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.

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How to Become White Famous

With Jamie Foxx’s new Showtime comedy series on tv this past fall, it’s got me thinking abut what it takes to become “white famous.” You know, when a person of color in the entertainment industry goes from just being known and celebrated by their communities to being super-famous and widely celebrated because white people “discovered” them. (It’s kind of like how Columbus discovered America. Actually, it’s just like that.)

There are so many examples of entertainers of color who have achieved white fame—Beyoncé, Jackie Chan, Jennifer Lopez, Jamie Foxx—I thought it’d be interesting to look at some common threads that pop up when entertainment by or about people of color suddenly makes it big among white folk.

So, here are a few tips on how to become white famous:

Tell a story about famous white people.

White people love nothing more than to read/watch/listen to stories about themselves. They love their accomplishments. And if you can manage to make their stories even cooler than they actually are, all the better. Ask Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of the musical Hamilton. He retold the story of one of the many white founding fathers in musical form with rap and R&B and presto! white people the world over lost their shit. Many of the rest of us knew Miranda from his show In the Heights—it also had rap and salsa and even some Spanish. But nah, that was about colored people living in a colored neighborhood; it wasn’t white famous material. When he tells the story of a famous white guy, he can even go so far as to remake the entire cast of characters with actors of color and white people still fall head over heels for it. (Well, not all of them. A group of white performers tried to sue the show’s producers early on for “discriminatory” casting.) The key, though, is that the entire story is about white people. (In fact, the only actual character of color in the show is Sally Hemings who makes a minute appearance during a Thomas Jefferson number at the beginning of the second act.)

Tell a story about white people being “reverse oppressed” by people color.

Not only do white people love reading/watching/listening to stories about themselves, they love reading/watching/listening to stories about themselves being “reverse oppressed” by people of color. It lets them cross their proverbial arms in self-satisfaction and say, “See, they don’t have it so bad. We don’t treat them any worse than they treat us. We all are hurt by racism.” Ask Kumail Nanjiani, the creator and star of The Big Sick. His film is about how he fell in love with a sick white woman and bonded with her family while his Pakistani family and community, in all their backward non-Western ignorance, refused to accept the interracial relationship. White people loved this film and are really mad that it wasn’t nominated for any Golden Globes. I mean, what’s not to love? It’s got ignorant, stereotypical brown people, with extra points for the overbearing maternal brown women characters. It’s got the innocent heart-rending love of a beautiful white woman, the prize of any brown heart. It’s got the kind, accepting, well-meaning, super-progressive white family full of support and racial utopian-kumabaya-why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along “color-blindness” (apologies for the ableist language here). My goodness, people, the white woman is sick! And the brown people are so unaccepting of her! The film is based on actual events, so it’s horrible that Nanjiani’s partner had to suffer so much with her health. Nevertheless, with the caricature brown folks and the up-play of white sympathy, it is a white person’s dream romantic comedy.

Tell a story about people of color being oppressed and then rescued by the timely arrival of a couple “white saviors.”

Yes, this is still a story about white people. Look, do you want to be white famous or not? But in this case, you can actually tell a bit of the story of race oppression. The only caveat is that you’ve got to include at least one, preferably a few, white saviors to rescue the poor oppressed people of color from their degradation. Some of the best examples of this aren’t actually created by people of color but they do feature people of color as the main characters and have helped catapult some of colored folks’ careers, so that’s something. Basically, take any slavery movie—Twelve Years a Slave, Django Unchained, whatever—make a spectacle of the real degradation and violence of slavery, then add a well-meaning, abolitionist Quaker or two and you’ve got yourself a white famous hit. It even works for other time periods. Like, The Help wouldn’t have been so white famous without the sweet Emma Stone character to help the help tell their stories. Oh, thank goodness for kind white women! Or in the modern-day tv show Longmire that centers on the story of a Wyoming sheriff who often leaves his jurisdiction in the white world to invade life on the local Crow and Cheyenne reservations and lay down the law in aid of the poor natives. What would we all do without a strong white man to take charge of us! White people love stories like this because they can completely ignore their complicity in the ways of the “bad whites” and only identify with the grace and goodness of the “good whites.” Every white spectator reads/watches/listens to these stories and immediately sees themselves as the Quaker, the sweet young journalist, the fair and impartial lawman. It’s a sure shot to white fame.

Finally, if all else fails, tell a story full of racist stereotypes…BUT dress it up as irony.

Nowadays, even in this political climate, white people know they shouldn’t say or do blatantly racist things. They know better. And even when they mess up, they know they can always rely on irony and high humor to save their white skins. But what they enjoy even more is when they’re given the opportunity to enjoy some good old-fashioned racist humor without feeling bad because hey! it’s ironic! There are just too many examples of this to even go through them all. Apu, the supposed South East Asian convenience store owner from The Simpsons. Anything starring Jackie Chan. Madea from practically all Tyler Perry movies. (I know what you’re going to say about that last one: Hey! April, I thought Black people loved Tyler Perry? How is that white famous or even racist? Please. We pretend to love Tyler Perry the way Black folks pretended to love shuck and jive minstrel shows back in the 1830s. That kind of unabashed coonery has always been and will always be for “massa’s” amusement.) White people know they shouldn’t sing the “We Are Siamese” song from Disney’s Lady and the Tramp or “What Makes the Red Man Red” from Peter Pan, by the same company (Disney has always been hella problematic, y’all), but they figure they can laugh all day as thick-accented Jackie Chan kung-fus his way through rush hour with loud-mouthed Chris Tucker cooning it up at his side. These caricature characters of color are no problem in the name of modern-day irony. And mega-bonus points if you can combine these racist stereotypes with white characters from other types of marginalized identities. So Gloria, the young, buxom, heavily accented, shrill, money-grubbing, violence-prone Colombian wife of a wealthy old white man is totally fine because she plays opposite the old white man’s gay son and his husband. It’s totally fine, everyone, they’re a Modern Family. Also, irony. Ha.

As you can see, it’s not too difficult to become white famous. The formulae are pretty clear. The challenge, though, is staying white famous. Thing is, you can’t stray too far from the scripts. Remember when Beyoncé dropped Lemonade and white people suddenly remembered she didn’t belong to them? Yeah. They didn’t like that much. Of course, Queen Bey had already built up so much white fame that it didn’t faze her profile at all. But still, entertainers of color walk a fine line and have to be careful. In any event, if you’re aiming for that grand prize of white recognition, I hope these tips help. And good luck. Remember, though, us folks of color still see and love you. No matter what.

Pipeline as Meat Grinder

I just got off a group videoconference with members of We Here, a collective of librarians of color who gather every month online to chat about issues related to being one of only a few in a profession that’s 88% white. As we were talking, the topic of diversity initiatives, recruitment, and retention came up (as it often does). I’ve written quite a bit about our profession’s diversity initiatives in the past, but in the course of this conversation, I had a new thought:

Me: Y’all. Listening to this conversation makes me think that the so-called pipeline, when it comes to diversity, isn’t a pipeline at all but is actual a meat grinder. *shudders*

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“Der Fleischwolf bei der Arbeit” which I’m pretty sure is German for “white supremacy meat grinder for diversity” (just kidding…a little); by Anfuehrer on Flickr.com, CC-BY-SA 2.0

It’s true. We take people from marginalized backgrounds and shove them into the meat grinder we call a pipeline. We churn them up in diversity residencies and diversity temp hires and diversity programs and diversity trainings. And then we spew out little white-sized (no, that’s not a typo) chunks for our organizations. We tell them to be people of color but not too much color. Be disabled but not too disabled. Be native but not too native. Be queer but not too queer. Be poor and working class but not too poor, not too working class. Just be a good little chunk with just enough quirk to make our organizational diversity look good.

Finally, we congratulate ourselves on how diverse we’re making our professional sausage, with no regard to the identities and backgrounds these folks held before they entered our grinding pipeline machine.

No wonder so many of our most talented leave the profession after a short while.

We assume that assimilating folks from marginalized backgrounds into our professional sausage is enough. We don’t work on our inclusionary practices or organizational cultures. We don’t work on providing systemic, long-term professional and personal development support. We don’t work on changing the ways we think about and treat people historically oppressed people in our workplaces. All of that is just way too hard. So meat grinder, it is.

I’m sick of the meat grinder mentality. We’ve got to do better. Many of us are starting to make those changes in our organizations from recruitment to staffing and leadership training. But we gotta do more. We’ve gotta do so much more.

That’s it. End of blog post. I’m not giving you any solutions here because quite frankly I (and many others) have done that already in other places. (Hello, click on all the links I put in this post for a start.) But also I’m not doing it because that’s not my job. This black woman is not here to save you. Save yourselves. Do the work. Go.

Hamilton and the White Gaze

After shelling out way too much on a ticket about a year ago, I finally went to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton last week. It was amazing, of course. And yet.

I have such conflicted feelings about the experience of sitting in an audience that looked like this:

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Tweet of emojis about what it felt like being the only POC in my section at Hamilton.

Here I was at a f-cking brilliant Broadway show that borrowed heavily from black musical traditions, written by a genius of a latinx man, with a cast full of people of color, and all of it, all of it, taking place under the laser focus of the ever-present white gaze.

Especially given the period-ness of the piece and the references to black enslavement, it made me think about how white slave owners, like Washington or Jefferson, used to make their enslaved folks perform songs and dance from their native traditions for the amusement of white folks on the plantation. Even today the white gaze voraciously lays claim to the cultural heritage of us “others”: white people designate their “spirit animals” as they sit back and listen to jazz, rock, or pop and contemplate checking out the latest film featuring ancient traditions from this or that culture that has been white-washed beyond recognition. Yet, for many, never once do they stop and reflect on the cultural appropriation taking place to make their chosen entertainment possible.

“It must be nice, it must be niiice…” to be able to use your gaze to claim ownership to the creations of others. To mark that territory as your own just as surely as your ancestors planted flags in inhabited lands and killed the native “scourge” in the names of their kings and queens.

All of this felt so real to me sitting there with all those white folks, watching this amazing show that showcased so much of what people of color bring to culture, and sensing that so much of that simply bounced off their privileged white bubbles. To my dismay, my seat-mates sat stone-faced while I rejoiced openly at all the sampling and references to music my people have created, most of which I recognized right away. (Except, good grief, I don’t know where I was when Biggie released the “Ten Crack Commandments” cuz I didn’t catch that one and my sis had to set me straight. Forgive me, y’all.) I cried “Amen!” when Jefferson got called out on his ownership of slaves and watched as the folks sitting next to me shifted uncomfortably in their seats. I hooted and whistled, much to the annoyance of those around me, when someone successfully spat a particular witty and fast-paced set of lyrics. I groaned out loud when a character said or did something stupid, thereby catching side-eye from those to my left and my right.

To them, I was disrupting their enjoyment of this show on the “Great White Way” (oh, so much loaded into that phrase)—this show that was their show, created for their amusement. Just made me shake my damn head.

I wish I had millions of dollars—with the gentrified ticket prices to this show, it would take that much at least—to buy up the Rodgers Theater and hand out tickets in my Harlem neighborhood (“Hey, neighbors! Did you know Hamilton lived right up the street? You can still visit his house. Also, this show is great!); “In the Heights” that Miranda has always called home; in Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy where Biggie grew up (well, what’s left of his neighborhood given the rampant gentrification of Brooklyn); in the Bronx where hip hop was born; throughout all the communities of color in this city that witnessed the actual events on which Hamilton is based. “Folks, come on in! Feel free to whoop and holler and dance! Make some noise! Enjoy! Relish in seeing folks who look like you on stage. Live the experience. See what it’s like to finally recognize yourself in the story of a Founding Father. Delight in this brilliant show. ‘History has its eye on you’…but maybe, just maybe, this can be a moment for you to enjoy outside the white gaze.”

Race Matters Unconference 2017

On Friday, March 10, my dear friend and colleague Davis Erin Anderson and I, along with a kick-ass group of committee members, hosted 75 library and information workers at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism for a series of conversations about race, racism, whiteness, white supremacy, and the library and information profession. It was a ton of work getting this event off the ground, and the irony was not lost on me that I, a woman of color, along with several other women of color on the committee, were putting in all this unpaid labor to help teach others about how and why race matters. But the day was an incredible one and proved to be well worth the effort.

The idea for the Race Matters Unconference was birthed after the 2016 LACUNY Institute on Race Matters: Libraries, Racism, and Antiracism. I was honored to be asked to deliver the morning talk at that event and thoroughly enjoyed the ensuing day full of open and honest conversations, workshops, learning, and listening. After the day, Chanitra Bishop, librarian at Hunter, gathered a few folks together to plan ways to keep the conversations going, and the idea for the unconference was born. While Chanitra had intervening commitments that kept her from being able to participate to the end, we are all grateful to her for getting this much-needed ball rolling.

Prior to the event, we asked attendees to read Asian-American studies scholar and librarian Todd Honma’s article “Trippin’ Over the Color Line: The Invisibility of Race in Library and Information Studies” and to watch legal scholar and black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw’s TEDtalk on “The Urgency of Intersectionality” (Crenshaw is the one who coined the term “intersectionality.”) We also offered discussion and reflection questions to get people ready to engage with these issues ahead of time. We were inviting people of all stripes to attend the unconference—from the antiracist veteran to the person new to talking and thinking about race—so our hope was that the pre-unconference resources would help set a bit of a baseline for engagement for the day.

We started the day of the unconference with a time of facilitated activity led by professional diversity facilitator S. Leigh Thompson. Leigh and his adorable 2-month old son braved the late-winter NYC snow and slush to come lead us in a series of exercises that forced us to confront the ways we internalize and systemize notions of racialized power and other forms of oppression. There was a lot of aha moments and laughter and reflective thinking, not to mention a lot of much-needed physical movement for a cold Friday morning. Even the security staff at the School of Journalism got in on the fun, offering thoughts and tips from the background.

With such a great opener, we were ready for a full day of discussion, tackling topics like unionizing, class, and race, library instruction and race, patrons and safe spaces, and a catch-all session on hot topics and emotional responses, during which we reflected on how these conversations and current events have been making us feel. You can catch all the notes from the various sessions in our open documents: Room 1, Room 2, Room 3, and Room 4.

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Session planning board from #RaceMatters17

Throughout the day we also had wall activities going where we asked attendees to share a story on a post-it about the moment they first realized and acknowledged their race and to share short descriptions of how they were feeling about the day thus far. Responses to the first ranged from “preschool” to “the day I moved to NYC.” Responses to the second included “excited” and “ready to learn.”

In the afternoon, we had a great panel discussion with Danilo Campos of GitHub and Jenn Baker from We Need Diverse Books. They talked about how issues of race and diversity play out in tech and publishing, respectively, two industries closely linked to libraries and information. It was such a pleasure to hear their personal stories and realize that this struggle that we’re in in libraryland is in many ways not unique.

Finally, we closed the day out with a moment of grateful reflection to honor the Delaware, Mohegan, and Poospatuck peoples, on whose stolen land we were meeting. And then we ended with an open mic session, during which attendees offered the “closing keynote” of the day, sharing reflections, questions, challenges, and next steps.

It was a beautiful, wonderful day and still only a single step in the full process of engaging in antiracist work in our profession. The hope is to keep these conversations going and to plan for another unconference in the next year. Davis and I need a break from co-chairing the efforts, but if you’re in the NYC area and want to get involved, please let us know! And wherever you are, think about setting up a space for these conversations in your own neck of the woods. Because in a profession that is 87% white, race definitely matters.

Just Make Stuff Accessible

I’m sure many of you have heard by now about UC Berkeley’s decision to remove tons of otherwise publicly available content because the Department of Justice recently found that its content did not meet minimum accessibility standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This very unadulterated ableist move on the part of UC Berkeley has been accompanied by equally unadulterated ableist responses:

Ugh. When the law requires you to delete a bunch of content from the public view just because a few people can’t access it, then the law must be pretty harsh, don’t you think?

This decision is rash and ridiculous. Also, the DOJ ruling is rash and ridiculous. Now, no one gets to access the content.

The ADA requirements are clearly too rigorous when even a place like UC Berkeley finds it too burdensome to comply.

Let me make something clear: UC Berkeley knew all along what it had to do to meet the requirements of the ADA. Anyone who creates online content knows about the section 508 ADA requirements and the more inclusive W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Transcripts for audio material. Decent closed captions for video material (no, the YouTube auto-captions aren’t sufficient; they suck). If you provide public web content and don’t know about these guidelines then you are doing it wrong. It’s like saying you specialize in providing web video content but then not knowing how to turn on a webcam. Nope.

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“Access” by Sarah Stewart, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

What I’m saying is this: UC Berkeley knew better. It just chose to ignore the law anyway. And now that it has been caught in its disregard for the protection of people with disabilities it has chosen to take the petulant toddler approach: if I can’t do it my own ableist way, then no one can play.

It is not the law that makes UC Berkeley’s compliance obligations overly burdensome. It is the fact that UC Berkeley has spent so much time producing content in blatant disregard of the law that now makes compliance so burdensome. Essentially, they’ve been ignoring the law for so long, that it will now cost them a lot of time and money to make things right. That’s not the law’s fault; that’s on them.

And what’s worse is I know for a fact that UC Berkeley is far from being the only institution out there in this situation. They may have been the speeding car that got pulled over by the cops, but they are far from the only or even most egregious offender. I’m certain there are other institutions out there that are blissfully ignoring ADA requirements, and the warnings of conscientious employees, in the hopes of never being called to task. I can only hope that those organizations take what is happening at Berkeley as a clear warning. And I applaud the National Association of the Deaf for pushing back on these forms of lazy ableism.

The fact is that ADA requirements actually fall way short of providing people with disabilities with adequate access to materials. So complying with those rules is, quite literally, the very least that an organization can do.

Let’s do better.

“There’s No # For That”

Yesterday I experienced an amazing moment of solidarity and activism with trusted, like-minded individuals who care deeply about fighting oppression in all its forms:

I shared a platter of barbecued meat with Chris Bourg, Eamon Tewell, Emily Drabinski, Zoe Fisher, Jessica Critten, and Angela Pashia. 

Oh, you thought I was going to talk about the #WomensMarch? We did that, too. We’re all in Atlanta for the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting, so we joined the rally and march in Atlanta–in John Lewis’ district no less. We even got to hear him speak. 

But truthfully, as fun as it was to see millions of people come out across the world in support of social justice–and against the current US administrarion and its campaign of hate–the fact is these marches were really about little more than–to use a white guy buzzword–optics. It looks good that more people showed up in DC to protest the new administration than showed up for the actual inauguration. It looks good for people who’ve been sitting on their privilege to get up and put on genitalia hats and demand justice. It looks good when people peacefully and cheerily take to the streets to do activism for a day. It all looks good. 

But as my wise friend Emily Drabinski pointed out yesterday while we’re ankle-deep in Georgia mud: “Activism isn’t sexy. There’s no hashtag for that.”

No, there is not. 

We slogged through mud for a couple hours for activism yesterday, but what about those of us who have been slogging through mud for years doing this work? People like my lunch companions who are my trusted comrades and allies in the struggle? I’m glad so many feel they’ve “woken up” in the last few months, but what about all of us who have been awake and working so long we’re weary with sleep deprivation?

Slogging through the Georgia mud

The truth is we can wear pink hats and carry funny signs all day but that won’t do anything to combat systemic oppression. Not while white women are policing the words and actions of women of color, and black women in particular, telling us to “stay on message” when we point out the complicity of white women in getting us to where we are now. Not while one of the biggest “intersectional” marches for social justice is yet predicated on an erasure of disabled people. Not while this “intersectional” action has become almost entirely centered on the cis-glorification of womanhood based on the possession of certain sex organs. Not while marchers take the time to divert to the sidelines to take pictures with and hug the police presence, stepping past “Black Lives Matter” signs to do so.   

Not while, standing in the Georgia mud as John Lewis speaks, my comrades and I look over to see a white woman holding a sign that reads: “John Lewis is my spirit animal.” Yup. 

So I’m going to stick with my takeaway of the great activist experience I had yesterday. That meat was delicious. (If you’re ever in Atlanta, check it out.) Our conversation, as is always the case with these folks and many others like them, was enlightening and inspiring. It was a space of safety and honesty and care. And meat. Lots of meat. 

There’s just no hashtag for that. 

F@ck you, ALA

After all we’ve heard and continue hearing about the current U.S. administration—the proof of known and encouraged Russian hacking of the election; the sexual assault admissions; the racism; the Islamophobia of planned Muslim registries and internment; the xenophobia of mass deportations; the racism; the sexism; the homophobia; the transphobia; the business conflicts; the nepotism; the proliferation of “fake news”; the parade of horribles filling the Senate, including union-busters, and known white supremacists, and whole-hearted misogynists—after all this, a representative from the American Libraries Association Washington Office sent this email to the ALA Council list:

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What. The. Actual. Literal. F@ck????

Here’s my response:

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You all may remember the bullsh!t collaborator statements that ALA administration released immediately after the election and the equally bullsh!t non-apology, non-response statement from ALA President Julie Todaro. Back when things were already horrible, but still more was to come. At the time, I didn’t say much because I was suffering post-election fatigue, but amazing people like my friend Emily Drabinski and the incredible Sarah Houghton made it very clear that this kind of fascist ass-kissing would not be tolerated.

ALA membership was livid about those statements, and we made our feelings very well known. We took to our listservs and social media and we made phone calls and sent direct emails to ALA board members and administrators. I thought we made clear how utterly unacceptable collaboration with this administration would be. That more was at stake then just the funding of libraries. That this administration was nothing like previous administrations.

I guess not.

The reality is, and has always been, that ALA does not care about its members or their communities. ALA does not care about our code of ethics or core professional values. ALA talks about it a lot, but ALA does not care about diversity and inclusion and justice. Not really. ALA cares only about its bottom line: funding libraries.

Which is fine in and of itself. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to fund libraries. We all do. But nothing exists in a vacuum and context is everything. The truth is ALA will gladly sell out its members and their communities for this bottom line. It will collude with hate-filled fascists. It will trample all over its values. It will spit in the faces of the marginalized. All in a hot Washington Office minute.

This email from ALA, and the attitude behind it, is a slap in the face to all its members, regardless of their political leanings. And to those members and communities already the targets of oppression, it is a punch in the face. With knuckledusters.

My ALA does not collude with fascists. My ALA does not normalize hate. My ALA does not sell me and mine on the auction block to the highest bidder for a few bucks to fund a library. This is not my ALA.

F@ck this ALA.

Performing Whiteness with “Little Black Tombo”

This past summer I read Lois Benjamin’s book The Black Elite (check out my Recommended Reading list) and in it she quotes a story written by Arthur Hoppe, a white columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. The story was published in 1968 in the midst of the black civil rights movement.

In the story of “Little Black Tombo,” the title character, an enslaved boy, wants “to be free, to be equal and to be a man.” So a group of characters known as “some Nice White People” set out to help Tombo achieve his goals. First, they change the laws and offer him freedom from slavery. But Tombo still doesn’t feel equal to them. Then, they help him secure an education. To no avail, though with education, Tombo decides to change his name to “Tom.” Then, they change the laws to allow Tom to purchase a home in their neighborhoods. That still doesn’t work. And so, they conclude,

“The problem,” said some Nice White People, “is sociological. You must dress like us, talk like us, and think like us. Then, obviously, you will be equal to us.”

Tom does all this, and while he is never accepted as an equal of the Nice White People, he does get invited to their cocktail parties and asked to share his opinion “but only about racial matters” as the story goes.

Reading through this story made me think about the work I’ve been doing in examining the ways in which people of color perform whiteness in order to gain and maintain privilege in our society. When I wrote my article on whiteness for ITLWTLP, I was saddened by the number of POC, most of whom enjoying some privilege or other, who responded so defensively to the idea that performing whiteness is a natural part of our defense in a racially-charged world. They wanted to believe that their ability to enjoy the fruits of their hard work and boot-strap-pulling was solely a matter of their own innate, racially neutral, color-blind efforts.

And I get that. I used to feel the same way. But the fact is that, like Little Black Tombo, we all reach the point in this white supremacist world when we realize we have to be a person of color-but-not-too-much-color in order to get ahead. We have our own well-intentioned, liberal-leaning, self-proclaimed allies of Nice White People subtly encouraging us to “dress like [them], talk like [them], and think like [them].” And when it’s necessary, we do just that.

There’s nothing wrong with being a POC performing whiteness for self-preservation. At least, there’s nothing wrong in the sense of self-blame or shame for POC. We live in the world of white supremacy, and we do what we must to survive. In the black community, we are often taught the importance of wearing “The Mask” to get in the door and up the ladder, so that once we’re there, we can change things up and make things better for everyone else.

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“Vergessen” by Rubina V. via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

And that’s the key. We perform whiteness without shame because we’re answering to a higher calling, if you will; we’re doing so for reasons that reach beyond ourselves. It’s one of many strategies in our mission to force change in our white supremacist world. So, while I perform whiteness without shame to move up in the world, as I move to each new level, I also shout out against the white supremacy that requires my performance in the first place. It’s a multi-level approach in my radicalism. Each level I clear, I strive to make less racist for the next person coming through in the hope that the need for performing whiteness can be done away with altogether.

One last note: It’s important to realize that performing whiteness and having privilege are not the same. We, as POC, can have privilege on our own merit. We’re smart and charismatic and talented and brilliant people. We don’t have to be white for that. But in some cases, in far too many cases, we have to perform whiteness in order to have our smarts, charisma, talent, and brilliance fully recognized. We can work hard and gain privilege, be it financial or educational or something else. But more often than not, we have to perform whiteness successfully to be able to enjoy the fruits of that hard-won privilege.

So, we do. For now. But the struggle continues and the struggle is real. And with the way things have been going lately, they’re probably only going to get worse before they get better.

By the way, in the end of the story, Tom changes his name to “Tombo X,” grows a beard, wears dark glasses, and shouts, “Black is beautiful” before hitting a couple of the Nice White People over the head. When they complain with “deeply hurt” white feelings, the response goes,

“It’s funny,” said Tombo X, smiling, “but at last I feel like a man.”

 

That’s What I Know

Whenever my sibs and I say something obvious that my parents have been telling us for ages, my dad always gives the same reply,

That’s what I know.

His people are Gullah and I’m sure this is an English translation of a phrase the old folks used to say. 

Me: “Daddy, I just realized you were right about [something he and my mom have always known and said]!”

Daddy: “Hmph. That’s what I know.”

Pretty much everything that’s been happening after the election–the open spewing of hate, the resulting shock of people of privilege who had no idea all this was happening all along, the pleas from misguided peace seekers that we “all set aside our differences” and “try to find common ground”–it all has me repeating my dad’s words: That’s what I know. 

Those of us from marginalized communities, particularly people of color, especially, particularly women of color, have known about all this all along. We’ve known about the hate. We’ve known that it doesn’t just or even mostly live with the poor or uneducated; but it lives just as comfortably among the well-to-do and multi-degreed. We’ve known that there are otherwise perfectly “nice, decent” people who are willing to scream racial slurs at us on the street. Or paint swastikas on doors. Or deface places of daily prayer. We’ve known that the hate of the new administration’s supporters didn’t begin and so will not end with the new administration. 

We’ve known this oppression all along. We’ve suffered under it. And we’ve been saying it. Our parents and ancestors were saying it for centuries before us. We said it before the election. We’re saying it now. We’ll keep saying it. 

I understand that for some of you, this is your first time hearing and realizing. And that’s fine. Privilege can make things a bit hazy. You don’t know what you don’t know until you do know. 

But as you realize, you need to also acknowledge that what’s new to you is not new to everyone. In fact, it’s not new at all. It’s been here. It’s been around. It existed before your awakening. And it will continue to exist even after many of you forget. Or grow bored. Or move on. Because some of you will. You’ll sink back into the haze of your privilege and leave the rest of us to continue fighting. It’s harsh to hear, I’m sure, but that makes it no less true. 

For the rest of you committed to joining the fight to the end, welcome. You’ve got a lot of catching up to do. But we need you. This struggle is ugly, believe us. 

That’s what we know.