There’s a saying: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” A new lawsuit by a woman named Samantha Niemann embodies this phenomenon.
As reported last week, Niemann, who’s white, is suing the Getty Foundation over its Multicultural Undergraduate Internship program (MUI), claiming that her civil rights have been violated. In her lawsuit, she asserts that she was deterred from applying to the internship because she is not a member of an underrepresented group, “including, but not limited to, individuals of African American, Asian, Latino/Hispanic, Native American, or Pacific Islander descent,” as the program guidelines state on the Getty’s website. Niemann is channeling the mediocrity-as-entitlement of Abigail Fisher, the white college applicant who sued the University of Texas for not admitting her, to cry “reverse racism.”
I participated in the Getty’s MUI program in 2003, interning at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles and receiving a modest, full-time salary for 10 weeks, paid by the Getty. That summer, I was given the opportunity to work with senior-level staff at MOCA, interact with directors at the Getty, and engage with my MUI peers in a safe space. In other words, the MUI program ensured that I, as a person of color, had access to people and experiences that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have had.
My experience is backed up by statistics. A survey conducted by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2015 found that 72% of the staff at American art museums are non-Hispanic whites. That number goes beyond the general American population, which is 62% non-Hispanic white. A closer look reveals that 84% of non-Hispanic whites dominate positions that contribute to the “intellectual and educational mission of museums,” such as directors, curators, conservators, etc. This means that, of the people in underrepresented groups — mostly communities of color — who work at museums, nearly half of them do so within departments that oversee security, facilities, and finance.
What does this translate to? Exhibitions, education programs, public programs, and even the books being published by museums do not reflect the demographics of this country. While the missions of museums are undoubtedly good, the public is only being offered the perspective of the 84% supermajority.
One explanation for these contemptible numbers is the fact that, in the art industry, apprenticeships and internships serve as crucial routes into such intellectual jobs. And often, only those who can work for free or for very little can afford to take on these positions, which are mostly unpaid or underpaid, and clustered in expensive cities. These same people usually come from backgrounds of privilege; families buttress them with financial support as they cultivate their professional interests. As one of the few art internships that pays decently, the MUI program opens the door to those who would not otherwise be in a financial position to participate.
One of the valid criticisms I’ve heard leveled against the program is that it doesn’t take into enough account the issue of class: An attempt to fight underrepresentation should also consider people who aren’t financially secure enough to work in the arts, a field that pays notoriously low salaries (if it pays them at all). The Getty recently broadened its MUI inclusion criteria to consider an applicant’s circumstances beyond ethnic identity; perhaps this is an attempt to address the class issue. Nevertheless, it’s well documented that there are consistent intersections between people of color and those in lower economic classes.
But Niemann does not seem to be upset about class anyway — she’s upset that she was discouraged to apply for the MUI program because she is white. She does not understand the numbers. If she did, she would recognize what discouragement really looks like: grossly underrepresenting a group compared with their numbers in the general population. As a person of color, knowing that you have just over a 3 in 10 chance of being employed in any position at a museum at all, let alone one that allows you to make intellectual contributions, deters you from feeling like you might belong. While it only lasted three months, my internship instilled in me an unapologetic confidence to be vocal about my opinions in the workplace and to share them with the knowledge that they do matter. I’m an example of how the MUI program has succeeded in working to place members of underrepresented groups in institutions that are in dire need of perspectives that more closely represent the shifting demographics of this country.
So what is Niemann complaining about? That people of her background don’t fill 100% of positions at museums, but only 72–84%? That art museums here have traditionally told an entirely Eurocentric story of history? That institutions that privilege exhibitions of Western art, and pay top dollar for such art to enter their already very white collections, are discriminating against her whiteness? Or is it that the discipline of art history has been written to canonize European and “American” art, while classifying art made by people of color as artifact and archaeology?
Nope, it’s none of those things. Niemann’s lawsuit is about someone who’s used to getting her way suddenly not — and who might end up denying others critical and transformative opportunities in the process.