Sunday 28 April 2019

Sour lemons, sweet lemonades

National Portrait Gallery, Washington (Photo: Ben Hines)

In a training course for culture professionals last month, I showed the photo of a two-year-old black girl admiring the portrait of Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. She seemed awestruck and she reportedly told her mother that the woman on the painting was a queen and that she wanted to be a queen too. The point I wanted to make was that black people, or other so-called minorities, rarely do they see people looking like them as part of the mainstream narratives presented in museums; rarely do they come across the stories of people who look like them and who achieved something in their lives; people they could look up to.

A colleague was quick to refute my argument and firmly stated that she did not believe that was an issue at all. I went on. I told them about an article I had read a few days before about the lives of Roma people in Portugal I got to know about Piménio Ferreira, who was once told by a primary school teacher that she didn’t know why he was at school since he would become a fair vendor (he contradicted his teacher’s pronouncement and today he’s a researcher in Biophysics and Biomedical Engineering). I also got to know about Cátia Montes, who’s now finishing her studies in Social Education. She had to leave school at 14, lived a nomadic life chased around by the police and lost two jobs because customers didn’t want to be served by a gypsy.

How strong and stubborn does one need to be in order to contradict the stereotypical life that has been traced for them – by people within and outside their community – and be something else, be what they dream? And what kind of opportunities does one get to dream?

August Agbola O'Brown (1895-1976), Soldier in the Warsaw Uprising, Museum of Warsaw (Photo: Maria Vlachou)

Michelle Obama knows how important representation is. She knows exactly what’s involved and has taken advantage of every opportunity to make it known to others. “(Girls and girls of color) will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of this great American institution. ...And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls", she said at the official unveiling of her portrait at the National Portrait Gallery. And one cannot also forget her speech at the inauguration of the new Whitney Museum in 2015, when she said: “You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood.  In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum. And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself.” 

Many of us might feel puzzled by the idea that this can actually still be an issue today. Wishing for a more just world, we tend to forget that this is not just about wishful thinking. In practice, there is still much to be done and the first thing might actually be to listen more carefully. There are enough testimonies, should we be willing to listen, should we be just a little bit curious to know and not so afraid of finding out that the world might be a little bit different from what we thought.

In an opinion article last February, publisher Guilherme Valente accused the anti-racist movement of inventing racisms and of racializing things that have got nothing to do with one’s skin colour, actually promoting inter-racial conflict. For Valente, identity politics are an imported novelty in Portugal, substituting and underestimating social causes and especially the needs and expectations of the population who wishes to be a “PERSON” above all. 

Valente also reminded us, and rightly so, that one should first respect individual human rights and not impose group identities on people, which often undermine those rights. He doesn’t seem to understand, though, that each person wishes to be respected for what he/she is, without concessions to mainstream “norms”. It is this need to defend the right to be that brings people today (as always) into groups. Yes, “[the population] either black or white, heterosexual or trans or homossexual, wishes to be a PERSON”, as Valente wrote, but they will not be a person if they must ignore or hide who they are and how they live their lives. They will not be a person if they don’t get equal opportunities because of who they are. Maybe this is, indeed, hard to understand or to believe for many of us.

Sade Brown, Founder of Sour Lemons (Photo: Sour Lemons website)

The title of Sade Brown’s keynote speech at the IETM Hull Plenary Meeting in March was precisely “What did you have to leave at the door in order to show up today?” Sade is the founder of Sour Lemons, a company that aims to increase diversity and social mobility in the creative industries. She talked to us about her teenage years, skipping school, hanging out with bad companies, consuming drugs and alcohol. She also told us about the opportunities she got to work in the cultural sector, where very often she felt (or was made to feel) so inadequate, so unfit, that she left a bit of herself out of the door every day. “The longer I worked there, the more of myself I left out the door. Because I realised quite quickly what success looked like and it didn’t look like me, it didn’t sound like me. So, I made the choice – unconsciously at the time, but I made the choice – to assimilate.”

Today, Sade trains young people with a similar background to hers to acquire leadership skills and find work in the creative industries. She knows all too well that it is about opportunities that many people, because of their background, do not get. A 23-year-old girl once told her that, before meeting her, she didn’t know that a woman of colour could be a mentor, in a position of power. She now knows that she can also be one and she is. It’s the ripple effect of diversity, inclusion, empowerment and they can all now be role models to others (watch the video of the keynote speech).

The lens that we’re seeing the world through is the lens that makes more sense to us, Sade said. And if we are surrounded by people who look like us and have similar life experiences, our lens will not get any wider. For many of us, this is not about adding sugar and enjoying a sweet lemonade. This is about realising and acknowledging that lemons are sour.

More readings:

Rui Pena Pires, "É possível combater o racismo com a classificação racial dos cidadãos?", Público, 29.4.2019

Ian Hacking, "Making up people", publicado em London Review of Books, Vol. 28 No.16, 17.8.2006

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