. Many people of color have been doing this work since birth. White people need to choose to do this work, as our society has been formed to center and support whiteness. The work of transforming everything you believe about your society is not easy.

First, you need to accept that everything you believe is wrong. Shaking one’s foundations is unsettling, to say the least. But, cracking those innate assumptions is essential, so that the new ideas about our society have space to take root.

Every once in a while, someone tells something that creates profound cognitive dissonance. Recently, on a trip to England, my young daughter was asking me what we would see Native American art at the National Gallery, London. In the end, I came to understand that she wasn’t asking if we would see work from the tribes of the Americas. She was asking if we would see work of the indigenous people of the British Isles. There I was on the escalators in the Tube, leagues, or so, under London, realizing that indigenous and person of color were synonymous in my daughter’s mind. The conversation has stuck with me partly as it illustrates how many coded ideas are imbued in every word we use. Those codes remain invisible unless you are forced to reconsider those ideas. Once you see the codes, you can never un-see them. Think of coded language as a sort of optical illusion. Once your eyes see the trick, you always see it. So, how do you ensure you can “see” social inequity in all its myriad forms?

Placing yourself in moments of cognitive dissonance is essential to being about to transform your world view. You need to be proactive finding ideas and situations that break you out of your norms. You need to challenge yourself to see the world differently. You are the only one who can transform your vision of society.

So, where do you start? Reconsidering the fundamentals of your world is a good place to start. Look at ideas and concepts that you face every day. Break down your assumptions about those ideas.

Family is a particularly interesting one. Even those who aren’t close to their family face the concept constantly.

Take this situation. You walk into a coffee shop to look for a seat. You scan the room and find no tables available. You buy your coffee to go. By the time you leave, you have seen dozens of people. As you scanned the table, you likely unconsciously judged the relationship between the people at the tables. Everyone unconsciously makes hundreds of snap judgments, making images with frames of understanding, every day. Your brain decided on the relationship between people, even if you didn’t consciously realize this. The challenge is that your unconscious ideas are often biased.

American society was founded with the idea of the family being heterosexual with natural-born children and married adults. The idea of 2.5 children in the home of their birth parents is pervasive in our collective subconscious. Family has been transformed considerably in the last fifty years. Interracial relationships are at an all-time high. The state of marriage is no longer defined by gender.

Yet, many people still have innate, unconscious ideas about family. In that coffee shop, if there was a table with a black man and two white children, would you have said family? What about an old Filipino woman and two white children? A white woman and two black children? Two white men and one black boy? All of those groups might define themselves as family. They might not be related. They might. They might family friends, big brothers, foster parents, neighbors, nannies, families by choice, or blood relatives. But, they might all say they are family.

Family is defined individually not from the outside. The idea that family isn’t about blood or marriage breaks many of the unconscious ideas you might hold. You might know this intellectually, but I challenge you to find ways to short-circuit your unconscious frames of reference about family. Next time you are scanning a crowd force yourself to stop and question the groups you didn’t see as family.

 

This is part of an ongoing series about small actions you can do to increase your ability to increase equity in society.

 

Setting the Stage for Great AR/ VR Projects

Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are tantalizing prospects for museums. These technologies offer museums a chance to engage visitors differently, while at the same time appearing cutting-edge.

In early September, the American Alliance of Museums and the Knight Foundation fostered a conversation about immersion. Museum professionals along with practitioners discussed AR, VR, and Immersion. Their conversations touched on some of the tensions that museum professionals feel about this new technology.

Cost was foremost amongst people’s concerns. Museums consistently feel the pinch of tight budgets. New technology can be a chance to gain additional funding, through grants. These grants might mean that the project costs are separate from the operating budget, but the organization can still be taxed. New projects pull capacity from existing projects.

Staff also feared the motivations and effects of implementing such projects. Many organizations might jump into “shiny new” projects without shoring up their internal capacity and infrastructure. Managers often lack the knowledge to make good decisions about digital. As a result, projects can fail even before they are launched.

These challenges are valid. AR and VR remain newer technology. Their impact on the museum-goers remains somewhat uncertain. Without clear impact studies, implementation costs can be hard to justify. The risks seem enormous.

However, the gains are greater. Immersion offers visitors new ways to engage. Both technology and non-technology immersion are becoming an important form of engagement throughout society.  Museums risk more by not considering AR, VR, and immersion. The tools might not be right for all museums, but its imperative for museum professionals to understand immersive tools well enough to make informed decisions for their constituencies.

Ideally, museum professionals start by focusing on the visitor experience (VX) as a big picture. Everything within the institution should connect to their overall VX strategy. Then, they need to take stock of their internal abilities, both interpretive and technological. This step is essential but also challenging. Museums are often unable to assess holes in their capacity. Consultants can be helpful in lending an outside eye to determine the state of things. This foundation is essential before moving forward on any AR/VR project.

With the price tag in mind, museums might invest in AR/VR projects with permanency in mind. This approach is foolhardy. Instead, museums should go in planning obsolesce. Ignoring change will not make the pace of technological evolution slow. Focusing on the content can help stem some of the fear of investing in ephemeral technology. The ideas content will be evergreen even if the technology changes.

If AR or VR is the right tool for the ideas and the audience, the museum should develop processes that foster experimentation and iteration. Ideal processes should involve research, not just testing. Staff from many departments should be involved and make an impact on the project, not solely senior executives or tech staff. Early in the project the whole team should confirm the goals, outcomes, and define a common language.

AR and VR can be extraordinary or unnecessary, with the difference being the implementation. All engagement fails when it is produced thoughtlessly. Museum AR and VR projects will fail if they focus on the technology rather than the ideas. However, focusing on ideas alone is not enough. The organization has to be ready to launch such projects. Most museums require internal growth and planning to be able to develop successful AR and VR projects. But, these changes can reap huge benefits in meeting visitors in new, exciting ways.

Classism and Museums

 

Socio-economic diversity is often ignored when organizations endeavor to become more inclusive and accessible. But, ignoring socio-economic differences can have a lasting impact on the audience and staff demographics, as well as impede future audience growth.

In our purportedly merit-based society, we are taught to ignore markers of class, so we are not good about discussing them. Even if we might talk about race, more, marginally, we rarely discuss socio-economic diversity.

 

Myth of Meritocracy

Americans are raised to believe we live in a meritocracy. Most young children are told that success is within reach, usually in their educational settings and sometimes in their families. How many of us are told that anyone in America can grow up to be president?

Inculcated into the myth of meritocracy, we are often incapable of seeing the ways that class and socio-economic standing are structurally embedded within society. Merit-based advancement is our cultural Potemkin village erected by the few to trick the many. There have been times in our history where a large sector has made advancement, notably the rise of industrialization and just after World War II. In each of these periods, notable lower class people became wealthy, greenbacks being the best accouterment for a class transition. But, these socially-mobile individuals are anomalies with great marketing, not the norms. They are held up as proof of our meritocracy, rather than simply being what they are, rarities that escaped the structural challenges.

This myth of meritocracy permeates the ways that people consider poverty, class, socio-economic mobility. Firstly, merit becomes directly related to success. If earnings and success are based on merit, then low earnings and career failure are born of a lack of merit. Lower earners are seen as less deserving than high paid ones, thanks to their personal failings.

In actuality, career success is born of many factors. Class stratification gives the rich a leg up by starting higher on the success ladder: starting with greater maternal nutrition, continuing through strong primary and secondary education, and eventually in adulthood cashing in on family and school networks and connections. The race to success for the rich is a much shorter course than for the poor.  

Race and Class

Race and class are inextricably linked. African-Americans and Latinx individuals are more likely to be poor in American than Asians or whites. The myth of merit leads to the spurious assumption that certain racial groups are inherently less successful. In truth, African-Americans and Latinx individuals are often starting on the very bottom the ladder of success and climbing the rungs weighted by racism. Racism, therefore, cannot be disentangled from classism.

The connection between race and class is not accidental. Legal and political systems have made success harder for certain racial groups. Legally stipulated segregation, for example, meant that people of color spent much of the twentieth-century blocked from many forms of success. People of color often had fewer rights, like even the right to citizenship after decades of legal residency or the right to marry outside their race. These few examples scratch the surface of the ways that systematic racism contributed to our current racially-stratified class structure.

Programs aimed at improving racial disparity often ignore issues of class. This omission is often about the prejudice of the planners, who might not even realize their innate, unspoken beliefs. Class blindness has real ramifications. For example, many people might say black or Latino, but they mean a person who is poor and black. When people don’t investigate these false assumptions about class and race, the programs have inherent flaws, including scope, marketing, and reach.

 

Class  Segregation is our Norm

People live and work in socio-economically siloed spaces. Work is usually earned through academic credentialing and networking. The former requires an initial investment of money while the latter requires tapping into existing relationships, usually with others of the same background. In American, most people are educated alongside people of the same class, only to go to the same universities, get similar jobs, and explore similar leisure activities.

Work can be a point of socio-economic diversity, but this is often when an employer has people in different job functions (executive to janitorial). In those situations, the workplace might reinforce class divisions. Leisure activities are another point where classes mix, like at sporting events. However, paid leisure activities often create a separate but equal culture, with upper classes enjoying games with cocktails from the boxes while the hoi polloi chow down on dogs at the lower levels. Many of these glancing connections to different classes reinforce stereotypes. Overall, most experiences that overlap classes are too shallow or else imbued with financial baggage to result in meaningful cross-class understanding.

 

What does this mean for the workplace?

Employees engage with each other about work through the medium of spoken and unspoken communication, both of which are intensely class based. Think about Standard American English. This vast nation has numerous regional variations and accents, but flat-toned Standard American English is the most commonly accepted communication tool on most news media. That type of speaking might go over class, hypothetically, but in practice, improper pronunciation or grammar scream “lower-class” to most Americans. For the American employee raised in a lower class home, communicating with colleagues can be an act of self-policing and personality translation.

The unspoken class norms are even harder for people passing into a higher class. While Standard American is taught in every American school, the subtle class cues are taught by osmosis in the many social and cultural experiences that make up a person’s upbringing.

The American myth of meritocracy often glosses over the problem of learning new class norms.

In a famous scene in the movie Pretty Woman, sex worker Julia Roberts learns about utensils as a way to grease her way into the upper-class society that she finds herself. Being able to tell a fish fork from a salad fork would be the least of your worries in the long run. The ability to interact with the trappings of a class is like signifiers of being comfortable with that class. Learning to interact will not help you learn the foundational class norms.

In service-based fields, this complexity of class is even more challenging. People in decision-making roles are often of higher classes than the people being served. This class differential can add bias into and decrease the efficacy of the services being provided.

 

What does this mean for museums?

Museums are inextricably connected to class. Most museums are funded through donations, often large gifts from the wealthy.  Collections can also be connected to wealth. Art Museums display millennia of the material culture of the wealthy. But, science and anthropology collections often come from wealthy donors. Museums connection to wealth is not solely historical. While museums hope to expand their audiences, people still see museums as a leisure activity of the wealthy.

Without dealing with class, museums will be unable to draw wider audiences. Ignoring our prejudices and assumptions about race, therefore, can have a massive impact on our staff and patrons. Later this week, we will think more concretely about the challenges of classism in the museum and cultural sector.

Some Solutions to the White Supremacy in Museums

White supremacy is not something easily solved in our society, with millenia of problems to counteract. Yet, the scale of the problem should not be a deterrent to action. A previous post helped set up the meaning of the phrase white supremacy, but it is useful to continue to discuss the term.

Most of the actions that support inequity and the power position of white society are subtle and constant. Inaction is a form of action. For example, when museums do not discuss race, they are choosing to maintain the current order. Museums have a great opportunity to help increase equity in our society.

What types of actions are white supremacy?

This diagram can help clarify the types of issues that contribute to the culture of white supremacy. Many more actions occur daily at the lower level of the pyramid. Those actions create the foundation of society, and in many ways, form the culture upon which the more overt actions occur. While the overt actions are shocking, the covert actions are often more pernicious. Understanding these covert actions, and then need to subvert them, is the first step in transforming white supremacy. After all, as many protest signs have stated, white silence is white compliance.

What are some examples?

Communication & Signals: Sharing ideas that ignore race or imply issues about race

Style Guide:

Most institutions have a style guide that (hopefully) ensures communication consistency. These documents are the organization’s linguistic choices codified and formalized, servings as the editor’s measuring stick for all textual output. Organizations often focus on certain elements of the style guide, like brand issues, but ignore cultural competency issues.

For example, many organizations continue to use the word “slave” over “enslaved person.” Any long-time label writer can attest to the horror of wasted words. But, at organizational level, this choice places the need to maintain word count over expressing a nuanced understanding of the humanity and horror of the state of enslaving people.

Solution: Work with bias trainers to refine your style guide.

Interpretation Strategy:

Writing about collections is enormously challenging. Writers are working with limited space and unlimited possibilities; visitors are completely variable in their desires and needs. Every exhibition is mounted as a good faith effort to balance the organization’s need and the visitors. Yet, very often, exhibition planners (curators, educators, designers, etc.) do not consider cultural competency issues, like race, when working through their installations. When space is at a premium, intellectually and physically, interpretation often decides to focus on the issues that can be tackled easily. Avoiding issues like race, colonialism, etc. only serves to support the status quo.

Solution: Lead conversations during interpretation planning to discuss the ramifications of decisions.

Marketing Imagery:

Marketing photographs are usually chosen to project the ideal audience demographic, a visualization of the diversity the organization seeks. This racial diversity is often unfulfilled dream. Visitors attending the organization, expecting a certain audience demographic, find themselves amongst a different audience entirely. Using images that misrepresent the audience is dishonest. They set up expectations for the incoming visitors. If the organization is not actually prepared to make those visitors comfortable, for example if security and front-line staff have not had extensive cultural competency training, visitors will suffer.

Solutions: Be purposeful in your imagery choices, and ensure your staff is prepared for changes to your audience demographics

Gallery Sequencing:

Gallery sequencing might feel easy, following a canonical path. Art museums might choose to set things up according to the chronological march of time. Natural history museums might choose to split organic and inorganic specimens. But, every choice is imbued with cultural norms, often dripping with white supremacy. Natural history museums, for example, often hold collections of native American art, though don’t hold corresponding collections from other American cultures. The placement of these galleries can project uncomfortable and inappropriate meaning. Placing native American collections near collections about the evolution of man, for example, can imply Native Americans are less “evolved.” Certainly, curators might not believe this, however the space juxtapositions can still imply this to visitors.

Solution: This problem can be incredibly hard to solve. Gallery cannot easily be moved without massive financial ramifications. If you are in the position to do a resequencing, spend time talking through the choices, ideally with a bias consultant. However, if not, then find ways to communicate challenges with your visitors. Meet any possible misunderstanding head on with your interpretation.

Decision-making: The business of running museums can maintain the current status quo

Tokenism: Hiring practices in museums can certainly be a full blog post. But, in short, the credentialing-based hiring and unspoken requirement of unpaid internships ensures that staff positions are drawing from a small privileged group of applicants. Museums often expand their applicant expectations, say for community engagement positions. In other words, people of color are being relegated to a few jobs associated with working with people of color. Basically, these hiring practices bring a few individuals into the existing culture, all but maintaining the current order.

Solution: Again, this could be the subject of a blog post. But, internally, the issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access need to be considered thoroughly and thoughtfully. Hiring in staff without internal change only exacerbates the problem.

Community Engagement: Engagement programs can be incredibly transformative for organizations, but only if they allow for the transformation. When such programs are siloed, their impact on the organization is localized. In other words, community engagement often supports the status quo, creating a culture of special interest (segregated) programming that runs in parallel with the general programming. For community engagement to truly transform white supremacy in an organization, it has to become central to all work and the job of everyone.

Solution: Leadership needs to make transforming the audience everyone’s job, then they need to increase internal capacity across the board to do so.


 

Thanks to Hrag of Hyperallergenic on his post about Newark Museum’s labels that got me thinking about this topic. The Newark Museum is obviously doing something right, as they have made the decision to move away from anonymous.

Museums & White Supremacy

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.

Onboarding and Interpretation


Museum interpretation professionals are creating content for people who generally know less than them. Getting the right amount of content requires understanding the visitor. Tools like content mapping can help organizations get their content right. But, all museum professionals need to remember that their visitors have different baseline knowledge levels. Onboarding is a classic corporate word that encapsulates the idea that people might need a bit of aid to get connected to an organization. I always picture a ramp when I think of the idea of onboarding. Some ramps are short, when there is little small between two elevations. Others are long. The ramp is a good metaphor for the onboarding needs of visitors. People who know a great deal about the collection area will need little onboarding. (But, these people are also the ones who are the power users of your content.)  Casual visitors are often also people with greater onboarding needs; they have less pre-knowledge. Keeping the issues of onboarding in mind as you develop content will help you create content that meets the various needs of your visitor-base. Remembering that everyone comes in with different needs and pre-knowledge, also helps center the visitor in the customer experience.