Interrupting White Dominant Culture in Museums

As I sat down to shape this piece a couple months ago, I found myself reflecting on the sometimes frustratingly slow, pain-laden, and capricious path of change for museums, and my own role as an agent of change and accomplice in this work of making change happen. On my desk in front of me, I have a towering pile of books on the shelf in front of me on museum change, activism, and inclusive practices along with a formidable pile of diversity statements and strategic plans that talk about equity and community. Conference after conference and convening after convening bring to the center themes of equity, inclusion, relevance, community, and audience. There are rapidly growing networks of activists and changemakers, with expanding movements connecting through social actions, events, book clubs, reading lists, online syllabi, and social media hashtags. Yet given all this, why do some of the pivotal changes happening in museums right now feel tenuous and temporary? Why does deep and meaningful change always feel a bit out of reach?

In a May 2019 piece by poet, activist, and community organizer Jamara Wakefield that powerfully envisions a decolonized future for museums, she writes:

One of the things holding us museums back from this level of transformative change is our continued unwillingness to challenge the entrenched institutional structures that advance and maintain inequity and oppression. The pervasive hold of white supremacy is arguably one of the single greatest threats to the deep, transformational change that is needed within museums today. It is a threat to racial equity; it is a threat to environmental and economic justice; it is a threat to the well-being of Black, Latinx, indigenous, LGBTQ, deaf, and disabled communities, among many others; it is a threat to human dignity; and it is a threat to those who are struggling to see these universal values of equity, justice, and dignity define our new institutional realities. And it is a threat that is largely-unacknowledged by white museum professionals and those in positions of power across the field.

I realize that pressing this idea of examining white supremacy and white dominant culture within our museum institutions may bring forward some resistance, defensiveness, tension, and complexity. During the past two years of spreading the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral campaign and message with co-creator La Tanya Autry, we have encountered resistance (sometimes staunch, sometimes more subtle) from some museum leaders and thinkers (all white) who are unable or unwilling to see, define, and critically reflect on white dominant culture in their institutions. After all, for me, that campaign is so much about the simple yet powerful recognition that what museums take for granted as ‘neutral,’ ‘objective,’ ‘normal,’ ‘professional,’ and ‘high quality’ is all part of a system of white supremacy that perpetuates oppression, racism, injustice, and colonialism.

In an interview in May 2019, incoming Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie Bunch was asked about what #MuseumsAreNotNeutral means to him. He replied:

I frequently reference the words of scholar and activist Angela Davis who, while speaking to a gathering of Ferguson protesters in 2015, stated:

White supremacy thrives within this tyranny of the universal, the neutral, the apolitical, the fair and balanced, and the objective. Acknowledging that ‘museums are not neutral’ is a meaningful and urgent step toward gaining awareness of the powerful role that white supremacy and white dominant culture play within our institutions. It is a crucial step toward recognizing one’s own role in questioning it, interrupting it, and being a part of taking transformative action to replace it.

How can we define white dominant culture and white supremacy?

As part of this discussion, I want to bring in a couple definitions of white dominant culture and white supremacy that can be helpful for those who are new to these ideas. If you hear these terms and limit their definitions to the acts of militant white nationalists and hate groups marching with torches, then I suggest you pause here and do some homework. Take some time to connect with the wider discourse around this topic. It is important that we get past these reductive associations, and begin to develop more complex and shared understandings.

Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility (2018), firmly states the importance of using language such as white dominance and white supremacy in these conversations. She writes:

A useful and widely-recognized definition of white dominant culture comes from the work of Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones on dismantling racism:

From their collection of writings entitled How We Fight White Supremacy (2019), Akiba Solomon and Kenrya Rankin write:

Through their work on racism, Okun and Jones have also offered up a list of characteristics of white culture that can help us see where white dominant culture is showing up in our work and in our lives on a regular basis. These include perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness, either/or thinking, a focus on quantity and valuing measurable goals, discomfort with emotion, a sense of paternalism in decision making, and fear of conflict, just to name a few.

For some of you reading this, these characteristics may be strikingly familiar and precisely describe your workplace culture. Have you taken a moment to step back and question some of these norms? How have you been involved in promoting and advancing this culture? I can say that I have spent much of my career in management roles without actively questioning and interrupting these characteristics, playing my own role in maintaining these structures of inequity without being conscious of the impact. My goal here is not to make this about blame or guilt (that happens far too often), but rather to invite white folks to recognize where this is showing up so we can work as part of a collective effort to interrupt and decenter it.

Aspects of white supremacy are showing up every moment of every day in the museum workplace (and in the galleries). It dictates how people hold meetings together, who is invited to those meetings, who participates, and whose ideas are valued. It informs how students of color are treated during a field trip, and how a museum responds when instances of racism hit the media. It controls how our front of house staff interact with visitors, who works in positions that interact with visitors, the types of training they receive, and who makes decisions about these trainings. It dictates how museum leaders and managers make decisions, who gets to have input into those decisions, and who is impacted by those decisions. It is a controlling force in how we define ‘community,’ how we work with community partners, what we value about those partnerships, and how we resource those partnerships. It dictates the words that get written on museum labels, and who gets to write, edit, and approve those words. And each and every one of these moments (and thousands more) threatens to chip away at the humanity of our colleagues of color, visitors of color, and all those who are not defined within these norms of ‘whiteness.’

Real harm is being done throughout every nook and cranny of our institutions, and we need to collectively recognize this before we can take actions to interrupt white dominance. As Gita Gulati-Partee and Maggie Potapchuk state in their 2014 article on “Paying Attention to White Culture and Privilege”:

Why am I writing about this?

I want to be clear here. I understand that I am a product of white dominant culture and a participant in white dominant culture, not just as a white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied male in a position of power within a museum, but as a human being living and acting in our society. White supremacy is insidious, pervasive, and systemic. It is the air we breathe. It shapes our language, our relationships, our actions, our decisions, and our emotions. It is showing up in my words as I write this, even as I critique it. And while I have made choices to gain awareness of this domineering and harmful culture, it still floods all aspects of my being in this world.

I have chosen to make my messy and mistake-filled learning process more public, not to create harm but rather to recognize these challenges wherever, whenever, and however possible. Throughout my museum career, I have leaned towards questioning the status quo and the “ways things are supposed to be” without necessarily having ‘the answer.’ I enjoy the more fluid exchange of ideas, questions, and experiences that we, as a broader collective of changemakers, can bring to these issues. I find that it is important to open up larger and larger conversations about burning issues so that we can grow together as a community of change and work toward building a positive, thriving future for museums.

I raise these questions about white supremacy as part of a rapidly expanding group of museum workers, leaders, and advocates for change who see the language of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility spread like wildfire on the surface of museums without necessarily seeing the deep institutional transformations that are needed within museums. I also raise these questions as someone working within a museum that is changing and experiencing the pain and messiness of grappling with these deeper issues.

My own learning has been happening over the course of many years as a contributor in a community of colleagues, mentors, friends, co-workers, and the many teachers in my life. I recognize the long history of museum workers, activists, educators, community leaders, and radical transformers who have fought against white supremacy, and those who I see as powerful leaders and mentors in current efforts to dismantle racism and change museums (including La Tanya Autry, Monica Montgomery, Teressa Raiford, Keonna Hendrick, Porchia Moore, Radiah Harper, Nicole Ivy, Omar Eaton-Martinez, Chris Taylor, Janeen Bryant, nikhil trivedi, Jackie Peterson, Melanie Adams, Joanne Rizzi-Jones, Dina Bailey, PJ Gubatina Policarpio, Stephanie Cunningham, Aleia Brown, Adrianne Russell, Kayleigh Bryant Greenwell, Chieko Phillips, Elisabeth Callihan, Laura Raicovich, Aletheia Wittman, Alyssa Greenberg, Margaret Middleton, Toni Wynn, those working on MASS Action, the Museums and Race team, and many many others). I am aware of, and grateful for, the deep thinking and action that has already been done around this issue, and that continues to be done today.

Taking action to interrupt white supremacy

The work of interrupting and decentering white supremacy can seem overwhelmingly daunting when we’re faced with what seems like the insurmountable task of systemic change. Furthermore, there is no easy fix, mandatory training, or simple pre-packaged strategy that can wash away these oppressive structures and legacies. As Solomon and Rankin aptly state, “if we had a magic button we could press to end this nightmare, we would have leaned on that bitch long ago” (x).

One important place to start, especially for white people, is to simply recognize and name when white culture is showing up in the workplace — and accept the discomfort that comes with identifying these moments without resorting to defensiveness (see “white fragility”). In a widely-shared blog post on challenging white dominant culture in nonprofits, Lupe Poblano, Project Director at CompassPoint, writes, “White leaders … need to locate their own cultural whiteness and become aware of how their internalized superiority shows up and how it negatively impacts POC inside their own organization.” He continues, “You, leaders within the white dominant leadership structure, need to be willing to change you first.”

Gulati-Partee and Potapchuk stress that “putting white culture and privilege on the table is critical to include in racial equity work — and it is fraught with challenges due to the complex manifestations of structural racism.” For those doing the more transformational work in museums, I know that you feel these challenges each and every day. For most white people, myself included, the larger structures of white supremacy are elusive and invisible until we gain the awareness to see them. And when we do see them more clearly, it feels like a punch in the gut. As Hannah Heller writes in her 2018 article “Working Towards White Allyship in Museums”:

Recognizing these characteristics of white dominant culture is a pretty big step for many of us, yet it doesn’t end there. Transformative change begins to happen in our institutional cultures when we examine, interrupt, decenter, and replace these harmful and oppressive organizing structures and habits of mind. Okun and Jones offer an entire set of “antidotes” or alternatives that we can pivot to, moving away from the established norms of white workplace culture. The Museums as Sites of Social Action (MASS Action) toolkit also provides an extremely useful discussion of dominant culture, organizational culture, and inclusion in Chapter 3 and many other sections of the toolkit.

I also highly recommend that folks check out the BlackSpace Manifesto, created by a collective of Black artists, architects, designers, urbanists, and changemakers working to amplify Black agency. Their Manifesto provides a powerful set of practices that turn us away from white supremacy and center new modes of thinking and working based in equity, justice, love, and trust. I recently shared the Manifesto with a few white colleagues at my own institution, and we met to discuss our own roles in pivoting toward these practices. While it was just one conversation, it’s a small step toward doing things differently.

Download BlackSpaceManifesto (PDF)

Questioning the ways we make change happen

For me, the spark for writing this piece came when I was invited to speak at the MuseumNext conference in London (June 2019). The conference’s central theme was “Making Change Happen,” a topic I am extremely passionate about. I spent some time reflecting on the barriers we, as museum professionals and changemakers, face within institutions to make change happen, and how quickly (or slowly) we enact change. For my presentation, I facilitated a bit of a workshop that created some space for conference attendees to think about the larger issues of dominant culture and white supremacy in their own personal work and within our institutions.

I ended with a “Questions & Listening” session, rather than a typical “Question and Answer” thing — which is a strategy I’ve experimented with in the past. This simply allows people to ask questions, gives those questions some space to be heard in a deeper way by everyone, and does not pretend that I (as the “presenter”) am in some kind of ‘expert’ position to give the answers. It allows everyone in the room to reflect on the questions, and potentially have their own conversations about their responses. It honors the knowledge in the room, not just in the “expert presenter.” While this is always a bit awkward, since we’ve been trained to want to hear the answers from the single person on stage, I feel it is a worthwhile strategy to disrupt the white dominant culture that shows up in conferences.

I have also embraced a flood of questions racing through my mind before and after my presentation about change: In our own impatience to see urgent and meaningful change take place, are we unintentionally setting up an antagonism between immediate action and deeper reflection? Are we creating an either/or choice between making change happen now and taking time for conversation, listening, and collective understanding? Do we place more value in the bigger, bolder public-facing actions and downplay the more intimate, personal, relationship-based evolution of change happening on a smaller scale? How much of our mindset about change, and the pace of change, is dictated by white dominant culture?

I am open to your thoughts, insights, questions, and critiques as part of this broader conversation. I intend to remain open-hearted in this work, recognizing that I have a lot of learning ahead of me and a lot of listening to do. I’m committed to being a catalyst for these challenging conversations since I believe in the future of museums and I know in my heart that we collectively have the courage to change these institutions in deep, transformative ways.

“Museums could be powerful, liberatory spaces…”

I’m going to put an exclamation point on the end here by reconnecting with the meaningful words of Jamara Wakefield (enormous gratitude to my friend Monica Montgomery for sharing this piece, which I have read about a dozen times in the last few months). In the article “Museums could be powerful, liberatory spaces if they let go of their colonial practices,” Wakefield concludes with this:

Independent consultant, change leader, author, and nature lover living in Portland, OR. #MuseumsAreNotNeutral + Founding Editor at https://artmuseumteaching.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store