This post was contributed by Rae Parnell, an artist, educator, and curator based in the Hague, Netherlands. His past projects have focused on a range of topics, including anti-racist organizing, queer and trans knowledge distribution, and embodied pleasure. Currently, he is an event programmer in Rotterdam.
You may have been following the worldwide Black Lives Matter movement recently, and wondered how your cultural institution fits into all of this. How can you bring cultural diversity to museums? What does the Black Lives Matter movement have to do with the cultural sector? And how can you incorporate the ideas of the movement into your own institution?
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement began in 2013 through the work of activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, three Black queer women. This movement has recently and rightfully received another public surge. This is mostly due to the publicly circulated video of George Floyd’s murder, among a string of other injustices. Though the Black Live Matter movement is often associated with police brutality, the movement really focuses on how Black lives matter in all spaces – in education, food, health, safety, and more. The movement poses a simple question: How can you ensure that Black lives matter?
In my short three years as a curator in the cultural sector, I’ve experienced anti-Black racism in cultural institutions. Micro and macro aggressions are rampant, and sometimes it can feel like there is a lack of understanding of how to make these spaces safer and more celebratory of Black lives.
So if you’ve been wondering what you can do within your cultural institution to bring about change, look no further! Here are nine steps to integrate the work and ideas of the Black Lives Matter movement into your cultural institution.
Often when considering racism, people think of macro instances of racism: police brutality, physical violence, or the use of racial slurs. But this is not the only place where racism resides. Racism lives in biases that we have around who deserves what job, who looks ‘professional’ and who doesn’t, what talents are ‘inherent’ in someone based on their race, and who belongs in which spaces.
Racism is like an octopus – it brilliantly shifts, changes, and moves whenever it is found out. In the United States, slavery swiftly moved into Jim Crow laws and morphed into the prison industrial complex and the mass incarceration of people of color.
Anti-Black racism is something that is embedded in every part of our lives. When you go to stores, are you able to find products for your hair? When you turn on the television, how often do you see someone who looks like you? And when you enter a cultural institution, how likely are you to see artwork by someone of your race?
Everyone is indoctrinated into racist ideologies and beliefs from the moment they are born. The cultural sector is just a collection of people. It is impossible not to transfer these biases into programs, protocols, budgets, and more. The first step in confronting racism in your institution is to be honest and accepting that it exists there somewhere, somehow. So take a step back, and do an impartial internal audit of what types of racism exist in your institution.
Many institutions are focused on the US and its discussions about the Black Lives Matter movement. But what’s so beautiful about this moment is that local anti-racist organizers have used it as both a moment to stand in solidarity with Black people in the US and as an opportunity to highlight the racism that they experience locally.
For the first time, many cultural institutions are having serious conversations about diversity and inclusion. What’s especially wonderful is that it’s coming to light that there are actual activists, thinkers, artists, writers, grandmas, etc., and more who have been doing this work for years! There’s no need to reinvent the wheel – just listen to the experiences of local Black people to understand how to tackle anti-Black racism in your institution.
To solve a problem, you must listen to the people most affected by the problem, as these are the experts who have the most insight.
Education around the topics of racism is key to integrating the movement into your institution. Multiple book lists are circulating that discuss these exact topics. There are also videos on YouTube and podcasts; in effect, so many different resources to use in your cultural institution. Do some research on what local book lists you can use to educate yourself and others.
If you’d prefer in-person training, you can also hire a professional to share some diversity and inclusion best practices with you and your staff. These training workshops help guide institutions through the process of confronting, acknowledging, and growing through inherent biases and discrimination in the workplace.
Take into account that racism and systematic discrimination have been developing and digging its roots in our societies for centuries. A training workshop on diversity and inclusion, or just reading a book on this topic is a great start – but it takes a long and invested commitment to begin to make real change. Be patient, honest, humble, and diligent in the process of making your institution an anti-racist one and welcoming to Black lives.
After spending some time educating and training your staff and listening to your community, maybe you’ve realized that you need more information and input from Black artists and thinkers. This is a perfect time to amplify Black voices; and the best way to do so is by hiring Black employees, especially in decision-making positions.
I encourage you to ask yourself: Are there Black managers in my institution? What about on my board? How many people of color have an impact on how my institution is run? If the answer is none, or close to none, then this could be the next step towards change.
Racism is costly for Black people. We are less likely to be hired for managerial positions or placed in positions of power. Dismantling racism is more than just having nominal conversations around ‘representation,’ or ‘diversity.’ It’s about sharing power and resources. It’s about recognizing that Black people have systematically been kept out of decision-making positions for years. It’s about understanding that Black people have brilliant skills and knowledge to share that are culturally specific and wildly valuable.
Hire Black people to make serious decisions around programming, protocol, budget, and more. Put them in leadership positions, and support them in the leadership position. This is a great and simple way to truly value diversity in your institution.
It’s important to reflect deeply on how you understand Black artists and their work. Often Black art, if it is not conceptual, is not seen as particularly sophisticated work. The work of Black artists is also often labeled as ‘amateur’ art or is seen as too niche to reach a larger (and whiter) audience.
These assumptions around Black art discredit the amount of work, research, and care that has gone into an individual’s artistic practices. It’s important to be mindful of these assumptions and to really inspect the way that you receive and appreciate the work of Black artists.
Additionally, once you have Black artists working in your institution, it’s important to allow them to genuinely work. This means if they would like to make work criticizing or expressing their experiences of racism, you must allow them to. If the criticism is making you uncomfortable, then perhaps it is time to refer back to step one and reflect on where your discomfort is coming from.
According to the Oxford dictionary, tokenizing is ‘the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce’.
What might this look like in practice in the cultural sector? Usually, it manifests in a way that Black employees are encouraged to only do work about their Blackness, or they are forbidden to speak openly about their Blackness and experiences of racism.
For your own tokenizing reality check, ask yourself some questions: How do you think about and use Black employees and Black bodies in your institution?’ Do you use pictures of people without their consent to show how diverse your program is? Do you brag about the few artists of color in your funding to make yourself seem more inclusive? Does your photographer follow around the people of color in the audience? Do you use Black bodies in your program as a way to communicate a certain level of ‘coolness’?
These are just some of the many ways that Black bodies are tokenized and used to prove the diversity of a cultural institution. It’s a pretty easy trap to fall into, so keep a sharp eye and be mindful.
“Be patient, honest, humble, and diligent in the process of making your institution an anti-racist one and welcoming to Black lives”.Rae Parnell
If your institution gets called out for racism by a Black artist, it’s very natural to become defensive. It’s embarrassing and deeply shameful to be accused of something like racism. Interpersonally, this is something that can be somewhat managed. Private conversations can take place, reflection can happen, and understanding can be found.
However, when there is a large power imbalance between the criticizer (marginalized) and the criticized (in a position of power), this can become complicated. What often happens is that institutions have both the power and the desire to push away the accusation of racism. Additionally, the institution is able to label the artist as ‘difficult to work with,’ ‘too confrontational,’ and ‘angry’. This blocks the artist from future bookings.
I see my peers and friends dealing with this all of the time. They experience continuous racism during a residency in an institution and have to decide if they will speak out or not. They understand that speaking about their experience can be detrimental to their career; and they also understand that not saying anything allows the same to happen to the next Black artist. They are in constant negotiation with their career, their identity, and the greater struggle against racism. This is an unfair choice, and it’s a struggle that institutions can alleviate.
It’s crucial that cultural institutions resist the urge to label artists who speak out about racist as ‘difficult’. Instead, set up a conversation with the artist, hire a mediator u0201– do anything to listen to the artist’s experience. Be open-minded and enthusiastic about understanding what needs to be changed in your institution. It might be a bit more work, but I promise, it is more rewarding.
Posting about the Black Lives Matter movement on social media is pretty easy, and sometimes, institutions are (rightfully) accused of ‘performance activism’. This refers to activism with no real investment in social change, where the goal is to gain positive attention for ‘doing a good thing’.
An example of this would be posting something about ‘standing up against racism’ while Black employees still experience regular racism in the office – or if they’re criticized for asking Juneteenth to be declared a company holiday. All of this, while still having no Black employees in positions of power.
Statements without action are just statements, they don’t move anything forward. Make sure that you’re working just as hard behind the scenes as you are in front of the camera. Valuing diversity and Black lives means working hard towards making systematic changes.
There’s nothing wrong with posting your support on social media. You just have to pair it with real and fundamental changes in your institution.
The Black Lives Matter movement is invested in intersectional politics –this means looking at all of the different identities of a person, and understanding how each facet intersects with the other to formulate a lived experience. These many different identities affect the way that a person can access and enter a space.
It is important to understand the many ways that identities are formed, created, and experienced. The progress inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement is just the tip of the iceberg! Your institution should research issues around gender, sexuality, race, disability, class, citizenship, and more. Recognize how each issue informs the other by researching and investing in a truly inclusive space to celebrate the diversity of the human experience.
In continuing to move forward in the struggle for Black lives, it’s important to understand how systems of oppression are linked and depend on each other. Become invested in issues of justice by educating yourself and taking on a role that will bring true social change.
As Fannie Lou Hamer said: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free”.
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