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.”

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.

Everything But…Racism

I don’t use racial slurs or burn crosses on people’s lawns so I can’t be racist…I have black friends so I can’t be racist…I work with a lot of people of color and I respect them so I can’t be racist…I’m not a neo-Nazi so I can’t be racist…I have liberal politics so I can’t be racist.

For as long as there has been time, white people have been fighting the notion that they are racist. For them, it is like the N-word, the C-word, and the B-word all rolled into one. (If only those words didn’t exist and we didn’t know which slurs they referred to.) It is their kryptonite. It is the moment when all communication on issues of race break down. It is the sledgehammer that shreds their delicate #whitefragility to dust in a shower of #whitetears.

And all this is sheer and utter nonsense.

Racism is everywhere. It is the norm. It is the foundation upon which every white colonializing country was built. It doesn’t matter if you’re not American, not Southern, not mean, not old, not conservative. Racism is the fertile soil upon which white supremacy grows. And white supremacy is like ivy. It is everywhere, it is hard to uproot, and it grows fast.

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“Ivy” by Jordan on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

White people are so intent on treating racism like it’s an anomaly, a disease, rather than realizing that racism is the default. White people, by virtue of their race privilege, are racist. All of them. Everyone. It is how white privilege exists and continues to persist. It is a painful reality, I know, but a reality nonetheless.

It’s also important to note that this ubiquity and inevitability of racism exists on both the systemic and individual level. Yes, we live in a society beset by systemic racism. But that doesn’t absolve individuals of the role they play in and the benefits they enjoy from their own individual racism. Racism is both macro and micro; it’s all over the big picture and in every tiny detail, too.

The only way we will ever truly dismantle white supremacy and dig up the manure of racism in which it grows is if we all face this truth: Racism is the foundational default and all white people are guilty of it. There’s no getting around it.

Antiracist work has to begin with this acknowledgement. Antiracist work will inevitably fail without this realization. Anything else is just an adolescent “everything but…” approach to racism:

I’m not racist because I do everything but use racial slurs…I’m not racist because I do everything but become a card-carrying member of the KKK…I’m not racist because I do everything but actively hate all people of color.

White folks, racism is not like justifying your virginity after a steamy summer at Bible camp. You don’t get to do “everything but” and remain “intact.” Whatever line you think there is, you’ve already crossed it. I guarantee it.

So, now, let’s face facts and get to work. Granted, it may take you awhile. For many of you, this post feels harsh and divisive and mean and insulting and untrue. That’s okay. That’s just your #whitefragility acting up. Go ahead, take a moment to yourself or with some fellow white people, and cry those #whitetears. (Just don’t burden people of color with them; we’ve got better things to do.)

And when you’re really ready to be honest and do this work, come on back. It’d be great to have you as a true antiracist ally.

Family Microaggressions Support Group

Last week I spent a wonderful week of vacation at my parents’ home in central Florida. Everyone from my immediate family was there, and I felt safe and secure and renewed. My parents’ house has always been and will always be my Camp David.

When it was time to leave, I grabbed my parents tightly and wailed, “It’s time to go back to my real life! I gotta go back to watching my own back and wearing my armor against oppression!”

A big part of what I was talking about was the constant stream of microaggressions that are a part of life as a person of a marginalized identity. Microaggressions are subtle insults or slights, verbal or nonverbal, intentional or not, that people enact against folks from marginalized backgrounds. It’s a way to perpetuate systemic oppression, rooted in stereotypes and underlying bias.

As a black people, every single one of my family members and I have been the victims of microaggressions on almost a daily basis. While these subtle incidents of oppression may seem like not so much to those with privilege, they add up and can have major effects on the health and well-being of marginalized people. To counteract these effects, it’s important to develop healthy and effective coping strategies. For my family, one of the things we do, though many of us live in different places, is to connect across the distances (usually via text messages or video chat) and share our experiences and frustrations.

Here’s a typical conversation from our Family Microaggressions Support Group:

Queen B: Hello, my beautiful family! How is everybody?

The Colonel: Pretty good, boss lady. The usual.

Baby Bro: Today at school, I was driving in the parking lot during rush hour looking for a space, and I started following this girl, hoping to get her space. When she saw me, though, she clutched her purse and darted between the rows. Later I saw her waving someone else toward her space.

Everybody Else: Hm, was she white?

Baby Bro: Yes. It was daytime and I wasn’t the only person in a car following people to a space!

Everybody Else: Was the other person who got the space from her white?

Baby Bro: Yep.

Queen B: Watch out, baby. It’s not fair, but people like that will call the campus police on you in a heartbeat, even if you’re not doing anything wrong or out of the ordinary. If you want a space, stick with one of our brothers or sisters. And be sure to leave early enough to give you the extra time you need to find a place.

Dr. Sis: Today at work, a dudebro med student mistook me for a nurse. Again. Even though he’s been working with me for a week AND I’m wearing a white coat like he is AND my white coat is embroidered with my name and the letters “M.D., M.P.H.”

Everybody Else: Was he white?

Dr. Sis: Yep. Still in his third year of med school. And I’m in my second year of fellowship. I graduated years ago!

Everybody Else: Groan. That’s so idiotic. What’d you say?

Dr. Sis: I told him he better get better at recognizing his superiors or he won’t last long in this profession.

Me: I guess being prejudiced makes it hard to recognize faces or read. Today at work, I had a faculty member mistake me for a student, even though I’d emailed and told her I was coming to meet with her at that time AND my email has my picture AND my name with the letters “J.D., L.L.M., M.L.I.S.” When she saw me in person, she just couldn’t believe that I could be a lawyerbrarian.

Everybody Else: Let us guess…

Me: Yep.

The Colonel: I was standing in the lobby of our office building, and this old man came up to me and asked if I’d take him up to the seventh floor. He then stood by the elevator and waited. I guess he thought I was the doorman, rather than an executive in one of the contracting firms with offices in the building.

Everybody Else: And of course, he was…

The Colonel: You know it.

Everybody Else: What did you say to him?

The Colonel: Nothing. I had important business  to attend to and didn’t have time for his ignorance. I turned and walked away. If he was waiting for me to escort him up the elevator, he’d be waiting all day. Racist old fool.

Queen B: Well, I was at the gym, and this woman came up to me to tell me that one of the stalls was broken in the ladies’ changing room…

Everybody Else: Uh oh.

Queen B: And I turned to that little miss and said, “Excuse me? Now, please, help me understand, because I am so confused, despite being an incredibly intelligent woman with a graduate degree and a doctor, lawyer, and computer scientist for children. Please help me understand why in the WORLD you assumed that I work here? You walked past the assistant in the company t-shirt over there to tell me about the stall. Why do you think I CARE about the stall? Hm? Please help me to understand.”

Everybody Else: *rolling on floor, laughing* We don’t even have to guess.

Queen B: Oh, you know she was white. Well, at that point, she was red. And gone. I think she left; I didn’t see her for the rest of my workout.

The Colonel: Well, this has been a good meeting. Stay strong, everyone. Remember what we taught you. Remember who you are.

Everybody: We love you!

FIN*

As you can see, our meetings center on what it means to be black in our respective spheres of school, work, and play. But microaggressions affect people across all intersections of oppression. And while they may seem minor, they are extremely harmful, particularly as they signal a deeper problem running through society. 

*While this was a dramatization, it was by no means an exaggeration. These are real things that happen all the time. I actually had trouble picking from the multitude of possible examples. Please keep that in mind.