BAME staff are the most vulnerable

Sara Wajid, Issue 118/03, p14, 01.03.2018
Who is doing the real labour of organisational change?
We were having a blast at this year’s Museum Detox Christmas get-together: backslapping, gossiping and congratulating ourselves on the success of the White Privilege Clinic at the Museums Association conference in Manchester. But as the evening wore on, I noticed the unmistakable body language of some of those who were part of quieter one-to-one conversations.

The informal emotional support the group provides has been a key ingredient of Museum Detox since the start. It suddenly dawned on me that professionals within the network who consistently have the most difficult time at work, who face bullying, daily micro-agressions and outright institutional racism, are those working in community engagement and audience development, particularly those from working-class backgrounds.

Here is the unpalatable truth: the diversity-lite culture of our sector officially calls for diverse audiences, representative workforces and organisational change. But working-class, black, Asian and minority-ethnic (BAME) workers are more likely to be at odds with the culture of their organisation and to be bullied, undermined, undervalued, suffer racial discrimination and ultimately leave the sector.

I won’t quote a report to justify my comment. I base my view on listening to hundreds of BAME workers closely for more than four years and noticing who has prospered and who has quietly left the sector. Those who have left have battled with problematic superiors, struggled to make themselves understood, have been undervalued or excluded, and have often been labelled “difficult”.

It is deeply disturbing that those workers who are most closely involved in championing the rights of under-served audiences, and who themselves depart most strongly from the white middle-class norm of management, particularly in large institutions, are most vulnerable.

Over the course of this year, I led The Past is Now project, a co-curated decolonial exhibition about empire at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (Museums Journal, February 2018, p52). The co-curators are six talented black and Asian women who are Birmingham-based cultural activists and artists committed to challenging Eurocentric museum discourse.

Halfway through the project, they raised the uncomfortable truth about the unacknowledged, invisible emotional labour we, the staff team, were requiring of them, the co-curators. The transactional exchange – BAME volunteer gives white institution authenticity and expertise in exchange for rewarding learning experience and opportunity to represent your own community – is stacked in favour of the museums because we ultimately control what goes on “inside” the walls, so the “outsiders” must ultimately bridge the cultural gap with their emotional labour.

For staff and co-curators, the painstaking negotiations over editing the exhibition text were emotionally fraught. How emotional can a label be without losing legitimacy? How can a reckoning with the wrongs of the past be enacted through a museum collection that is itself a creation of empire? When is “fresh, alternative perspective” just too different from the prevailing academic wisdom? These questions and deep conflicts had to be resolved somehow.

We were all anxious about letting down our communities, damaging our reputations and losing a rare chance to set the record straight. Through emotional resilience and with a lot of support from within and beyond the walls of the museum, we worked through these questions and broke new ground with The Past is Now.

So, ask yourself who in your organisation is doing the real labour of organisational change and who has quietly left the table bruised and defeated.