A Racial Incident at a Boston Museum

I follow a number of museums on Instagram, including Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. That is how I learned about an incident involving the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy. MFA posted this on its account:

Throughout the past week, the MFA has implemented some immediate action steps in response to the recent incidents involving students from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy. We are actively examining our visitor services protocols, have added staffing, revised our welcome messaging, and are expanding training. We understand that our work is far from done and that we have a long way to go. Please follow the link in our profile to read more details about our next steps.

We invite you to continue to hold our institution accountable and welcome you to share your questions, concerns and suggestions in the comments below.

This is a particular style of groveling to which we have all become accustomed. It usually indicates that race is somehow involved. Sure enough: the story started with a Facebook post by Marvelyne Lamy, a teacher at the charter school:

On Thursday, May 16, 2019, some of the 7th grade students as well as the 7th grade teachers went on a field trip to the Museum of Fine Arts to look at some exhibits to enhance what they’ve learned in their history class. I should add my students are ALL black and brown. At the very beginning of the tour, one of the staff gave an overview on what to expect and told the kids no food, no drink, and no watermelon (we didn’t know they said this until the end).

So after the visit had turned into a racial incident, a student apparently volunteered the reference to watermelons. But wait! The MFA staffer who welcomed the kids was asked what happened:

[T]he MFA’s report states that the staff member who greeted the students recalled saying that “no food, no drink and no water bottles” were allowed in the galleries.

Continuing with Ms. Lamy’s account:

There were other groups of students that were there, but those students were white. We were instructed not to touch any of the artifacts in the museum, yet the white students there touched the displays several times while security looked on without saying anything. The minute one of our students followed suit, the security guards would yell at them that they should not touch exhibits.

I don’t actually believe this. Museum guards don’t have much to do. The main thing they watch out for is people touching paintings or statues. If you do that, or look like you are about to, they will warn you not to touch anything. The idea that whites are allowed to touch artifacts in museums is ridiculous.

Throughout our walk through, they followed us. Many of our students grew agitated. At the end, we went through the gender bending exhibit where the security guard followed our every movement. It got so bad that I started gathering our students so we could leave. I was pulling one of my students to come out the exhibit, when she said that one of the visitors made a comment towards her when she was dancing to music included in the exhibit. The visitor said that’s it’s a shame that she is not learning and instead stripping.

The girls said they were practicing their “model walk,” which sounds like they weren’t paying much attention to the art. (In a “gender bending exhibit,” that probably showed good judgment.) I don’t know why a museum patron would bother to speak to a couple of 7th graders, but I also am not sure what this has to do with race. Do the people involved assume that strippers must be black? I don’t believe that is generally the case.

As we were walking out, our students were standing in the doorway of the Africa exhibit. We had them clear out the doorway so people could pass by. This lady walks by and says, “Never mind there’s fucking black kids in the way.”

This was the only time when anyone said something about race. The woman was at best thoughtless and at worst racist. But what if she had simply said, “Never mind there’s f***ing kids in the way.” Would we still have had a racial incident?

MFA identified and canceled the memberships of the women who made the stripper comment and referred to the “f***ing black kids in the way.” But of course, that doesn’t begin to go far enough, even though actually–if you paid close attention–no employee of MFA did anything wrong. No matter:

In a public memo posted online on Friday, MFA officials outlined the institution’s short and long term steps in response to the racist incident. Immediate actions include adding staff to the school groups entrance to “improve our welcome,” changing the orientation greeting, adding visitor services employees to the galleries to assist visitors and respond to any “incidents while the guards continue their security function.” The memo also said the museum was in conversation with local government officials about “race and Boston’s cultural institutions.”

The memo spelled out long term goals, such as expanding online mandatory training on unconscious bias and conflict resolution, including how to intervene “when acts of racism, abuse or discrimination are seen or heard in public spaces.”

This is my favorite “reform”:

Now the museum has eliminated the “no water bottles” phrase, “so that there’s just less room for any confusion or misunderstanding,” Getchell said.

Water bottles, watermelon, who can tell the difference? Of course, nowadays half the people you see on the street are carrying water bottles, while it is rather rare to see anyone carrying a watermelon. But when a racial incident is in progress, common sense plays no role.

There is a more serious side to this story, I think. Marvelyne Lamy’s Facebook post continues:

The worse part about all of this is seeing the hurt look on my children’s faces as this was their first time experiencing racism first hand.

Think about that for a moment. None of the kids in the 7th grade class had actually experienced racism before. This–a woman complaining that “f***ing black kids are in the way”–was literally their first experience of any such thing. Does this really need to be a life-altering experience? Or is it a bigger problem that these kids have fallen into the hands of the racial grievance industry?

The MFA lost no time falling in line with the zeitgeist:

The museum said it would train guards on patrolling and engaging with visitors, and would provide staff with unconscious bias training. Makeeba McCreary, MFA chief of Learning and Community Engagement, told the Herald the museum would hold roundtables on these issues with community members.

“This is an opportunity to explicitly talk about racism and talk about the lack of inclusion,” McCreary said.

More troubling is what the children’s teachers say:

[Azaan Rodriguez] remembered the lessons of his mother and of his seventh grade teacher, Marvelyne Lamy.

“They would say that you have to be on your best behavior,” Rodriguez said. “Because no matter what, they’re gonna always see you as criminals.”
“Unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised and I was glad it was those students,” said school principal Arturo Forrest. “Unfortunate to say it that way but we train them [the students] to handle moments like this and to speak out against injustice.”
Seventh graders Trinity Raye, 13, and Ariani, 13, who preferred not to give her last name, were among the students who were told the comment about stripping in the “Gender Bending Fashion” exhibition. They said they were showing their model walk.

“My mom always taught me that even when somebody does you wrong, you still gotta treat them right because nobody ever wants to see you win,” Raye said. “Ms. Lamy also taught us in class, no matter how hard you try to meet certain standards, they still aren’t going to accept you based on the color of your skin. So you just have to go 10 times harder.”
Some of the academy’s students were going to perform at the MFA’s Juneteenth celebration on June 19.

That is no longer going to happen, said case worker and seventh grade special education teacher Taliana Jeune, who also chaperoned the trip. She said one never forgets the first time one experience racism.

“No matter what, they’re gonna always see you as criminals”? “Nobody ever wants to see you win”? “No matter how hard you try…they still aren’t going to accept you based on the color of your skin”? Is this really the message we should be sending to 7th graders–who, their teacher says, have never actually experienced any racism? Am I the only one who sees a certain satisfaction in the reactions of school administrators, community engagement officers, and so on? From the Boston Herald: “[Marvelyne] Lamy said her students have become ‘social activists overnight.’” An unbiased observer might ask: whose prejudices, exactly, were confirmed by what happened at the Museum of Fine Arts?

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