Last month, the First Lady gave a speech at the opening of the Whitney Museum in New York City, in which she said:
“…there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood… there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum.
And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself. So I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this…”
I think she’s correct that many inner-city kids wouldn’t dream of stepping foot in a museum…or concert hall or art gallery…
But I always figured that had less to do with how welcoming those places are–and more to do with the fear of being labeled “Sell Outs” or “Uncle Toms” by black friends/neighbors who think they’re acting too “White.”
I also tend to agree with this young, black Conservative, that giving privileges to blacks (or using “positive discrimination”) is just as racist and wrong as segregated bathrooms. So, we’re kidding ourselves to talk about “equality,” while focusing special attention on baiting and praising the black kids when they come to our theaters.
That smells more like “condescension” to me.
But, I’ll go ahead and accept Mrs. Obama’s challenge anyway. Here’s my effort to rethink what museums can do to welcome those poor, uncultured minorities…
Setting: Generic Museum, Somewhere, U.S.A.
Tour Guide: (*Big smile*) WELCOME BLACK PEOPLE!!!! And, of course, welcome to the rest of you, too. We’re glad everyone is here. But we are especially glad to see the kids we wouldn’t normally see in a cultured place like this! I assume, young sir, that you’re here for Free Black Admission Day?
Black Male: Actually, I’ve been buying my own student pass every season for three years now…
Tour Guide: Really?! Well, that’s okay! You can still pick up your complimentary “I’m Welcome at the Museum” T-shirt before you leave… (*turning to walk up the stairs*) If everyone will follow me, our first stop will be–wait! Hey! Hey, YOU!
(*TOUR GUIDE rushes toward HISPANIC GIRL and hands her a flier*)
You should come back next week for “Tutoring and Tacos.” We’ll concentrate on our exhibits in the Immigrant History wing, so you’re basically guaranteed to like it better than the standard, white stuff you’ll probably see today!
Hispanic Girl: Uh…I’m here to research Alfred Nobel, for a project. I’m actually getting a degree in Engineering.
Tour Guide: (*yelps excitedly*) That’s GREAT!!! I have so much respect for you! I mean, I admire white guys like Nobel, too. But it’s even more impressive when someone tackles that field in your skin-color! Not to mention the fact that you’re female. Amazing!
(*TOUR GUIDE starts to turn around, then pauses and looks intently into HISPANIC GIRL’s eyes. She reaches for a long, awkward pat on HISPANIC GIRL’s shoulder. Then TOUR GUIDE returns to the tour group*)
Alright, follow me.
Old White Man: (*raising his hand*) Excuse me? Are we going to visit the Wright Brothers Exhibit on this tour?
Tour Guide: No! No, not today. (*smiling broadly) This is a special day. We have special visitors to consider. I mean, you could learn about White Aviation whenever you want! (*whispering, but still smiling*) Isn’t it time you give the spotlight to others for a change?
Old White Man: But…I….I’ve never been here before…?
Tour Guide: Oh, I didn’t mean “you” personally. I meant the sum-total of you plus the other old, white men who have been dominating history for thousands of years. I meant, you know…your kind.
Now, here we have a 7 -foot mural dedicated to Mr. Booker T. Washington. As much as I love black people, I confess he’s one of my favorites–
Black Female: (*clears her throat*) You know, pretty much everything you’ve said since we started has been somewhat or VERY racist. Is there a reason you’re talking to all of us like children?
Tour Guide: Oh, definitely! I want everyone in the museum to feel welcome… but especially the minorities who visit.
Black Female: See, that? That–right there–is what I’m talking about. It doesn’t make me feel very welcome. It kind of makes me feel like a pet project. Can’t you just treat minority students the same way you treat white ones?
Tour Guide: Well, I would. Really, I would! Except minority students are falling through the cracks. So it’s my job to give them a “boost,” and show them that learning can be fun for their kind, just like it’s already fun for rich, white folks.
Black Female: Ugh. Seriously? Do you not hear yourself? It’s pretty arrogant to pick out the people who need a “boost” and take it upon yourself to rescue them. In fact, it’s racist and condescending. Just treat minorities the same way–the exact same way–you treat any other patron of the museum.
Tour Guide: (*frowning for the first time*) So no billboard over the entrance saying, “WELCOME DISADVANTAGED FOLKS?”
Black Female: Uh, no.
Tour Guide: No more Free Black Admission Day?
Black Female: Do you have “Free White Admission Day?”
Tour Guide: I see your point… (*thinking*) Hey, what if we did a promotional deal where–if you qualify for food stamps AND you visit us twice in the same year–you get your own bucket of fried chicken?
Black Female: Good lord, NO!
(Most of the patrons begin walking away, murmuring angrily.)
Tour Guide: Wait, no! Don’t leave, black students! I can throw in a grape soda! (*yelling as they walk out the door*) We just want you to like smartness as much as we do!
(BLACK FEMALE is the last to shake her head and walk away. MUSEUM MANAGER approaches.)
Manager: Well, how’s it going?
Tour Guide: Honestly, not like I’d hoped. It seems we really need to double our efforts, if we’re going to save those minorities from themselves. Hey! (*pointing*) Does that boy look underprivileged to you?
Manager: Uh, that’s Greg. He worked here as a nightwatchman for awhile.
Tour Guide: Well, how much money does a nightwatchman make? …Never mind. I better go make him feel welcome just in case. Greg!
“…[So] if you run a theater or a concert hall, make sure you’re setting aside some free tickets for our young people. If you run a museum, make sure that you’re reaching out to kids in struggling communities. Invite them in to see those exhibits…
…One visit, one performance, one touch, and who knows how you could spark a child’s imagination.” –Michelle Obama