Challenging inequality via active language

Rachael Minott, Issue 118/12, 01.12.2018
In a forthcoming publication on inclusion in the museum sector, I have mediated on the language we use when pursing equality, diversity and inclusion, by deconstructing those three words and placing them within the larger context of the conversations in which they are used.

Mostly, this means looking to activism and how it affects policy making. It involves exploring the ugly truth of exclusion, and our role in exclusionary practice, before we look at inclusion. It also means considering the inequality we perpetuate, before we seek equality. And it involves thinHow passive terminology inhibits changeking about the impact of monolithic perspectives, before we explore diverse experiences.

I believe in the power of language, and active terms leading to action. I also believe in the power of passive terms to inhibit change. Passive terms, pacify. They soothe and keep the peace, but they also keep those in power, empowered, and those without power, disempowered. Passive terms often hide among happy terms, such as gratitude. The veneer of positivity is a distraction, as it means losing the focus of agency and responsibility.

It forces the most hurt to take up the mantle of change to first convince the world that their pain is real, that discrimination and exclusion still happen and that systematic structures do exclude them.

In Jamaica, people will often say about teen pregnancy that a woman “got herself pregnant” – a sentiment in its isolation that reveals the patriarchal pressures placed on women, and often young girls, in Jamaican society.

I believe asking “where are the under-represented/hard-to-reach audiences/workers in this sector?” is a similarly revealing statement. It shows a perspective that does not acknowledge that we have been complicit in systematic exclusion, and that by perpetuating passive language, we maintain these power structures. We don’t ask “How did that happen? Who is involved? Who holds the power? Who feels the pain?”

Instead, I would ask, who are we excluding through our standard practice, and why? Why are we under-representing or ignoring certain perspectives of history and who does that serve? How have we been serving the population in
an unequal way, and how does this support further inequality in our industry, as well as the wider world?

I propose that active terms, and acknowledging agency in these power imbalances, will encourage active responses. Passive terms might allow us to further mediate on the state of the industry in a manner that will replicate itself at multiple conferences and in reflections.

However, what we need to do is distribute power to pursue equality; systematically review programming and recruitment to influence diversity in staff and visitors; and to undertake extensive infrastructure development and staff training to make museums inclusive spaces.

Rachael Minott is a freelance researcher and curator and a Museums Association board member