Grit? Git!

I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience lately.

Angela Galvan, Jacob Berg, and Eamon Tewell gave a fantastic presentation on the myth of resilience and grit in academic libraries at the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) conference in Baltimore earlier this year. While I wasn’t able to attend because (of course) the conference gods had scheduled one of my panels at the same time, afterward, I dove into their presentation, handout, and the related tweets with gusto. I sincerely hope Angela, Jacob, and Eamon take their work further because it’s really important stuff. They talk about how the myth of resilience reifies oppression and maintains the status quo. How grit is an excuse for the haves to continue having and the have-nots to continue without.

Now, the ACRL President’s Program is planning a program on “resilience (hopefully) in all its complexity” for the American Library Association (ALA) Annual meeting next year. They’ve asked for people to share (for free) their ideas about resilience so that the speakers (not yet identified) can use those ideas as the basis for their talks (likely without attribution as the originating comments are to be anonymized). In other words, ACRL wants us to show resilience by pouring out our gritty souls as fuel for what promises to be an interesting program.

Yesterday at the Untold Histories unconference, I sat in on a session about creating a diversity pipeline for the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) professions. We’d hardly gotten settled in our seats when the conversation quickly turned to the abysmally low pay commonly found in our professions, even when they require graduate-level degrees. As one participant put it, “I feel a little guilty encouraging people from underrepresented groups to enter this profession when I know they’re going to be paid so little for so much work.” In other words, they’ll be expected to spend the rest of their professional lives wallowing in grit and resilience.

All of this thinking has made me reach a conclusion: Our profession’s obsession with resilience plays a huge part in destroying our attempts at increasing diversity. I am convinced that a big reason why we’re still 87% white is because we are obsessed with grit. Grit keeps our libraries underfunded, our staff underpaid, our work undervalued. We wear our grit like medals of honor when it’s that same grit that keeps us mired in the status quo.

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“Grit” by Al Greer via Flickr.com, CC BY-NC 2.0

Grit is the magical fairy dust that makes “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” physically possible. Normally, that phrase, so common among those with privilege, is nonsensical. (No, really, it can’t be done.) But when you sprinkle on a bit of grit, all of a sudden, the hapless pickaninny floats up from his place in the dust and accomplishes the incredible. All without touching the much-protected privilege of the master in power. Resilience absolves those with privilege of the responsibility for dismantling oppression and erecting systems of equity. Resilience is the wheel that keeps the myth of meritocracy grinding.

And we, in the library, profession love it. We’re obsessed with it. We love our tales of the library staff who kept the place open after-hours, without pay, for the sake of the community. The library folks who continued to provide the same level of services even when their budgets had been slashed in half. We proudly share our job postings calling for a library unicorn with an MLIS, a second masters, and the ability to do the job of five people while being paid the salary of three-fifths of a person (that age-old fraction always at play). We shove our graduate students into unpaid internships where they pay tuition for the pleasure of handing out their free labor, and we tout their resilience for the sake of gaining “valuable” experience. We love grit.

And we are steadily choking to death on it.

If we truly want to diversify our profession, we MUST give up our obsession with resilience. We must give up our never-ending dreams of grit. As Angela, Jacob, and Eamon note in their work, we have to accept the possibility of failure. Services may (will) be cut. Libraries may (will) close. It’s tragic. But it’s happening anyway, even with our grit. We can’t continue to try to make do with nothing. Our resilience is doing us no favors. It isn’t the life raft sent to save us; it’s just extra weight dragging us down.

Let’s give up resilience and grit and follow in the steps of Christina Bell, that beautiful creature:

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Screenshot of tweet by @librarybell

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.

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.”

 

Making the Local Global: The Colonialism of Scholarly Communication

Last week, I was invited to participate in a meeting of the Force11 Scholarly Commons Working Group in San Diego, California, U.S.A. The group, consisting of a mix of researchers, librarians, publishers, and other stakeholders has been using grant funds to examine what it would look like to build a commons centered on open scholarship. During a previous meeting in Madrid, Spain, the group put together a set of 18 principles that would guide participation in the scholarly commons. This current workshop was meant as a time to reflect on and validate the application of those principles.

I really don’t have much to say about the principles. As several of my fellow librarian colleagues pointed out at the meeting, we tend to participate in conversations like this all the time and always with very similar results. The principles are fine, but to me, they’re nothing new or radical. They’re the same things we’ve been talking about for ages.

What I found more interesting about this meeting, on the other hand, was the way in which the conversation was structured and the power and space differentials between and among those with privilege and power and those without.

This scholarly communication conversation, like virtually all other scholarly communication conversations, was centered around, directed by, and saturated in the values and ideals of the white North American and Western European, neoliberal researcher. While there were several people present from other knowledge traditions—and the group leaders congratulated themselves again and again during the course of the meeting on the “diversity of voices” at the table—it was, realistically and at its heart, a Western scholarly communication conversation. There was a lot of talk about building a “global” scholarly commons, but essentially this commons was being built by and for the global north.

Which is hugely interesting because the idea of “commoning,” while initially described in terms of white colonial settler culture, actually has its roots in indigenous and native notions of shared, community- and value-based livelihood and provision of needs. A commons is meant to be the antithesis of colonialism, neoliberalism, and capitalism.

Yet, this scholarly communication meeting, like so many others, paid lip service to plurality and global contexts—indeed, to the heart of commoning—while functioning very much like a typical colonial endeavor.

For example, since the organizers recognized that there were those who wished to discuss other issues than what was on the main agenda, they set up space for an “unconference” for people to leave the room and congregate around these fringe topics. Wouldn’t you know, one of those “fringe” topics turned out to be a discussion, proposed by a colleague from India, of how scholarly commons could meaningfully be built by and for researchers in the global south? When it came time to begin our “unconference” discussion, more than half of the attendees left the main room, including all of the attendees from the global south and virtually all of the attendees of color. Clearly this was an important issue up for discussion, one that the majority of the attendees wished to see addressed. But because it was not a priority for the white, colonial scholarly commons agenda, it was relegated, literally and physically, to the margins, ghettoized from the main discourse.

I’m glad I was able to attend the discussion, though, because I learned so much about the ways in which scholarly communication works in the developing world.

For one, I learned from my Latin American colleagues that they are essentially forced to cite North American or Western European researchers in all their work in order to get published, even if/when they have fellow Latin American colleagues whose work is more on point.

From my colleague from India, I learned that researchers must do all they can to publish in the big name Western journals if they wish to maintain their careers; the concept of authors rights and open access advocacy have little place when researchers are literally fighting to survive in the field.

From my colleague from Egypt—who took a 5-hour bus ride, waited at the airport for 7 hours for their flight, and took 4 flights to get to the workshop in the U.S.—I learned that the term “open access” has no direct translation in Arabic and that the concept varies depending on culture and country.

In all, my colleagues from other parts of the world taught me that the Western neoliberal research institution is alive and well and fully colonized across the globe. We’ve taken our diseased local system of scholarly communication and made it global. And we’re attempting to make changes to that system by engaging in the same colonial practices.

If we truly wish to transform scholarly communication on a global scale, then we need to be open and honest about what that entails. As much as we declare the importance of openness and transparency for our research, we should be doing the same in our scholarly communication discourse. The conversation needs to be an actual conversation and not a one-way soliloquy from the global north that gets imported colonial-style to the global south. There needs to be a dialogue, real dialogue, that decenters white North American and Western European values and knowledge creation. Those of us from the global north need to acknowledge the harm our neoliberal colonizing has done to scholarship around the world and take responsibility. Then, we need to step back and listen.

Maybe instead of always having these kind of meetings in places like Madrid or San Diego, let’s schedule events in Dhaka or Lilongwe. (Don’t know where those places are? Well, that’s part of the problem. Look it up!) Let’s truly transform and radicalize scholarly communication by decolonizing these conversations.

One great takeaway that came from this “unconference” discussion was that a group of us are going to apply to Force11 to start a working group to examine ways of building real and meaningful inclusivity to these broad-based scholarly communication discussions. Our goal will be to craft a checklist or set of guidelines for organizers to consider in everything from convening their steering committees to selecting a meeting location.

It is possible to disrupt the way these conversations tend to take place, but it will take intentional, thoughtful, and critical work.

More Thoughts on Diversity Initiatives in LIS

The National Diversity in Libraries conference has been over for almost two weeks, but I’m still reflecting on all I encountered there. What a great time.

Right now, I’ve been thinking about some conversations and presentations that arose as a response to my article in In The Library With the Lead Pipe on diversity initiatives in LIS. During our panel on “Recruiting and Retaining a Diverse Workforce,” Mark Puente pushed back on my assertion that diversity initiatives have been largely unsuccessful in increasing the numbers of librarians of color, noting that to date ARL programs have helped over 440 underrepresented librarians in entering the workforce. He also talked a bit about the intangible benefits these programs have provided for librarians from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups: Being a part of a program cohort provides many opportunities for peer and informal mentoring and networking, which is vital for librarians of color who very often end up working isolated in a profession that is 97% white.

In their poster session “Beyond Diversity ARL Initiatives: Peer Mentoring,”Genevia Chamblee-Smith and Christian Minter also picked up on this thread, detailing their in-depth focus group/interview research with current and former program participants on their experiences with peer mentoring as a result of participation in these programs. As a former participant in an LIS diversity program myself (2012 Spectrum), I can attest to the importance of these networking and mentoring opportunities.

Ultimately, we all agreed that more can and should be done to increase both recruitment and retention of underrepresented groups in our profession. But for Puente, Chamblee-Smith, Minter, and others, it was also important to note the successes, however intangible they might seem.

I agree. But. But. The conversations also got me thinking. Because throughout the conference—and indeed this happens at any library conference whenever I attend sessions that focus on how program participants feel about their diversity initiatives—I noticed one glaring fact: Many, many, many of these participants are repeat participants. It is more than common to have someone begin a panel discussion on diversity initiatives by saying, “Hi, I’m a 2012 Spectrum Scholar, and I participated in the Mosaic, IRDW, and CEP programs.”

Don’t get me wrong. That’s great. I’m glad people are taking advantage of and enjoying these programs. But it also makes me wonder, of the 440 participants that have come through, how many are actually unique participants of a diversity program? For every repeat participant, how many folks didn’t/couldn’t participate because they were unable to meet the application requirements that are, as I argue in my article, rooted in our system of whiteness and false meritocracy?

And when it comes to the mentoring and networking opportunities—again, who’s missing out? Which of our could-be colleagues, who are otherwise perfectly qualified to do the work of librarians, are missing out on these opportunities to learn and connect because they were unable to get transcripts in on time? Or couldn’t come up with a professor with whom they were close enough to get a recommendation?

The fact is, once you participate in one of these programs, you become exponentially more adept at successfully applying for and entering any of the other programs. You’re in a unique position to leverage your peer mentoring and networks to put forward a stellar application for any number of other opportunities. And there’s nothing wrong with doing that. More power to those folks. But we still have to ask about who’s missing out.

So, those are my thoughts. A quick note to close out, though. As I said during our panel discussion and several times after publishing my article, none of my thoughts are a critique of the incredible work done by the inimitable Mark Puente. To the extent anyone reads critique of diversity initiatives as a direct critique of Mark, well, you’re demonstrating our problem right there. Improving diversity in our profession should not and cannot be the job of one lonely man of color. That’s ludicrous. These critiques are meant for us all. They are meant for all of our initiatives: the ones put forward by our national organizations, but also the ones cooked up in our local institutions.

We should all be asking that essential question: Who is being left out? And then, we need to work together to make things better.

Look It Up *Wavy Hand Emoji*

My mother is an educator by trade. And my father believes in doing your own hard work. Put the two together and often when we had questions about stuff growing up, our parents encouraged us to seek out the answers on our own. Not that they wouldn’t help us tackle difficult questions, but they also saw the importance in teaching us how to find the answers we sought. Teach a kid to fish and all that.

Nowadays, as “grown-@ss people” (Mama Hathcock, 2016), my parents don’t even try to be gentle about it anymore. In fact, a common meme in our family is an image of Mama waving her perfectly-manicured hand back and forth in a dismissive wave and saying, “Look it up. I’m done.”

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Waving Hand Emoji from Mihika P. on Google+

Last week, I went to NDLC and spoke a couple times. It was a wonderful conference, and I had a great time; but there did seem to be a common theme that kept surfacing: The fatigue of those from marginalized identities as a result of constantly being expected to educate those with privilege. As a fellow black woman said during dinner one evening, “I’m just tired.”

The fact is there are simply too many situations that spring up in our institutions/organizations/conferences that look like this:

Nonindigenous person: Please, teach me about the effects of colonialism. Like, what’s the deal with that Dakota pipeline?

Indigenous person dragging self up through pain and degradation from modern effects of historical trauma and continuing settler violence: Uh, ok, sure. I mean, there’s all kinds of information on the internet about it. And I’m kinda busy fighting against the day-to-day marginalization of my people in a world that thinks we’re all just characters in some racist cartoon, but by all means, let me take some time and energy to educate you…

 

Cisgender person: Gee, why’s everyone talking about bathrooms all of a sudden? Can you fill me in on why this so important?

Genderqueer person tightly and painfully holding on to bladder muscles because they don’t feel safe enough to risk being gender policed in the binary restrooms, which are the only facilities available: Ummmmm, ok. I’m in physical pain and discomfort right now because there’s nowhere safe for me to go engage in basic human bodily functions, but sure, let me just take a moment and educate you on why my physical existence matters…

 

White person: People of color are are always talking about racism and how they’re offended by stuff. But isn’t there a limit to how racist something can be? Like, explain to me how and why exactly you get to decide? I’m really asking ‘cuz I wanna learn.

Black person closing up news app after reading about yet another unarmed black person shot by police for no other reason than they were black and thinking fearfully about their own lives and the lives of their friends and families: Uh, have you been watching the news? I’m really scared for my physical safety right now; it’s like people who look like me are being hunted down by the state on a daily basis. But, sure, let me put those things aside to teach you a few things…

 

Able-bodied person: Why are disability politics a thing? When you think about it, aren’t we all disabled in some way?

Person with a disability who has just spent virtually every waking minute of the day trying to navigate a world that has made pretty much zero attempt at accommodating their needs while privileged others whiz through without a second thought: Riiiiight, I’m really exhausted from just trying to live in this world, but uh, let me gather some of my remaining spoons to educate you on why my life matters…

There are so many other examples I could name, but I’m sure you get the point. These conversations are annoying and exhausting and we need to do something about them.

What can we do? Well, if you’re someone with privilege who is really looking to learn, follow my Mama’s advice and “Look it up.” It’s really not hard. The hard part is actually doing something about what you learn. Making real change in the way you relate to marginalized people in your world.

Which leads to the other thing people with privilege can do: Be a good ally and offer to take on these 101 lessons. Give marginalized folks a break and educate your fellow people of privilege. Pull them aside and offer to explain the basics so already exhausted marginalized folks don’t have to. That is a huge help.

Let’s make a point of remembering that people from marginalized identities aren’t here for our education or edification. They are not responsible for helping us to learn. Learning is our own responsibility as “grown-@ss people.” So, if we’ve got a question and want to fill in our gaps, let’s just take the time to “look it up.”

 

A Lot’s In a Name, Romeo

I’m sitting in my office diving into Hope Olson’s “The Power to Name: Representation in Library Catalogs” and thinking about the power of naming.

Yesterday, I taught a pre-college library instruction course to a group of students entering their freshmen year in the fall. They’ve gotten a jump-start on their studies over the summer to help with the transition. All of these students in my class were students of color, and they are entering into an institution that is physically, mentally, value-ly, historically and systemically steeped in whiteness.

It’s no wonder then that one of my students, while running a database search for her summer essay topic on “concepts of beauty in the black community,” was aghast to come across the following suggested subject terms for her on search on “blacks” as a race:

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Screenshot of a sample search for “blacks” in PsycINFO

I, then, as a librarian and as her instructor and as a fellow black woman in this very white institution, had to explain to her how our subject headings for academic libraries come from the Library of Congress and, sadly, the LoC continues to use the outdated term “negroes” as an official search and categorization term. I then had to tell her that if she wanted to get a full picture of the research available, alas, she was also going to have to consent to the use of that term in her search.

Having to explain these things to my student infuriated me. Not because she didn’t understand but because they existed for explanation in the first place.

It also made me think about all the to-do surrounding the proposed changes to the LoC subject heading “illegal alien.” Even the recommended changes—”noncitizen” and “unauthorized immigration”—are hugely problematic.

No one—and I mean no one—is a “noncitizen” unless you’re that Tom Hanks character in that goodness-gracious-awful movie Terminal. And even then…no.

 

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No one is illegal!” in Lisbon, Portugal, CC BY-NC 4.0 April Hathcock

As simple as it would seem to allow people to name themselves, the established order resists any and all attempts to reconstruct the way we name, organize, and identify ourselves. The power to name is indeed a power. It is a vastly effectual power that those with privilege are always hard-pressed to cede.

But those of us on the margins continue to fight and resist and rebel. We continue to insist on our own names. We continue to wrest that power away from those who would deny us.

What’s in a name? A lot, Romeo.