Context is Everything

I’m sitting at my desk during an unexpected moment of free time (a meeting got cancelled) and reading Maura Seale’s excellent “Compliant Trust: The Public Good and Democracy in the ‘ALA’s Core Values of Librarianship'” when I come across this paragraph about the myth of library neutrality, using the Ferguson Public Library during late 2014 as an apt example:

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To be honest, I stopped there. I still haven’t finished reading Maura’s amazing article, though I fully intend to. This paragraph, and the broad set-up of Maura’s argument, unleashed a host of feelings and thoughts that have been bubbling within me for a while now.

It’s about the vitally huge importance of socio-political context.

Context wraps around everything we do. EVERYTHING. And by “we,” I mean, us human beings here on planet Earth. Not just librarians. Not just Americans. All of us. Context is everything.

I’ve said it before and others have said it before (here and here and oh look! here) and I’m sure we’ll all say it again: Neutrality does not exist. We live in a system of oppression. We LIVE a system of oppression. ← [No, I didn’t leave out the preposition there.] I said this in a recent talk I gave at the Association of College Libraries of Central Pennsylvania and again at Temple University (so, Pennsylvanians should really have it by now):

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 10.48.49 AM.pngRacism and other forms of oppression are like a river with a fast moving current. If you attempt to stand still in the form of so-called “neutrality” or “colorblindness,” you will quickly be swept away and become little more than debris in the mess. To make any kind of difference, you must actively fight against the current of oppression. Otherwise, you are just part of the problem.

Nothing about oppression is an accident. It’s all rooted in the broader context of systemic and structural oppression that goes beyond individual motivations and good intentions. In fact, good intentions mean precious little.

So, every single time a white man opens his mouth to say something to me or ask something of me, that experience is rooted in the history and socio-political context of slavery, Jim Crow, race and gender oppression. Even if we never mention race or racism, sex or sexism, it is there. It saturates the context. And it matters.

All of my encounters with white women are rooted in the context of racial oppression. Even if the encounters are pleasant. Even if we’re friends. It doesn’t matter. The context is everything.

Every time I open my mouth about my life as a woman, I am bringing in the context of gender identity politics that affects the lives of trans and non-binary people.

Every time I say anything about what I do, physically or mentally, I am implicating disability politics that touch the lives and experiences of people with disabilities.

Every time I even hint at general life or resources as a middle-class person, I am bringing class politics into the mix in a way that affects poor folks.

The list goes on.

This is something that can be so difficult for people to understand but is so vital to DOING THE WORK. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered folks who are so caught up in their innocent intentions that they fail to realize the broader contextual implications of what they’re asking for, saying, doing.

Let’s all do the world a favor and take a step back to observe the context around us. Let’s be mindful of how that context rests on the lives of others. And let’s do our work from that place of mindfulness.

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