Cardi Party 2017.07 – Racism and Identity with Lauren Ellis

The Immigration Museum is about our identity and place in the world. We are a place that inspires hope and possibilities for today and the future. We are shaped by the intersection of people and ideas through collaborations with communities, artists, and thinkers from Victoria, Australia and around the world. Together we seek to create empathy, understanding and impact through the diverse experiences that we share. Identity: yours, mine, ours is an exhibition that explores being and belonging in our modern world. It explores the complexity and fluidity of identity across culture, language, faith, sexuality, gender, and generations. Presenting a social history of our inherited prejudices and biases, it addresses racism in contemporary society and suggests some first steps in contributing to a safer, more inclusive community.

Lauren is the Exhibitions Manager at the Immigration Museum, facilitating collaboration between the museum and a range of community groups and diverse cultural practitioners. She’s worked for Museums Victoria in a variety of roles focused on community co-creation and new audience development. She spent just over 2 years working for a ethnographic museum in Luang Prabang, Laos, and undertook an Asialink arts management residency in Hong Kong in 2011. She’s currently serving as the President of Museums Australia (Victoria).

How is Australia racist?

Lauren Ellis talking to cardies on Saturday 15 July 2017 cardi party at the Immigration Museum / Photographer: Nik McGrath

Racism and identity in Australia is a broad and complex topic, and a tall order to cover in less than an hour, however Lauren Ellis rose to the challenge, providing many references and ideas for cardies to take away and think about. Lauren was invited by newCardigan and Museums Australia (Victoria) to introduce this topic before taking cardies to explore themes in the Identity: yours, mine, ours exhibition.

As we knew this topic would raise more questions than providing answers, July’s theme for GLAM Blog Club was identity, giving cardies who attended the cardi party as well as our online community a chance to expand on some of these concepts and ideas, as well as considering their own identities in the GLAM world. I recommend reading Nathan Sentance’s blog exploring what it means to be Indigenous in Australia, working in GLAM and the portrayal of Indigenous culture in GLAM institutions.

Lauren opened by respectfully acknowledging the traditional owners of Melbourne the Boon Wurrung and Woi Wurrung language groups of the greater Kulin Nation. The Immigration Museum is on the site of the old Customs House, a multicultural site with no treaty, first contact between first peoples and Europeans occurred metres away from the Immigration Museum. Customs House is part of the complex history of colonisation. A significant Indigenous site in the Birr-arrung (Yarra River) where a waterfall was destroyed by colonists is a short walk from the Museum.

Is Australia racist? This question is constantly asked by the Australian media, but really it is a fixation we need to get past as a society. Instead Lauren posed the question, how is Australia racist? This very topic has been explored in Beverley Wang’s podcast series on Radio Nation, It’s Not a Race, highly recommended by Lauren.

‘How many people feel race is relevant to their work? How many people identify with one race? I’m white, do I have a race? See filmmaker Whitney Dow’s Whiteness Project, a documentary exploring how people who identify as ‘white’ in America experience their ethnicity. Who feels comfortable talking about race?’ Are some of the questions Lauren asked the audience, responses revealing that we often feel unsure and uncomfortable when talking about race, perhaps amplified as the session was recorded for our podcast CardiCast.

‘Be prepared to make mistakes’, Lauren offered. ‘What makes you feel uncomfortable?’ The audience responded with being privileged and not fully understanding how that manifests in response to discussions about race. Another member of the audience mentioned that race is a loaded term, and that perhaps it is better to use ethnicity instead. The language around words such as ‘race’, ‘ethnicity’ and ‘nationality’ have loaded meanings and related social history. Language is a barrier – ‘person of colour’, ‘non-white person’, ‘new arrival’. Lauren’s advice is to be individual and specific, listen first and use the language of the community you are working with, but of course this is not always straight-forward.

Lauren raised a number of theoretical concepts as a framework for the discussion, defining privilege as a ‘set of unearned socially conferred exclusive benefits’, linked to ‘white privilege’, ‘gender privilege’ and ‘economic privilege’. Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack is recommended baseline reading.

American activist Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality, defined by Lauren as ‘any one person’s identity or social position is fluid’, a concept which was born from feminist politics. Intersectionality exposed issues for white women but did not consider issues faced by women of colour. It’s worth watching this Ted talk by Crenshaw.

White fragility, a concept theorised by Robin DiAngelo, defined by Lauren as a ‘lack of stamina to stay in conversations about race, power and privilege’, with ‘people responding defensively and desperately looking for the good inside themselves’.

‘Systemic racism in Australia is often the result of inherited biases. If you are part of a dominant group due to your education, culture, gender or economy – these biases may be invisible to you’. Lauren makes the ‘optimistic assumption that people in the room are not bad people’. Identity: yours, mine, ours exhibition attempts to ‘unpack some of these issues with a process of critical thinking. The core objective of the exhibition is to make the world a safer and more inclusive place.’

Identity: yours, mine, ours exhibition, Immigration Museum, cardi party, Saturday 15 July 2017 / Photographer: Nik McGrath

The Immigration Museum opened nearly 20 years ago. The first 10 years exhibitions explored multiculturalism through migration stories. Themes about multiculturalism were looked at more broadly, which led to the Identity: yours, mine, ours exhibition. Designed for secondary school students, Lauren notes that adults also get a lot out of the exhibition. The exhibition was created in consultation with community and co-creation including guest curators. Many individual stories are told throughout the exhibition.

The exhibition can be broken down to a number of themes. The first theme is being and belonging, explored in the entrance by Australian filmmaker Lynette Wallworth wan an installation exploring feelings of being welcomed, judged and excluded.

Cardies viewing an exhibit in the Identity: yours, mine, ours exhibition, Immigration Museum, cardi party, Saturday 15 July 2017 / Photographer: Nik McGrath

The next theme is visible difference, based on ‘explicit judgements the result of social training’. To test your biases Lauren recommends taking the Harvard Implicit Association Test.

The social history of racism is another theme explored. For example, Lighten Up, an exhibit which explores cultural mimicry and appropriation, such as Wog Boys and Redskins lollies.

The final theme of the exhibition provides starter tips for practical action in anti-racist work. The Tram Scenario in the exhibition is a video installation depicting a racist incident from different perspectives, from the person’s perspective who is targeted, the white saviour, the racist perpetrator, and the perspective of another minority person looking on. This Tram Scenario was based on research from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

An ARC project led by Deakin in collaboration with University of Melbourne and Museums Victoria, Identity: Yours, Mine, Ours – Exhibition Research Project Evaluation Report, evaluated the impact of the exhibition on students.

Lauren offered to continue the conversation via email by contacting Nik McGrath. For those who were unable to be at the cardi party the CardiCast will be posted when it’s available, so look out for that.