Sunday, May 26, 2019

MFA swiftly and actively addresses racism; I hope more institutions follow suit

As someone whose family and community frequently participate in the youth offerings at the MFA, I have been following the story about a middle school educator calling attention to racist comments and racist microaggressions her class experienced while on a trip there. I have witnessed and been told of similar microaggressions at the MFA, mostly from patrons but occasionally from staff. I will say that the MFA is not unique in this, and it's along the same lines of the microaggressions my children of color receive at most institutions that are not Black-owned.

I have only once ever complained to staff at an institution about the behavior of a specific other patron. This was a time when a white man followed me and my child around, physically getting into my child's space, telling me specifically how I should be helping my child (who is Black, has disabilities, and did not need any help with this activity). I told a staff member on duty what was happening, who told me it was not his job to handle such things. I have on other occasions given feedback or helped my youth and other youth to give feedback on racial, disability, and other microaggressions, both on the part of patrons and on the part of staff. If we do get any response back, it is usually something very generic thanking us for our comment, or something explaining that the organization is not responsible for the behavior of others. Sometimes the feedback about racist or otherwise marginalizing behavior is met with more marginalizing behavior, in the form of a response that rationalizes it, usually by explaining that people are allowed to have different opinions, or stating that it did not happen because the organization did a training on bias or has a policy against it, or because the person in question certainly does not hold biased beliefs.

In a few instances, my children and I have actually had the experience of someone taking issue with us having complained. We once had an administrator at a healthcare provider tell us that children feel unsafe when they sense that "people caring for them" are not aligned with one another, thus it was problematic of me to call out the provider's inappropriate behavior. The administrator of this practice actually believed that it is better for my children if I align with racist and homophobic behavior than if I show my children that I unconditionally support them and will never ask that they accept such behavior.

For what it's worth, this is why most people do not even bother complaining about marginalizing behavior. If an organization is not already actively addressing it, chances are, they are of the view that this type of behavior is acceptable. When my family and I look into an organization to determine whether it is a good fit for us, we look to see if there is explicit mention of how the organization supports and uplifts people of color, queer people, people with disabilities. If there is no mention, the organization has not usually thought about this, and usually has a very homogeneous clientele.

Along these lines, I have seen much talk, exclusively from white people, about boycotting the MFA and/or cancelling their membership. While I appreciate the support, and I am not one to dictate how others should do their activism, I am not sure this is the best approach. In my family's experience, and from what I've heard from other youth with whom my family spends time, the MFA is not unusual in the presence of racial and other microaggressions. Most white-owned organizations we frequent are rife with racial microaggressions. Youth of color are going to experience this in any predominately white space. We need to teach youth of color to recognize and to decide how and whether to respond. But we don't want to teach them to boycott every organization in which microaggressions are present, because there would be nowhere left. I want to teach my children that they belong everywhere. I want to empower them to choose to tolerate, but never accept, microaggressions, if they determine for themselves that there are enough positives for them to want to be somewhere.

I do think that while an organization cannot control the behavior of its patrons, as I have had so helpfully explained to me, they can control how they respond. An organization absolutely can set expectations for behavior and can enforce these.

The MFA released a statement on Friday explaining that in response to this post, they used security footage and witness interviews to determine the identity of the patrons who had made racist statements to a group of youth, and responded by revoking their memberships and banning them from the premises.

I think this response is absolutely amazing. I was very pleasantly surprised to hear of it. I am hoping that more organizations will explicitly adopt statements stating that marginalizing behavior is not permitted, and will take steps to remove offenders to create places where all people truly belong.

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