Working Towards White Allyship in Museums
Hannah Heller, Doctoral Candidate, Art & Art Education, Teachers College
Over twenty years ago, psychologist, educator, and racism scholar Dr. Beverly Tatum offered a metaphor for how we all participate in the “ongoing cycle of racism:” a moving walkway, on which people move in different speeds and directions, each illustrating the extent to which they engage in racist behaviors:
Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of White supremacy and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around, unwilling to go to the same destination as the White supremacists. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt — unless they are actively anti-racist — they will find themselves carried along with the others. (Tatum, 1997, pp. 11–12, emphasis mine)
Over 20 years later, the walkway seems to be moving even faster. Tatum’s definition of White supremacy acknowledges that while it is a term often associated with extremist behaviors, it also refers to the underlying ideology that perpetuates racism in all its forms. While White supremacy has always characterized our nation’s identity, problematic recent trends in identity politics bolstered by our current political administration indicate that now is a crucial moment for all White people, including White museum educators (1), to reflect on where exactly they stand on Tatum’s walkway. Mine and Kai Monet’s article are written in conversation and strive to articulate the labor required to subvert racial inequity in the workplace.
In this article, I will articulate the need for White allyship for our colleagues of color in museum education; flesh out the challenges to enacting true allyship; synthesize various definitions of allyship; and offer some suggestions for how aspiring White allies might take on some of the labor of subverting Whiteness and White supremacy in our workplaces.
As a White person attempting to articulate my ideas about racism and White supremacy, it is important to also articulate who I am and how I’ve come to this work, as a way to demonstrate where my interest comes from, as well as what my limitations might be.
I am a White museum educator who aspires to enact anti-racist pedagogies in my teaching practice, but I wasn’t always. I found myself originally drawn to the intersection of race and art museum education in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri in the summer of 2014. Prior to this I existed in a bubble; racism and police brutality did not come up in conversations with my friends or family. I grew up in a close-knit Jewish community and my friends were mostly White Jewish people, I dated White Jewish people, and our privilege protected us from having to face what was going on outside this bubble. Of course, Ferguson was not the first time a White police officer extrajudicially shot and killed a Black person, but the publicization and nationwide protest around that particular event shocked me out of my complacency.
I started initiating conversations with friends and family members, as well as the different museum publics I work with as an art museum educator, probing their reactions to that event and ones like it; many of these conversations were uncomfortable, as it is difficult for many White people to openly admit to benefiting from White privilege (unearned advantages bestowed among those simply because they are White) without feeling defensive, or guilty (DiAngelo, 2011). These conversations, among many things, demonstrated to me the importance of thinking critically about my positionality as a White person doing this work. As a doctoral student and museum educator, I spend most of my time thinking and reading about the theory-practice feedback loop that informs the conversations about race that I facilitate with visitors.
The Need for White Allyship
I have also now worked in several institutions with various orientations to social justice, and have observed different ways individuals and the field as a whole articulate what actions define allyship for racial equity. It is a one-off “diversity” training? Is it a program oriented to a specific disenfranchised audience? Is it a curatorial endeavor? Interpretation? Human Resources? It’s all these things, but it has to be more. In my experience, often institutions implement policies in one area, and feel that one step in the right direction is enough.
Similarly to buzzwords like “diversity” or “community,” what it means to be an ally has become contested and muddied (Ng, Ware & Greenberg, 2017). It is one thing to create a “community” focused program, or a politically progressive exhibition, or create a fellowship for racially diverse applicants, but if these individual endeavors are not articulated as part of a cohesive, mission driven, explicitly anti-racist institutional stance, then we run the risk of replicating the harmful circumstances that contribute to White supremacy in our workplaces. I want to be clear: this article is as much for other White people who need to hear these truths (and alleviate in some small way the labor our POC colleagues invest in taking it on themselves, as Monet points out in her article), as much as it is an expression of hope for the improvement of the entire field — for ourselves, and for the work we do.
As a field we need to get a better grasp on the idea that diversity is not the goal in of itself, but rather one means towards creating cultures where we work that not only respect but honor and value a multiplicity of ideas, ways of knowing and doing — all in service of doing the best possible work for and with our audiences. We simply aren’t doing our best work as a field if we are limiting ourselves to the knowledge we come with individually, or to knowledge and ways of doing that represent what has always been done or deemed “acceptable.”
While writers of color have long acknowledged the various ways Whiteness is established in our society, education, and museum education specifically, it’s long past time for White people to take on the work of re-educating and reorienting ourselves (hooks, 1994). Here, Whiteness refers to aspects of White people’s racial identity that shape how White people orient themselves in relation to people from other groups. This orientation is hierarchical, based on the assumption that White people are superior to others. At the risk of centering Whiteness, White teacher educator Alice McIntyre (1997) advocates for supporting White educators to find their own critical voice against White supremacy (p. xi). We need to stand up in support of our colleagues of color; simply put, they cannot do the work of achieving racial equity themselves. We (White people) need to do better job at allyship not just so our colleagues of color feel more valued and comfortable bringing their whole selves to their work in our institutions (though we need that too), but ultimately so that we can all serve our audiences better, and in turn make the world better. These are the stakes, and we all play a role — either as part of the solution, or part of the problem. There is no middle ground.
Challenges/Obstacles to Enacting Allyship
The stakes are real, but as Monet points out in her article, there are many obstacles in the way. She discusses the important concept of White fragility (DiAngelo, 2011), characterized by the variety of defense mechanisms White people employ to deflect and avoid race talk (Sue, 2015). In line with this work, education psychologists Sue and Sue (1990) and Sue, Arredondo, and McDavis (1992) have identified common types of deflection they notice in their work, such as anger (“Why blame me?” or “How dare you?”), sadness and remorse: (“I feel so guilty”), and intellectualization: (“But I’m a woman, surely I’m also oppressed”).
No doubt many of these reactions are familiar to us. These reactions are one way that White supremacy figures in our workplaces, and contribute to a White supremacist culture of conflict avoidance, particularly as it relates to race and White supremacy (Okun, 2011). Social justice activist Tema Okun writes about the many cultural elements of White supremacy (the list is extensive and well worth a read) (2). But the one I want to focus on that I think demonstrates the main obstacle to enacting White allyship is aversion to risk and discomfort. Okun (n.d.) characterizes this quality as a “right to comfort,” where “politeness is valued over honesty,” so much so that “those who bring up discomfort for others are scapegoated.”
The consequences of this avoidance are larger than stifling dialogue about racism in our workplaces (as if that weren’t bad enough). Right to comfort can implicate itself in half measures that begin to address racial equity, but fall short of true allyship in the end; below are some I’ve witnessed in the institutions I have worked at:
- A manager who eagerly listens to your ideas about supporting diversity in the department but won’t take them to their supervisor
- An institution with a progressive curatorial program but doesn’t adequately pay its workers, resulting in a largely White, privileged workforce with a limited capacity to interpret it
- A board that believes your institution should subscribe to the false notion of “neutrality,” inhibiting your department’s ability to program more progressively
- Job requirements for entry level staff prioritizing expensive degrees over other types of experience
- Or this, this, this, and this
What the people behind these decisions fail to appreciate is that decisions in favor of their own personal and institutional comfort are violent choices that cause harm to our colleagues of color and inhibit all of our abilities to do our jobs well.
The truth is, those moments that feel uncomfortable or anxious are exactly the moments to lean in to as an ally (3). That feeling is your Whiteness being tested and questioned. Start paying attention to the moments that make you pause, both at work and in your lives; those may serve as the first helpful indicators of what steps you might take towards allyship and undermining White supremacy.
Clinical psychology educators Spanierman and Smith (2017) offers these six qualities of allyship in their work that I think resonate for museum education as well:
- Demonstrate nuanced understanding of institutional racism and White privilege
- Enact a continual process of self-reflection about their own racism and positionality
- Express a sense of responsibility and commitment to using their racial privilege in ways that promote equity
- Engage in actions to disrupt racism and the status quo on micro and macro levels
- Participate in coalition building and work in solidarity with people of color
- Encounter resistance from other White individuals
These help convey aspects of White allyship that have become important to me personally: allyship is aspirational insofar that it requires a daily commitment, constant reflection, and by definition involves moments of discomfort and resistance both small and large. It’s something you continually strive for.
Further, education psychologist Derald Wing Sue (2017) states that taken individually each of the points above are necessary but insufficient on their own. For example, he notes, to be aware of one’s own biases is important, but this reflexive engagement does not translate into advocacy necessarily (Helms, 1995; Tatum, 1997). As discussed, I’m sure many of us experience this tendency in the field; a single diversity training does not represent a continual self-reflexive process (see #2), nor do repeated internal dialogues as a staff represent resistance (see #6) to collaborations with racist entities outside your institution.
Museum and cultural educators and activists Wendy Ng, Syrus Marcus Ware, and Alyssa Greenberg’s (2017) blueprint for allyship in museum education echo many of these points, and add their own. One of their five principles for allyship includes the understanding that the work of allyship is not about the ally (p. 145). Particularly important in museums, and in line with Kai’s writing on “holding space,” ally work must strive towards creating “spaces and opportunities for racialized and marginalized identities in museum personnel, programs, and exhibitions” (p. 145). Owing to both the historically racist, colonialist nature of museums and contemporary barriers to inclusion, this point reminds White museum educators that simply entering into these spaces can be a violent experience for marginalized visitors. It asks us to consider: How am I making sure I’m listening to my colleagues and visitors, genuinely learning from them, and acting on this information to ensure that this space is theirs as well? Not only do we benefit from learning from each other when we do this (isn’t that the point of multicultural work?), as White individuals and White institutions this also helps avoid falling into paternalistic tendencies (i.e., a “White savior” complex), and operating from a deficit model when considering our audiences.
An extension of this idea is their point that allies need to be able to take direction from marginalized people — an extension of Spanierman and Smith’s point #5 above about coalition building. In addition to listening and taking risks in our allyship, we need also to take in criticism and react in a way that is responsive to those doing the criticising. The response should be in line with what the community or individual affected by the wrongdoing needs and feels is appropriate and authentically redemptive. White fragility puts our defenses front and center; we need to shift to a removal of self from the center, and instead “hold space,” as Monet’s writing demands, for our colleagues of color.
Actual next steps
So what might the actual labor of undertaking the work of true allyship look like?
This list is not exhaustive, but contains some steps that museum workers can take towards being an ally. I include acts that any White person might take on regardless of their stature in their institutions; as a freelance educator I’m aware of my vulnerable status in my institutions, and still think there is space for me to always be doing more.
Do a personal accounting.
Use the definition of allyship above or find another one you like and evaluate which aspects you could work more on. Evaluate what’s missing (or ask a trusted/critical colleague) and work from there.
As Monet points out, our colleagues of color are unfairly looked to to educate their White colleagues and provide a neatly packaged, monolithic representation of what racial equity should look like. While listening to our colleagues of color is important, White people need to do our own homework first. It’s up to each of us to surround ourselves with resources to help us envision the world we want to see. Create social justice reading/action groups in your department. If your managers aren’t supportive, meet after work hours. Here’s an excellent reading list put together by curator and activist La Tanya S. Autry to get you started. Additionally, there’s ton of great work, information, and dialogue sharing happening on social media networks, particularly Twitter; follow these handles to get started.
Build reflexive (4) work (Cunliffe, 2004) into your job description.
So much has been written (see this article by museum educator activist Keonna Hendrick) about the importance of reflexive work in subverting our biases in order to effectively engage in true allyship behaviors. And yet, time and again it is the first thing to go by the wayside and decide we don’t have time for (I’ve been there!). Build it into your job descriptions. If you freelance ask your managers if it something they might include with other paid prep work (it’s always worth the ask). Try these writing activities (which can double as discussion prompts) to get you started.
One impact of prioritizing White comfort is avoiding naming names and privileging “professionalism” over the safety of our POC colleagues. We need to shift this stance — it’s not gossip, but rather information that can be life changing for the people we share it with. Share salary information (while you’re at it, sign this petition to require all museum professional associations to require salary listings on their job postings — looking at you, AAM), share job postings (this Museum Hue Facebook group is a great option), share your experiences with institutions that fall short or are inhospitable to people of color. If you know an institution has a record of hiring and subsequently firing multiple people of color citing “cultural fit,” speak up. If you know an institution barely pays their workers, speak up. If you know an institution has a bad track record for supporting racial equity in any way, and then knowingly conceal that information from your museum colleagues and friends, you are causing an unknown amount of harm, with virtually no positive gain.
One of the primary ways White people avoid conflict is by choosing to not speak up when they witness racism and White supremacy. Let’s speak up to our bosses if we witness a problematic conversation or behavior. It’s scary, but remember: it is far less risky for White people to do this than our colleagues of color. Initiate conversations that include POC to develop alternate practices, language, systems to the status quo (Hendrick, personal communication, 11/11/18). But remember, be careful about what space you’re taking up in a conversation about racial equity — think about how you can share your voice and power as a way of decentering Whiteness.
Identify specifically how White supremacy manifests in your institution,
and your daily decision making processes. It’s hard to see where we perpetuate racism but it’s important to recognize, and all the easier to address once we think in terms of specificities. I’d start with this worksheet that enumerates the various ways White supremacy manifests in our workplace cultures. What aspects on this list are privileged in your institution? Which are deprivileged as a result?
Understand avoidance is a choice.
No matter our sphere of influence we each make choices that either undermine White supremacy or support it. What choices can you make that share power, “hold space” as Monet argues, for our colleagues of color?
This list should provide you with some ideas to get started. The hardest part is choosing to start, and if it helps, find a trusted accountability partner. Do what you need to do, and again, to be very clear: if you do nothing, you are part of the problem and are perpetuating White supremacy.
Finally, I just want to say that I mess up — All. The. Time. I’m not proud of that, but it’s just to say that as someone who has basically taken this (i.e., mitigating Whiteness in museum education) on as my primary research objective for the foreseeable future, I need to acknowledge both my limitations and complicity as a White person AND continue everyday to make decisions to undermine White supremacy — both personally and professionally. Embrace the discomfort that comes with learning to do something hard however imperfectly; remember, the goal is progress, not comfort.
Hannah Heller is a doctoral candidate in the Art & Art Education program at Teachers College. She has a MA in Museum Education from Tufts University, and has taught and worked on research and evaluation projects in several cultural institutions including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc., Whitney Museum of American Art, El Museo del Barrio, the American Folk Art Museum, and the Museum of Arts and Design. Her current research focuses on anti-racist pedagogies and mitigating the effects of whiteness in art museum teaching.
(1) I want to acknowledge that enacting allyship is an inherently intersectional endeavor, that allyship for a White trans person, or a White person with a disability can look or feel different. For the purposes of this article I am singling out White people and asking us, no matter our complicated identities to interrogate our Whiteness and take on the labor involved in achieving racial equity.
(2) Thank you to Marit Dewhurst for initially pointing this resource out to me.
(3) Actually, as I write, I realize I have been sitting on an idea to create a shared anonymous digital format to share our collective stories about oppression in our workplaces, but have been too scared to do so — it’s time I do! If this idea is interesting to you please contact me!
(4) Briefly, one of the main differences between reflective work and reflexive work is that reflective work asks us to consider the quality of our products (in education, we ask if a curricular unit is working, is a lesson plan successful) while reflexive work asks us to consider aspects of our identity (for example, White people should consider their Whiteness) that impact those products.
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Ng, W., Ware, S. M., & Greenberg, A. (2017). Activating Diversity and Inclusion: A Blueprint for Museum Educators as Allies and Change Makers. Journal of Museum Education, 42(2), 142–154.
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