“That Depends on How You Define It”: Reflections on Inclusivity Language as a Flashpoint in Museum Staff and Docent Development

NAEA Museum Education
Mar 7 · 15 min read

Amelia (Amy) Kraehe, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Art and Visual Culture Education, University of Arizona, and Laura Evans, Associate Professor of Art History and Art Education and the Coordinator of the Art Museum Education Certificate, University of North Texas.

He should have known not to bring a backpack to a museum, a docent proclaims with conviction (1). Heads nod in agreement around the room where the workshop is being held. Everyone knows they shouldn’t bring a backpack to a museum. Blame is shifted from the museum staff we are reading about in the narrative in front of us, to the writer; a 16 year old Black student on a class field trip to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). We — Amy and Laura — have chosen a one-page excerpt written by Dr. James Haywood Rolling about his teenage experience at the art museum to explore cognitive dissonance, implicit bias, and exclusion (Rolling & Bey, 2016, pp. 310–311). Dr. Rolling is now a dual Professor of Art Education and Teaching and Leadership at Syracuse University. In his excerpt James details, in a series of humiliations, his experience as a Black student being singled out from his White classmates at MoMA.

We use this excerpt as the starting point for a language-based activity that we incorporate into one of our 2-hour inclusivity workshops for docents and staff. This particular workshop is designed to think about inclusivity in broad terms (race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, education, religion, socioeconomic status, age, etc.) and within the context of art museums.

In this article, we focus on our experiences using Dr. Rolling’s story as an anchor for a conversation about exclusion in art museums. We choose Rolling’s text because it vividly recounts his negative experience as a visitor. We want to emphasize in these sessions that not all people have positive associations with museums. Through Rolling’s excerpt, we can use language that we introduce in the workshop — cognitive dissonance and implicit bias — and ask participants to practice talking about these issues by applying them to the text.

We look closely at how the language of inclusivity can catalyze a pedagogical flashpoint, a situation in which sociocultural differences and the structures that produce those differences erupt into the foreground of conscious thought. Flashpoints present opportunities in which one can break free of old ways of thinking, speaking, and acting, and language is an ideal medium for exploring the potential of such moments because it is a primary means by which people make sense of experiences and negotiate their meanings. But, the slipperiness of language also creates opportunities for distortion and reversals of inclusivity discourse and can have the unintended effect of justifying and normalizing long-standing hierarchies and modes of exclusion in art museums. We provide examples of how participants read and talk about Rolling’s piece and provide ways to reaffirm the commitment to dialogue about inclusion and not shut it down.

Inclusivity Workshops for Staff and Docents

A key goal of all our workshops is to teach about inclusivity by modeling it. We design the workshops to be highly interactive and multimodal with a variety of access points. The format of the workshops is guided by our belief in peer-to-peer dialogue as a powerful pedagogic space that opens up possibilities for professional growth and learning. Yet dialogues about gender, race, sexuality, and other contentious subjects can be fraught. Moreover, in a professional setting, there are not always opportunities for peers to hear one another speak candidly on topics that, for some more than others, are experienced in a profoundly personal way.

We take great care in scaffolding the dialogues (Vygotsky, 1978), staggering opportunities for large, small, and one-on-one discussion with docents or employees from different departments. The scaffolding also involves specific and strategic demonstrations of content. For example, before reading the passage from James’s MoMA experience, we give a brief overview of two important concepts: implicit bias and cognitive dissonance. Both play a big role in how we hope participants would engage the passage.

Amy facilitating discussion with works of art by Frohawk Two Feathers at the exhibition “What is the Color, When Black is Burned? The Gold War. Part 1” in Tucson at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Credit: Angel Sanchez

Implicit Bias and Cognitive Dissonance

Implicit bias is a mental association, such as a stereotype or assumption, that impacts thinking or behavior on an unconscious level. Biases may be implicit or explicit. Arguably the former are much trickier to deal with since the mental associations that occur with implicit biases operate quickly and largely outside of a person’s awareness. It might seem that the obvious solution for correcting an unwanted bias is to help each other by pointing out when a bias manifests in social interactions. However, social psychologists tell us that when a person’s implicit assumptions are confronted with new information, cognitive dissonance comes into play (Festinger, 1957).

Cognitive dissonance is the pressure experienced when a person tries to hold two inconsistent thoughts at once. The contradictions can be disorienting and produce discomfort in the form of mental stress and anxiety as well as a host of bodily symptoms such as sweaty palms, flushed cheeks, tingling skin, and pounding heartbeat. A rational person might, therefore, try to defend against feelings of unease using avoidance or antagonism.

In facilitating dialogues on the role implicit bias plays in discrimination, we anticipate, plan for, and teach participants about these kinds of responses. The social and emotional stakes of inclusion dialogues can be high. Participants’ self-concept may feel threatened as they try to reconcile new information with what they thought was true, especially if they realize that their prior thinking and behavior has unwanted or negative consequences about which they were unaware (Cooper & Carlsmith, 2015).

If we want there to be greater consistency between the values we espouse externally and the deep-seated beliefs (worldviews) that propel our actions internally, then inclusion dialogues might also benefit from thinking about the language we think with. It is through language that we are able to internalize ideas, formulate stories, and fashion our identities. Thus, language becomes a site of intervention. In our workshops, we are intentional in providing participants with new vocabularies and bringing in voices that are not often represented within the demographics of the art museum. Attention to language is not about advancing political correctness. Rather, it is a method of bridge-building that seeks to create pathways of meaning across differences that move the conversation forward rather than remaining stuck at an impasse of misunderstanding.

The Excerpt and Its Effect

In this article, we focus on participants’ use of language during discussions of Rolling’s excerpt, which takes place about halfway through our workshop. We ask everyone to read the passage at their own pace, and we also play an audio recording of the passage so those who prefer listening to reading will be able to take part.

We begin by asking participants to pay attention to the author’s experience of exclusion as he has reconstructed it in his own words. We pose two questions and ask participants to keep them in mind while reading the text: 1) What does exclusion look and feel like? And, 2) What could be done in this situation to create a more inclusive museum experience? We encourage participants to annotate the text as they read and note any instances of implicit bias and cognitive dissonance. When they have finished reading and marking the text, they use think-pair-share method to discuss their responses to the two questions with a partner (Lyman, 1987) before we open up a dialogue with the whole group.

Marking the text as they read, workshop participants recognize how subtle biases manifest within human interaction and undermine inclusion efforts. Credit: Amelia M. Kraehe

In the excerpt, James, a Black, 16-year-old university student on a full tuition scholarship, is on a class field trip to MoMA in the 1980s. He mentions that he is an infrequent museum visitor who is dressed similarly to his White classmates. James is wearing the black backpack that he always carries, to keep his hands free. Upon entering the museum, James is singled out from his White classmates by a Black security guard. James is asked if he needs help but, before he can answer, he is directed to the delivery entrance on the side of the building. Reeling from this slight, James continues on with his class and his instructor who remain silent as they ascend to a special exhibition. At the entrance to the exhibit, James is, again, separated from his class and asked by a museum attendant if he can be helped. James, angered and hurt, answers that he is with the group. James autoethnographically details the physical and emotional feelings he struggles with during and after these encounters:

All I felt was my skin. I felt it tingling as though it were not truly a part of my body. I felt all of its surfaces amazingly, shockingly apparent. I was exposed… I had never felt my skin weighing upon my thin frame before… My skin was all in the way. I felt ashamed and angry at what I was wearing; not the torn jeans and beat up sneakers, but the skin. (p. 311)

It is a powerful piece of writing that captures the shame, anger, and confusion of an exclusionary experience in an art museum and humanizes this encounter.

But I Have a Story, Too

The large group discussion that unfolds is often surprising, sometimes frustrating, and never boring. Participants dance around talking about the excerpt and the pain that James experienced and still can recall with clarity. Almost universally, when we ask participants what exclusion looks and feels like in the text, they answer with their own anecdotes instead of with James’ experience. In one such instance, a docent tries to draw a direct equivalence to her own situation:

I was at a store recently and saw the security guard go up to a young Hispanic woman just because she was, you know, Hispanic. He ask her to see proof she’d purchased the things in her bag. I was standing right there and he didn’t ask me to show anything. And I just said, ‘Hey why aren’t you asking me to show you my things. Why are you asking just her?’

We have heard many stories of participants’ personal experiences and struggles with exclusion in answer to this question and have wondered if this isn’t due to several reasons. James’ story is hard to reckon with. As museum lovers, to read about a person’s scarring museum visit is difficult to accept. Instead, it is easier to just avoid new dissonant information by redirecting the conversation away from the glaring reality that museums may not be the all-inclusive spaces that we want to believe they are.

We have learned to craft our question in ways that will pin down participants. Instead of asking, “What does exclusion look and feel like?,” we have rephrased the question to, “Using the text, what does exclusion look and feel like for the author?” This shift in language has helped anchor participants in the text — in James’s version of events — rather than avoid it or universalize it under a broader category of like experiences, both of these being strategies that erase the particularities of James’s story and the way he is perceived in the art museum.

It’s Not Like that Anymore

Inevitably, we do get around to answering the first question about what exclusion looked and felt like for James but not without skepticism. We have heard several times from participants who have said, This story was written in the 1980’s. Things have changed since then. The author would never have an experience like this now in a museum. We remind participants that though this may have happened in the 80’s, the author wrote the piece in 2016. His feelings of shame and anger were still so fresh and cutting, that he was able to recall them vividly almost three decades later. And, we ask participants, Have things changed that much since the 1980’s in museums? Statistics still show that museums are overwhelmingly White spaces (Culture Track: Reports, 2017, National Endowment for the Arts, 2009).

Laura teaching at a workshop at Latvijas Nacionālais Mākslas Muzejs as part of the We Are Museums Conference in Riga, Latvia (2017) Credit: We Are Museums

If Only He Would…

In these workshops, James is frequently blamed for his own negative experience at the MoMA. James writes, “I stood in the midst of my classmates and their hushed conversations, dressed in faded jeans and old sneakers just as they were” (p. 310). We consider this passage to be “slippery” because some participants misread it as James being the sole wearer of faded jeans and old sneakers and who overlook that his classmates are dressed similarly. They skip right over the parts of the text that do not correspond to their preconceived image of James. It is as though the typed words are not even present on the page. We have heard several times, He was singled out because he was wearing baggy jeans and sneakers, unlike his classmates. A fellow participant will usually chime in to correct this and to disagree, No, he was wearing the same thing as everyone else. It wasn’t about what he was wearing that he could control, it was about what he was wearing that he couldn’t control; the color of his skin.

We have had many participants ask for the guard’s story; to hear the other side, as if James’ account could not be trusted or verified without hearing from an authoritative museum figure. We have heard impassioned pleas for James to simply correct the guard and the museum attendant who question his presence: If he would just calmly and politely tell the guard that he is with the rest of the group, all of this could have been avoided. This is expected of a 16-year-old who has been an infrequent museum attendee. No similar request for responsibility is made of the guard, the attendant, or the teacher in this particular situation.

What To Do When Flashpoints Occur

In the previous section, we showed through our workshops how inclusion language — from the introduction of new vocabularies, to guided discussion about implicit bias, to analysis of James’s story — can trigger cognitive dissonance. Many wrestle with inclusion language to make meaning of museum stories and testimonials that run counter to their own experiences and challenge the dominant narrative of the open, beneficent art museum (see Dewhurst & Hendrick, 2018). However, as implied by our paper’s suggestive title — itself a phrase taken from one of our workshops — meaning in language is neither fixed nor predictable.

When faced with James’ story, many workshop participants — most of whom are White — experience pedagogical flashpoints, moments when implicit sociocultural dimensions of their lived experience were ignited (see Kraehe, Hood, & Travis, 2015). Their flashpoints give rise to cognitive dissonance, which we detected by way of their manipulation of James’s words so that they might bring order and coherence to two seemingly credible yet incompatible thoughts — the art museum as a place in which they derive pleasure and a sense of belonging, and the art museum as a place of racial privilege that normalizes Whiteness and stigmatizes Black and other non-White bodies.

Flashpoints can feel like a flare up or breakdown in the polite norms one finds in an art museum (Kraehe & Lewis, 2018). They disrupt everyday habits of mind and routine behaviors. As such, flashpoints provoke disorientation. If successfully facilitated, these events can be opportunities for professional and personal growth because they make unconscious attitudes and assumptions bubble up to the surface of consciousness. Once surfaced, that which was once implicit becomes explicit and no longer an avoidable facet of daily experience.

If one’s goal is to create more docents and museum staff who can help transform art museums into fully inclusive institutions, then flashpoints are not to be avoided. Instead, we suggest to participants that they resist the temptation to snuff out a flashpoint through the usual flight-avoidance or fight-conflict response.

Experiencing disequilibrium is critical for consciousness-raising among docents and museum staff whose identities locate them as members of culturally dominant and socially privileged groups. These persons, by virtue of their location within hierarchies of power, are less likely to be discriminated against or excluded and, therefore, are less likely to have developed the capacity to perceive inequities, much less the analytic tools with which to recognize and address them.

When flashpoints occur, we employ a set of strategies that allows us to hold space for inclusion dialogues to develop among participants. These strategies are comprised of wisdom we have drawn from a variety of other inclusion practitioners (e.g., Singleton & Linton, 2006). We encourage participants and remind ourselves to:

(1) stay engaged so that you can actively contribute to deeper understandings of inclusion;

(2) be curious about each other and seek understanding rather than jump to conclusions;

(3) be attentive to the particular rather than relying on generalizations or stereotypes;

(4) resist deficit thinking, which is the kind of logic that converts forms of difference into a hierarchy of value;

(5) be willing to experience discomfort since that is what it feels like to tease out and examine one’s own implicit biases and to find one is at odds with professed values and commitments;

(6) take risks to build relationships and acknowledge that our perception may be limited by our own sociocultural upbringing and imagination; and

(7) expect and accept non-closure because inclusion is a long-term investment that will take sustained work but is well worth the effort.

In the rush to smooth over our unease, we become more susceptible to making snap judgments. This kind of thinking might be useful in some practical life-or-death situations. However, in art museums where interactions with people of diverse backgrounds, behavioral mannerisms, and sensibilities are possible (indeed likely), snap judgments are problematic as they reinforce our implicit biases. We end up missing the opportunity to think about our own thinking and to try to understand others, as well as ourselves.

Amelia (Amy) Kraehe, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Art and Visual Culture Education at the University of Arizona. She conducts community-engaged research and professional development workshops with museum partners. Her research focuses on arts equity, justice-oriented pedagogies, and art in urban schools and communities. She is the co-editor of The Palgrave Handbook on Race and the Arts in Education and Pedagogies in the Flesh: Case Studies on the Embodiment of Sociocultural Differences in Education (Palgrave-Macmillan). For more information about this article or museum workshops, send questions to akraehe@gmail.com

Laura Evans is an Associate Professor of Art History and Art Education and the Coordinator of the Art Museum Education Certificate at the University of North Texas. Her research interests are in the intersections between art museum education, interpretation, gender and narrative. Evans has also interned or worked at the National Gallery of Art; Washington, DC, the Museum of Contemporary art in Chicago, the Lopdell Gallery in New Zealand, the Columbus Museum of Art, the Wexner Center for Contemporary Art, the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, the Denison Museum of Denison University, and the University Art Centre at the University of Toronto. Most recently, Evans served as the Education Programs Curator at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts in Perth, Western Australia. For more information about this article or museum workshops, send questions to Laura.Evans@unt.edu


  1. The statements in italics are reconstructed dialogue from our field notes. As part of our professional practice, we document our experiences and reflections after each workshop session. Attributing statements to individuals is not a part of our practice. Instead field notes are a way for us to self-reflect and revise our teaching strategies.


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Viewfinder: Reflecting on Museum Education

Welcome to Viewfinder, an online publication about the intersection of museum education and social justice from the National Art Education Association's Museum Education Division.

NAEA Museum Education

Written by

National Art Education Association Museum Education Division

Viewfinder: Reflecting on Museum Education

Welcome to Viewfinder, an online publication about the intersection of museum education and social justice from the National Art Education Association's Museum Education Division.

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