Shifting Center: The Labor of Liberation for Educators of Color

Kai Monet, Education Program Manager, Teen & School Programs, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA)

MOCA Teens in a gallery conversation with Jimena Sarno, artist-in-residence. Photo by Sean MacGillivray.

Recently I was a participant in a multi-generational conversation at a conference that left me processing a range of emotions. At one point in the discussion a college-age white student made a racist comment. They were not my student and I felt ill prepared to re-contextualize what they had said without shaming them. Although the callousness of their comment derailed the conversation and visibly hurt others in the circle, I found myself remaining silent, allowing violence to fall on the ears of the students of color without opposition.

The choice to stay silent instead of calling attention to their harmful and inaccurate comments filled me with regret for several days. During the conversation, I feared a response might shame the student and later reflected that my choice to center their comfort colluded in the very violence I am trying to dismantle as an educator. This experience was the impetus for writing this article, which has been a process of awareness: becoming aware of my conditioning to center white narratives and comfort while giving attention to concrete ways I might center equity, inclusion, and collective liberation instead.

Similar to Hannah Heller’s article, Working Towards White Allyship in Museums, this is a call to action to decentralize whiteness in the workplace. While Heller’s article asks white allies to do the work of subverting whiteness, this article aims to support educators of color in shifting labor away from centralizing whiteness. The path to achieving equity and inclusion in museums is a process of decentralizing white dominant culture. This process asks museum educators of color to no longer hold space for white narratives, comforts, and fears to be central in our professional practice. We must actively examine what guides our professional choices and hold more space for ourselves.

This article will begin by pointing to oppressive legacies of centering whiteness in museums as barriers to equity and inclusion. The article will apply the concept of holding space, defined as being both fully present and invisible, in our work to articulate the labor required of educators of color to center whiteness. Lastly, the article will suggest ways to examine our labor so we can begin to make choices that shift equity, inclusion, and liberation to the center of our work.

Positionality

In addition to being an educator at The Museum of Contemporary of Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), I currently sit on the NAEA ED&I Task Force and the LACAC Cultural Equity and Inclusion Advisory Committee. These are two formal positions I have taken on to advance the field in equity and inclusion, to support anti-oppressive teaching and learning, and to leverage my privileges and resources for collective liberation. My commitment to liberation — freedom from suffering and oppression — is driven by personal and spiritual practices that facilitate self-awareness and evolutionary intention. At work, and in this article, I draw from my experiential knowledge gained through meditation, movement, and mysticism. I am a woman of color and this article is written to and for fellow educators of color that continue to do the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual labor required to create sustainable and meaningful change in ourselves and in the world. I am writing from these lenses and from a position of learning how to activate the ideas I propose. May this article be a seed for clarity and future actions towards racial harmony and collective liberation.

MOCA Teens working on collaborative mural project. Photo by Sean MacGillivray.

A Barrier to Change: The Centralization of Whiteness in Museums

The oppressive historical legacies of colonialism, racism, and white privilege permeate our work and institutions. As described in length in the MASS Action Toolkit, the elitist and colonial origins of museums established institutional structures that center and uphold whiteness. In these structures, whiteness operates as “a system of ideologies and material effects (privilege and oppression)” that prioritizes, elevates, and upholds white privilege (Castango, 2008, p. 320). Whiteness is an invisible set of cultural norms, values, and ways of being that result in the unequal distribution of power, and benefit people who have been racially identified as white by the member group, while marginalizing or oppressing other groups (2018). The historic and ongoing centering of whiteness is a barrier to change, suppressing seeds of diversity and inclusion from fully growing in our museums.

Decentralizing whiteness in museums requires a systematic shift in which transformation takes place across multiple levels. This article focuses on the “individual level that is deeply concerned with changing mental models,” which are conditioned habits of mind that guide our actions (Taylor & Kegan, 2017, p. 50). As educators of color, we must unlearn our conditioning to hold space for whiteness and shift to a mental model that centers ourselves. By identifying the work we are doing to center whiteness, we can become conscious of our mental models that need to shift.

The Labor of Holding Space for White Narratives and Comfort in Museum Education

Holding space is a concept recognized in healing and spiritual communities as bearing witness, without judgment, to someone else’s journey (Avery, 2016). Harrison Owen, an Episcopal priest and civil rights activist, defined holding space as an act of being at once totally present and totally invisible (Corrigan, 2006, p. 3). Owen introduced the concept of holding space in his format for open space technology, a participant-centered meeting system that supports organizational transformation. In open space technology, the facilitator asks the group to drive the goals and process of the meeting and does not impose specific outcomes or an agenda (Owen, 2008). This notion of holding space can be applied to the work we do as educators and helps illustrate how educators of color hold space for whiteness at work.

I am constantly negotiating the space I hold at work and making choices that support the growth and/or safety of others. As a constructivist educator, I hold space for students in the museum to make meaning about artworks by asking open-ended questions that let their interest and knowledge steer discussions. I hold space for classroom teachers to reflect on their teaching practice by posing critical questions that have no agenda except to elicit reflection. And as a member of a team of radical educators at MOCA, I hold space for colleagues to reflect on their teaching practice by listening without judgment.

As an educator of color, I am doing the additional work of holding space for white comfort. Centering whiteness includes working to ensure that my white supervisors, peers, and students always feel safe and comfortable. This practice illuminates the role that racism plays within the labor of centering whiteness for educators of color.

Ruth King is a meditation teacher who refers to racism as a heart disease that can be cured through meditation. In her book, Mindful of Race, she unpacks the painful gap that can exist between the good intentions of white folks and the negative, unintended impact of their actions towards people of color (POC):

“While both the intent and the impact can result in hurt feelings for all, the burden of communicating the impact of intent weighs heavily on POC or the subordinated group. This means that, in addition to being triggered by the good intention of whites, POC must also find a way to communicate with whites — ideally without emotion or perceived threat — the impact of the white person’s actions at a time when POC feel most vulnerable and activated.” (King, 2018, p. 53)

Racism manifests in unintended racist comments that require POC to do the work of holding space for the person who made the comment. POC must make their emotional response invisible so they do not threaten the comfort or fear of white people present.

The story I shared at the beginning of this article offers an example of how centering and holding space for white narratives, comfort, and fears can result in silence. Presumably, the white student did not have an understanding of how their comment impacted POC; their intent did not match their impact. I did not want to shame them, so I said nothing. One student of color I followed up with also told me they suppressed an angry tirade.

King also describes the inner negotiation when a POC does make the choice to confront white intent:

“With this choice, POC experience high distress and fear that their response could be written off as being overly emotional, cause discomfort or fear in whites, or result in loss of control in themselves. What’s being fought against, often unknowingly, is the dread many POC feel in knowing that the oppressed are expected to guarantee the safety and comfort of the oppressor.” (King, 2018, p. 54)

King is describing our conditioning to center white narratives, comforts, and fears. She exposes the internal labor, negotiation, and anxiety POC experience to avoid triggering what Robin DiAngelo describes as white fragility, or the state of racial stress in a white person that provokes a range of defensive moves that reinstate white privilege. DiAngelo acknowledges how POC must “explain white racism in the ‘right’ way” which “is generally poliety and rationally, without any show of emotional upset” (DiAngelo, 2011, p. 61).

The regret of my silence in my story is rooted in the fact that my choice to hold space for white comfort did not support racial harmony or collective liberation. How often in my negotiation of holding space do I choose silence, and my discomfort of that silence, over the potential discomfort of my peers that belong to dominant groups? If holding space means being invisible, as an educator of color how am I holding space for whiteness by being invisible? How is my practice of holding space upholding the legacies of colonization, racism, and white privilege?

MOCA Teens participating in movement workshop. Photo by Sean MacGillivray.

Action Steps: Centering Equity and Inclusion in Our Work

By shifting our labor towards making our cultural identities and narratives visible, we are taking action to decentralize whiteness and advance equity and inclusion in our institutions. This section offers actions for shifting the center of our professional practices away from whiteness. These action steps are grounded in theory and lived experience. Some offer concrete examples of how I have begun to activate these ideas, but overall are meant to be seeds for further investigation of our work as educators of color in institutions that were never intended to hold space for us.

Examine how we hold space for whiteness.

My conference experience pushed me to question how my choices as an educator center whiteness. I charge us to pay attention to what guides our choices at work and how our choices may perpetuate legacies of oppression. I can recall other times at work when I have chosen silence. I did not formally report a chief curator for racist comments because I was told no action would be taken against them and feared losing my job. That choice to be silent felt like holding space for my own safety and comfort; however, my perceived safety and comfort conversely reinstated the legacies of white privilege that excused that curator’s behavior.

How else does centering whiteness show up in our work? And what are the consequences of holding space for whiteness? Becoming aware of how, when, and why we hold space for whiteness allows us to make more conscious decisions that decolonize our mental models. By examining the mental conditioning of the legacies of colonialism, racism, and white privilege, we build our capacity to choose actions rooted, instead, in inclusion and liberation.

Examine how our professional behavior centers whiteness.

Legacies of white dominant culture in museums and society has manifested a white professional work culture that asks POC to assimilate. We have been conditioned to behave in certain ways because “’doing professional’ is at least as much (if not more) about performing Whiteness” (Ashcraft & Allen, 2003, p. 27 as cited in Lambertz-Berndt, 2016, p. 2). The legacy of colonization in museums has not held space for other ways of being and of knowing. By taking space away from performing whiteness, “We create a workforce culture that does not expect assimilation but actively and consciously welcomes a multi-streamed inclusion of ideas” (Bryant, Bryant-Greenwell, Catlin-Legutko, Jennings, & Jones-Rizzi, 2018, p. 26). It is a process of decolonizing our professional identity so that our cultural values can be central to our way of being, at all times. By examining how we perform whiteness, we can find more ways to dismantle barriers of access and inclusion in the field.

Examine how we hold space for hierarchies of knowledge.

In their article “Decolonize and Indigenize: A Reflective Dialogue,” Wendy Ng and J’net AyAyQwaYakSheelth state, “Decolonizing our work as museum educators has meant fundamentally challenging the master narrative perpetuated by museums and questioning how do we know what we know.” In addition to examining how our behavior centers whiteness, we must also examine how we hold space for hierarchies of knowledge. I have been practicing meditation for six years, which is as long as I have been managing the MOCA Teen Program. Yet, I only began leading meditations with my students in the past year. Why have I withheld part of my experiential wisdom from my students? How have legacies of oppression conditioned me to think my personal practices are not acceptable or valuable professional practices?

Hold space for the action steps above at work.

In the department meeting following my conference experience, I very briefly mentioned that I was struggling with my choice to be silent. Looking back, I could have held more space for myself to share my experience. By reflecting with colleagues during work hours, instead of at home by myself, I could have centered my narrative and made visible the emotional labor I was doing to unpack my regret and the conditioning of my choices. By discussing my experience at work, I would have generated a forum for what Taylor and Kegan describe as the “team learning” that is “critical for inclusion efforts” (Taylor & Kegan, 2017, p. 54).

Hold space for our personal cultural identities and narratives.

As educators of color working in art museums, each of us brings an intersection of identities and experiences to our work. King argues that, “A habitual focus on white people can distract POC from knowing themselves as a diverse body” (King, 2018, p. 166). By taking space to share personal cultural identities we remind ourselves that people of color are not monolithic and allow for a more inclusive understanding of the complex and layered realities of our racialized experiences. By holding space for our individual experiences we also fight against the notion that “being an individual or human being outside of a racial group is a privilege only afforded to white people” (DiAngelo, 2011, p. 60).

Hold space for healing and other educators of color.

Similar to taking time at work to reflect on how we center whiteness, we should take time at work to center our healing with fellow educators of color. I often choose not to burden my colleagues of color with the challenges of racism and tokenism. I know that they are suffering as well, but feel we do not have enough time to unpack both of our most recent experiences of marginalization. However, in the conversations that I had with colleagues of color while writing this article I realized taking the time to heal by bearing witness to each other’s experiences is an act of decentering whiteness. One colleague and I now have regular meetings that hold space for us to share our painful moments so that we are not isolated by them and instead have the opportunity to examine our conditioning together.

As we share our identities and narratives with one another, we experience what it feels like to center ourselves in our work — which may feel very different. Since we have been conditioned to center whiteness, it is hard to know what this work looks and feels like. But holding space for ourselves also means not judging ourselves through the lens of whiteness. This may feel uncomfortable and it may not be supported, but that is our path to liberation and to changing museums.

Conclusion

bell hooks declares that moving from silence into speech is a revolutionary gesture. hooks writes that using our voice is an act of resistance that “becomes both a way to engage in self-transformation and a rite of passage where one moves from being object to being subject” (hooks, 1989, p. 12). Holding space for my own voice and ways of being is doing the work to de-internalize my oppression and decolonize my mental models of holding space for whiteness. As educators of color, we must examine how we negotiate the space we hold. When we align ourselves to the center of those negotiations we can experience moments of liberating praxis and do our part on the individual level to support systemic transformation. When we make choices that take power away from legacies of oppression, we hold space for inclusion and collective liberation.


Kai Monet

Kai Monet is a native to Los Angeles and committed to praxis, creation, and collective liberation. She is a transformational educator dedicated to transforming and healing herself and co-learners into more conscious and compassionate humans. With gratitude and joy, she is empowered by her communities of practice that inspire her to be ever-evolving.


References

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Bryant, J., Bryant-Greenwell, K., Catlin-Legutko, C., Jennings, G., & Jones-Rizzi, J. (n.d.). Moving Toward Internal Transformation: Awareness, Acceptance, Action. In MASS Action Toolkit (pp. 17–32).

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Corrigan, C. (2006). The Tao of Holding Space.

DiAngelo, R. (2011). White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3), 54–70.

hooks, B. (1989). Talking back: Thinking feminist, thinking black. Toronto: Between the Lines.

King, R. (2018). Mindful of race: Transforming racism from the inside out. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

Lambertz-Berndt, Megan Mary, “Communicating Identity in the Workplace and Affinity Groups Spaces” (2016). Theses and Dissertations. Paper 1169.

Ng, W., & AyAyQwaYakSheelth, J. (2018). Decolonize and Indigenize: A Reflective Dialogue. VIEWFINDER: Reflecting on Museum Education, (7).

Taylor, C., & Kegan, M. (n.d.). Organizational Culture and Change: Making the Case for Inclusion. In MASS Action Toolkit (pp. 33–72).

Owen, H. (2008). Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide. Berrett-Koehler.

Understanding Whiteness. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.ucalgary.ca/cared/whiteness