Race and Ethnicity

Race and ethnicity are two separate, but related, topics that have shaped many nations and industries around the world, including the United States and its museums and museum-related fields. Keeping a DEAI focus in mind, the pages grouped under this section will address basics of racially- and ethnically-informed museum approaches and practices, as well as provide resources for further consideration. In keeping with our DEAI (Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion) umbrella, the information on these pages will be geared towards restorative and reparative methods. 

Although the examples presented here often come from museums and art galleries, professionals across the cultural sector can apply these recommended concepts and actions. 

As with other forms of DEAI work, equitable practices around race and ethnicity impact the whole of the institution—from staffing to collecting to programming to visitor experience. As a result, our material is sorted into these four general categories: Personnel and Admin, Collecting and Reparations, and Exhibitions and Programming.

Language and Terminology

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) offers an extensive and thorough guide to talking about race in museums. The following definitions come from NMAAHC guide, the Vanderbilt University’s Office of Active Citizenship and Service, and the Smithsonian Institute’s Reckoning with our Racial Past Key Terms & Phrases Glossary.

  • Race: A historically arbitrary social and biological construction that divides humankind into groups roughly based upon physical traits regarded as common by those of shared ancestry. Although originally a colonial and historically arbitrary invention, race carries very real implications due to the oppressive social structures built upon it; for more, see Racism. 
  • Ethnicity: Ethnicity is a shared identity based upon sociocultural traditions such as language, religion, regional background, culture, and foods. Ethnicity has been used to distinguish one group of people from another, and can be based on place, history, and shared traditions.
  • Racism: The oppressive ordering and structuring of the world on the basis of one’s skin color.
  • Antiracism: the set of policies and practices that actively fight racism, rather than only avoid being racist. Institutionally, it is about resourcing the building of a broader, more inclusive and equitable, community through DEAI and the development of ongoing programming that aims to expose and undermine racism. Individually, it involves a personal commitment to continuing to learn about racism, to listen to the people it has affected, and to apologize when making mistakes that fall back into racist norms. Antiracism, like reparative justice, is a process and therefore does not have an “end,” but is rather an ongoing approach and application against institutional racism. 
  • Decolonization: is the effort to undo colonialism, which consists of one people extending their dominion over another. U.S. colonial practices still manage Indigenous worlds, animals, plants and human beings. Calls to decolonize museums have become more widespread across the museum field and academia at large. Decolonizing a museum has become a metaphor for making museums more diverse, equitable, accessible and inclusive, though its roots like in making active efforts to undo the lasting harms of colonialism, including returning stolen lands and repatriation of Indigenous artifacts. You can read more about these practices, with institutional examples, on the Race and Ethnicity: Collecting and Reparations page. As it has come to be widely discussed, Decolonization is also a process, meaning (like reparative justice and antiracism) there may not be an “end” to decolonial work. Rather, a decolonial mindset suggests continued dedicated effort to undo the oppressions of colonialism. 

Further Resources on race and ethnicity in the field:

  • Museum Hue is a national organization seeking to provide support for Black, indigenous, and other people of color in the arts and culture fields. Their blog features some of the field’s most recent and progressive work in racial equity.
  • Racial Equity Tools offers over 3,000 resources for pursuing racial equity. 

How Just Six Words Can Spark Conversation About Race in America