I am Martha Brown, president of RJAE Consulting. As I grow in my understanding of how white supremacy manifests in myself and the world, it becomes more evident in my arts evaluation work.
My story concerns a program evaluation in an art museum. Art museums are known white spaces; the American Alliance of Museums reported that just 9 percent of core museum visitors are people of color. During this evaluation, I observed and recorded interactions between museum docents and students. Docents were white, middle-to-upper class, over-50 volunteers. Most second-grade students were children of color and attended Title I schools.
Many art works the docents discussed represented the traditional white European canon. Sometimes works by artists of color were discussed, but docents did not consistently note them as such. Given that the theme of the tours was how artists use art to tell stories, docents buried opportunities for both artists and students of color to tell their stories. Their colorblind approach eradicated the chance for students of color to see themselves in the works or become an artist like Augusta Savage. The docents’ whiteness was likely the reason why works by and about people of color were passed over.
My challenge was to let go of white solidarity, which Robin DeAngelo defines as “the unspoken agreement among whites to protect white advantage and not cause another white person to feel racial discomfort by confronting them when they say or do something racially problematic” (p. 57). So, I spoke to one docent as we watched another docent discuss a Normal Rockwell painting of upper class, elderly white people. The students had no idea what many of the objects in the painting were because they had never seen them. I asked, “Why isn’t she talking about the painting right next to her (Ridin’ High)? Or the portrait of Ruby Green Singing? They could better identify with those works.” This docent heard me, researched Ridin’ High, and included it in her next tour. In that instance, I broke white solidarity without penalty. But I cannot predict a comparable response from the other docents or program managers.
When I raise issues about equity or cultural relevance in my reports, my clients often edit or delete my words. I wrestle with these difficult questions as I journey toward anti-racism: How do I have this conversation in a way that doesn’t send my clients retreating into the bowels of white fragility? Do I settle for the watered-down edits that make the recommendations about cultural relevance easier for my clients to swallow? I am only sure of this: saying or doing nothing perpetuates white supremacy, and I can’t do that anymore.
Can Art Amend History? Artist Titus Kaphar TED Talk
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