The second meeting to discuss MASS Action was framed by the second chapter in the toolkit - Moving Toward Internal Transformation: Awareness, Acceptance, Action. The reading reviewed the necessity of careful, attentive listening. It also underscored acknowledging that there are deep-rooted issues that all institutions need to face. Our session guides reminded us of the fact that we all bring different experiences and insights to the table when it comes to these conversations.
We started the gathering practicing listening. While this seems like it would be a relatively simple exercise, it can actually be a struggle. It’s not just about hearing, it’s about being engaged and open and not simply waiting for your turn to talk. We talked in pairs about awareness in any context. I talked about my shift in thinking when it came to cultural heritage institutions, from places about things to places for people. In this, I reflected on MLIS coursework that focused on asset-based frameworks when dealing with different communities (Montiel-Overall, Nuñez,& Reyes-Escudero, 2015). In being truly inclusive and equitable to all staff and visitors, we need to focus on strengths as a method for finding common ground. Reflecting on researching Chicago Housing Authority public housing residents as an information community, the strength of peer-to-peer dissemination of information and grassroots advocacy are two such strengths.
Next, we spoke in small groups about three issues with which museums must come to grips: colonialism, white privilege, and racism. These are all historical legacies which are reflected in all aspects of cultural heritage institutions: from hiring practices to school group visits. Groups had the choice which of these topics to focus on, and conversation was guided by prompts: personal experience, emotions tied to the topic, improving and fostering conversations about the topic in the institution. Each topic included a quote to provide context. Colonialism focused on the acquisition of collections from other countries (former colonies) and the impact of these materials, their display, and framing by the museum on visitors, especially for those with heritage from the source culture. Racism focused on how some institutional systems are gone (Jim Crow, redlining) but the remnants still remain in the form of history and practice, including in museums. White privilege focused on white as the perceived norm for culture, and how even implicit demand for assimilation by people of color is not equity. Our group chose to focus on the third topic.
One quote from activist and scholar Peggy McIntosh from her article White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, resonated throughout the discussion:
“White privilege is like a weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks . . . ; an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious . . . I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage . . . Whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow them to be more like us” (McIntosh, 1989).
The topic of privilege comes up fairly often in conversations, and I have experienced varied and emotional reactions in response. It often seems that blame and guilt come into play and white folks can become defensive and feel powerless as a result. For the sake of having meaningful, productive conversations, we need to broaden the conversation from immediate concerns of wealth and class to reflect on history. We need to be aware of how we have benefited from the system and how others have not. We also need to be conscious of how we go about attempting to eliminate this inherently broken system. Decisions should not be made on behalf of communities of color, communication and collaboration with all staff are key. This is the difference between intent and impact - it isn’t the thought that counts. At the same time, we have to keep in mind how much we all have to learn about one another. This is where listening comes in, and where the current monolithic voice frame is replaced with a more empathetic frame that allows for a variety of experience.
Each group reported on some high-level thoughts that came about as a result of their conversations. I was struck by how differently we all approached the same topics, which speaks to the need for all points of view. Our personal histories affect how we navigate issues like colonialism, racism, and white privilege, and we should use our unique stories to power change. We all make mistakes, but fear and hopelessness should not stand in the way of making progress. Hopefully these conversations will help our museum to start seeking out means - both small and big - by which we can dismantle the harmful systems on which the organization was founded.
McIntosh, P. (1989). White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peace and Freedom Magazine, 10-12.
Montiel-Overall, P., Nuñez, A. V., & Reyes-Escudero, V. (2015). Latinos in libraries, museums, and archives: cultural competence in action! an asset-based approach.