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The White Supremacy Elephant in the Room

Category: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion
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This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership. In an effort to provide the broadest possible access to this critical topic, we are making these articles free and available to the public.


How museum professionals can see it, name it, and change it.

Museums and other cultural institutions have been deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the national racial justice reckoning. These dual crises have drawn the curtain back on a field rife with systemic inequities.

While many within the field have been pushing these inequities to the forefront for decades, their concerns have not been systematically heard, acknowledged, and addressed. Why is it so difficult to see, understand, and actively and effectively dismantle systems of oppression in the museum field?

Despite our espoused desire to be fair, just, and equitable, we actively and passively resist making the changes that precipitate that outcome. We advocate on the national stage for museums to be seen as essential to the communities we serve, but we often seem oblivious of how to meaningfully connect with those same communities. Internally, we struggle to attract diverse professionals to the field and struggle to leverage and empower historically marginalized voices currently in the field.’

“To dismantle white supremacy in cultural spaces, we must unflinchingly name these harmful practices.”

Why? Because museums operate within a white supremacy culture, which informs the norms and practices of the museum field at large. This culture comes from museums’ historic ties to the Atlantic slave trade and has remained embedded in institutional and individual practices. However, there are field-wide efforts to dismantle white supremacy culture, and there are ways that individuals can begin to see and disrupt this culture in their respective organizations.

The Origins of White Supremacy Culture

When American museums were first established, they followed models of European royalist traditions and were enabled by a systemically racist financial system founded with the colonial slave trade. The European nations established trade triangles by enslaving people from Africa to work the land in the Americas. To accommodate the Atlantic slave trade, economic supports were established at both ends to manage the shipping, internal transportation, and banking.

This infrastructure, and the wealth acquired through it, withstood the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, but could it lose the stain of its origin? The harbors became the major communities of the East Coast as the banking, trade, and transportation industries thrived with expansion. The wealthy founded the encyclopedic museums of art and science to educate and enlighten their cities’ residents and workers.

American museums and related institutions acquired the European hierarchy of culture. Greece and Rome, seen as civilizations not as centers of trade, were followed chronologically and conceptually by Western Europe and eventually by Asia, the Western Hemisphere, and Africa. This hierarchy can still be seen in the order of galleries in many museums and in classification systems, such as the Dewey Decimal System that is used in most libraries.

While most museums are not encyclopedic, they have been mired in the practices of display and interpretation that developed in the late 19th century. Provenance, the widespread practice of including the names of donors on captioning, is a clear statement of the importance of direct and indirect funding on the field. Does that financial trail lead back to the Atlantic slave trade?

White Supremacy Culture Today

White supremacy in organizational culture today is insidious, invisible, and pervasive. Naming white supremacy in the workplace is most often met with resistance, with leaders refusing to call it anything other than a “normal” expression of workplace relationships.

As Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun note in Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups (2001), “The characteristics [of white supremacy culture] … are damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being proactively named or chosen by the group.” Jones and Okun list 14 characteristics, including perfectionism, ungrounded urgency, worship of the written word, and paternalism. They note that these characteristics are so embedded in work spaces that calling them out incites defensiveness and disbelief rather than curiosity about the potential harm they cause.

To dismantle white supremacy in cultural spaces, we must unflinchingly name these harmful practices. Only then can we address them. Efforts to dismantle white supremacy and institute accountability for leadership start with an insistence on data, research, and mutual understanding of the problem, all of which are, unfortunately, in short supply in the field.

White supremacist norms are prevalent in hiring, compliance, and programming in museums and other cultural institutions. For more diverse voices to even enter the field, we must address this first hurdle. The museum field is rife with anecdotal accounts of subjective hiring and promotion barriers linked to educational requirements. For example, a BIPOC woman became the youngest member of a small history museum’s senior staff after completing her master’s degree. She was told an advanced degree was a requirement for senior leadership team members. She then realized that another member of the leadership team had only a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field and had been in senior leadership for at least three years.

In her 2019 Medium post “Barriers to Entry: An Infrastructure of Exclusion in the Museum,” museum professional Elise Couture-Stone notes her own complicity in creating barriers to access for people of color. Couture-Stone highlights a reliance on unpaid internships, internal promotion practices, lack of pay equity, and the concept of “fit” as ongoing barriers to addressing supremacist structures in pay, hiring, and promotion. Couture-Stone acknowledges what few people in leadership roles will: the concept of fit is particularly troubling in the museum hiring process because it focuses on whether or not one’s personality fits into current office culture rather than the skill set for the open position. “Those doing the interviewing tend to hire those that are most reflective of themselves and the rest of the team,” she writes in the post.

These barriers are in large part individual supremacist choices and behaviors that are codified as standard practices. Individual behaviors can create inequitable outcomes for the field when left unchecked and unacknowledged by institutional leadership of any racial or ethnic background.

How We Change the Culture

Across the museum field, individuals and groups are not only bringing attention to the problematic histories and practices of our institutions, but also taking action to dismantle the systems of cultural violence that our institutions and, by extension, we as museum practitioners have upheld for so long. Field-wide conversations about “relevance,” “community engagement,” “neutrality,” and “decolonization,” among others, have pushed us to rethink assumptions about our work. But, until recently, we often dodged the broader discussion of systemic white supremacy and how it intersects with every facet of museums. If there’s a silver lining from the racial reckoning of 2020, it may be that we can now push more effectively through this coded language to get at the root source.

This work, which encompasses collections, exhibitions, programs, operations, funding, and governance, belongs to every one of us. And the field has a variety of tools that practitioners can use to get started (see Resources below). Compiled by dedicated colleagues, these resources are freely available to the field. Claims from individuals that they don’t know where or how to start ring hollow for those of us actively working to dismantle oppressive systems.

With that in mind, here are 10 things you can do right now to disrupt white supremacy culture.

Individual Level

  1. Do your research. Follow colleagues in the field who have been engaged with and leading this work (social media, articles, books). Make use of the many reading and resource lists out there. DO the legwork. DON’T ask others to do it for you. #letmegooglethatforyou
  2. Practice self-reflection. Over the past months, the Change the Museum Instagram account has collected testimonies from museum practitioners about how and where white supremacy culture has shown up in museum spaces. Review these and consider Okun and Jones’ traits of white supremacy in organizational culture. Do they look or sound familiar? How do they show up in your personal and professional life?
  3. Find an accountability partner. When building new knowledge and skills, creating a local community of practice can be invaluable. Find a trusted person, or persons, with whom you can explore and examine new ideas.

 Institutional Level

  1. Learn your institution’s history. Examine the historic origins of your museum’s funding and its cultural hierarchy. Build a timeline and do some digging about the role of your institution within the local civic and cultural landscape.
  2. Build awareness. Critically examine who is consistently served or benefits from the choices made about which stories are told, which objects are collected, whose comfort is centered, and what artifacts and programming are presented. For example, conduct an exhibition and program audit from the past 5–10 years. What patterns do you notice?
  3. Review, assess, and change. Develop
    equity-focused mechanisms for review and feedback on job descriptions, the employee handbook, salary transparency, and hiring practices. Examine funding models, board structure, and other
    decision-making and governance models with a race equity lens. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work cannot be siloed; it must be embedded in all of the organization’s policies. Where it is not, leaders should be accountable for facilitating this positive change.
  4. Create a group of champions for DEI work. Push efforts further and faster by designating a committee, working group, or task force to take the lead on efforts to embed equity and inclusion work in all aspects of the organization. Build in accountability measures for this group.
  5. Create or revisit your organization’s values statement. A values statement that includes direct language regarding DEI as an institutional core value is an invaluable resource. It can be particularly helpful in decision-making, prompting the question, “Does this decision align with our core values?”
  6. Allocate significant support funds for internal DEI initiatives. You can tell an organization’s priorities by its budget. Does your organizational budget reflect its espoused commitment to DEI? Does that financial commitment include internal initiatives that will aid the organization’s shift away from white supremacy culture?

 Field Level

  1. See it, name it, change it. If you can’t see it, you can’t name it. If you can’t name it, you can’t change it. Many museum practitioners see themselves as proponents of diversity and inclusion, yet they do not recognize how white supremacy culture permeates their own work and their institution. That must change. Seeing white supremacy culture allows you to name it and actively work to dismantle it.

Resources

MASS Action Toolkit provides examples of how white supremacy culture shows up in our organizations and offers practical steps to combat it. museumaction.org/resources

The Empathetic Museum Maturity Model allows organizations to reflect on their current practices and measure organizational change. empatheticmuseum.weebly.com/maturity-model.html

Museum Hue shines a light on hiring practices and debunks the “pipeline” myth that the field lacks a diverse pool of qualified talent. museumhue.com/blog

Virtual conferences, like Museums & Race, Death to Museums, and Illinois State Museum’s Social Justice in Museums Series, convene thought leaders and practitioners to explore the changes we need to make moving forward.


Museums and Race is a group of museum professionals who want to effect radical change in our field. We believe that persistent and pervasive structural racism in our institutions is at the heart of the museum field’s failure to diversify its boards, staffs, collections, members, and visitors. We also believe that understanding and recognizing entrenched racism is a difficult and potentially contentious undertaking—but also necessary if America’s museums are to serve their diverse citizenry. Follow us on Twitter @museumsandrace and at museumsandrace.org.

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