Culture& Micro Museum, The Case. Installation No 4
‘What You Say and What You Do.’ Curated by Sam Allen, Arts & Heritage Consultant and Founder of Creative Arts Social Consultancy Ltd
Exhibition Text and Glossary
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 1952, pg 18.
Is the language we use in activism and social justice used or misused?
Language is a living thing and an important element of activism, utilised to adhere to the social codes of art galleries, museums and cultural organisations, supposedly representing the people it serves. However, that representation of language in activism needs interrogation, because anti-racist nomenclature is often utilised for different reasons. Cultural institutions, politicians, the media and activists create their social identity, legitimise their interests, align with their audiences and retain core funding, by cosmetically misusing language to create and bolster their identities, while embarking on apparent acts of racial activism in press statements and strategy plans.
Diversity, Institutional Racism, Unconscious Bias, Black Lives Matter, BAME, Decolonisation and Anti-Racism are words of impact and understanding, but are often used to exclude, highlight difference and dictate cultural agendas.
These shiny buzzwords of activism are bandied around frequently in the sector but the lack of evidence in work practice, workforce diversity, board governance, representation in curatorial decision making and progress in decolonial practices has shone a spotlight on the gaping void between what is said and what is done, thus rendering these terms not only passive, but meaningless.
I have chosen to display these six words, as they are used to demonstrate agency, wokeness, create brand identity and position cultural organisations as challengers of social injustices. They are printed on kaleidoscopic card because holograms, which are formed from the way the light scatters on an object, can be reconstructed, distorting one image to another, depending on your perception, much like these terms, their many meanings and (mis)uses. The two different fonts used further illustrates this. The silver background highlights how they mirror society and are utilised to reflect a certain image by the cultural sector, but also to reflect societal failings in addressing larger, systemic problems.
‘A man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that
What you Might Say or What you Might Do: Glossary of Buzzwords
The power of the term ‘diversity’ in cultural policy is its vagueness. It is used to represent so many elements of the public identity that it gives no real accountability to any one of them. Furthermore, it has been legitimised as a civic duty but that is a false narrative, redirecting attention from poor institutional practices. Now, diversity has become a byword for inaction, having lost its dynamic association through under performance in cultural policy. What is more, it actually profits from people of colour through cultural commodification of brands who wear it as a badge.
Institutional racism came to public consciousness when it was denied, in the 1981 Scarman Report after the Brixton riots, yet the power to maintain or dismantle racism in organisations is ingrained in the structure and laws of governance of our society. Institutional racism was finally acknowledged in the 1999 Macpherson Report into the police handling of the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence. Synonymous with the UK’s police force and criminal justice system, we need to realise that other institutions equally foster prejudice and difference through power imbalances in our society towards people of
colour. Foe example, governmental policies on immigration, the Prevent strategy, protection of slaver statues and the recent crime bill against rights of protest. Furthermore, the UK’s 95% white media is the gatekeeper and cultivator of stereotypical misconceptions about othered people, along with the national education curriculum, which upholds the Great British colonial narrative of white supremacy shows us that institutional racism is endemic in our society. They are all part of the problem.
The concept of ‘institutional racism’ has been slowly erased from sector discourse and replaced with ‘unconscious bias’, a worthy but limited practice which exonerates institutions from any accountability for racism, while highlighting white innocence from racist culpability. Existing power and privilege structures remain in place through the guise of developmental training and anti-racist affirmative action.
Black Lives Matter
Initially synonymous with collective social justice against racism for people of colour in America, the campaign soon incorporated cultural heritage in Britain, culminating in public statements of solidarity for the movement. Subsequently, amplified Black voices and a better informed public have held the sector accountable, flipping the power position, so institutions have become the critical subject and have lost control of the discourse. Perceived public solidarity from the sector has diminished the slogan’s power to represent collective action in the black community but it has also shone a bright light on the superficiality of institutional support.
An acronym used to measure organisational diversity as a term of inclusion, which is contradictory because it denies the existence of other cultures in its homogeneity. In Britain, there is a disturbing preoccupation with racial labels and an inability to recognise the specificities of other ethnicities. While some argue it still holds some validity in data gathering, the reality is, it seeks to solve a non-existent problem; that we as a collective community are in deficit as opposed to whiteness. Most importantly, it is not a label that has been chosen by the communities it supposedly represents.
Decolonisation is an overused term, often referring to largely inauthentic actions around restitution. It is often treated as a discussion point rather than an action in the heritage sector. Restitution should not be a contentious issue, but by ignoring the heritage of othered voices, is a conscious act of suppression. Museums are not the victims here, as there is absolutely no ideological purity in their acquisitions, but we choose to forget that they celebrate looted objects, which are trophies of violent death. If museums return these objects, they will not be empty.
This is often confused with ‘non-racist’ but it has a huge difference. Being non-racist is a passive opinion about marginalised people from ethnically diverse backgrounds. A non- racist might not hold any prejudice towards people from different ethnic backgrounds but also may have no active intention, beyond posting a black square on an Instagram account or reading a book about white privilege. Being anti racist, is about actively working to dismantle structural inequalities, thereby disrupting the status quo of organisational culture, academic thought, workforce processes and practices, the inadequacies of cultural policy, and the white British media. A non racist, will not wade in on the decolonisation debate or think that the gaping holes in our formal education around the contributions of othered British people through history in our schools and universities is their responsibility.
This term challenges you to choose whether you are a non-racist or an anti racist? You can’t just say it, you have to do it!