Post-ALA Race Fatigue

I just spent the last 5 days at the American Library Association annual conference in Chicago, and I am suffering serious race fatigue

Race fatigue is a real physical, mental, and emotional condition that people of color experience after spending a considerable amount of time dealing with the micro- and macro-aggressions that inevitably occur when in the presence of white people. The more white people, the longer the time period, the more intense the race fatigue. 

My ALA Annual 2017 conference badge

I usually come back from conferences pretty exhausted anyway. I’m an introvert, an over-achiever, and an over-joiner, so I’m always faced with having to be conscious about taking breaks, saying no, and engaging in other forms of self-care. But when you combine that with 5 days of being talked at, over, and through by folks in a profession that’s 88% white…well, let’s just say I hit my limit. 

Its been 5 straight days of being tone-policed and condescended to and ‘splained to. Five days of listening to white men librarians complain about being a “minority” in this 88% white profession–where they consistently hold higher positions with higher pay–because they don’t understand the basics of systemic oppression. (They’re librarians. You’d think they’d know how to find and read a sociology reference, but whatever.) Five days of having “nice white ladies” tell you to be “civil” and “professional” when you talk about the importance of acknowledging oppression and our profession’s role in it. 

Even with well-meaning white people, friends even, it’s been exhausting; the fatigue is still there. Five days of having white colleagues corner you to “hear more” about the microaggressions you’ve suffered and witnessed, not because they want to check in on your fatigue, but because they take a weird pleasure in hearing the horror stories and feeling superior to their “less woke” racial compatriots. 

Five days of mounting anger and frustration that you struggle to keep below the surface because you can’t be the “angry and emotional person of color” yet again. 

Don’t get me wrong, there were delightful moments of reprieve. I went to the Spectrum Scholarship 20th Anniversary celebration and met the amazing Dr. Carla Hayden–first black, first woman, first librarian–Librarian of Congress. (She’s so wonderful. We chatted about my name, which I share with the main character of her favorite children’s book.) I caught up with friends and colleagues of color and met new ones. These moments kept me going. And I did have some moments of rest with a few absolutely invaluable and genuine white allies. 

But I’m tired. 

Luckily, the rest of my summer will be spent going on vacation with family, steeping in time with the people who love and know me best. I’ll be getting some much needed R & R in this racial battle called life. And when I get back to it all, I’ll keep on fighting, bearing in mind the inspiring words Dr. Hayden imparted to us at the Spectrum celebration: “You gotta be in the room. You gotta be at the table. You gotta fight.”

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

Reflections: Untold Histories Unconference 2016

Hello, everyone! I’m baaaaack! I’ve had a really great month off and am ready to jump back into the swing of things with you all.

Next week is the 2017 Untold Histories Unconference at Rutgers University-Newark, a public history gathering of historians, archivists, librarians, community members, and more. I attended the unconference last year and had a really great time. This year I was honored to be asked to serve on their planning committee. The event is scheduled for Thursday, May 11 from 9am to 4pm and registration is still open.

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Banner image from untoldhistories.wordpress.com

At last year’s unconference, I proposed a session on walking the fine line between providing access to a community’s materials and exploiting that community for their material. It was a hugely popular session; the room was packed and we didn’t really get to finish the conversation. With this in mind, I’ve proposed the session again for this year in the hopes of keeping the conversation going.

Here are my notes and reflections from last year’s session. If you’re in the New York/New Jersey area, I hope you join us on May 11!


Break out session on fine line between providing access to a community’s material and exploiting that community. How do we help document these stories without exploiting them, especially stories that are not our own? Much of this conversation spilled over into the following session on archives for Black Lives. We essentially were teasing out the ways to tell stories without changing them.

A lot of great discussion about transparency of intention, open collaboration. Being open and honest about your motivations as researcher/archivist as you enter a community. Learn the language, be ready to codeswitch. Allow members of the community to tell their stories in their way.

Feminist methodology comes into play here with emphasis on transparency and collaboration. Allowing flexibility in entering community and working with them. Letting community share in power and authority over project. It takes time to build trust in a community. Your timeline and priorities may not work. Remember it’s not about the project but the people.

The focus on power is key: both the power you bring to the community in the form of your project as well as the power dynamics that exist within the community. Remember this can take a ton of time. Flexibility is especially salient when having to navigate the local hierarchies, power dynamics, and internal systems of oppression.

Also cast critical eye to the role you are playing in the project, the effect you have on the community. Examine the assumptions you enter with, the ways in which you become part of the work. You aren’t an objective, distant gaze. You are a part of the telling of the story.

Finally, remember to approach work with an intersectional view. People possess multiple interconnected the titles and they will interact with different communities in different ways.

We had such a rich discussion. I particularly loved the connections made because they resonated not just on a professional level but also on a personal level. A couple of the public historians in the room talked about research they’ve done and are doing with Black Seminoles in Florida and the Gullah and Geechee people of the Carolinas, groups which make up the bulk of my ancestry. Hearing about their work and being able to see my people’s stories in it was incredibly moving.

Ultimately, in engaging in this conversation we reached an important realization: These aren’t really “untold histories”; they’re just unheard histories. The histories are being told even if we don’t hear them in the mainstream.

 

Pokémon Stop and Reflect

I’m not a fan of fads.

The last book had long since been released when I finally deigned to read the Harry Potter series. I fell asleep on most of the Star Wars movies, including the originals. I played Nekoatsume for about a minute and really enjoyed it before becoming hopelessly bored and giving up.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a curmudgeon (much). I love video games and all things geek. I’ve played Pokémon on consoles from back when it first came out. I like fun.

But fads in general, and this whole PokémonGo craze in particular, really bother me.

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“pokemon” by 5th Luna via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Here’s why: Fads represent what the dominant culture has decided is cool, necessary, important, valued. Fads never come from marginalized communities, never benefit them, never highlight their needs or desires. Fads are always based on what the dominant, privileged group decides is worth focusing on.

Last week, for about a minute, the dominant, privileged group decided to talk a wee bit about #BlackLivesMatter and police violence and racism. The destruction of black and brown, queer and trans lives, which happens ALL THE TIME, was important for a minute last week. But this week, the dominant, privileged group has decided its far more important to catch imaginary beasties. And we’re all falling right in line.

I am totally disheartened to see so many critical librarians, people who care about social justice and reaching out to patrons beyond the mainstream and into the margins, touting the value of PokémonGo as a way to “reach all the patrons!” I’m not concerned about them enjoying the game for themselves. And while I find the privacy concerns worrying, I also realize that those concerns are no worse with PokémonGo than with any other app anyone uses on their smartphone.

What concerns me is the eagerness with which, we, as a profession, jump on the latest fad or bandwagon in the interest of “reaching out to our patrons.” Too often we do so unthinkingly, unreflectively, not taking the time to question and trouble the implications of that latest fad.

The fact is fads are not for everyone. PokémonGo is not for everyone. It’s not for people with deep privacy concerns, perhaps because they are engaged in important activism and already being surveilled by the so-called authorities. It’s not for people who don’t have the financial resources to maintain a smartphone with loads of data, enough to support the endless running of a location-based app as they wander about town. It’s not for people who don’t have the physical ability to wander around town staring at a tiny screen or the manual dexterity to put an augmented reality creature in a red and white ball on that tiny screen. If the focus of our library outreach du jour centers on PokémonGo, then we are effectively telling all these folks that, at best, we’re not thinking of them and, at worst, we don’t care about them.

There’s nothing wrong with bringing popular stuff into the library to draw people in. It’s part of our marketing strategies. But we need to be careful that we do this, as with everything we do, critically, reflectively, constantly asking the key questions: Who is this really for? Who will benefit? Who will be excluded? What message does this send to those in the margins?

By all means, have fun catching your Pokémon. But as we develop new means of outreach in our libraries, let’s also look beyond the fads, beyond the mainstream, and make sure we’re reaching those who are forever on the margins.