MUSEUMS AND RACE:  LANGUAGE PRIMER #2, ON “INTERSECTIONALITY”

 

[We propose a paradigm] for how museums address their responsibility for fair and inclusive staffing, collections, and interpretation, and equality of access to their resources. This paradigm will examine a vocabulary and a set of theories not usually found in current museum discourse:

Oppression: identifying the complex – and too often unacknowledged – ways
in which systemic structural norms influence decision-making so that cultural
institutions present themselves in ways that are unacceptable and exclusionary
to many.

Privilege:  pervasive assumptions of whiteness and wealth, which are counter
to inclusion and diversity (and, in fact, perpetuate white cultural dominance);

Intersectionality: understanding how race intersects with gender, social justice,
class, and socioeconomic status.

Excerpts from the Statement of Purpose of Museums and Race 2016: Transformation and Justice, a convening held in Chicago, IL, Jan 25-27, 2016. 

This is the second in a series of “primers” (inspired by my participation in the Museums&Race convening) on terms that are useful for thinking and talking about museums and race. In my first post I discussed “white privilege.”  This entry will examine the concept of “intersectionality.”

When I first encountered this word I thought it sounded too academic, a bit of scholarly jargon.  However, I have become convinced that it is extremely apt.  In addition, I find it is used increasingly in conversations about race–in newspapers, in media discussions, and online. Because I learned this word while working with museum colleague Porchia Moore on plans for the Chicago Convening, I asked her to help explain it here:

GJ: Please explain the origins of the term “intersectionality.” I understand it was first used in feminist theory?

PM: Not quite. A young black lawyer/professor by the name of Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term some 30 years ago in response to a lawsuit brought by black women in the car industry who felt discriminated against in the tiered hiring practices. These women were told that they could not hold certain jobs because they were women, and yet white women were able to advance in the company and hold certain positions because they were white. This is an example of intersections of varying oppressions, including race and gender. At the time, Dr. Crenshaw felt that there needed to be a term which best articulated the ways and dimensions in which oppressions are connected. In recent years many people speak about the need for intersectional feminism, and I agree that this is an important dynamic of 21st century feminism. However, the roots of intersectionality are much deeper.  Dr.Crenshaw used the term in her seminal work, Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color  I think that Dr. Crenshaw, an African American activist and scholar, should be credited more widely with originating this term. And we need to always remember that the term was meant to help assist black women who were facing discrimination at multiple levels.

GJ: How did the term come to be used in thinking about race and racism?

PM: Again, the term is rooted in examining the complex ways in which race functions in a society built on white privilege and racial discrimination. It grew out of the legal field and later on was used successfully to advance the field of education and more. As a concept, intersectionality is concerned with how race, class, gender, and other “isms” intersect and impact an individual’s identity spaces. For example, as a cis-gendered, black Southern woman, I enter into the museum space occupying, at the basic level, a multiplicity of identities. And here’s the so what:  When museums fail to view both visitors and their institutional systems as similar complex “spaces,” a museum visit can feel like a disjointed experience when visitors’ various identities are rendered invisible by museum policies and positionalities.

GJ: Why do you see the term as so important in thinking about museums and race?

PM: I am a Critical Race Theorist who uses this critical framework to interrogate museum spaces. I began my early academic research trying to find ways to address issues of inclusion and engagement, and there was very little, if any, museum scholarship about intersectionality. Intersectionality is one of the basic tenets of Critical Race Theory, and I have been using it since the start of my PhD journey. When visitors of color are being discussed, museum professionals often fail to see or speak about visitors in totality. Often, visitors of color are viewed as monolithic representations of ideals of a group. When we design programming or exhibitions or even address or create content on our social media platforms, how are we thinking about the ways in which gender, race, age, and other identity dimensions might affect experience?  In my view, intersectionality means thinking about the ways in which we inadvertently render important aspects of visitors’ identities as invisible. Museums are meant to be about collective cultural heritage–but whose cultural heritage and how does that answer correlate to the politics of visibility within museum spaces? There are two key ideas embedded within intersectional museum work:

  1. Who is rendered invisible by museum policies and structures?
  2. What accompanying marginalized identities are muted within museum spaces?

As a Critical Race Theorist (CRT) interrogating museum spaces, I use intersectionality as a tenet of CRT; it is not new vocabulary. I would posit that employing intersectionality as the catalyst and container for action and change within institutional systems is the key to unlocking the kinds of revolutionary participation and engagement needed for the growth of the future of museums.

GJ: Can you give an example illustrating how museums or cultural institutions may be unaware of intersectionality and thus send non-inclusive messages?

PM: Here’s an example. Museums across the country changed their Facebook profile pictures to rainbows in solidarity with the passing of the Marriage Equality Act. Yet there was a deafening silence when simultaneously the country was radicalizing for social justice for the Black Lives Matter Movement. The same communities affected by the Marriage Equality Act are also affected  by the Black Lives Matter Movement because both communities encompass black, gay, and trans visitors. What message was sent when those profile pictures went up? Gay lives matter but black lives don’t? They are one and the same.

GJ: Can you give an example of a museum or cultural institution that seems to be aware of the principle of intersectionality in its work?

PM: While not a museum per se, the community organization La Mujer Obrera, under the direction of Cynthia Renteria, is a powerful example of intersectional cultural work. A member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, La Mujer Obrera is a community-building organization whose work is so critically intersectional that in addition to a community gallery space, the design of the center incorporates the preservation and elevation of Mexican peoples and their many needs. As a result, the center operates on intersectional principles which document and interpret the histories and needs of Mexican peoples. There is a daycare, community farm, and even community organizing programs, all with the idea to define the needs of women and their families. Therefore, La Mujer Obrera is not just focused on community building but on the ways in which communities are impacted by socioeconomic forces, gender inequality, and more. In advancing social justice it is a counter-example to public spaces which operate on status quo.

GJ: Are there any other aspects of this term that you would like to emphasize for museums?

PM: I think the aspect which needs more examination is that intersectional museum work is work which sets about creating and recognizing points of access to participation for museums. But it is more. It is also looking beyond commonplace museum practice regarding exhibitions, curatorial stance, and programming, and thinking about cultural responsiveness. It is thinking about power structures and how to empower visitors by ensuring that in every decision made, we are not rendering visitors mute or invisible by thinking of them as one-dimensional beings. Our visitors are no monoliths. Let’s make sure that when we speak about diversity and inclusion, we are employing intersectionality as a tool to avoid institutional erasures.

In what ways can your museum increase its awareness about intersectionality to ensure inclusion and social justice for its visitors?

GJ:  Thank you, Porchia.  For museums interested in addressing  the full range of visitor identity and experience (the principle of intersectionality) in their work  I suggest following the Tumblr site Visitors of Color, created by Porchia and  M&R colleague Nikhil Trivedi. Also check out a 2015 op ed piece by Kimberle Crenshaw in The Washington Post, “Why Intersectionality Can’t Wait.”

If you are receiving this post by email and would like to comment, please go to www.museumcommons.com.  You can also send a comment to me on Twitter @gretchjenn and to Porchia @PorchiaMuseM

 

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