Just say it…WHITE SUPREMACY

Last week, I dropped in on this event being organized by a Twitter friend who is an amazing science researcher doing work in the scholarly communication space with a particular focus on social justice and anti-oppression. She’d gotten a bunch of other researchers, librarians, funders, students, and the like together to write a handbook on building better, more equitable systems and platforms of open scholarship.

The point of the group and the handbook was to move conversations and action forward in the scholarly communication space. So right off the bat, for the opening preamble of the handbook, a librarian friend of mine started a draft of two powerful paragraphs that were meant to lay out the values of this collective. Others added to the language.  The thinking was that their radical, critical values needed to be clear and uncompromising for real change to take place.

To paraphrase (the handbook hasn’t come out yet, so I won’t share the exact language), the paragraphs went something like this:

We recognize that current systems of scholarly communication are mired in historical and modern white supremacy, ableism, capitalism, and cisgender hetero-patriarchy . . . It is our goal to work to establish systems that are intentionally anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-ableist, anti-capitalist, anti-heteronormative and anti-gender-normative—in short, anti-oppressive.

They were beautiful paragraphs. I loved them. Many of the participants did. Yet, some of the participants, notably folks who were white and more senior professionals with particular power and privilege, felt the statements were “too blunt.” Discussion ensued. And at some point, the real issue came out: “I don’t know,” one of them admitted, “I agree with the ideas here, but some of these terms—specifically, ‘white supremacy.’ It’s just too militant. Too in your face. It’ll turn people away, and we don’t want to do that.”

Ah. Yes. White people hate the term RACISM. But what they hate even more is any reference to WHITE SUPREMACY or WHITENESS. Anything that calls out WHITENESS as  an oppressive norm.

At this point, I got up, said a little something about how awesome I thought the statement was and how pointless the work would be without it, referenced what was going on in libraridom with folks trying to sell marginalized folks down the river while bending over backwards to protect Nazis, and peaced out. That was my cue to leave. Most of the room may have been on board with what my scientist and librarian friends were really, radically trying to do, but the people with the power and prestige and MONEY were scared. As the Bible says, “The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” I didn’t have time for weak (white) flesh.

Then, today, my sister sent me this New York Times op-ed, accompanied by an angry face emoji, and it was the same old, same old. Sure, this Nice White Lady™ was limiting her message to other white liberals. But the message was the same: Don’t call out racism or whiteness or white supremacy for what they are. You hurt feelings that way.

The thing is, this message is not new. I hear it all the time. From angry white trolls and well-meaning white “allies” alike. Lemme say that again: I get this tone policing message from both the angry white conservatives AND the well-meaning white liberals. Don’t talk about WHITE SUPREMACY. Tone down the talk about WHITENESS. It’s divisive and alienating. It hurts feelings. You lose potential “allies” that way.

Black and white photo of woman holding a magnifying glass up to her open mouth showing off enlarged image of her tongue, which is colored bright red

“Megaphone” by madamepsychosis via Flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND

Well, let me make this clear once and for all: If the terms WHITE SUPREMACY, WHITENESS, RACISM, WHITE PRIVILEGE, or any variation thereof, makes you so uncomfortable that you wish to disengage from this work, then YOU ARE A WHITE SUPREMACIST.

Yes. I said it. I mean it. Yes, even you. No excuses. I don’t care if your best friends are people of color. I don’t care if you marched for Black Lives Matter. I don’t care if you voted for Obama. I don’t care if you are part of the resistance against the current administration. I don’t care if you participate in actions to free Black and Brown children from cages, to open immigration, to abolish ICE and prisons and the police. If the very thought of hearing or using the term WHITE SUPREMACY makes you want to walk away, tone it down, disengage in any way, then YOU ARE A WHITE SUPREMACIST.

Why? It’s simple. WHITE SUPREMACY is, by definition, the belief that white feelings, values, and experiences are more important and deserve more consideration than the feelings, values, and experiences of people of color. To shy away from anti-racist work because the term WHITE SUPREMACY is used and you find it “too blunt”? THAT IS WHITE SUPREMACY. That is the act of preferring to engage with more blunt, “white-friendly” terminology than to actually get on with the much-needed work of dismantling WHITE SUPREMACY. It’s preferring to support the feelings of white people about WHITE SUPREMACY rather than directly and actively addressing the feelings and experiences of people of color facing WHITE SUPREMACY. IT IS WHITE SUPREMACY.

I understand that there are folks who are new to this work and need space to learn and move beyond their discomfort. I get that, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the space for that needs to be elsewhere. Because there are others who are busy doing the work and don’t have time or energy to coddle white feelings and coax white people along.

As for that scholarly communication group, like I said, I left early so I don’t know how the conversation ended up. I don’t know what the preamble to the handbook will look like. But what I do know is that while they were busy going back and forth on whether to say WHITE SUPREMACY, they weren’t busy engaging in action to dismantle WHITE SUPREMACY in scholarly communication. And ultimately, that was part of what their work was supposed to be about.

So, if you’re serious about doing anti-racist work, then you need to be able to work through the discomfort and just say it. WHITE SUPREMACY. Because that is at the crux of what we’re dealing with here.

 

 


Oh, and by the way, fellow people of color, while this post is directed mainly at white people, please know that we too can and many times do enact WHITE SUPREMACY. But that’s another blog post for another day.

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My Bought Sense, or ALA Has Done It Again

Mama. Daddy. Aunt Doll. Granny. Muz. Big. Aunt Pearl. Sutta. All my ancestors, all the way back, have always told me, “Don’t you never sign NOTHING a white man gives you without reading it first.” As a Black woman, I hold this advice dear. As a lawyer, I hold this advice dear. Before the first of the six figures of my law school loans hit my Sallie Mae account, I knew this basic tenet of legal practice.

But I didn’t do it. I slipped one time. And now this.

I’m on ALA Council. It’s a pain and a lot of work, but I do it anyway because the American Library Association is a big opaque beast (though one that has shown it doesn’t care much about the marginalized) and those of us with anti-oppression principles and financial privilege need to do what we can. When the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom, which is led by a privileged white man, sent a draft of this interpretation out around May, I read it carefully and commented. I was frustrated that they were doing it. I knew it grew from misguided interpretations of the tiresome “Nazis in the library” question. The endless debate about free speech that is really by and for and about straight, cis, Christian, white men. But I was heartened to see comments and edits incorporated that seemed a reasonable (if not altogether desirable) compromise that most of us could live with.

The statement I read and commented on, all the way up until ALA Annual in late June, had no specific mention of hate speech or hate groups. It just reiterated that generally people can’t be turned away from public library spaces for their beliefs. And there was at least one line about none of this having anything to do with regulating behavior to maintain safety. I figured it was the best we could do. And I trusted that the document with the final resolved comments and edits would be the document I’d vote on during the hectic frenzy that is ALA Annual. I thought I’d done justice to my office as an ALA Councillor and to my status as an ALA member who cares about anti-oppression and who knows libraries are not now and never have been neutral. I thought I could trust my colleagues in the ALA OIF, though led by a privileged white man, to be upfront and honest and not make any additional changes to the document that had been vetted and commented and edited by the membership for close to two months. I thought that, at the very least, last minute changes wouldn’t take place during a historically poorly attended and poorly advertised side session of Council. I thought any changes that did take place would be highlighted right before the vote and opened for discussion as is usually the process. In short, I thought I could vote on the document during the ALA Council Session, which always runs at a frenetic pace, without having to re-read it.

I was wrong.

Oh, ancestors, I should have heeded your time-honored advice.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t take the time—even spoken up to stop Council proceedings (which we totally can do)—to re-read this document and notice the change. I’m sorry that I voted for a document (essentially signed my name to a document) that I wholeheartedly do not support and cannot endorse. I’m sorry that library workers, whether they’re ALA members or not, who count on me to represent them were failed in this way. I’m sorry I didn’t listen to my ancestors.

And I’m angry. I’m angry this new document was, I’m convinced, deliberately slipped past me and others who would have vehemently opposed it beforehand. I’m angry that my fellow socially conscious, anti-oppression Councillors—folks who are conscientious and thoughtful and who really care about this work—have been bending over backward to take responsibility and apologize and make things right while the bad-faith actors have glibly dismissed the concerns of their colleagues. I’m angry that other socially conscious, anti-oppression library workers who have already put in plenty of labor in this profession have had to step up to mobilize a response. I’m angry that it is again and always the women of color and white women, queer folks, non-binary folks, disabled folks stepping up to save this profession from itself.

During this same ALA Annual, ALA Council voted to pass a resolution honoring the African-Americans who fought against the segregation of public libraries during Jim Crow. Like the First Amendment guarantee of free speech, Jim Crow was also THE LAW. But these brave librarians put their bodies, lives, and livelihoods on the the line to fight for what they knew was right, regardless of what an unjust law said.

Though that’s all moot, because it is my expert legal opinion that ALA OIF purposefully mis- and over-interprets the law surrounding free speech. I just point it out because it is so typical of the hypocritical whiteness of the library profession.

Anyway, for those of you who want to help do something, several of our amazing colleagues have put together letter templates. Please continue to write and call. The folks of privilege and power in our profession have been trying to dismiss our response as “a few posts on Facebook,” but we won’t let them ignore us.

And as for me, I’ll know better than to trust my so-called colleagues over my ancestral wisdom. As Big always said, “Well, bought sense is better than told.”