'It’s time for museums to take critical race theory seriously'

There’s a campaign against discussions of race in the American education system—and museums have a part to play in fighting that

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Charles White’s Five Great American Negroes (1939) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The mural depicts important African Americans: Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver and Marian Anderson Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Charles White’s Five Great American Negroes (1939) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The mural depicts important African Americans: Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver and Marian Anderson Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

I’ve dedicated my career to the study of critical race theory, and how it can be employed in museums. Critical race theory is an academic framework that scrutinises how legal systems create racial realities. It challenges the idea that race is just a given, and it encourages us to think about it as a social structure.

Critical race theory rejects the philosophy of colour-blindness. It considers how racism is embedded in state institutions and legal systems, which are in turn reinforced by historic hierarchies. So stark racial disparities—across income, health, education and incarceration, for example—persist in the US, despite decades of civil rights reforms.

Yet many of our elected representatives actively oppose critical race theory. And, in my experience, it is rarely understood or taken seriously by the leaders of our museums.

There has been a reckoning since the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Discussions about race are now considered important. But, five or six years ago, museums couldn’t care less.

When I started out in museums, many of those I met in leadership positions didn’t understand what I meant when I spoke about critical race theory. Or they didn’t necessarily support it. I would say to museum directors: you have the Black artists up on the wall, but are you contextualising the work properly? Is this going to be relevant to a working-class Black community in Birmingham, Alabama?

There is still this persistent attitude: as long as we have Black artists up on the walls, as long as we’re collecting the Black artists’ work, as long as we’re hiring the Black curator, we’re fine.

I had to navigate a lot of discrimination and adversity whilst at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I asked myself why people were responding to me so negatively. And I realised; it’s not so much because I’m Black. It’s the type of Black person I am. It’s not what I know; it’s how I apply it. It’s not necessarily my Blackness, it’s my Black studies that’s the issue.

The issue is representation

That is when I came to understand the issue here is primarily one of representation. It’s not actually about diversity or inclusion. It’s definitely not about being anti-racist. It’s about how we represent the art. There is such a focus on diversity, but so little acknowledgement of representation.

There is an old African American adage: you have to laugh to keep from crying. Because, at times, it’s ludicrous. You hear institutions throw out all of these terms, like alphabet soup—diversity, inclusivity, equity, equality. But they don’t define the terms. They don’t do the research. Varying definitions of these words exist amongst different communities and different disciplines. Equity, for example, means something completely different in the humanities than it does in real estate.

But cultural institutions are not structured in such a way as to allow them to work out what their policy is when it comes to these issues.

In my experience, the leadership privately consider it too hard. They want diversity and inclusion to be something they can do easily. They want to be able to call somebody and then run some training courses. The time and investment and commitment it takes to do this properly: they are intimidated by it.

Imagine acquiring a rare Turkish tapestry from the 13th century and asking a contemporary art curator to do something with it. A museum would never do that

Imagine acquiring a rare Turkish tapestry from the 13th century and asking a contemporary art curator to do something with it. A museum would never do that. They would search the Earth to find a specialist conservator. Developing true and genuine culture around diversity and equity requires the same amount of commitment and investment. It fascinates me how much you have to fight with people to get them to understand that.

I have recently developed what I call a “screw-it” attitude. I have the sentiment that I don’t have time to bring you up to speed. This is something we have been dealing with, globally, for 400 years. At some point, white people have got to get a clue.

There’s a lot of expectation that people of colour, and particularly Black people, have to be patient. We are expected to patiently explain this stuff. But that is a functionality of white privilege.

Because museums should be taking a lead on this. The reality is: we are not actually teaching critical race theory at all in America’s educational system. Those of us who choose to follow a legal career, or who choose to study sociology, will be formally taught critical race theory at college. The vast majority of people out there are not taught critical race theory in any way at any stage.

So the right-wing narrative, evident in the Virginia governorship campaign, and in recent school board elections in America, and probably in next year’s mid-terms too, is fascinating to me. The claim is that critical race theorists are somehow taking over our schools. And it is fascinating to me to see how many people are willing to believe it.

This attack on critical race theory, this wilful attempt to confuse and denigrate the term, is being driven, I think, by right-wing think-tanks. It is a campaign against any substantive discussion around race and racism in the US. I call it white supremacy’s last stand. This is a campaign driven by people who are deeply invested in the systematic realities of whiteness.

We need honest conversations about what critical race theory is, and also what it isn’t. But I think it’s high time we were truthful about the history of this country.

I have sympathy for the teachers who are trying to encourage significant discussions about race in their classrooms. Because, by doing so, they are swimming against a strong current. And that current is getting stronger.

But the teachers and parents who don’t want critical race theory taught—that is just wilful ignorance. They are comfortable in their ignorance, and that’s where they want to stay, to the educational sacrifice of everybody else.

The thing is, when you start to look at history from a Black lens, or a Native American lens, the story changes drastically. It’s not always the same white people. It doesn’t give the impression that white people did everything on their own, or were in some way superior.

Personally, if I could change the education system, I would remove the Great White Men narrative. I call it the Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Columbus narrative. Right now, you just learn about the men. You don’t learn about the historical events they were actors in. I would decentralise the individual. And I would talk about issues like slavery as the legal constructions they were—and still are.

Kelli Morgan is a Professor of the Practice and the inaugural Director of Curatorial Studies at Tufts University. She has held curatorial positions at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, the Birmingham Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

As told to Tom Seymour

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