Racial Bias I Have Faced in Museums (and Academic Programs in the Arts) / by Pleasant Folk

I have bullet-pointed the biggest issues I have faced as an Afro-American woman in the museum field from academia to employment. In short, I have felt completely betrayed by the museum field and I am more comfortable operating independently at the moment. All of these points are relevant to the retail, law, library, and service roles I have held. Due to the trending conversations of diversity in the arts, I felt it was important to share these experiences as soon as possible. Nearly all of these indiscretions were carried out by women in power or in lower level positions than myself. The reason I mention this detail is to contrast what we know about women at work, glass ceilings, the #metoo movement, and feminism.

Have a Pleasant Day
-Rae Pleasant

These points will be further illustrated in the upcoming art series Place Mat-Spellbook.

*Please do not steal these ideas for your diversity seminars and blog posts without credited me.
Feel free to email me and invite me to speak at panels, lectures, or conferences about the topic.

MLA format:
Pleasant, Rae. Newsletter: Racial Bias I Have Faced in Museums (and Academic Programs in the Arts). Dallas, TX: Pleasant Folk LLC, March 2019. www.pleasantfolk.com/newsletter/hardlessons

1. Intellectual Theft

My ideas instantly, and I mean in mere seconds, would ALWAYS become the property of someone else. Whether these ideas were written or verbal, they were taken from me and credited to someone else right in front of me. If I sent through proposals or applications, they would often be denied and then copied. There is no point in a museum career if I cannot be credited with my original work.

2. Downgrade of Contributions

Most of my contributions to the museum field were tasks I was assigned in my original job description, or completely original projects/research/initiatives designed and executed by me. However, my contributions would be completely and utterly ignored or downgraded to the point I was called ‘intern’ ‘assistant’ when that was NOT my job title or that I had ‘helped’. I would be hired to do a job and then my job description would be taken down to nothing without explanation while any original contributions would be rejected or stolen.

3. Disrespect of Intelligence

I was constantly told that I did not know things or asked how I could hold a particular knowledge of something. I have been asked if I was in the building because of Affirmative Action. I have been told that most Black people don’t know anything about Black history, but I am living history and also I have several degrees.

4. Living Culture and Academic Study

As a Black staff member, there are times when I want to experience the culture like a jazz night or Black History Month event. I may incorporate a family story or photograph into a lecture about Black history. The majority of staff had the cultural intelligence of a booger and in turn disrespected me culturally and racially on several occasions throughout my education and career. I have been told at every phase of my education and career that I either HAVE to study Black American or African history or that I CANNOT because Black people don’t know Black history/haven’t been to Africa. My contributions about the terminology or ideology of the culture were disregarded as were my outreach initiatives. These same aholes are tweeting right now about diversity on social media and taking selfies at homeless shelters.

5. Mediocrity vs. Genius

Museums are staffed by ordinary, often times mediocre, people who have lofty careers on the back of someone else’s genius (the artist). It would be appropriate to have humility and gratitude in these circumstances, but instead proximity to someone else’s genius bred arrogance in most staff. Most upper level museum staff has no artistic ability or motivation. Those who practice art in museums often hold labor intensive roles or lower level roles. While outdated standardized tests and GPAs are the gold standard and gatekeeper of the industry in the traditional sense, no one is ever tested or trained to actually make art. These people are not contributing to art history they are paraphrasing it to death and rewarding themselves for it.

6. Propped up on Pedestals

Museums and the field of history, art history, and the like are traditional models where a mentor essentially chooses a student or lower level staff based on how similar they are to each other (their academic interests and many times their looks, or family background can be grounds for this relationship). The relationship is maintained via ass kissing. Far too often, there are not professors in these programs who hold expertise in topics that appeal to diverse students, or they show no natural interest in mentoring diverse students.

It is the Elizabeth Holmes Effect where mediocrity and/or failure in an individual from a historically preferred group is propped up to create the illusion of success and/or intelligence. This kind of favoritism is meant to mask glaring problems and keep power dynamics intact. The person is kept on a pedestal because their failure means they must be rescued by people in power, so in turn they remain beholden and submissive to said power. Both parties get something out of it; executive administrators remain powerful because they have to guide such inexperienced, immature, or ignorant individuals while those being guided are propped up with the superficial trappings of a career (ie. attention). But, I have witnessed far too many people fall once the hand that guides them is moved away. They are left in the dust and it’s on the the next young thing. When people attempted to do this to me, I refused or recoiled immediately because I felt ready and seasoned at an early age having prepared myself with extra internships, projects, and courses. There was nothing for me to gain by an older woman in power lying to me, stealing my ideas, or bullying me. This ‘rebellion’ led to backlash or fallout.

7. Mean Girls in Bland Packages

Yes, most museum offices are made up of white women who are middle to upper class financially before entering into the field. Many are married with dual income. Bullying, jealousy, gossiping, and lying were common place and made museum offices overwhelmingly toxic. It felt like revenge of the nerds with homely women either bullying or latching onto thin or conventionally pretty women. A huge problem would be immature girls in lower level positions becoming jealous that I was hired at a higher level and demand my work or original projects for themselves. This behavior was never punished when reported.

8. Lack of Solidarity Between Women, LGBQT, and Ethnic People

The LGBTQ, Hispanic, Asian, or Black people that were in the offices were not always guaranteed to be allies personally or professionally. Please know, there have been some amazing ethnic coworkers, women, and LGBTQ I have had the pleasure of working alongside. However, some have been traitorous or complicit in office politics or worse which is blow in the struggle for inclusion and fairness. I am not obligated to speak on behalf of other groups when very few have stood up with me. I speak on behalf of myself and what I represent. I stand with and respect those who also speak on behalf of their perspective. When I would confide my problems in white women who presented themselves to me as allies, ethnic people, or LGBTQ, I was often abandoned or labeled a ‘complainer’. These were people who did not experience even half of the bad treatment that I was given and could not relate or did not want the trouble. Far too often, they were complicit or active agents in problematic behavior in museums.

Black art lovers, artists, and museum professionals need to understand that our solidarity is our survival. The majority of Black museum professionals are women because by and large it is still pink collar work at the end of the day. The majority of favored Black artists are men because the art industry idolizes men presently and historically. The clear path to solidarity is these two groups working together respectfully. Calm down the ‘art bro’ hotep antics and the catty jealousy so that we can all eat at the table.

Now, this section will be the one paragraph that white people latch onto, pick apart, and paraphrase to death. Why? Because it has happened to me before in the press where complex thoughts about race relations are reduced to sensation for the sake of a ‘journalist’s’ career. This section appears to be infighting or juicy gossip when it is not. Some of my greatest experiences and relationships as an artist and arts professional have been in the company of fellow Afro-Americans.

9. Imagined Villainy

My excellence was seen as a threat and people reacted with vicious jealousy. My accomplishments were manipulated into negatives. I was called ‘mean looking’, ‘unfriendly’, or ‘intimidating’ by simply walking down the hall or sitting at my desk. When someone has imagined themselves as your victim they are looking for reasons to justify it.

10. Verbal Abuse

Since elementary school, I have been pulled aside to be unjustly verbally abused by women in power. I refused to live the rest of my adult life being spoken to in this manner.

11. Rich People

Museums and galleries are playgrounds for the rich. I do not aim to villainize wealthy people because many museums and careers would not exist without their philanthropy. However, most business models for the arts are not sustainable for everyone involved. Many times, rich people would bring their offspring, niece, or family friend to work as an intern or employee with no questions asked. For a family business, this is customary (many people in my family own businesses), but cultural institutions need a bit more democracy involved. The college majors that lead to these professions attract people who already have money and can afford to travel the country to take unpaid or low paying internships. Wealthy young people might have grown up with fine artwork in their homes and that early expose has given them an advantage. Again, I do not blame wealthy people because I want to learn from their successes and mistakes. My career has been dependent upon philanthropy, so I have seen the selfless side of wealthy that most people do not. However, it must be noted that art history degrees and museums can have major blind spots.

12. Class Divide

I was born and raised in the Black middle class which continues to be unacknowledged and disrespected in conversations about race and diversity in America. There were often class clashes in universities and museums that played out in the context of white liberal spaces. It was far too common to see white liberals post pictures of Black people in need and placing themselves as the savior on social media…while ignoring or mocking feedback and complaints from middle class Black people about controversial exhibitions. It was common to see white staff begin to acknowledge or greet Black janitors, guards, or security after I was hired because they witnessed me greet them everyday. Other times, the service staff would greet me in the presence of white people and the white person would assume the janitor was greeting THEM. I would begin to hear staff brag about how friendly they were with a particular service staffer while treating me with disrespect or barring me from meetings I was fully entitled to attend. Cherry-picking an amenable favorite or a person who is staffed beneath you does not make you less racist. In most institutions I have ever worked, I have been one of few Black staff that is not in the service department. Throwing a ‘Hay gurl’ in faux Ebonics to a janitor or retweeting a trendy article about diversity does not absolve the rest of the staff from the disrespect they showed me everyday. Especially when I have been mocked about my articulate way of speaking by white people who often use faux Ebonics as a declarative or in jokes. In every museum where I have worked, I have been asked to remove my badge and pose for promotional photos as a pretend customer. This was a direct attempt by the museum to attract diverse dollars using a convenient body…mine. Yet, my work as an employee was not publically promoted unless I fought hard and loud for it making enemies in the process.

13. Sexual Harassment

As an unmarried young office woman, I was often targeted for uncomfortable conversation by men who claimed to have or had a wife or girlfriend of color. Other times, I would be targeted for unwanted attention, staring, or comments by janitors, security guards, cooks, and electricians of color. It would be a shocking betrayal in an environment where I was fighting so hard for racial equality. These reports to HR were never handled.

14. Invisibility

While white staff would brag about superficial relationships with service staffers, many people could not even remember my name, my position, or my background. My headshot was usually not professionally photographed by the museums unless I was asked to take off my badge and pose as a customer for marketing campaigns. I was not given press releases for my appointments or accomplishments. Even when I asked to write simple blog posts, I was told no (it would be a battle just to get a blog post if one was granted at all). My alma maters would usually not include me in public relations even when I updated the department about my progress. I believe to date I have been included as a line item in a list of names. nearly all of the lectures or publicity I have gained as a museum professional, I had to secure independently or assertively request. In short, I have been rendered invisible while the field and the press announce to the world that Black museum professionals don’t exist!

15. Stubborn Sacrifices

The poverty I have experienced as an adult is a direct result of my stubborn persistence int eh arts. While my tuition was covered for my double major in university by pell grants and scholarships, student loans with high interest rates covered expensive student housing, living expenses, books, and fees. Low wages and high cost of living as an employee of arts institutions was a contributing factor to post graduate poverty. Transitional periods after university graduations, relocation, or job moves were especially tough. I sacrificed the comfortable middle class lifestyle I was accustomed to to make decisions I thought would benefit my career. One day I will make a post about my university experiences.

16. Twice as Good

I know for a fact I worked twice as hard and received very little accolade or financial gain for my troubles. See point #6! I had a knack for being creative and flexible WITHIN the job description I was given. I was also excellent at refining my job description to match the actual work achieved. I also took on projects within my jurisdiction that others did not want to do or that had been neglected to compensate when my job descriptions were reduced or disrespected. My work ethic was ten times my peers and it was seen as nothing more than a threat on top of my ability to work well with men. I decided that I should only work this hard for myself and spare my energy and passion!

Most of the Afro-American people I know are lawyers, engineers, nurses, doctors, teachers, artists, home owners, and city council members. There is a sickening habit of acting like Black people only exist as charity cases while ignoring Black professionals and the Black middle class. We are proactive and hardworking. I cannot spend the rest of my disproving stereotypes because I’ve done enough.

17. The Realities of Racism

There have been times when I was walking to class or driving to work and I experienced the harsh realities of racism. I had to enter my classes or job and carry on knowing I could have easily been rendered a statistic on the way there. I have been called racial slurs from passersby, solicited for prostitution from moving cars, or pulled over by cops with batons at the ready in a gripped fist. I have been denied entry into hotels that were booked and paid for for work. I have been aggressively harassed in cabs and frisked privately when I fly or called a terrorist. I have been scammed systematically by large financial institutions with little to no justice and no empathy from ‘friends’ in the field. In New Zealand, I was told several times point blank you can be a maid or a nanny in this country, but these establishments are high end and customers don’t want a Black person with weird hair (locs). One day I will write about my time in NZ. Not only did I have to deal with bullshit at work and university, I had to deal with incidents that could have gotten me KILLED on the way there! And still, I persisted with these stubborn sacrifices.

18. Blaming Afro-Americans

Often times, the lack of diversity is blamed on the underrepresented group. We are perceived as not trying to have museum careers, not being academically inclined, not interested, or not exposed to the arts. This is not true. We have been employed in the field for generations while being ignored or disrespected. Keep in mind, there are historically Black museums, libraries, and universities staffed by Black professionals and filled with Black art and material culture. Please simply share the praises of these institutions and individuals! Google is your friend if you need help finding them.

19. White Experts with an Attitude Problem

I will not spend my career competing with white people who claim to be ‘experts’ in Black history or who earn a living lecturing about, painting, or otherwise riding the Black body for their own acclaim. This is the same way that white straight male artists made a living and legacy on the image of the female nude. Do not ask me if I’ve ever been to Africa because it’s not my obligation. Do not claim you have done more for Black people than me. Do not quiz me on my knowledge of Black things. Do not try to ‘out Black’ me with finger snaps and neck rolls. I am not obligated to live for anyone else and white ‘experts’ are not the gatekeepers of my Blackness. I do for MYSELF everyday and some days that’s more than I can handle, but either way that is enough. I am the living embodiment of MLK. Jr.’s dream.

20. Becoming the Change I Wanted to See

When I started my own art business, I became the change I wanted to see professionally and artistically. I created the artwork I longed to see and publicized myself in a way I had never been. I am the Black woman artist and picture book writer children have been longing to meet. I secured a professional head shot and it is used every time I collaborate on a project. There have been so many people happy to see my fro and brown skin on digital signs, posters, and booklets. I am being interviewed and asked for my opinion. People shake my hand and remember my name. Some of these experiences never happened naturally in museums, even after a decade in the field!