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Posts Tagged ‘racism’

 

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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Ferguson [1] has reminded me of a saying I learnt in the US: ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’. I think this applies to interpretation, and heritage management more generally, also. Our literature and our conferences are full of suggestions of interpreters’ inherent good will, and the positive outcome this is supposed to almost automatically engender [2]. We freely explore our sense of a mission, and it seems that with all this good, inspirational energy we surely can do no wrong [3].

I want to offer a challenge to this notion. I think what we as interpreters need is to recognize and acknowledge that we are firmly rooted in our own cultural and experiential horizons, and that they may directly contribute to perpetuating exclusion, especially because of the public-facing roles we occupy. This is not about structural exclusion within our institutions [4]. This is about looking at ourselves as individuals.

Which brings me to a German saying: ‘To grab one’s own nose’ [5], to start looking at one’s self before asking others to do the same. So this post is about me grabbing my own nose. I’d like to share a few personal experiences, and how what they show me about myself also show my limitations as an interpreter/heritage professional. I hope they’ll encourage you to do the same. They are limitations only while they go unexamined.

I am a part of this whether I want to or not

In the early 1990s, I went on my first ever trip to the US with a male, white friend. We were both students from a German liberal tradition. I arrived in the US effectively thinking that I would single-handedly change race discrimination. I was not going to be part of it. Then we came to St Louis, Missouri. At a bus stop, a young black man told my friend that he was a ‘f*ng white man’. I can’t remember the rest. I remember the man’s anger (although he was not overtly aggressive), I remember my friend’s set jaw (he said nothing), and I remember standing aside from them both, mortified. I also remember feeling an incredible sense of relief when we arrived downtown, where everything was back to how I expected it: white people, black people, and no one challenged our assumptions and intentions. The truth? I did not know how to respond to the man. This was so much bigger than I. I was shocked to be classed as ‘white’, when I had arrived determined not to use any such categories. I did not know why that had happened, or how to handle it. I did not understand what ‘white’ meant, just like I did not understand what ‘black’ meant in that man’s life experience. 20 years later, and Ferguson has given me a glimpse of what his life might have been like. And you know what? I’m still not sure how to respond. I am really uneasy about this whole terrible mess and injustice, it challenges everything about me and what I believe and where I fit in. The best I can hope for is to be an ally, and I need to be guided by others in that [6].

I only notice what is in my lifeworld

A couple of years ago, a colleague and I were driving along the road, when I noticed someone throw rubbish out of their car. I am from a country where you do not throw rubbish anywhere. Germans recycle religiously. I’m an environmentalist. I commented, outraged, how much I detested people throwing rubbish around like that. Says my colleague, quietly, “I think they threw it at the girl.” Looking in the rearview mirror, I saw a black girl walking along whom I hadn’t even noticed. I felt awful. Why did my colleague notice what might actually have been going on, while I was completely and utterly on the wrong track? Who cares about the environmental issues with throwing rubbish around when in reality this might have been an act of racism? I felt that by not even noticing, I was somehow complicit. What is worse is that Ferguson has made me wonder whether I too am ‘colourblind’ [7], and whether this incident was the lamentable result of that attitude. This example is specific to someone’s colour of skin, but I do wonder what other aspects of people’s lives I don’t notice just because they are not part of how I normally perceive the world based on my own experience, and what I therefore pay attention to.

I have judgments coming out of my ears

A few months ago, I was zapping through the channels when I stumbled upon the World Music Awards. This guy had just come on, and I continued watching because I thought, how dare he? Arrive at a clearly high profile show like this and he’s drunk! People need to show more respect, and besides, getting drunk and then in public, that’s just disgusting. Drunkenness is one of the things that for personal reasons I have a really strong, emotional reaction to – except, I never realized just how much this reaction was also a condemnation of the other person who is completely unknown to me. I only continued watching the show because the man actually had a really great voice and I thought, wow, how does he manage that when he’s this drunk? Then I started listening to the lyrics and it dawned on me that probably, he wasn’t drunk at all. It was Stromae with ‘Formidable’, and when I investigated I found out that in a master stroke he’d filmed the video for the song equally pretending to stumble drunkenly through a city, releasing clips before the video officially came out [8]. And I felt so ashamed, not because I would have cared a dot about whether or not some famous person is drunk in public, but because watching the video, I couldn’t help but wonder what disgusted looks I give people, all the while feeling completely justified by the very real experiences of my own life. [9]

Here is my point with all of the above: I am a good person. I have good intentions. I am as convinced of the right of my opinions and actions as the next person. But despite all of that, I get it wrong. And that’s not because I’m thoughtless, or because somehow I haven’t discovered ‘focus groups’ or working with ‘target audiences’ yet (trust me, I spend much of my professional life with those). It’s because I am as culturally and socially programmed as everyone else. And that’s okay. But because of the job I have, I, and everyone else in the field, need to be more aware of our positioning. We need to grab our own noses, ask uncomfortable questions, face unhappy truths, and stop talking as if our profession somehow made us and our work inherently ‘good’ or ‘right’. How to deal with these challenges of our own personal horizons needs to become part of interpretation literature and training. We cannot continue to skirt around these ethical questions of how, at the moment, our interpretive practices and philosophy favour certain views and experiences, which mostly fit our own.  That, to me, is our main responsibility.

Notes

[1] In a recent blog post, Gretchen Jennings wrote, ‘The word “Ferguson” has come to stand not so much for a place or incident as for a cluster of events and ideas.  The shootings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other black men by white policemen, the regularity and impunity with which this happens, and the light this sheds on race relations more broadly in the US—Ferguson has come to mean all of this.’

[2] Tilden takes apart one interpreters’ presentation, only to absolve him in the end because the interpreter ‘loved passionately’ what he was talking about. Tilden, F., 1957 (1977). Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, p. 39.

[3] Emma Waterton’s book Politics, Policy and the Discourses of Heritage in Britain (2010, London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan) makes for a really good read in this context, talking about the specific topic of ‘social inclusion’.

[4] Which abounds, as discussions such as #museumsrespondtoferguson are beginning to show. One is linked to the other, structures are linked to the individuals holding power within them. What I hope this post does is encourage those of us in power to start thinking critically about how we might be part of the problem, without wanting to be.

[5] sich an der eigenen Nase fassen.

[6] Just to make one thing very, very clear: from my hardly-ever-challenged life experience point of view it seems to me that the man could have found a better way of expressing his anger and frustration. But I get why he couldn’t. I’ve had one English person tell me to go back to my own country and I have had to watch how I think about English people ever since. Imagine me getting this Every.Single.Day.Of.My.Life. As long as I keep my mouth shut, no one will ever know I’m not British. Now imagine the colour of my skin were responsible for the racism. I’d be the first to get really angry.

[7] I say this deliberately. It’s a white notion not to see colour, and it’s thanks to many bloggers since Ferguson that I’ve become aware of that. I don’t see colour, that’s true (I think). But that’s just to say that I don’t want to, I want to believe the world doesn’t need to be aware of the colour of people’s skin, more than the colour of their eyes. For the time being, sadly, I need to start seeing colour though. Because it’s the colour of our skin that in some places determines our experience and place in this world. Which is just awful.

[8] I don’t know, but I’d like to imagine the whole world going into a frenzy over how he’s exposed himself thus – apparently the images ‘went viral‘.

[9] On a different note, I wonder what interpretation could learn from this approach? How awesome would it be to grab visitors with such a narrative device long before they enter a museum, and take them on a journey almost of deception that turns into self-discovery? I keep talking about museums needing to hold up a mirror to society – can you imagine a concept like the one behind this music clip applied to a museum initiative about the negative ways in which immigration has been portrayed? Exposing the hypocrisy that this blogger experienced (see the end of the post)? Now that would truly change lives. Much more so than another exhibition of ancient objects.

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Two days ago, I was told by someone calling himself ‘an Englishman’ that I should ‘go back to my own country’.  This has left me deeply shaken on several levels, and it is also making me ask some uncomfortable questions about my own assertions and beliefs about the potential of interpretation [1].

Only a few posts ago I asserted that in my opinion, interpretation can do a lot to support social justice. And although I fully agreed with Emma Waterton’s assessment that social inclusion was often proclaimed and pursued in simplistic and ultimately hegemonic terms within the sector, I did feel that if only interpreters were smart and insightful enough about it, they could still achieve a lot. After all, I would never have simply introduced the slave story at Monticello in the belief that the lack thereof was all the reason why African Americans weren’t visiting Thomas Jefferson’s home.  [2]

After what happened to me, I’m not that sure anymore. First of all, our current discourse about social inclusion, integration, and anything else that is aimed at bringing people together in a diverse society, are exclusively aimed at the newcomers, or other ‘excluded groups’. I may be making a shamefully discriminatory statement myself here when I observe that the gentleman who said these things to me isn’t someone that I would normally expect to visit a museum or heritage site.  So what does our inclusive programming do for him?  I also daresay that anyone who feels it is acceptable to racially abuse someone will not be enticed into ‘an English’ museum, in my case, by an exhibition on the culture and traditions of the immigrants to ‘his country’.

The other side of the coin, as Emma Waterton has already made clear, is also not that simple.  We may get a few more people through the door by putting on exhibitions that reflect their migrant or ‘excluded’ cultures [3], but I’m no longer convinced that such interventions actually achieve more than boost our figures.  Do they really promote inclusion and integration?  No.  Because this approach is still one-sided.  It doesn’t address the underlying causes of ‘exclusion’, or racism, or whatever social challenge it tries to tackle.

I can see a variety of reasons for this: our existing audiences may not appreciate having to see their society in such a harsh light, and feeling like they’re expected to take a stance.  And taking a stance is what it is ultimately all about: the museum, or indeed the whole heritage sector, is only a part of a wider social system that churns over these issues on a daily basis.  Our sector alone can’t tackle it: it may not even be the best place for it, as I expressed in my response to the Museums 2020 report.  Social inclusion, integration, racism, these are all political and social issues that are part of the daily negotiations and explorations of a diverse society.  In fact, they drip into our own conversations: in various workplaces I had staff call visitors ‘foreigners’, or advise strongly against portraying for example something as commonplace (in my opinion) as a lesbian relationship in our programmes. In Britain at the moment the talk is of benefit caps and limits on immigration, and there are reprisals against immigrants after a soldier was brutally killed in London three weeks ago.  These are just some of the daily factors that shape how a society grapples with the challenges brought on by a global world (and don’t get me wrong – I’m all for a discussion of any issue).

I don’t know what the answer is.  But when the – in the grand scheme of things – minor incident of racism that I experienced completely threw me to the ground, I didn’t think of my local museum as the place to go to. I relied on my friends, many abroad, but some, thankfully, in Britain, to tell me that they didn’t approve of this, that I have a right to be here, as a German, without the need to forego who I am.  I needed the police to tell me that they were here for me, and my neighbours to pop around to see if I was okay. And I sought refuge in my own German-ness, defiantly listening to German music, watching German films, phoning my friends in Germany – and all of this as someone who thinks, writes, dreams in English, and knows more about the United States and Britain than she does about her native Germany.

So I suppose what I’m saying is that if interpretation and heritage really can help with integration, social inclusion, and racism, then we need to do a lot more reading into the research in those areas. It’s not an easy matter, especially not for those ‘excluded’ groups as we so simplistically label them.  As for me – I don’t know yet what will come of this, both with regards to my interpretive practice, and my personal life. I certainly have a lot to think about now.

Notes

[1] I would like to take this opportunity to say to everyone who experiences more substantial racism than the stupid comment and rant that I got how deeply, deeply I now empathize with you.  My outrage against all discrimination and racism that I had before was simplistic; I did not appreciate how hurtful it is, and what an impact it has.

[2] Please see my response to a comment in this post.

[3] I hasten to add that at no place where I’ve been responsible for interpretation have we ever used this approach.  I prefer a project approach, that brings people together, and the outcome lies in the process, rather than any output.  That way, what they do is up to them – I’m not going to prescribe what the participants have to talk about, or how they want to express themselves.  If they want to have a heated argument, then I’m happy to provide the platform for it.

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