There’s been discussion among museum professionals questioning if and how our institutions should participate in the movements that have arisen from Ferguson in some way. As I’m sure many people in the conversation have been, I’ve been extremely affected by the recent decisions to not indict law enforcement in the killings of unarmed black people, and these recent injustices have occupied my mind a great deal in recent weeks. I recognize that these decisions are part of a history of the state murdering black people with impunity that goes back hundreds of years. I also recognize that this history includes the murder of and sexual violence against women and trans folks as well, whose stories are often met with silence. With this weight, I share in the great mix of emotions many of us are experiencing. And if we do talk about responding in some way, I want it to be based in reason and compassion, with an understanding of our relationships with black people and our shared histories.

We should ask what it would mean if institutions like ours, who have a primary interest in preserving the historic, talk about responding to the death of black people without preceding that conversation with criticism of how we engage with the living black people in the communities we serve.

I attended a discussion on blackness and gender violence recently hosted by Rape Victim Advocates and facilitated by We Charge Genocide. Part of the discussion that resonated with me was around the questions of how we express anti-blackness and what it means to say “Black lives matter.” We asked: if we don’t interact with black people in a respectful way that recognizes their full humanness everyday, do we have a right to say “Black lives matter?” If our actions don’t match our words, do they hold any meaning?

I think we should ask similar questions of ourselves and our museums when we wonder if we should participate in the current movements against anti-black state violence.

In what ways do museums express anti-blackness? Many of our large, historical institutions can link our existences closely with histories of slavery, colonialism and genocide. Black histories have systematically been erased by those who dominated the present, so in what ways do the presentations of our collections, information and our spaces erase black lives? How do we engage with the communities we reside in to mutually heal from these historical community traumas, and dismantle the ways in which they continue to operate? Museums aren’t homogenous, and each of our institutions express anti-blackness in specific ways. What meaning does saying “black lives matter” take when we simultaneously perpetuate anti-black racism?

Any meaningful response must come from a place of being committed to ending the oppression that has created such awful events, otherwise the response is self-serving. We must recognize that the recent killings are deeply connected with a history that includes slavery and genocide, and that many of our institutions have roots that connect with it.

I worry that some of the urgency we feel around responding to the recent attention on anti-black state violence comes from a fear that our institutions are not staying relevant. But I wonder, if a good number of visitors of color haven’t been to our institutions in over 5 years, to whom are we currently relevant? Making statements in support of the current movements won’t fundamentally change the ways in which we relate to black people in our communities. I recognize that our silence is complicity, but I don’t think we have to jump further ahead than where we are. Let’s be honest with ourselves and with our communities about where we need to criticize our selves, strengthen our relationships and let’s work to build the trust that will help us grow sustaining relationships with black people in our communities. Those actions will speak louder than any of our words ever could.

Thanks to Keisa of We Charge Genocide for their thoughtful facilitation of the discussion I attended. Keisa asked some of the fundamental questions I bring up in this post. Also thanks to Rose from Incluseum for helping me think through some of these ideas.