Librarianship as Plantation

I was up late one night contemplating slavery (as one does, especially as a Black American), and it hit me:

The library profession is a plantation.

Black and white image of a large plantation house surrounded by Spanish moss and oak trees

“Goodwood Plantation, after remodeling: Tallahassee, Florida” via Florida Memory, Public Domain. This plantation is located in the hometown of my mother’s family going back several generations; its owners undoubtedly enslaved some of my maternal ancestors.

At the top, we have the white people, the masters and missuses, who own the profession like the landowners of old. These white, middle- and upper-class “gentry” stand at the top of the profession with a sense of ownership and entitlement that is deeply rooted in tradition, history, and privilege. No more how many of us “others” come in (people of color, poor people, both white and of color, etc.), the masters and missuses own and run this field we call our professional home.

Not unintentionally, there’s a gender element to this top echelon, too. The master is the ultimate owner of the domain, even when he may not be in the numerical majorityjust as white cis-men dominate the library and archival profession, in privilege, pay, power, and prestige, regardless of the feminization of the field.

Now well below the masters and missuses, there are those of us who have been fortunate and privileged enough to earn the professional degree and who have been allowed (not welcomed, mind you, but allowed) to serve in the manor house of the profession. We are the “house Negros”; we may advance fairly far and take on significant responsibility for the management of the manor; we have relatively close relationships with the masters and missuses; we’ve learned to assimilate enough to be allowed into the mastwrs’ and missuses’ rarefied space…And yet, should we ever attempt to see ourselves as equal to the owners of the plantation, we are very quickly put in our place. We are reminded that we don’t truly belong in the manor as other than “the help,” meant to serve the masters’ and missuses’ agenda for lip service diversity and feel-good neoliberal multiculturalism. But we aren’t meant to bring our true selves, our perspectives, our experiences, our feelings, and certainly not our critiques, into the sacred space of the owners’ house. And many of us often find our invitations to enter and serve are temporary and precarious: they’re happy to have us in a “special program” for a year or two, but we’re never meant to stay.

That’s bad enough, but this analogy is far from done. Outside the house is a massive complex of “field Negros” and “poor white trash,” on whose backs and labors the day-to-day work of the plantation progresses and flourishes. These folks are euphemistically termed “paraprofessionals,” while their time and experience in the profession is unerringly undervalued and unrecognized. Never are they welcome to enter the manor house: their role is to serve out in the fields of the field, their labor and experience kept at a careful distance from the tender sensibilities of the elite. And for those who wish to advance beyond their assigned “station”? Forget it. Again, one finds oneself quickly put back in one’s place.

Meanwhile, the lovely, lily-white, young ladies and gentlemen from neighboring plantations (other disciplines), with all the class and pedigree that is valued in our own manor (read: advanced degrees in those other fields), are welcome to move right into the “big house,” to learn and grow under the careful wings of the masters and missuses. These eligible gentlefolk leapfrog right over the folks in the field, the folks working in the house, to fast track on the path of future master- and missus-hood, thereby guaranteeing the continuation of the privileged and privileging status quo.

Yes, librarianship is a plantation. And if we truly value equity and inclusionif we truly wish to change the literal face of this professionthen we need to conscious and intentionally let go of this plantation mentality.

I want to extend a gracias de mi corazón to D.M. for helping me think through this blog post and for offering me una amistad that truly gives me life.

Have you learned from my work? Please consider making a contribution at PayPal.me/AtTheIntersection.

Value, Care Work, and Paypal

I’ve been reflecting a lot on care work. I’ve talked about the labor that comes from having to invest emotionally in your tasks and in others. And as a Black woman, I think a lot about the expectation of care work that comes from my gendered and racialized existence in this world. Those of us who are not white and cis-male are often looked upon to provide care to those around us, regardless of their relation to us. We are often the ones looked to to be “kind” and “nice” and “accommodating” to complete strangers or mere acquaintances, even when the circumstances don’t call for it. We’re expected to engage in the emotional labor of doing this work, without compensation or recognition, with a willing smile and heart.

We are expected to care and to work at that care for the benefit of others. We are expected to enjoy this and not burn out or get tired. And when we fail in any respect—through frustration or crankiness or not providing the care a person thought they deserved from us—we are quickly labeled as “angry” and “divisive” and “unprofessional.”

I enjoy the activist work and awareness-raising that I do, here on my blog, on Twitter, and elsewhere. I do it in part because I benefit from being able to walk through my journey and process my experiences in those spaces. Even when those spaces aren’t always safe for me or when it involves risk. And I love that so many others feel they can learn from me and grow. It gladdens me to see my work bearing fruit for others’ journeys.

And yet, sometimes value needs to be expressed as more than good feelings and an encouraging word. Sometimes care work just needs to be paid for.

So, I’ve started a Paypal.me for anyone interested in contributing to my work. I’m not putting any of my content behind a paywall, but I am asking that if you benefit from my work and are able, please drop in a contribution.

Let’s keep learning and growing together.

ALAMW: What Happened, and What Should Happen Next

**Update at the bottom of this post

TW: racist and misogynistic trauma

It seems I will never be able to attend an American Library Association meeting without encountering some kind of racist, sexist trauma. ALA just isn’t a safe space in our profession for me. And I’m not the only one.

During Council Forum, a small, informal discussion session for ALA Council and general ALA membership, a fellow councilor, a white man, verbally attacked me. He accused me of being a hypocrite, for doxxing people and making “racial innuendos” on my blog. He accused me of being uncivil and unprofessional (yes, he accused me of this in a tirade in a public forum amongst our colleagues). Then, he ended by claiming that I give him “nightmares.”

There were about 30 people sitting around witnessing this, including the Council facilitators; including some Councilors who have served repetitive terms for the last decade or more and are well-versed in how Forum should be conducted; including a couple of newly elected Executive Board members; including members of the Ethics Committee; including a slew of library professionals who tout our profession’s commitment to inclusivity and diversity.

No one said a thing.

There was an awkward pause and then business continued. Someone raised their hand to discuss other business. Someone else did the same. The meeting ended. No one said a word about the verbal attack just launched against me.

Me? I said nothing. I was struck dumb with fear. I have been attacked by white men just like this person through trolling and harassment in the past. These people have called and emailed me at work. They’ve called my library dean. They’ve called the president of my university. One even sent me a postcard full of vile language. Why? All because I speak up unabashedly against racism and systemic oppression. And now here I was living my own worst nightmare face-to-face in person. And no one was there to protect me.

Please note, I have never spoken directly to this person before. I know from debates on Council floor that we stand on opposite sides of many issues. But we have never interacted directly before the day he verbally attacked me. I have never said anything to or about him. I barely know him. There was no history between us. He came for me in a public space in a personal way out of the blue.

Immediately after the meeting ended, this person tried to approach me. While I was still terrified. I told him to stay away from me. To not speak to me. I told him he made me feel unsafe. Then, I ran to my room to curl into a ball and cry in terror. At some point, I realized I needed to report him. I saw what lack of support I received in the moment; I needed to report the incident and get it through official channels. I knew if I didn’t do it, no one else who was there would. I had my doubts, even about the official channels, but I wanted what happened to me on record. I tweeted about my experience, as well. I refused to be silent and let this slide.

The next morning, less than twenty-four hours after my traumatic experience, I received a call in my hotel room. I don’t know how they received my room number; that information is supposed to be confidential for all hotel guests. It was from someone named Paula from ALA who wished to meet with me at that moment to talk about what had happened. She said President-Elect Wanda Brown would be joining us. I thought they were following up on my incident report, so I gladly agreed, impressed that things were being handled so swiftly. Boy, was I naive and wrong.

It turns out Paula is the legal counsel for ALA. I don’t remember her identifying herself as such. As a lawyer myself, and one who has conducted these kind of conversations before, I feel like I would’ve made note and probably declined the meeting. I know from experience that when lawyers jump in early, it’s usually a matter of intimidation. I’ve done my fair share of that jumping.

In any event, she wanted to warn me about posting about my trauma in a public forum like Twitter in the event anything happened to my attacker and I “found myself liable.” “We’re just looking out for you and ALA,” she kept saying. She then turned to Wanda Brown and asked her to “take over from here.” Paula is white. Wanda is Black. And this meeting was not framed as an official response from the organization: there was no reference to the progress of my pending report; the current president was not present; and neither was the interim executive director. No, I was being handled by the company lawyer, and they’d brought a Black lady along to help out. I terminated the meeting in the midst of the lawyerly bullshit to inform Paula that as a lawyer I knew full well what they were trying to do. I made it clear in no uncertain terms that I would not be intimidated into silence, and with the most ridiculous, baseless claim of legal liability possible, no less (um, hello, First Amendment? you know, that constitutional right that we love to talk about so much in our profession?). I had exercised my constitutional right to speak of my personal trauma. I had not named names. I had not spoken of my attacker, really at all. The experience was mine, and I was sharing it. I also warned them that the real liability they faced was in not enforcing the ALA Conference Code of Conduct, leaving me in fear for my safety. I then threatened to contact my own attorney if need be, and left the room.

Keep in mind, this was less than twenty-four hours after I was verbally attacked in front a crowd of my colleagues. In less than a day, I had been publicly berated by an angry white man and then had the company lawyer sicced on me with the token Black woman in tow. And I still had one more Council session to attend.

To start the session, President Loida Garcia-Febo took a moment to acknowledge, without details, what had occurred. And some great allies proposed that Council take time out of the agenda to talk more broadly about the ways in which racism and white supremacy have been plaguing our profession, and thus, our professional gatherings. It turns out this ALA Midwinter was a doozy for people of color; several of us had to file reports on incidents of racist aggressions. You’d think, given ALA’s oft-repeated committed to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, that Council would jump at the chance to begin addressing these systemic issues. Those who proposed the discussion made clear they weren’t looking to dig into specific events; they wanted us to allow those events to spur a much-needed systemic conversation.

Whoo boy. What followed was about 15 minutes of gaslighting and victim-blaming that left me paralyzed in my seat. Several councilors, including some who were actually present at the time I was verbally attacked, made excuses for their silence, claiming they “didn’t know who was being referred to” and “didn’t know the history or background of the two individuals.” I don’t see how any of that mattered. What was done and said in that moment was completely unacceptable and a violation of the ALA Conference Code of Conduct. What is more, there is no history! I barely know this person. But even if there  were history, there was no excuse for that behavior and others’ complicit silence. None.

The discussion then devolved into a conversation about looking into “civility and professionalism.” But I could read the white supremacist undertones, same as they aways are. I know there are members of our profession—mostly white, though not all—who do not like me, do not like that I write and talk about race, do not like the direct and unapologetic way in which I call out systems of racial oppression. They find my work “divisive,” “uncivil,” and “unprofessional.” Some of them are leaders in our profession. Some of them were there sitting quietly as I was being harassed. When they talk about having conversations about “civility and professionalism,” they’re not talking about the inexcusable behavior that happened to me; they’re talking about tone-policing and silencing me. It’s a common tactic in white supremacy’s arsenal. But I won’t have it.

Council eventually voted to move on with regular business and leave the questions of systemic racial oppression in our field and our events where it always is, quietly hidden and not dealt with. I’ve returned home and finally feel a little of my sense of safety returning. Meanwhile, I continue to wait on real progress on my incident report.

In the meantime, I’ve had several people ask me what I want, and on the long flight home, I’ve had a chance to think about that.

  1. I want meaningful consequences enacted against the person who verbally attacked me, including barring his future participation in Council. What good is a Code of Conduct if it’s not enforced?
  2. I want ALA to apologize and acknowledge that what happened to me at Forum was unacceptable, not only a violation of the Code of Conduct on the part of my attacker, but also on the part of the members present who allowed it to happen without intervening.
  3. I want ALA to apologize and acknowledge that it was inappropriate for their lawyer to contact me the morning after my traumatic experience to attempt to intimidate me into silence (a lot of good that did; this is my longest blog post yet).
  4. Finally, I want ALA to set up town hall sessions with Council, the Executive Board, and the general membership to talk about the way white supremacy and racism has permeated our profession and our professional events. Like I said, I am not the only POC to have a traumatic racist experience during this and other conferences.

We deserve a better organization. We deserve a better profession. What happened to me and what happens to so many others cannot be allowed to continue.

********************************************

Update: After a bit of emailing back and forth with President Loida Garcia-Febo, the ALA Executive Board has released this statement. The initial draft did not include reference to my ambush meeting with the ALA attorney, and a nice, weak, sort-of apology has been added after my pushback. Also, the verbal attack is referred to as “the incident” and my attacker as the person “who instigated the incident.” Clearly, this response is not ideal, but I appreciate its release and the action items it includes.

Statement from the ALA Executive Board

 

We should not – and do not –accept harassment, bullying or discrimination of any kind in our profession or the work of our Association. These behaviors go against our values. Violations to our code of conduct will not be tolerated.

We established a code of conduct because we take the responsibility of being respectful to each other very seriously.

We send our sincere apologies to Councilor April Hathcock for what she went through at Council Forum, which is unacceptable and doesn’t align with our core values.

The ALA attorney and President-Elect met with Councilor April Hathcock in the Council meeting room shortly before Council III to share some nonpublic information about events after the incident in question. ALA leaders deeply regret any distress this caused; it was not intent of the attorney or ALA to threaten Ms. Hathcock in any way.

The Councilor who instigated the incident has resigned and the Executive Board has accepted his resignation.

We also offer our sincere apologies to members who also experienced violations of the code of conduct at the Midwinter meeting.

We want to recognize that this incident has caused a lot of hurt and we are working diligently to ensure that at all ALA events participants are – and feel – respected.

The Executive Board will form a working group to look at Council Forum and ways to make it a safer space up to its continued viability.

We will review the current code of conduct complaint process to make it stronger and more effective.

We will work on facilitated racial equity training for Annual Conference during Council 1; that training and the code of conduct will be built into Council Orientation moving forward.

In collaboration with the Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services, we will coordinate online and in-person resources on equity, diversity and inclusion for all members and for ALA staff members.

ALA and its Divisions have developed resources to embed principles of equity, diversity and inclusion in the work library workers do; see specifics for 2018 here. Last October during the 2018 Fall Executive Board Meeting, the Executive Board voted to affirm that ALA will apply a social justice framework to the ALA Strategic Directions for the next three-to-five years in the areas of Advocacy, Information Policy, Professional and Leadership Development, and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. We are building on the 2019 President’s Program about “White Fragility.”

This work can be messy, it takes time, but the Executive Board strives to create a better association every day. We ask for your collaboration to help us break through the systems of oppression and do the right thing at the right time, each time, as it should be done.

Of particular importance to me are the following plans:

  1. To convene a working group of the Executive Board to examine Council Forum and ways to make it a safer space;
  2. To review the current Conference Code of Conduct reporting process to make it “stronger and more effective”;
  3. To arrange for facilitated racial equity training for Annual Conference Council Session I and to build that training and the Code of Conduct into future Council Orientation sessions; and
  4. To coordinate with the Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services to provide online and in-person resources on equity, diversity, and inclusion. I’d like to note that I really, really appreciate the work of Jody Gray and the team at ODLOS. They do amazing work and help to move our profession and our professional organization forward in a huge way. However, this work is not their responsibility alone.

This experience has been truly awful. To have experienced that kind of personal attack and then to have so many colleagues attempt to turn the conversation into a discussion of “professionalism” and “civility” that aims to silence the work of POC rather than reprimanding those who attack us. It has been truly disheartening. But I am also glad to see this experience serving as an opportunity to move our profession and our professional organization forward. And I am so grateful for the overwhelming support I’ve seen from those aiming to make things better. Now it’s time for us to get to work. Let’s do it.

Why Don’t You Want to Keep Us?

I’ve been thinking about temporary job appointments and precarity, especially as it relates to people of color in the library profession:

Whenever this topic comes up, there are always some interesting discussions to help explain how and why things like diversity residencies and temporary jobs are okay. More than okay, beneficial to new career folks, even. They can provide experience with pay. They expose early career professionals to new and different types of work. They help to diversify the profession.

That last one is totally not true because our profession has been holding steady at 85+% white for the last several decades despite all the programs.

So my question—to all the folks who proudly tout these precarious temp appointments—is: Why? Why is it so important to have and maintain these precarious positions? Why are your institutions so excited to spend money year after year on a different set of POC to do the work that a more permanent staff member could do? Why are you so willing to welcome POC into your temp positions for a year or two or even four, but you don’t want to invest in keeping us for the long haul? Why do you parade us before your search committees, like many of our ancestors on the auction block, year after year after year for short-term appointments; yet fill your tenure-track lines and full-time, long-term positions with the same young, white, female faces? Why is it okay to help “diversify” the profession within your institution for a little while but not for the course of our careers?

Why don’t you want to keep us?

I’ve seen the job postings for many of your positions that you claim require “3-5 years of experience.” Hell, I’ve served on search committees for them. Very often, those jobs don’t require 3-5 years or even any experience. A talented and hardworking POC new to the profession could learn what they need to do within the context of your unique institution (that institutional learning curve is always significant no matter your experience). They could grow and develop; and likely, if it’s a good place that has shown its willingness to invest in their career, they’ll want to stay and grow and keep making it better. What’s more they’ll want to remain in the profession, instead of leaving feeling tired, microaggressed, and demoralized. You take on white people without the requisite experience and keep them and train them all the time. I’ve seen it. You could keep us. So why don’t you?

I’ll tell you. It’s because many of you and your institutions aren’t serious about diversifying the racial and ethnic homogeneity of our profession. You aren’t serious about dismantling whiteness in your institution and in our profession for good. You’re happy to have POC visit your institutional and professional neighborhoods, but you’re not ready to have us move in. You’re just not ready.

We, as a profession, need to be brutally honest about this. We need to stop dancing around these coy discussions about early career experience and shifting budgets and confront the true nature of these temporary solutions we uphold. The whiteness of our profession is a problem that is persistently and historically entrenched. We need to get to the root and develop persistent, permanent solutions.

Hiring us, supporting us, and keeping us isn’t the only answer. But it’s a good place to start.

Doctor Who and the #WhiteGaze

There may be some spoilers in the post. But it’s still probably important for you to read anyway. I’m just sayin.

I’m supposed to be relaxing, sitting on my couch, catching up on some Doctor Who (yay for a lady doctor!).

Instead, I’m sitting on my couch, coming down off a rage- and trauma-induced panic attack, writing on my blog.

The third episode of this latest season of Doctor Who is about Rosa Parks and the American South in the 1950s. Like, a time and place where my parents were born, where my grandparents and great-grandparents and many great-aunts and uncles lived and struggled under the menacing gaze of Jim Crow. Many of them made it out. Many more didn’t. In so many ways, it was a time that feels like foreshadowing of today with near-daily tales of Black death at the hands of a white government. For us, it’s guns. For them, it was mostly nooses. For us, it’s hashtags. For them, it was the obituary section of the local Black newspaper. But plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Thinking about this continuing racialized trauma affects me emotionally, spiritually, physically. Historical trauma is a real thing. Historical trauma that continues to translate itself into new forms and perpetuate itself in new violence is a real and terrible thing. The early days of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., the struggles of Rosa Parks, and Fannie Lou Hamer, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and my ancestors affects me. Their work means something to me. Particularly in this dumpster-fire, shit-pool of a world I live in now, I hold up the perseverance of those who came before me and it is sacred. It belongs to me and mine. It is not for casual consumption.

So that is why it enrages, infuriates, terrifies, traumatizes me to see that work and that struggle pranced about on screen for my fellow geeks, mostly white, to consume and enjoy. The only Black main character left on the show (after they killed his grandmother in the first freakin episode–spoiler alert) gets shuffled around 1950s Alabama by a nice white lady alien and an old white man like it’s just no big deal. He nearly gets strung up for trying to hand a white woman her dropped handkerchief. He nearly gets strung up again for sneaking into a whites only motel. He nearly gets strung up again for sitting in a whites-only restaurant. Each time blithely led there by the white characters who are able to roam freely through this Jim Crow world. (The Brown woman main character doesn’t suffer as much but does get a taste of life on this side of time and space: though she’s Southeast Asian, everyone keeps referring to her as Mexican…like it’s an insult.) The Black man has his very existence threatened again and again, and it’s nothing but collateral in the more important mission of maintaining control of the space-time continuum.

When the time travelers do encounter the eponymous star of the episode, the main focus is on the white characters running around town setting the stage just right so she can have her famous moment of resistance on the bus. Yes, she’s there as an important figure of history, but only provided the nice white lady alien and her old white man companion and their two coloreds can keep all surrounding events in line to allow Mrs. Parks to fulfill her historical role.

Rosa Parks is reduced to a character in a sci-fi show (Dr. King also makes a cameo), a modern-day Black man is tossed into the degradation of the Jim Crow South in the U.S., the struggles and heartbreaks of a people are paraded on the screen—all to entertain an audience. A white audience. Because the setting of the historical narrative, introduction of the characters, and insouciance with which the subject is dealt all suggest that it is the story of an “other” being told for the benefit of an audience that would otherwise have no connection.

It’s the white gaze at its very finest. And I am so not here for that.

So, I’ve quit that episode and I’ve pounded out my frustration on the keys of my laptop in this blog post and I’ll find some other way to relax tonight. But watching my history trotted out as fodder for an alien show? No fucking thank you.

Floetry: Them

“They weaponize their niceness,

I sit across from this beautiful Black sister

And know she ain’t said nothing but a word

Less than 3 hours later

My beautiful Latina sister says the same

Maybe not the same words

But it’s the same

They weaponize their niceness

They cry their tears

Wail about their good intentions

Bemoan our “bitchiness”

Decry our “divisiveness”

All while spitting on our truth

Stomping across that bridge called our backs

They spew their false claims of sisterhood

Believing even their own best lies

Ol’ boy said it best:

“Y’all helped right along with the heist;

Ya just didn’t like your cut”

And yet they are my allies

My comrades

My friends

I should be grateful

Or so they say

They weaponize their niceness

And I’m tired of getting shot

Dedicated with much love and respect to M.S., D.M., A.M.H.², and all the other WOC sitting in the crosshairs.

My Fire, This Time

I’m reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time finally for the first time.

It’s beautiful to see my reality reflected in someone else’s words, even over the distance of several decades. In some ways, it’s disheartening to see how little things have changed; but mostly it’s empowering, just as it’s always empowering to connect to the ancestors’ wisdom for how to make it through to another day of struggle.

photograph of a single candle flame up close

“Still” by roujo via Flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In his short book of two letters, Baldwin says some things that really sync with my current reflections on life in this white supremacist patriarchal world:

In a letter addressed to his nephew: There is no reason for you to try to become like white ppl & there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that THEY must accept YOU. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that YOU must accept THEM.

and

In a self-reflective letter: There appears to be a vast amount of confusion on this point, but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be ‘accepted’ by white ppl, still less loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet.

This makes me think about conversations I’ve had with family, friends, and allies lately. How I’ve grown past the point of wanting to bond with white people or even be a part of their world; how I’m now just struggling with them for the right to live my life, equitably, fairly, without their censure or policing or gaze. Free in my physical body. Free in my mind. Free in my spirit. To be my whole Black woman self.

It’s hard.

The thing is, it’s the so-called Nice White Folks™ who do the most damage, who stand most in the way of my freedom. Baldwin calls them “the innocents.” The ones who don’t believe they’re doing any harm, who hardily support “diversity” and “inclusion” and “multiculturalism.” As long as it doesn’t cost them anything. They’ll eat our food and learn a bit of our languages, steal our music and watch our tv shows, peer avidly into our lives as a form of “cross-cultural exchange” because doing so is free. They cede no power or privilege in treating us, the very real physical traumatized fact of us, as exotic anomalies for their amusement.

That makes me tired.

I’m tired of allies treating my presence, my very reality, as a problem that needs solving. As if I’m little more than part of a clogged pipeline that just needs a little adjustment over here, off to the side; again, not costing them anything. Sprinkle a little scholarship money here, a program there, some assimilation over here…it’ll all be fine; I just need to stop being “bitter” and “angry” and “divisive” and start being filled with gratitude for my generous white saviors. Who still have not been cost anything.

Yeah, well, I’m done with all that. I’m with Baldwin. Because ultimately it doesn’t matter if they like me or accept me or want me. It doesn’t matter if they understand me. I don’t have to continue squeezing the wholeness of my Black womanhood into tiny bite-sized, white-sized parcels that they can swallow. Because nothing will ever change that way. Nothing can ever change until they’re willing to accept the cost. There’s a price to be paid for the undoing of their privilege, for the dismantling of their so-called supremacy.

And how many of them are really ready to pay?

Building and Being Welcome

It’s that time again.

A new school year is beginning, and for those of us who work in academic libraries, it’s a time when our work ramps up. Students flood our campuses and library spaces; teaching faculty race to finalize syllabi and set up last-minute instruction sessions. New materials bound in awaiting processing for what will undoubtedly be heavy use throughout the year. It’s a fun time. And for those of us who work in this space, it’s a familiar time.

But it’s not familiar for everyone.

This morning—as I sauntered through the morass of humidity and the aroma of eau de garbage that is New York City in late August, sipping on my tall latte with almond milk and two pumps of vanilla syrup (sigh, yeah, I’m one of those)—a fellow Black woman stopped me in front of the library doors and hesitantly asked, “Excuse me, but where did you find a [insert name of big corporate coffee shop here]?” She seemed new to the campus and unsure. Even in the course of our brief interaction, I saw that she moved and spoke uncertainly, like she wasn’t sure if she was allowed to fully inhabit the space. I also noticed that she moved past several other people with similar cups but less melanin to approach me with her question. I gave her a giant smile and replied, “There’s one right on that corner. You’re almost there.” She grinned in relief and solidarity and made a beeline in the direction I pointed. She’d found a familiar face to guide her to what I’m sure was a familiar place.

Black and white photograph of Welcome sign

“welcome” by ☻☺ via Flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

As we’ve been gearing up for orientation and the start of classes on my campus, I’ve been reminded of how alienating our institutions can be for some and how important it is for us to do what we can to those folks know they belong. Institutions of higher education can be very white, male, ableist, colonial, classist, hetero- and gender-normative spaces, and for those who don’t inhabit those identities, they can feel like harsh, uninhabitable planets. We all put in a ton of labor in our jobs already, I know, but to the extent we can, we should each make an effort to seek out those most marginalized and carve out a place of welcome in these spaces in which we work.

We should also make sure we’re all sharing in this additional labor and not just relying on our colleagues from marginalized identities to do this work. There is a role that members of privileged groups can play in crafting welcoming spaces. Treat folks with dignity. Interrogate your biases. Don’t make assumptions. Look beyond and step beyond unspoken norms. Engage in microaffirmations—those small acts of encouragement and solidarity that show a marginalized person that you acknowledge and respect their belonging in the space. These things can seem minor, but to a new student, faculty, or staff member who already feels marginalized and out of place, they can make a world of difference.

I hope that woman found what she needed at the coffee shop. But more important, I hope she found welcome and belonging while in the library and that she continues to find welcome and belonging there and everywhere else she goes on campus.

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.

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.”