|Kara Walker, |
The Emancipation Approximation (Scene 18)
I was standing in an elegant room of a historic house museum with 25 museum professionals from across my southern state on a bus tour of local museums as a part of our annual museum conference. We crowded into a tiny room adorned with heavy drapery, high-backed chairs, and gilded frames of Civil war-era paintings above marble-topped fireplaces. And then things fell apart.
As the tour guide summed up his brief intro, he turned, pointed, looked at me, asked me my name, and told me not to worry. That “in the end, it all worked out” for me and my people. In fact, to dramatize how wonderful things worked out, he would give me the opportunity to wave a flag at the end of his tour signaling the end of the war and the end of slavery (and presumably all its ill effects). I folded my hands behind my back, smiled, and prepared to take the most meaningful museum tour of my life.
The tour guide--let’s call him Henry--peppered every other sentence with slave references while pointing or deferring to me. Thus: “Porchia, you are going to like this” as he told me about the enslaved peoples who worked in the home, including many happy, well-adjusted “mammies” that lived and worked in the very room where we stood. I wondered with amusement if Henry really thought that I was going to wave a flag. Should I grab it and with the thickest, most vile accent shout loudly, “thank you ‘Massa!”? Henry clearly wanted me to perform his notion of Blackness that day.
As he kept asking us to gather closer around him, I began to retreat so that soon I was almost in another room. Perhaps, if I moved out of his line of sight, we could turn this tour around. Too late.
“What do you think the slaves ate[…pause] What did the slaves eat, Porchia?”
Shoulders shrugging….mumbling “I have no idea…”
“Come on, Porchia,--hoecakes!”He slaps his leg and smiles as if to chastise me lightly; fingers almost wagging as if to surmise that of course, I knew the answer and was just being shy.
Yes, this is a true story. It happened last year.
After that last exchange, one of my fellow museum professionals abruptly ended our tour as everyone else looked on in horror and disbelief. I was extremely grateful for that interruption. Some people were angry. Others embarrassed. A few were not sure what to make of what just happened.
The Case for Cultural Competency
I acknowledge that my experience is extreme. It took place in the Deep South. Henry is a man of a certain age. But these are not reasons to excuse what we all endured that day. I share my story because I hope that it makes you uncomfortable.
Henry is not the typical museum professional. Henry had been contracted for years by local government to give us a tour. He is regarded as both a noted historian and consummate professional capable of executing interpretive work at a historic site and museum.
This story drives home my belief in the power and potential of cultural competency in museum settings. I believe cultural heritage institutions are the best suited to think critically about cultural competency and the language of cultural competence because that language inevitably fosters inclusion and participation.
Henry was making a genuine attempt at building rapport. Part of me is happy that Henry wanted to connect with me, the lone person of color in a group of all white museum professionals. But there is another part of me that could not imagine being so disconnected from cultural competency that I would try to connect by being racially offensive and thereby speaking a language of exclusion even as I intended to be inviting and inclusive.
Instantly, I began to think about how cultural heritage institutions might be replicating Henry and his behaviors daily in much more subtle and inadvertent ways. When we “invite” the Other into the museum, we inadvertently send the message that inclusion is not inherent. Invited participants are given Welcomed Outsider status. The discourses of diversity are often wrought with language that sends mixed messages by placing the majority-minority outside of the museum. The sentiment is correct, but the language is flawed. I advocate co-creation as the language of inclusion because it promotes genuine active participation—the kind that cultivates a desire to become a vested stakeholder.
I had entered that tour excited about the complex narrative surrounding the objects and the people who owned the home. I had a kind of macabre enthusiasm about performing Blackness as a “diverse” new participant in that space. In my mind, what cultural competence would have looked like for me that day is partly about language: the proper use of terms such as “enslaved person” instead of “slave,” knowing that the use of the term “mammy” is inappropriate. Furthermore, I wish Henry had felt comfortable enough to speak about slavery in a way that anchored it in statistics, facts, and complex narratives that made the tour fun, memorable, and powerful without being overly-conscious of my presence as a black woman in the room.
Two of the many barriers to participation for people of color in cultural heritage institutions are assumptions of identity and the burden of expectations of the performance of race. While visitors of color want to be assured that there is equity in the exhibition, marketing, and programming, we do not want to perform race either--especially when we are fully aware that the very act of our participation might have originated in response to a call for diversity. When executed poorly, this kind of invitation does not illicit co-creation but rather feelings of exploitation.
There is no single Black experience. Henry had no idea if I were born and raised in the US, the UK, or even if I was a native English speaker. He was too busy asking me to perform his version of me to allow me to participate fully as the black woman that I am.