- Over the last couple of weeks, cultural institutions across America have put out statements about their commitment to racial equality.
- But just as quickly, people have color have called out their hypocrisy, noting that this "activism" doesn't extend into the workplace.
- While we may expect corporations to fall down on their commitment to anti-racism, it's all the more painful when cultural institutions with prestige and power fail to do right by communities of color.
- It's time for them to do the work — and take none of the credit.
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Over the last few weeks, cultural institutions across the country — from nonprofits to museums to magazines — felt required to make statements about the recent protests against police brutality and racial injustice. Even the Sesame Street crew stepped forward to say that "racism has no place on our Street — or on any street."
After these displays, you might wonder if a reversal in racist and classist policies will come next. But unless these institutions take real action, we won't see anything.
That's because these gestures are empty.
On June 2, many organizations — most of which claim they are committed to Black advancement — engaged in #BlackOutTuesday. They posted black squares on their social media accounts to showcase their support for the current racial justice movement, and as the week continued, they made sweeping proclamations. While the intentions were good, these actions invoked critiques about how much they did for the cause besides taking up digital space.
While they're not singing or making hollow videos, the social media posts, raised fists, and carefully ghostwritten words mean nothing if we all know it's for show. These words are necessary, but they're the bare minimum. Without concrete action behind them, they only serve to let these organizations off the hook. The only thing worse than no effort is fake effort.
While the protesting photos and articles are highly visible, marginalized people have made it known that this activism fails to make its way into the day-to-day of the workplace. There are distinct moments of quite the opposite: racial harassment and bullying, or overworking and micromanagement to the point of exhaustion.
Many organizations found themselves facing exposés put forth by former or current associates, putting their hypocrisy on display
In performance, BIPOC members of the theater world — including Lin-Manuel Miranda and Issa Rae — sent an open letter to the American theater industry. It reminded the players that they are "a part of this house of cards built on white fragility and supremacy," often using their own marginalized identities as an excuse to bypass BIPOC leadership and efforts.
In the literature sphere, empty words from Poetry Magazine brought demands to end tokenism. A crowdsourced list of pay rates exposed pay inequality between authors under the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe.
In the feminist advocacy world, the National Organization for Women was told off for downplaying concerns of Black women days after it demanded justice for George Floyd.
In media, team members from Bon Appétit came forward, calling out the failures of their Editor-in-Chief and Condé Nast as a whole. Refinery29 found themselves in the same place as former leadership stepped down. On June 11, #BlackAtR29 on Twitter and Instagram filled with stories of Black creatives calling out the micro- and macro-aggressions they faced in the office.
Meanwhile, Chaédria LaBouvier — the first Black curator in the history of the Guggenheim museum in New York — admonished the prestigious museum for refusing to acknowledge the impact of her work. The museum later spoke up about its relationship with LaBouvier, pushing back on her statements, while still claiming that it's "committed to doing the work needed to make our organization more equitable, inclusive, and representative of our broader community."
But merely passing the reins to a woman of color does not a great organization make. In every industry, Black people are demanding direct reform to White supremacist policies. This is what truly makes the change lasting. Anti-racism research into the inherently discriminatory concept of "professionalism" notes that diversifying a majority White or male board and staff is critical. However, the real work lies in removing gaslighting responses to complaints, respecting leaders of color, and distributing power within the organization. And that's only the tip of the iceberg.
It's all the more painful when cultural institutions with prestige and power fail to do right by communities of color
Today, we've come to expect image-improving acts to be made into commercials by the corporate sector. But the failures of cultural institutions — non-profits, museums, magazines — hurts even more. It is sorely disappointing when institutions that claim to have a duty to improve cultural understanding fail to move beyond meaningless messages.
Many people look to these organizations to guide their understanding of the world. Their primary purpose, ideally, is to educate and inform, rather than make millions of dollars. But they also hold cultural capital. We've been led to believe that the elite status of the Guggenheim, for example, means something special, and that it bestows a certain level of authority. We trust that these institutions are attempting to tell the world's story in a way that is ethical and nuanced.
But the stories of LaBouvier and the staff of Bon Appetit tear down that illusion. Frankly, what is left is lonely. Where else do you turn when the changemakers aren't making a change?
You'd be hard-pressed to find mission-oriented groups whose inner values reflect the message they tout outwardly. When people who believe in the cause enter these spaces, only to be met with resistance, it is no wonder real growth never takes place. Employees who care about the mission leave sooner rather than later, leaving a staff devoid of vision and diverse opinion. Leaders who are intimidated by the idea of change hold these organizations back. They will only acknowledge their lack of progress when it's time to make the next statement about the next death after the next injustice within a society rife with cultural incompetence. This is complicity.
These performative acts may simply seem useless, but they're harmful and distracting
Officers have attacked protesters after kneeling for photo-ops. A host of senators and representatives adorned themselves in kente cloth while feigning confusion around demands to defund the police. (These gestures also mimic a bizarre display of "patriotism" during April, in which Air Force Thunderbirds flew over cities to honor healthcare workers while they lacked critical personal protective equipment and testing supplies.)
Organizations use their meaningless black squares to shield them from doing the behind-the-scenes work that challenges the very values they claim to disapprove of — perpetuating them onto new generations of employees.
Here's a litmus test for any group: If social media didn't exist, would the camaraderie still be there? Would the work even get done if there was no way to fake the message to the masses?
Committing to Black liberation requires legitimate measures towards change. Don't tell people how sorry you are for their loss. Don't rail about being down for the cause. Share the wealth and the stage. Publish work without expecting kudos. Dismantle structures that require strings to be pulled just to get an opportunity.
Do the work and take none of the credit.
Danielle Monique is a freelance writer and a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College. She currently lives in Baltimore with her partner and their dog.
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