22 Aug

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.

09 Aug

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.

07 Aug

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.