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.

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.

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.

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.