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.

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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?

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.”

 

selfie photo of April in large conference hall

To ALA and Beyond

I just got back from the 2018 American Library Association Annual Conference in New Orleans, and I actually feel invigorated.

selfie photo of April in large conference hall

Me, waiting excitedly to see First Lady Michelle Obama at ALA Annual 2018

And that’s saying something given how the U.S. Supreme Court just upheld the President’s ban of Muslim folks while he still orders the holding of thousands of children of color in cages.

Being invigorated this year is also huge because this time last year, after the 2017 ALA Annual in Chicago, I came back demoralized and exhausted by whiteness and then eventually harassed by white supremacist trolls.

But at this ALA, I made some changes. I took more breaks and surrounded myself with colleagues of color and allies. When I could, I took myself out of spaces and situations that felt tiring, leaving me more bandwidth for coping with the spaces and situations from which I couldn’t leave. My parents came for a day, and I soaked up some much-needed familial love. In short, I made my self-care a priority, and it paid off.

I also had the opportunity to present in two wonderful programs that really left me feeling encouraged, hopeful, and ready to keep doing the work.

April's conference badge with ribbons for Speaker, Spectrum Scholar, pronouns she/her/hers, Wakanda Research Library Staff, and Council

Obligatory badge pic

The first was a panel with Nicole Cooke, Miriam Sweeney, Cynthia Orozco, Stacy Collins, and Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez (in absentia) titled “Bullying, Trolling, Doxxing, Oh My! Protecting Our Advocacy and Public Discourse Around Diversity and Social Justice.” During the session, we each shared our stories of suffering extensive harassment online, by phone, and in the mail, from right-wing white supremacists angry about our public social justice work. We also talked extensively about the lack of meaningful (or any) support we received from our institutions and professional organizations, including ALA, and suggested better, more productive ways for providing support to harassed professionals. I shared my experiences after last year’s ALA, when I received hateful tweets, emails, and voicemails from white supremacist trolls about my post on race fatigue. I even had people calling my library and university administration about me. It was a devastatingly traumatic time, but I made it through with the support of my family and wonderful allies and friends, like the women with whom I had the pleasure of presenting. The room for our panel was packed, and we heard from several attendees who were eager to take the conversation further in developing plans to provide support for victims in the future. I was also delighted to learn more about Stacy’s Anti-Oppression LibGuide, an amazing resource for supporting folks from marginalized communities and educating potential allies.

My second session was a workshop I led on “Breaking Below the Surface of Racism, Whiteness, and Implicit Bias,”  which was part of the Association of College and Research Libraries series of programming. I figured we’d be sequestered in a tiny room and there’d be a small group of folks who are already heavily involved in this work. So I brought 40 or so handouts, thinking I was being optimistic.

Y’all.

The room was HUGE and packed. There were 500 attendees for my workshop. FIVE HUNDRED.

And we had a great time. There was a wide diversity of attendees, white and people of color, from all types of libraries (not just academic), from all different levels and ranks of work or management. Everyone was very engaged and eager to participate in the group and plenary discussions that I had arranged. After all, antiracist work is active and collaborative, so we put that into direct practice during the workshop. It was a room full of people willing to learn, teach, share, make mistakes, be corrected. There was an amazing collaborative, supportive energy flowing through those 500. And it was made even better given the fact that my parents were also in the room. What a beautiful, beautiful time. Ryan Randall got these community notes started and others filled in if you want to check them out.

So, it was a good conference for me, on the whole. Add on top of that getting to hear First Lady Michelle Obama dialogue with Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden and to hear actress extraordinaire Viola Davis speak, and I can’t help but to feel invigorated and surrounded in my Black girl magic.

Don’t get me wrong, our very white, cis-het, middle-class profession still has a ways to go. It wasn’t all roses. At our last session of ALA Council, many of my fellow cisgender and gender-conforming colleagues refused to be bold and stand with our genderqueer and trans colleagues on a resolution that would aim to have 100% of conference bathrooms be gender-inclusive. We ended up with a weak compromise that only calls for a “sufficient mix” of gender-inclusive and gender-specific bathrooms, a resolution that really changes nothing of the status quo. And what was more disheartening was hearing the arguments being made for “safety” and the “comfort” of the oppressive majority. It felt grossly familiar to stuff many have lived and the rest of us have read but in our history books. We need to do better.

We can do better. And I’m determined that we will. My ALA Council term ends next year, and I’ve already submitted my candidacy for another term. So, we’ll see.

But in the meantime, I’m taking this renewed energy I’ve got and pushing forward with the fight. To ALA and beyond!

black postcard with multicolored hand outlines in background titled "Pushing the Margins: Women of Color and Intersectionality in LIS," edited by Rose L. Chou and Annie Pho

I’m super excited about this new volume edited by Rose Chou and Annie Pho, Pushing the Margins: Women of Color and Intersectionality in LIS, coming this fall from Library Juice Press. Get one!

My Trauma is Not Your Thought Experiment: On Oppressive Empathy

When it comes to anti-oppression work, I have a problem with empathy. Or rather, I have problem with the ways in which people with privilege and power enact so-called empathy. The ways in which it always seems to demand a centering of their thoughts, feelings, emotions, and experiences in a narrative that otherwise should be about the trauma they enact, knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally, on the oppressed.

Here’s what I mean.

A couple months ago Zoé, a beautiful Black woman with a lot of powerful things to share, tweeted a story about having a conversation with another Black woman about racism in different national contexts. It was a life-giving session of shared truths and traumas, as often happens when women of color are blessed to be in honest communion with one another. After their trauma-baring and sharing talk, a white man sitting nearby turned to them to thank them for their words and to let them know that he had been listening and that, as a doctoral student studying issues of race, he now felt he had a lot of great material to think about for his dissertation.

Just like that, the experiences of these beautiful, powerful, oppressed-but-not-diminished had been reduced to fodder for yet another white penis-wielding Ph.D (as if there aren’t more than enough already). Their lived, embodied, emotionalized, spirit-driven experiences, their moment of sacred womanist communion, had been befouled by the soulless exploitation of the white male gaze.

And yet, this dood undoubtedly felt he was paying Zoé and her companion a compliment. Undoubtedly, he felt he was exercising the very epitome of racial and gendered empathy.

The very same day Zoé shared these tweets, I had my own run-in with what I’ll call oppressive empathy. I was attending a symposium on the use of archives in the sciences and one of the sessions was being led by a white woman from a medical archive. Let me begin by saying that this white woman was a very Nice White Lady™, and I bear her no ill-will. But she and some of the others in the group messed up, so I’m going to tell my story and share my truth nonetheless.

For this archival activity, we were asked to engage in a practice of historical empathy, a classroom-based thought experiment that has students conceptualize of a historical figure’s actions within the context of that figure’s imagined thoughts, values, and beliefs as demonstrated by evidence from the period. Walking into the activity, I was sincerely hoping that we’d be activating our historical empathy to connect with some otherwise erased or forgotten voice in historical medicine. After all, a major theme of the symposium had been to discuss archival silences in the sciences and methods for surfacing oppressed narratives.

However, for this activity, we were handed a copy of a speech given by a woman doctor at a professional conference for women doctors in 1910. The archivist had us read a portion of the speech about the latest advancements in medicine and public health, then she began to lead us in the thought experiment. We were asked to imagine that we were attendees at the conference and that we’d be having lunch with the speaker later in the day so we’d need to be familiar with her work.

At this point, even before the traumatizing portions of the activity, I already felt bothered and uncomfortable. Even though the portion of the speech was fairly innocuous, I suspected I knew where it was headed. Also, everyone else in the room was white and could readily imagine themselves as early 20th century doctors attending a professional conference, regardless of gender. I, on the other hand, struggled to see myself, as a Black woman, being permitted to earn a medical degree at the time, much less being welcomed by my white peers in a professional setting.

At this point, the archivist had us read the succeeding portion of the speech, and sure enough, I’d known exactly what was coming. The speech goes on to talk about the “purification of the race” against the “over-proliferation” of other races. Yep. I sat back, already feeling cut by the professional rehashing of my historical trauma in the presence of my white colleagues, when the archivist then asked us to imagine how we would broach conversation with the speaker during lunch. “Bear in mind that just calling her racist isn’t going to be very effective. So how can we connect with her by better understanding her current beliefs and values in context?” the archivist asked us.

What followed was essentially a discussion about reaching out to and empathizing with those who espouse hate-filled beliefs, values, and practices. My white colleagues eagerly embraced the experiment and conversation. In particular, they extolled the way the activity allowed them to disengage from their currently held beliefs and identities to reach out to someone across history. They also readily related the activity to learning to reach out to the many unabashedly parading their hate today. I sat back and disengaged; the emotional trauma of witnessing the historical violence that was enacted against people like me being treated as an academic activity was too much for me.

After the activity, I approached the archivist to suggest that she make space in future iterations of the activity for the identities and emotions of students not able to take a distanced, “objective” approach. I also encouraged her to include a practice of historical empathy for the victims of this doctor’s beliefs and values. We’d been asked to show empathy for this white woman whose professional work was based in white supremacy, oppression, and hate. But what about those she denigrated? What about those erased from her contemporary narrative? What about those doing work that spoke against this oppressive “product of the times”?

Black and white pencil sketch from an 1800s magazine showing a number of Hindi women sitting for a picture with two white men

These are the types of women doctors for whom I’d like to exercise historical empathy. “Women doctors being trained to care for women patients,” The Graphic 1887, Wikimedia Commons, PD

The ability to disconnect from this kind of oppressive history is a privilege. The ability to disconnect from your identity to engage with an oppressor is a privilege. The ability to disconnect from your emotions and values to engage with someone else’s hate is a privilege. And that privilege sits at the very crux of oppressive empathy.

My trauma is not your thought experiment. And if that’s what you need to exercise empathy, then perhaps you need to reexamine your anti-oppression praxis.

Coming Back Out of Africa

I’m sitting in the Heathrow airport on my way home from a week and a half spent in Malawi, in southeastern Africa. In the last half hour, I’ve seen more white people than I’d come across in the last ten days straight and my heart sinks within me.

Guess my “race vacation”–a key treatment for race fatigue–is over. It was magnificent while it lasted.

Photo of a sunrise from an airplane window

Sunrise during my flight from Johannesburg to London, April Hathcock, CC-BY-NC

It’s been over a decade since I last visited the African sub-continent, and I’d forgotten how essentially life-giving and invigorating and renewing it can be to spend time in a place where my Black body is the norm and not seen as an anomaly. To be somewhere where everywhere I look, I see faces that look like me and mine. Everyone I encounter could be an aunty or uncle or cousin. To be automatically greeted as a long-sought prodigal daughter with “Moni! Muli bwanji?” and to witness the confusion on the speaker’s face when I respond in English that I’m not Malawian and don’t speak any Chichewa. Even if I couldn’t always follow the conversation beyond a child-like greeting, it still filled my heart with joy to be approached right away as though I belonged. (And inevitably, Aunty So-and-So would eventually say, “Well! You must learn Chichewa for when you come back!” Not if but when.)

And yes, there were painful and frustrating parts, too. I was there visiting my sister and spent time with some of her muzungu (“white/foreigner”–I love that in Chichewa, the word for “white (as in race) is synonymous with the word for “foreigner” or “outsider”) global health colleagues. I witnessed the differences in the way she–as the only Black non-Malawian in the group–built relationships with the local folks, as compared to the ways in which her white colleagues approached the people, culture, and work. In other contexts, as well, I saw neo-colonialism and white supremacy rearing its ugly head time and again. But I also saw how my Malawian cousins rise above that oppression, took what they needed from the patronizing hands offering, and continued working with joy to build back their independence and self-sustaining strength. The colonizers might have thought they were calling the shots, but the Malawians were definitely getting their own brand of reparations for centuries of the rape, genocide, and enslavement of their people and their land.

But, like their cousins whose ancestors survived the Middle Passage and Reconstruction and Jim Crow–all of which are the direct predecessors to what we are now surviving in the police state and industrial prison complex–the Malawians are finding their own way to joy and fulfillment. We always have been a hearty people. That’s why our diaspora has lasted so long, reaching so far and wide.

So even as I sit in the business class lounge of the Heathrow airport (Look, my ancestors! No Middle Passage for this Nubian daughter. No sitting at the back of any transport. I ride up front with the massas and missuses; and their precious lily white young ladies have to address me as “Madam” and serve me tea!); even as I endure the scrutiny of the white gaze–always wondering if I know where I am, if I really belong–even with all of this, I sit quietly in my corner with a smile on my face and joy in my heart that can only come from knowing what it is to spend time in a place I can always call home.

Ndakondwera kukudziani, Malawi! Tionana. I’ll be back to see you soon.

Criticalizing Our Work: Timucua Language Collection

I came across this piece about a collection of Timucua language imprints that had been digitized by the New York Historical Society. It piqued my interest in particular because the Timucua were an indigenous nation in what is now known by us settlers as central Florida, my home.

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Title page from a Franciscan catechism written in Castellan and Timucua. Courtesy of the New York Historical Society.

The piece itself is interesting in that it talks about the historical and linguistic importance of these imprints—how they represent the only remaining evidence of a rich native language that is thought to be an isolate, i.e., a language not related to any other language. The piece traces the story of how these imprints came to be housed in New York and how they came to be digitized. All very neat stuff.

What the piece fails to acknowledge is the fact that the reason these imprints are the only things left of the Timucua language, and much of the culture, is because of the white European religious settlers who invaded the area. Indeed, this entire collection of imprints consists of Catholic religious documents that were created in both Spanish and Timucua in an undoubted attempt to force the Timucua to assimilate on pain of death. Nowhere in this piece are these historical facts laid bare. Nowhere is there a critical reflection on what it means that the only remaining evidence of a people’s language are translations of books representing the religion of their invaders and oppressors.

As information professionals—librarians, archivists, curators, digitizers, whatever—we have a responsibility to bring a critical lens to every instance of our work. We cannot erase difficult or oppressive histories from the materials we collect and preserve. We should not hide them. There is no neutrality in that kind of whitewashing of history, only more oppression.

I don’t fault the writer of this NYHS piece. They were just “doing their job” like so many of us do. But I do challenge this person and all of us to take more care in how we contextualize the materials we work with. Let us be careful not to perpetuate the oppressive power structures already represented in those materials. We can best do that by criticalizing our work whenever and wherever we can.

Learning Agency, Not Analytics

I’m sitting watching this Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) presentation about learning analytics, and I’m cringing throughout. It’s so corporatized, so capitalist, so reductive. In fact, one of the slides in this presentation showcases a Gartner Business Information graph that correlates the progression of analytics sophistication to business value. The presenters relate this progression to the kind of analytics that can and should happen in education to improve learning.

Graph showing Business Value on Y axis and Data Analytics Sophistication on X axis. Information optimization moves up the slope from Descriptive to Diagnostic to Predictive to Prescriptive analytics.

Screenshot of Gartner BI analytics graph from Oakleaf and Brown’s March 2017 CNI presentation on “Institutional Learning Analytics: How Can Academic Libraries Connect?”

When I watch presentations like this, about plugging business metrics and corporate assessment values into education, it makes me sick to my stomach. Have none of these folks opened a history book or taken a look at our socio-political present? Do you know who and what, throughout history, has gotten “analyzed” and “assessed” to “determine value”? Property. Animals. People considered property or animals. Indigenous people to this day are sorted and “analyzed” by colonizing governments based on the quanta of their blood, like purebred dogs or horses. Enslaved people were “assessed” by their physical characteristics and breeding capabilities (again like prize-winning animals); and today, their descendants continue to be monitored and analyzed by the violent police state. To think that we want to take this kind of legacy, these kind of tools, and use them on our students? Often without their knowledge or consent? Absolutely repulsive.

Granted, my disgust is nothing new or original. I followed the conversations several months ago when Zoe Fisher laid out the history of learning analytics and the growing resistance and critique against it. I read LibSkrat’s tweet thread about the absolute importance of protecting our students’ privacy and data. And I pored over Emily Drabinski’s blog post calling for us to do more than cry “Resistance!” but to actually formulate action to push back against the encroachment of the neoliberal corporatization of our work as academic librarians and higher education more broadly. I’ve been taking all this in and reflecting on what I think should change, how it should change.

Ideally, we should get rid of learning analytics altogether. It is a colonialist, slave-owning, corporatizing, capitalist practice that enacts violence, yes violence, against the sanctity of a learner’s privacy, body and mind. It is not in keeping with our professional values as librarians or educators. But, as Emily points out in her post, there are very powerful people in our institutions who are demanding that our learners be analyzed, that our value be quantified—even going so far as to insist that it’s all being done for our students’ own good. How can we keep our jobs so we can continue to dismantle the system from within, while making actual progress to protect the interests of our students, all in keeping with our values?

For me, I think the first step lies in providing students with that one thing that property, animals, and people treated as property and animals never get: AGENCY. Lisa Hinchliffe talked a bit about this during the big discussion months ago, though she focused mainly on students wanting to opt in. I’m not as interested in that because I think learning analytics is so pervasive, opting in just isn’t a problem. It’s like worrying that people with privilege won’t have space to exercise their privilege in the fight for equity. Just. Not. An. Issue.

No, instead, I’m talking about agency for learners who may not choose to participate in being analyzed, those who want to push back. You can’t object to something if you don’t know it’s happening to you. You also can’t object if you aren’t empowered to speak up. One of the things we can do for students is help enact their agency by educating them about what’s going on. Rather than continuing these conversations about learning analytics behind their backs, so to speak, let’s engage them in these discussions. Let them see the slide decks and presentations and analytic reports being crafted about their learning. Let them have access to all these data being gleaned from them, so often without their knowledge or consent.

Then, as we provide them the knowledge, let’s empower their agency by amplifying their responses to this knowledge. It could be a simple matter of collecting and reporting on student opinions about learning analytics practices and the way they affect their educational well-being. We could help arrange meetings for students with library and university administration to discuss their concerns or share their ideas about gathering their data. We could collaborate with students on research projects and presentations relating to learning analytics, instead of just reporting on them. Essentially, it’s the difference between exploiting a community to study and report on them versus collaborating with that community in studying their needs. It is the very essence of feminist research methods, rooted in an ethic of care, trust, and collaborative empowerment.

We still need to “reject metrics” and “reject learning analytics,” as Emily says. But as we engage in that resistance, let’s join forces with the students and researchers we both study and serve. Let’s empower agency in our communities and work with them to push back against the corporatization of our work and our values.

 

What’s Legal Is Not What’s Ethical

I’m at an archival tour for a health sciences special collection at an institution that will be unnamed, and I am extremely uncomfortable.

My group and I have been shown patient records for children and senior citizens and immigrants and transgender and intersex people from as recent the 1980s. Some of these people are still alive. I may have passed them on the street on my way in.

My group has heard a lot about how HIPAA is not being violated and how legal counsel has okayed this practice and that practice. We’ve been shown some signed forms. But I still feel incredibly gross about all this. It’s exploitative and wrong. It may be legal, but it’s certainly unethical.

Did these patients understand how their personal materials would be used? Did they know that in 2017, a group of scholars would be pawing through their procedure images and notes and photos? Are they okay with that? I don’t know the answer. I don’t think anyone knows. And that’s the problem.

I’ve talked about this before and others have talked about this, but I just had to share. I don’t have anything else to add really; just the same thing I’ve been repeating over and over:

WHAT IS LEGAL IS NOT WHAT IS ETHICAL AND VICE VERSA.

Please, fellow library and archive folks, let’s be more thoughtful, more critical about our work.

One of the only records I felt comfortable seeing and sharing. An autopsy report from 1918 during the flu epidemic.