Being on the outer
Content warning: This post contains discussions of racism and death.
Discretion is advised.
Lots of things converged over the last couple of weeks that gave me a shot in the arm and sent me into a spin. All are centred on dealing with my feelings of being an outsider, on the outer.
I was getting frustrated by the number of references I was reading in blogs and press about The BAME Community, some coronavirus related, some not. I am deeply unsettled by the indiscriminate use of BAME – even said like a noun – as if the majority diversity of most of the planet can be reduced to four letters. It is othering, both pejorative and polarising, and perpetuates white-centredness even when used to create networks of solidarity between non-white people.
For the first time since I made my life in Cornwall more than 8 years ago, I witnessed direct racism against an acquaintance who has been running her restaurant business for over 17 years—she was not going to be served by a local deli (for a birthday cake for her son) as she looked like a holiday-maker. She is Chinese.
Then my revulsion at hearing about George Floyd’s killing and realising my own knowledge about Black Lives Matter was so very lacking. At the same time, very tough and emotionally-charged meetings and interactions with colleagues—my sector brings pain to my friends. The sad realisation that all the pleading and pining to support UK heritage and museums as an unconditional ‘good thing’ was falling on my now deaf ears. I realise I don’t care about reopening or one-way systems or hand sanitizer or loss of exhibitions, as I just feel so ashamed.
Like some others I have committed to continuing to speak up and act beyond the heat and headlines of riots, protests and statements of solidarity. Starting with re-educating myself, really taking a good long hard look at my learned beliefs and behaviours, speaking at length with my family to try and understand what prejudices I might have retained. Why anti-black racism is different to that experienced by other minorities in white-dominated society, how will I make sure I communicate systemic prejudice in all of my work? Me and my fellow #MuseumHour co-organisers joined the long list of pledge-makers to rehaul the platform.
This re-educating also telescoped a whole range of my own experiences that I had not previously associated with systemic or systematic racism and prejudice related to my gender, name and appearance. I spent days feeling physically sick and alienated – for who is there here to talk to? Part of my re-education is to speak more openly and frankly with colleagues, to refuse to do the emotional labour for them, to not support the work of organisations that refuse to address their behaviours and to spend proper time researching and finding the works of non-white people to watch or read and to re-centre my own network. I have only recently joined MD but have always been an ally, possibly not a particularly good one until now.
I am a curator and historian, the other labels people insist on placing upon me, I reject. I want people to engage with me because of what I say, write and do. But I now understand quite how much I have been missing out on and suffering from because of an unconscious reluctance to engage.
Image by Dr Tehmina Goskar
Part of this also stems from my lived experience in Cornwall, a distinct part of the UK with its own identity politics that I am deeply interested in. I have given over myself wholly and willingly (and unquestioningly) to Cornish culture, I play and perform its music, research and write about it and support its greater inclusion. I have always been keen to introduce Cornwall and Cornish issues to colleagues from the big cities. But they don’t come. When you live and work in a place most people consume as their holiday destination, you are not taken very seriously. I have lost count of the invitations I have extended only to be told that they would think about it “when it is warmer” or “when I can bring the family down on holiday” or “let’s meet when you’re next in London.” The number of meetings in London and Birmingham I have dragged myself to and never make that excuse (it takes nearly 6 hours to reach those cities from where I live). Maybe it’s because some feel Cornwall is not a welcoming place. Goodness I hadn’t thought about it like that before.
Image by Dr Tehmina Goskar
Certainly narrow experiences and lack of education does result in a particular kind of ignorance that can be hard to live with at times. You're more likely to come face to face with conspiracy theorists and flat earthers than non-white people here. It seems I really am on the edge of being the outer.
By Dr Tehmina Goskar, MA FMA
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