Engaging with the Uncomfortable

My blog post about First Nations programs, events and exhibitions in libraries, archives and museums that discuss subject matter that White settlers may find “confronting” or “difficult”

“I can’t own your uncomfortability” – Aunty Charmaine Papertalk Green

Several months ago I asked fellow museum, library and archives folks on Twitter, how do we engage audiences to enter uncomfortable spaces? Especially, relating to First Nations people and the impact of ongoing invasion.

I asked this because I was recently involved in a museum program for university students where we discussed the Stolen Generations and intergenerational trauma and after the program, one of the students anonymously commented on a feedback form that they felt like they were being reprimanded and made to feel bad for being White. I found this to be an odd response as we were just discussing a reality and an issue that affects many, many First Nations people, but they chose to disengage because it made them uncomfortable. This made me worried that White fragility will always get in the way of settlers engaging with programs that challenge the colonial structures that benefit them. This made me worried that White fragility is more of concern to some people than the truth.

I previously experienced this when I was ask to write something about James Cook and I wrote that he represents the start of invasion to many First Nations people and this was changed to he represents that start of the colonial encounter to many First Nations people. I felt that this language was soft and dishonest, but I can understand why it was chosen and that was out of fear of any potential backlash caused by White fragility. Nevertheless, it is concerning that White feelings are privileged over First Nations oppression. Furthermore, what are the implications for us working in libraries, archives and museums trying to ensure that historically suppressed and marginalised voices are prominent part of the history constructed and conveyed by the collections held in theses institutions?

In regards to First Nations people, how our history, culture and communities has been represented in libraries, archives and museums has been historically governed by settlers particularly white settler men and because of this we have been represented through a colonisers lens which reflects the values and beliefs of mainstream settler society. But thanks to the tireless work of First Nations people in these spaces before me and many allies this has changed and continues to change, however if the First Nations output from libraries, archives and museums is scared of white settler feelings then our representations are still in a way governed by white settlers.

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Be more positive

Of course, tone policing is not new. I have heard people say many times if First Nations people were more inviting and less “confronting” with their stories, then people (white settlers) would engage with them more. Although, this is flawed, because it puts the responsibility on us, First Nations people. Instead of asking ” why are you making me uncomfortable”, settlers should ask “why do I feel uncomfortable” when engaging with First Nations stories and histories.

Additionally, even when manifestations of our cultures and our histories focus on the positive, it can still threaten White fragility. For instance, the opening ceremony of the 2018 Commonwealth Games included culture and performances by several different First Nations cultural practitioners and communities, which even though it was celebratory and by no means critical of colonisation, it still caused a negative reaction among white settlers. Social commentators were offended by the mere inclusion of First Nations culture and the disruption of our invisibility.

Who’s discomfort?

All of this can imply that white settlers are the intended audience for First Nations output from libraries, archives and museums. For instance, I was recently talking with a white settler curator about how it is becoming more common for exhibitions to include relevant First Nations languages and she said she was worried that it can be confusing for the exhibition visitors. Undoubtedly, she was talking about White settlers when she was saying visitors and my initial reaction to this was “not everything is about you”. But exhibitions have been, in many cases, about her as her epistemology, her experiences and her language are considered the default in mainstream settler society and therefore have been reflected in a majority of exhibitions. And because of this, she is more concerned with potential white settler discomfort caused by confusion than suppression of First Nations languages.

In addition to this, discussions about discomfort in libraries, archives and museums rarely touch on First Nations peoples’ discomfort that could stem from keeping our cultural heritage in very colonial buildings, describing or classifying our cultural heritage in ways that are alien to our world-views, the implementation of confusing access guidelines and the celebration in libraries, archives and museums of people many of us deem to be violent, oppressive colonisers.

How do we engage audiences to enter uncomfortable spaces?

I genuinely asked that question several months ago because I know many people have done great work in regards to this and want to hear their thoughts because we need many colonial structures to change and change comes from being uncomfortable which will never happen if White fragility gets in the way and is prioritised. How do we get audiences, especially White settler audiences to understand discomfort is temporary, oppression is not?

Further reading

‘Difficult’ exhibitions and intimate encounters

By Nathan Sentance

9 thoughts on “Engaging with the Uncomfortable”

  1. That term “tone policing” is so apt. I find that constantly when I try to talk to people about Indigenous issues… important and true things such as over 60,000 years living in this land… I am met with raised eyebrows, disbelief, sarcastic looks. I was excluded from one set of ‘friends’ over a discussion on racism in Australia. So I get it now. There are touch points, invisible barriers which I cannot broach in conversation or… what? Well I will always speak up in my admiration for Australia’s Aboriginal people and their cleverness and tenacity, and the truth of this country’s history. I will always try to set a different tone in my social circles.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. One illuminating aspect of this important post is that I read it as a Canadian thinking it was about Canada until I got to the Commonwealth Fames reference. Even the reference to James Cook didn’t signal Australia to me because Cook has been in Canada before Australia. Very sadly, the exact same situation exists here. Thank you for blogging about this important subject.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The First Nations Gallery at the Australian Museum made me deeply uncomfortable and upset. I was upset by the Stolen Generations – how could people, my people, do this to other people? I was upset by the “Maker Unknown” labels, knowing that it meant that the object was probably stolen, just as likely from a deceased (murdered) individual as not, and at the very least that the “collector” did not value the creator enough to even note down his (or her) name. I was upset and I was uncomfortable but I stayed. Before “meeting” you online, Nathan, I would not likely have recognised the significance of “Maker Unknown” labels. As an emerging library professional, who is also a white Australian, I know I want to do something to right this wrong, but I am fearful of over stepping the mark. I am hear listening and thank you profusely for your contribution! @Lizatthelibrary

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Great piece, and such an important but dispiriting question. Reminds me of a lifetime of conversations about sexism as a (white) feminist.

    I read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s “Why I’m no longer taking to white people about race” recently, and I interpret her answer to this as being essentially: it’s not your responsibility to make me feel comfortable, it’s my responsibility to own my ancestors’ past actions and not be a wuss.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Reblogged this on Site Title and commented:
    When I started teaching at Bubup Wilam, I believed my educational philosophy and way of teaching would fit well with Bubup Wilam’s vision and aims.

    Now I know how much I still had to learn about teaching, about people, and about being a non-Aboriginal person working in an Aboriginal community.

    What challenged me the most was the realisation that I still had a lot to learn about myself.

    It was a steep learning curve, often uncomfortable, sometimes distressing.

    Every day we were confronted with the effects of on-going generational trauma suffered by Aboriginal people as a result of colonisation, dispossession of land and culture, and the forced removal of children from families – the Stolen Generations.


  6. Hi Nathan,
    I just discovered your website and there are so many interesting articles and so many interesting topics! This one is particularly fascinating because it is so important and it is a challenge that heritage/museum professionals have to deal with constantly. I don’t have a solution but maybe it would be worth looking at how other countries with similar issues have dealt with this problem? How do we make sure people do not disengage with uncomfortable truths? Unfortunately, I think it is a human reaction to disengage and be defensive when confronted with hard truths (I don’t think that ‘white fragility’ is the right term here; I am personally Jewish and half of my family currently lives in Israel. Looking at this side of my family history has been extremely confronting and challenging for me and it is a process that took me years). Somehow, we need to address this problem the right way so that we don’t only engage with people who are already sympathetic to the cause. If we only convince people who already agree with us, what’s the point? In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to think about these issues, but this is far from an ideal world.

    Thank you again for posting, I am learning a lot and gaining a lot of insight!
    Livi xxx


  7. […] In my experience, many white people will often see discussions of racism in libraries, archives and museums as personal attacks against them and instead of reflecting on their own actions and complicity, they chose to disengage because what is been said made them uncomfortable or worse they gaslight and tone police the First Nations person bringing the issue up with statements like “you’re always so negative” “you’re making a mountain out of a molehill”, “it’s not that bad”, or “you’re looking for racism”. Even accusations of reverse racism are issued to consciously or unconsciously defend whiteness. Consequently, this can make the person bringing up racism seem like a trouble maker. […]


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