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Posts Tagged ‘bias’

 

I have recently ready Fatima El-Tayeb’s book Undeutsch (‘Un-German’) [1]. As the book’s subtitle explains, the book looks at the construction of the Other in a post-migrant society [2]. The society in question is Germany, so I was particularly interested in this perspective on the country I have recently returned to.

 

I was not surprised by El-Tayeb’s observation that in Germany, too, there are many processes by which people are turned into ‘the Other’ and thus excluded and marginalised. What I was surprised by, however, was that despite my determination to not be part of these processes, in many instances I had not even been aware of them. Some are so natural, well-meaning even, that upon first reading them described as having racist undertones in the book I rejected the notion. Take the term ‘Deutsch-Türken’ (‘German-Turks’). This is the term used to describe people of Turkish descent. What could possibly be wrong with that? It’s actually an improvement on the language used when I left Germany 20 years ago. Back then, ‘they’ were generally just called ‘Turks’. Great, I thought consequently: finally Germany and its language reflect a migrant reality. These folks are German, with Turkish roots. Splendid.

 

Except, El-Tayeb argues that this linguistic construct (German-Turks) places the emphasis on the second part: they are and always will be Turks before they are German. While in the American construct (‘German-American’), the ‘German’ is merely a distinguishing adjective to a shared identity (‘American’), in the German construct the adjective is what binds us. If it is taken away, what is left is ‘the Other’. And the exclusion does not end there: this linguistic device also subtly constructs the ‘real’ German, for lack of a better word, one who doesn’t need the adjective to be German, but one who simply is German.

 

It is easy to dismiss the above as innocent language development, and El-Tayeb’s analysis as hypersensitive. It’s certainly easier than acknowledging that there may be truth in it, and that in using this language, possibly thinking we were recognising and honouring diversity, we may actually have perpetuated a subtle form of Othering. However, our good intentions do not absolve us of their negative outcomes. We don’t have to be abuse-shouting racists for our actions to have racist undertones.

 

Take another of El-Tayeb’s examples: She writes of receiving an invitation to a conference on the impact of contemporary racism in Germany. She declined to speak when she realised that all other speakers were white men. To her objection the conference organisers responded that the conference was not about the political, but the scientific engagement with racism. In other words: those affected by racism were treated as if they could speak only from the perspective of personal emotion. Others had to contribute the scientific analysis that they were thought incapable of.

 

El-Tayeb does not offer further insights into why the conference organisers responded in this way. However, we see such marginalisation a lot when the experiences of minorities challenge our self-image as open-minded, forward-thinking actors in society. While understanding and compassion for the ‘personal grief’ is readily offered, it is just as readily rationalised away. El-Tayeb points to one such mechanism when she writes about ‘Majority-German’ perpetrators of terror being dismissed as a mere ‘minority’, as not being representative of the country at all – as being ‘Undeutsch’. A ‘silent’ majority that abhors such actions is evoked to prove that despite minority experiences to the contrary, the country and its people at large are ‘good’. The underlying message is clear: we are not the right addressee for your grievance.

 

But we are. I am. El-Tayeb’s book makes it clear that we are looking at a problem of structural racism that doesn’t stop with a linguistic construct like ‘Deutsch-Türken’. The concepts reach deep into our heads and it is there that we need to start tackling these issues. We all have biases, even if rationally we don’t want to have them. And we all have a natural and understandable instinct to want to see ourselves as ‘good’. Yet we must resist the urge to become defensive as soon as someone criticises something about us or about our country. This still happens a lot in our profession – maybe especially in our profession, where the very root of the philosophy we have been raised on is a near-metaphysical good that is hardly ever questioned: protection, understanding, appreciation. If we serve this good, how could we possibly partake in racist structures? It seems near inconceivable, and yet the reality is that we do. What is more, in our profession the impact of our beliefs and actions carry far beyond our own personal sphere. For this reason, we have a particular responsibility. Maybe it is time we spent less effort on fixing ‘others’ through what we offer them, and more effort on ‘fixing’ our biases.

 

Notes

[1] El Tayeb, F., 2016. Undeutsch. Die Konstruktion des Anderen in der Postmigrantischen Gesellschaft. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag

[2] The German Federal Centre for Political Education defines a post-migrant society as one in which:

‘(a) Social change towards a heterogeneous underlying structure has been acknowledged (“Germany is a country of immigration”) regardless of whether this transformation is seen as positive or negative, (b) Immigration and emigration are recognized as phenomena that have a tremendous impact on the country, which can be discussed, regulated and negotiated but not reversed,

(c) Structures, institutions and political cultures are adapted ex post to the identified migration reality (i.e., post-migration), resulting in, on the one hand, greater permeability and upward mobility but, on the other hand, also in defensive reactions and distributional conflicts.’ (source: http://www.bpb.de/gesellschaft/migration/kurzdossiers/205295/post-migrant-society. Accessed: 19.11.2017)

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Last week’s #museumsrespondtoferguson discussion was on inclusion policies and their implementation in recruitment practice (you can read the Storify story here). At one point, one of the hosts of the chat, Adrianne Russell, shared, ‘I can’t count how many times black visitors told me “I’m so glad to see you here”’, which just floored me. Other observations that contributors made apply to the UK, and my own experience in museums as well:

  • ‘Sitting in museum cafe with almost all white patrons, almost all African American servers’
  • ‘Many museums I interned for had a homogenous (white) staff.’
  • ‘I’ve worked in predominantly white museums.’

And this is despite the UK’s fairly good track record with equality policies and standards. So what is going wrong?

The Twitter chat noted a few things, on which I’d like to expand and to which I’d like to add here:

Representation

The chat was focused on recruitment, but it did make me think about the impact of our offer to visitors as well. In addition to not finding yourself represented among museums staff, I think it is fair to say that in many instances, under-represented groups will also not find themselves represented in museum narratives. And where they are, these representations are usually through someone else’s prism. We need more studies here to show the real impact these practices have on visitors, but my assessment is that they can be as easily patronizing and exclusive as they may be inclusive [1]. If this is indeed the case (as I think it is), then visiting a museum currently is unlikely to make under-represented groups feel like this is a place for them.

Outreach

The point on representation makes outreach that much more important. This is not outreach of the educational kind; this is outreach where museum professionals participate for example in careers fairs, and chat to pupils from under-represented groups about the roles available in the sector. It would be helpful if the staff going there were from the community itself, and a certain added element of ‘representation’ may just have to become a part of the role of staff members from under-represented groups [2]. Otherwise, if you send me, I may just inadvertently give the same message as what these pupils may be getting already: If you work in this sector, you get to work with more white folks like me. Hurrah! (or not).

Unpaid internships

This is not just a matter of dubious practice bordering on exploitation. It’s also a matter of exclusion, and this cannot be stressed enough: only those able to afford to gain unpaid experience are able to take up these internships. Make internships and experience a central stepping stone to get into the museums sector, and we’re excluding people before we’ve even invited them to apply.

Qualifications, Skills, and Knowledge

This didn’t come up in the chat, but in my own practice I’ve observed that particularly in the museums sector, we seem to have very odd notions of what qualifications, skills and knowledge are required for certain roles. I argue that it is sometimes the wrong qualifications and experience we’re looking for (see for example this post). Community involvement, community connectedness, facilitation and creativity are far more relevant to many community-facing roles than say, art history. And these may be exactly the qualifications that currently under-represented groups may have. If we’re asking for the wrong qualifications, we will get the wrong people, and we will continue to perpetuate under-representation amongst our staff.

Advertising Roles

Museums seem to have their usual ‘go-to’ channels to recruit staff. In the UK, that’s generally the Museum Association’s job section, and large newspapers (I’ve found all but one of all my jobs via large newspapers). The problem is that these are not necessarily the channels where really well-qualified people from groups other than the usual suspects may be looking for jobs. We’re properly entering the vicious cycle here that started with the points above. And yet, identifying alternative channels might just mean we find the perfect candidate amongst those under-represented groups we’d like to join our team.

Support

A few of the chat contributors noted that there was a lack of support in the sector for in-job professional development. I can’t say that this is true for the UK as I have experienced it, from Local Authority museums to a national charity. However, with budget cuts going ever deeper, this may well become an issue here as well. It is certainly true that much can be achieved through professional development, although in order for these benefits to kick in, we first need to take down the barriers that prevent people from entering the sector in the first place. I honestly believe that change could be much more quickly achieved, if the sector recruited on different criteria, and then invested in people to get them up to speed on things it still considers important – such as knowledge of collections. Or even a teaching qualification, if you must.

And finally, the biggy: Our Own Underlying Prejudice

I’ve added this on just before I added this post, because as if on cue, I found this depressing experiment in my Facebook feed. I’ve tried to highlight the impact of our own personal flaws/issues/horizons in my last blog post, and I’ve noted it in other posts previously. But it’s not something I hear widely discussed. And I suppose that’s because it’s not making us ‘in power’ look too good. It’s darn uncomfortable. It suggests that despite our policies and inspirational vision papers, and despite our efforts to be good people, we may actually do stuff that under scrutiny turns out to be pretty appalling. But if those findings apply more widely – that an ‘ethnic’ name makes a person less likely to get invited for an inverview – then we better start examining honestly and systematically what our own subconscious prejudices might be.

Notes

[1] For a related post you may find this one interesting. The comment discussion on this post may also be of interest.

[2] I’m uncomfortably conscious of the fact that this is making the ‘under-represented’ attribute yet again a focus, when really all we want is for people to just be people, and treated as such. I honestly don’t know how to overcome that as yet. My good intentions as a white woman from Germany just probably won’t communicate to a black teenager from central London that really, s/he is exactly the person I want to see directing our museums in a few years’ time.

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