National Museum of African American History & Culture Issues Statement on Backlash Over White Hip-Hop Curator

Smithsonian

Yesha Callahan Sep, 26, 2018

Timothy Anne Burnside has been curating the National Museum of African American History & Culture’s hip-hop exhibit since the museum opened over 2 years ago, but the fact that Burnside is a white woman was news to many people until one seemingly innocuous tweet was posted that erupted into something more within hours.

@DJChubbESwagg tweeted, “THERE IS A WHITE WOMAN CURATING THE HIP HOP PART OF THE NMAAHC SMITHSONIAN?!?!?!?!?!?!? WHO LET THIS SHIT HAPPEN!?!?!”

Swagg’s tweet sparked a conversation on who should be curating black spaces, and why couldn’t the museum find a black person to run the exhibit. Many of Burnside’s celebrity and Internet “famous” Black friends came to her defense, and even garnered a lot of side eyes from social media as they seemingly berated Swagg, a black man, in defense of a white woman. Some of the comments ranged from “How dare he question an ally’s work” to “Well maybe no black people applied for the job?”

It was definitely ironic to see those questions come from certain Black “influencers” and activists who made a name for themselves shouting to the rafters about Black people being excluded from certain spaces, who seemingly put on their Superman cape to protect the good name of a white woman, who happened to be their friend. What was even more interesting is that Burnside said nothing in her defense on Twitter, but did give several heart emojis to tweets from people defending her.

Many people who attacked Swagg failed to understand the fact that black people are commonly excluded from the art and museum world, and even if Burnside is an ally, maybe there’s a time for an ally to step aside and offer an opportunity to a black person. The only semblance of a balanced view of the situation came from Jamilah Lemieux, who wrote about the privileges that white women are afforded in hip-hop and other spaces, and maybe just because someone is your friend, it always isn’t a good look to jump down the throat of a fellow black person to defend them:

The conversation went on for over two days, and not to finger point specific people involved, but a couple who seemed to gang up on Swagg, did issue public apologies to him.

On Tuesday, the museum issued a statement of their own, noting that there are other black people working behind the scenes with Burnside:

“The African American story is the quintessential American story. And in our museum, it is a story told, preserved and appreciated by people from different backgrounds. Our museum is one of the most diverse and inclusive in the world.

The museum is shaped and led by a leadership team that is largely African American — and the staff is firmly grounded in African American history and committed to the mission of the museum. We value that diversity and also recognize the importance of diversity of thought, perspectives and opinions. It has helped make the museum what it is today.

Out of a deep commitment, Ms. Timothy Anne Burnside launched the Smithsonian’s first hip-hop collecting initiative 12 years ago while at the National Museum of American History. Since joining the Museum in 2009, she has also played a key role in building the hip-hop collection as part of a larger curatorial team. Dr. Dwandalyn Reece, the curator of music and performing arts, leads that effort. We are proud of their work.

As a museum dedicated to telling the American story, through an African American lens, we recognize the lack of diversity in the museum field. Many of our staff worked on the front lines for decades to open doors for African Americans and people of color. Founding director Lonnie G. Bunch III and deputy director Kinshasha Holman Conwill have stood at the forefront of this discussion.”

That statement did not sit well with a lot of people, and once again, some expressed their issues on Twitter, and said the statement was a “non-statement”.

“You recognize the lack of diversity in museum senior management but still didn’t hire an African American to curate Hip & Hop a artform we created? Shame on you and your empty words and promises,” @Cherry_LA tweeted.

As with most discussions that unfold on Twitter, this debate will probably happen again in about another two years, when someone else happens to discover that Burnside is a white woman. But that’s one of the wonders of social media, regardless of how late you are to a conversation, it doesn’t diminish the fact that the conversation needed to be had.