Sexism and Racism Must Be Addressed as Systems

                          While revealing individual misogynists is hard, uprooting                                                      misogyny is much harder.

Lozada, When Women Dare to Step Out of Place

The Ford and Walton Foundations made big news recently in the arts and philanthropy world, announcing $6 million in diversity fellowships for 20 US art museums.  According to the Philanthropy News Digest, 

Efforts to be funded include the hiring of more individuals from underrepresented populations and fellowships, mentorships, and other career development options for professionals from diverse backgrounds, with the goal of shaping curatorial, programmatic, and managerial decisions that lead to long-term benefits for individual museums and the field as a whole.

The quotation at the beginning of this post talks about getting rid of misogynists; the Ford/Walton grants aim to implant and foster diverse leaders.  In both cases, however, the focus is on individual change in discrete institutions rather than systemic transformation of cultural norms..

The Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada, reviewing three new books on feminism, women, and sexual harassment, zeros in on the deep cultural roots of male domination.. He ponders this vaunted “watershed moment” of awareness about oppression of women.  “But there’s also a downside to moments: They can be fleeting.”

When I read about initiatives such as the Ford/Walton fellowships, (and the $2 million the Mellon Foundation provided for museum fellowships in 2014) I ask myself, will $6 million really transform the basic roots of racial and social inequality in museums? Well-intentioned as they are, these programs will at best produce some modest change in the grantee institutions (if the fellows stay and if they are encouraged (allowed) to initiate new ideas and policies).  But they could easily become brief pauses in the decades-long movement to diversify museums.

Lozada quotes from Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Cornell University philosopher Kate Manne, writing “Manne sees misogyny in systemic terms, especially in relation to sexism: ‘Misogyny should be understood as the ‘law enforcement branch’ of a patriarchal order, which has the overall function of policing and enforcing its governing ideology.’ That ideology is sexism,  the belief in inherent female inferiority, and misogyny is the mechanism that upholds and imposes that belief in daily life.”

We can borrow this analysis to understand the continuing lack of diversity in museums, museum studies programs, and professional associations, both in staffing and visitation.  Despite a diversity fellow here or a “Black Scientists” exhibition there, the prevailing (often unconscious) ideology of racism manifests itself daily in the reported experiences of both colleagues* and visitors of color. White privilege is the mechanism that upholds and imposes that ideology in daily museum practice.. It is this pervasive culture of white privilege that vitiates and sucks the life out of benevolent but individually discrete diversity initiatives.

Once one understands the nature of white privilege, that “Invisible knapsack”   in Peggy McIntosh’s seminal essay, one can see that the  museum field is absolutely imbued with it. Initiatives that do not address this mechanism, that do not work to dismantle it, will continue to produce “fleeting moments” rather than sustained equity, inclusion, and diversity.

*See the work of Chris Taylor, the Chief Inclusion Officer at the Minnesota History Society, on the experiences of museum staff of color.

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