Thursday, April 30, 2020

More Than a Visit to the Museum

Chimney Bluffs State Park is a 597-acre state park in the town of Huron in Wayne County, New York. The park is situated on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, east of Sodus Bay. From the park's hiking trails, visitors can view the large clay formations at the water's edge for which the park is named. (Source:
Chimney Bluffs State Park is near-ish
to Rochester, NY. We speed hiked to this
cliff one evening.
My family spent a couple of nights in a tiny cottage near Lake Ontario last summer. Interested in the Rochester, NY area, we mapped out a list of potential activities. Museums and beaches and kayaking and hiking trails. We had only one rainy morning that felt right for an indoor activity, so we spent about half a day in the Rochester Museum & Science Center (RMSC).

We're a bit spoiled, really. Pittsburgh has an abundance of museums, science centers, art galleries, and other assorted indoor cultural entertainments. So RMSC was a bit cramped for us having the natural history museum and the science center in one building. It's also attempts to fuse two very different vibes: the ancient history, and the interactive, hyper-stimulating, hands-on science areas. 

RMSC is all mixed up too. There's a room of dynamic electricity exhibits across from a calm quiet area full of cases displaying indigenous artifacts. It wasn't uncommon to see kids galloping through the quiet spaces talking about how there's "nothing to do in this one" while we tried to read our way through various periods of history.

Rain brought crowds and lots of day campers. Some areas were packed shoulder to shoulder. I was navigating through one crowded corridor, leading the rest of the family single file behind me, when I bumped into a little boy. Or maybe he bumped into me. It was difficult to discern fault for the bumping because there was just not enough room for all of the humans.

He stopped and turned around. He was a black boy, maybe six-years-old. "I'm sorry, ma'am," he said.

I looked at him and tried to smile and nod and croak out, "it's okay." I tried to telegraph to him with my eyes that I was a nice lady. One of the good ones. Instantly, Cornerstore Caroline popped into my head. The news story about a white woman accusing a nine-year-old of grabbing her ass. She apologized after seeing security camera footage that clearly showed it was just his backpack that brushed against her. But the damage had already been done. She'd called 911 on a little kid for bumping her with a backpack.

I really wanted that little boy to know I was no Cornerstore Caroline. But I also try not to be too weird in public. So we went on about our day.

The highlight of our visit was also the reason for it. The Flight to Freedom exhibit moved RMSC to the top of the list, above the Susan B. Anthony Museum and house and the George Eastman Museum. We entered the floor detailing Rochester's Underground Railroad through a room with a panel from a local carousel. We stood there for a moment reading about the very recent debate over whether or not to remove racial caricature imagery from a historic carousel in a public park. It was a room that several people passed through while we were there, looked around, and said "nothing here." 

The Underground Railroad exhibit itself was large and interactive and very well done. It was moderately filled with people that seemed more interested in opening and slamming doors and putting shackles on one another than internalizing the stories presented. 

And even as the crowd around me thinned, another boy bumped into me. 

This boy was probably twelve-years-old. He, a white boy, and a group of his friends, also white boys, were roughhousing their way through the museum. There was plenty of room to get around me. I even tried to sidestep to avoid the contact. But he ended up running into me.

We made eye contact, he and I. Middle-aged white woman and pre-teen white boy. And I tried to telegraph something to him. You should apologize. But he just stared at me. 

I'm not sure I retained much of the information from the walls of the Rochester Museum that day. I know there was new information. Things I wanted to read more about. I didn't write anything down though and most of that potential new learning was lost. 

The experience did, however, plant an idea in my mind. The notion that white women shouldn't be Cornerstone Carolines, but we should also be doing something collectively to raise kids that aren't entitled jerks. That the undoing of white privilege is the work of white communities and rather than prove myself a "good white person" to people of color, I should be helping people like me see their own privilege.  

More than a visit to the museum, touring the Rochester Museum and Science Center was a bit of an epiphany. It gave the novel I was working on purpose and direction. My book, More Than a Bad Teacher is a fictional story that attempts to start a conversation about building awareness of white privilege through education. For a step-by-step guide on how to do more than write/talk about these issues, check out the White Accomplices web site.