The 2017 AAM conference was held in St. Louis, a city with racial challenges since long before Ferguson. Five thousand or so delegates joined the AAM team for the conference, whose theme was Gateways for Understanding: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion in Museums. AAM shared why St. Louis served as a useful place for its community to consider the heady issues of race; this city at the center of America is a place for all delegates to put equity and inclusion at the center of our work. The conference included numerous keynotes as an effort to diversify the voices being amplified by the AAM organization. In numerous sessions in the conference, professionals shared their work related to diversity and inclusion. Additionally, AAM commissioned social media journalists; another effort to diversify the voices shared by AAM (to find these, look up #AAMSMJ on Twitter).
Against this backdrop, in the expo hall, a firm called LifeFormations, who produces life-sized figures for exhibitions, brought a grouping depicting an enslaved African/ African-American positioned beside a white slaver/ owner. In many ways, AAM became a live case study of all the issues of diversity and inclusion being discussed in the conferences rooms above the exposition hall. While others will be better qualified to discuss the responses, both in person and by social media, I would summarize that there were strong negative reactions from AAM participants and conference center staff. AAM held impromptu sessions to discuss the issues. Laura Lott sent a letter to participants to discuss the issue. Finally, the CEO of LifeFormations spoke to a group of AAM participants in a dialogue facilitated by Dina Bailey. Again, I offer the briefest synopsis as I know that many other will offer more thorough information about this issue. You can start by looking to Twitter for #AAM2017SlaveAuction.
Instead I would like to offer some lessons we could learn from this situation. I write these lessons, because we all need to work on ourselves. These are ways that you can improve yourself.
7 Lessons or Action Steps:
Honor People’s Emotions: We all react to things differently. I, for one, was shocked. But, a colleague I know was heart-broken. Neither of us were wrong. You might want to talk people down from strong emotions, but that is not your job. I have never heard anyone use the expression “calm down” to positive effect. Allow people to have their emotions. You might feel discomfort, but you will also gain empathy.
Take Care in Your Words & Actions: You might want to what to highlight your empathy to someone who is Black/African-American by going out of your way to share something that you perceive relates to them. This comes off like pandering or worse. Think of yourself in their position. Imagine someone saying you might like this because you are a woman/ white/ gay… In other words, if your actions would feel bad if you were in their place, then don’t do it.
Don’t Own Other People’s Struggles: I was at AAM. I saw much of the reaction to this scene. I reacted privately. Yet, as an Asian American, I am not positioned to fully discuss the issues. Trust me; there are struggles that I can discuss. But, I also want to allow my colleagues who are better able to speak about these issues to do so. (Once they do, I will share them with my contacts. The issues will still get out there.)
Listen Rather than Hear: In a table discussion about this issue, we were talking about censorship. Coming from an arts background, I have the first amendment tattooed on my heart. I spoke honestly about my reticence about censoring anything, but then a colleague shared her feelings about the mitigating issues of capitalism and compounding issues of profiting from slavery AGAIN. I could have volleyed another lob about free speech, but instead I listened to her. And, I understood her. She changed my mind. (I am terribly simplifying her argument, so I apologize). People won’t always change your mind; but they will never change your mind if you don’t listen.
Well-Meaning is Not Enough: Many friends shared the microaggressions, or small, challenging acts, that soured their experience of the conference. I won’t share those, as they are not mine, but I had a small moment where someone asked where I was from. Proud Clevelander as I am, I responded quickly. What resulted was a tired conversation about my ethnicity.
Give Everyone Some Slack: To continue with the above story, I was tired of explaining that people of all colors can be conceived and birthed in the United States. I was tired of people looking past my nasal Great Lakes accent and hearing a foreigner. And, yet, I summoned the grace to respond kindly. This is really hard. I will not lie. But, if you don’t, no one will change.
Don’t Flatten Things: When discussing the situation with someone who was white, she told me that all white people need things easy. In race, nothing is easy. And, this woman made several assumptions about me. She didn’t know if white parents adopted me; if I was married to a white person; or if I was a white supremacist. Now, I want to state categorically, and publicly, that the latter is false. I use this inflammatory comment to point out that you never know. Placing all white people in a box is not productive. And, it is not empathetic. Race is a complicated issue, and it doesn’t help anything to simplify any part of it.