In response to the death of George Floyd, there’s been this massive barrage on social media and websites of statements from individuals and companies about how they support Black Lives Matter or how they’re opposed to violence against blacks. Yesterday, the American Alliance of Museums held a special session as part of the AAM Virtual Conference, titled “Racism, Unrest, and the Role of the Museum Field.” During the session, Johnnetta Cole, a highly regarded former college president and Smithsonian museum director, responded to the phenomenon by asking, “Did these people never find their voice until now?”
Over the years, I’ve noticed that ”these people” tend to find their voice when it’s the politically correct thing to do in the moment.
The AAM session felt eerily familiar. In 2017, I attended the California Association of Museums’ annual conference in Sacramento. One session stood out for me – staff from the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, ESMoA, the San Diego Museum of Man, and the Oakland Museum of California all presented case studies on how to develop conversations about race, equity, and inclusion. Some of what they had to share was painful to take in. At one point, we were placed in groups and asked to determine how we would respond to potential situations of inclusion. It was difficult as heck to come to a cohesive conclusion.
I’ve seen what museums and theaters and zoos and aquariums and theme parks do to address issues of race and equity and inclusion when they realize it impacts them, and it is a difficult process. The easiest way to react to an issue is to release a statement of support and donate money. I said “react” because this is being reactive, not proactive. Being reactive can easily result in a much more negative impact than being proactive and much more resources are then engaged to get out of the hole dug by the initial reaction. I’m in no way equating animal welfare with racial inequality – they are two very, very different issues, but think of all the money and resources SeaWorld had to invest to maintain its reputation when it took a reactive approach to the movie Blackfish.
The corporate reaction regarding violence on blacks is cyclical. The statement of support always appears whenever an incident happens, and, as that incident fades away (often due to other news stories on other topics pulling the public’s interest), the statements of support fade away as well. Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Stefan Clark. Each time, the statements of support have reappeared and the donations have been made, only to disappear into the ether.
Yes, many for-profit companies have inclusion and community relations and social justice policies and programs in place, but the painful reality of corporate America is that such policies often exist less for true advocacy of social change and more for marketing and public relations. Don’t get me wrong – the employee time, supplies, and money donated to non-profits are all highly appreciated.
Companies and organizations, especially those in the attractions industry, need to realize that what impacts the community impacts their operations. The members of your community are stakeholders in your company or organization. They visit your venue, they are your employees. Throughout the world, we see the issues impacting communities: COVID-19, the Hong Kong protests, migrant rights, climate change, #metoo, Black Lives Matter. All movements that have a direct impact on your guests, staff, and vendors, should be considered to have a direct impact on you as well.
I support an end to institutional racism and veiled legal segregation, but I won’t be expressing it through a one-time statement or a blacked out social media image. I’ve been reaching out to African American colleagues. I want to hear their stories and share them through this medium. I’ve heard their anger. Not just now, but for years, and I feel you should too. Listening is the first step towards change.