What happens when institutions remain deaf to the needs of outsiders? In the worst cases, an outsider comes in, and an insider is completely unequipped to welcome that person on their own terms.
PhD candidate Porchia Moore experienced this firsthand. She was standing in an elegant room of an historic house museum with 25 other museum professionals from across her southern state on a bus tour as part of a museum conference. They crowded into a tiny room adorned with heavy drapery, high-backed chairs, and Civil war-era paintings above marble-topped fireplaces. And then things fell apart.
As the tour guide summed up his brief intro, he turned, pointed, and looked at Porchia, the only black person in the room. He asked her name and told her not to worry. That “in the end, it all worked out” for her and her people. In fact, to dramatize how wonderfully things worked out, he would give Porchia the opportunity to wave a flag at the end of his tour signaling the end of the war and the end of slavery. Throughout the tour, the guide peppered every other sentence with slave references while pointing or referring to Porchia. “Porchia, you are going to like this” he said as he talked about the enslaved peoples who worked in the home, including many happy, well-adjusted “mammies” that lived and worked there. As he kept asking the group to gather closer around him, Porchia began to retreat so that soon she was almost in another room.
Eventually, after another egregious exchange, one of Porchia’s colleagues abruptly ended the tour. Some people were angry. Others embarrassed. A few were not sure what to make of what had happened.
What had happened? The tour guide made a genuine attempt at making the tour relevant to Porchia. But he did it on his terms, not hers. He forced her to perform his version of blackness, instead of learning how to be relevant to her experience. He didn’t just tell her the door wasn’t for her. He sent her running for it.
Porchia’s experience is extreme. But it happened. It happens to outsiders every day. If this happened to you, would you venture into that room—or any similar one—again?
When we invite in outsiders, of any kind, we have to do it on their terms. Not ours. It’s their key. It’s their door. They have given us the gift of their participation, and they deserve our interest and respect. Even if that requires learning new ways of working, speaking, or connecting. We’re trying to unlock new meaning with them. And we should be willing to put in the work to make that possible.
It’s not about accommodation. It’s about treating everyone inside the room as whole people, with the dignity we all deserve.