Category Archives: DecolonizeComfort
A few weeks ago, I hosted a workshop for museum employees who wanted to attract a ‘more diverse’ group of visitors. Like many who are actively pushing for the decolonization of knowledge institutes, I urged them to upgrade their goals from diversity to inclusivity. This is a pocket size piece so, in short: inclusivity demands an understanding of intersectionality while diversity often focuses on ‘different looks’ for one identity. One of the participants said they want their audience to be a proper reflection of the city’s population. I suggested to focus on the largest group of Black and non-Black People of Colour in that part of town where the museum is located. They mentioned a large population from one specific country but to anonymize their response, I’ll keep it vague and say that they talked about a community of Brown, predominantly Muslim people. “I think if we give them a tour that somehow mixes our exhibitions with their interests, they’d really enjoy it,” someone said. I asked them to look around the room. “I strongly doubt that this all-white room can speak for this specific community but,” I promised, “I’ll play along… Let’s say we have this new tour. If they show up now with 200 people… would you be ready for them?” The participants assured me that they were. I asked them:
– Let’s say after the tour they want to eat something at your museum restaurant. Is the food halal? Food-food, not just cheese sandwiches or pie.
– If they want to buy a souvenir at the museum shop, will they find something that matches any of their interests? Would they feel represented by the authors and artists whose work is on sale in your store?
– If they check your social media accounts, will they be appreciated or at least seen by something other than the promotion of this one, customized tour? For example: Did you ever use your Twitter, Facebook and/or Instagram to say Ramadan Mubarak or wish them a good time during one of the national holidays of their country of origin?
– Last but certainly not least: Which languages can people choose from when they’re interested in participating in a guided tour and/or using your audio tours?*
So what is this readiness they speak of?
Short story even shorter: not all changes take weeks or months.
Dear museums, I understand that you won’t find new board members before the end of
next week. I can imagine that you need some time to update your mailinglists so those brandnew “We’re hiring”-texts for all those jobs you’re creating will reach far beyond your comfort zones and, yes, I know that it takes time to build an elevator. I still urge institutes to ask themselves what I asked at Eindhoven’s Van Abbemuseum when I remixed Nina Simone’s statement about it being an artist’s duty to reflect the times. I also still stand behind my deep-voiced “No!” in response to these questions.
However, some steps, like the ones posted above, can be taken today.
* Please don’t @ me with these tired reflexes of how it’s impossible to include “every single language spoken in the world”. Do I believe all Western-European museums should have audio tours in Papiamentu? No. Do I think the Africa Museum in Tervuren should offer audio tours in Lingala and Swahili? Do I believe that a museum located in a neighbourhood with large Black and/or NBPOC communities should offer tours in at least two of the non-colonial languages spoken by the biggest groups in these communities. Yes and yes. Not because I think that people who speak these non-colonial languages don’t, for example, also speak Dutch or English but because a lot of French, Spanish and German speaking people also understand English yet… most museums offer German and French audio tours.
On July 31, Dutch newspaper NRC published a review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World and Me. With its title, the piece written by Guus Valk asks: Nigger are you crazy? How do you destroy the black identity? This comes only days after the paper published a column entitled Black America needs to look at itself in which Black Americans were told to “stop impregnating 16 year old girls because your grandmother sat in the back of the bus.” Since NRC is so eager to weigh in on what Black people should do, it’s only right to provide translations so we can drag them from the bench to the field.
Aside from the racist title, the piece which also discusses Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Mat Johnson’s Loving Day, is adorned with this illustration (pic) by Aron Vellekoop León who captured Blackness as Dutch, mainstream whiteness likes to see it: colonial, submissive, sad and with a dash of blackface. When one of the sharpest Twitterati in the Dutch conversations about racism confronted Valk with the title, he stated that he merely writes the reviews but doesn’t pick the titles, intro’s and illustrations. He didn’t object to the use of the word nigger or the disgusting illustration. If that wasn’t a co-sign, it was at least a shrug.
Valk needs less than two sentences to illustrate how little he understands about racism. “The issue of race was assumed to be settled with Obama as president. Since the Summer of 2014 it became clear that this is absolutely false.” Imagine the uneducated white privilege that produces the illusion that in the evening of November 4 2008, racism was put on hold and that nothing racist happened until the white officer Darren Wilson killed the Black teenager Michael Brown.
With every single sentence, Valk drags himself further and further from the understanding that his analyses about racism are only as valuable as the silence that fails to smother them. He states: “A few years America, especially [white] America, lived in a dream. A new era had arrived, in which old problematic race relations didn’t matter anymore. The inauguration of president Barack Obama, the first black president, underlined that America has entered a post-racial era. Of course there are still differences between [white] and black but they’re more the result of social class than of race.” I write white in brackets because, to the vast majority of Dutch people being called white… well, those are fighting words. The Dutch prefer ‘blank’, a term that has no non-Dutch equivalent but means “bright white, without stains, without color”. It can be used for people but also for varnish or a yoghurt like dairy product called vla. If it sounds familiar, that’s probably because you’ve seen it on the signs from South Africa’s official apartheid era.
Then there’s also the term Black which is written with a lower case ‘b’ because the idea of Black with a captial B, combining political identities with African and/or Afrodiasporic heritages, has yet to enter mainstream Dutch media. How serious can we take someone who wonders “How do you articulate racism” but is still too much of a coward to rid his work of the comfort that the word ‘blank’ continues to provide? With his “The debate about race is dead serious, especially from the [white] perspective” he affirmed that he has absolutely no idea what he read or what he’s writing.
“Do we truly expect something different from a white privileged son of the Netherlands’ hyper-colonial academic climate and journalistic mediocrity?” This isn’t about expectation or even what “surprises” us, it’s about forced accountability and decolonizing Dutch media. And yes, it’s absolutely about putting a blowtorch to any conversation about Dutchness that fails to mention the country’s national levels of xenophobia, colonialism and/or racism.
Let us not be distracted and exhausted by white privilege driven liberals who slither towards our mentions or inboxes with lamentations of intentions, context or other philosophical derailings. The review is real, the illustration is real and both are problematic so let us have this conversation without those whose mere intention is to whitesplain this into nothingness. There’s no time to judge the arsonist by all the things he didn’t set on fire. We’re burning.