Librarianship as Plantation

I was up late one night contemplating slavery (as one does, especially as a Black American), and it hit me:

The library profession is a plantation.

Black and white image of a large plantation house surrounded by Spanish moss and oak trees

“Goodwood Plantation, after remodeling: Tallahassee, Florida” via Florida Memory, Public Domain. This plantation is located in the hometown of my mother’s family going back several generations; its owners undoubtedly enslaved some of my maternal ancestors.

At the top, we have the white people, the masters and missuses, who own the profession like the landowners of old. These white, middle- and upper-class “gentry” stand at the top of the profession with a sense of ownership and entitlement that is deeply rooted in tradition, history, and privilege. No more how many of us “others” come in (people of color, poor people, both white and of color, etc.), the masters and missuses own and run this field we call our professional home.

Not unintentionally, there’s a gender element to this top echelon, too. The master is the ultimate owner of the domain, even when he may not be in the numerical majorityjust as white cis-men dominate the library and archival profession, in privilege, pay, power, and prestige, regardless of the feminization of the field.

Now well below the masters and missuses, there are those of us who have been fortunate and privileged enough to earn the professional degree and who have been allowed (not welcomed, mind you, but allowed) to serve in the manor house of the profession. We are the “house Negros”; we may advance fairly far and take on significant responsibility for the management of the manor; we have relatively close relationships with the masters and missuses; we’ve learned to assimilate enough to be allowed into the mastwrs’ and missuses’ rarefied space…And yet, should we ever attempt to see ourselves as equal to the owners of the plantation, we are very quickly put in our place. We are reminded that we don’t truly belong in the manor as other than “the help,” meant to serve the masters’ and missuses’ agenda for lip service diversity and feel-good neoliberal multiculturalism. But we aren’t meant to bring our true selves, our perspectives, our experiences, our feelings, and certainly not our critiques, into the sacred space of the owners’ house. And many of us often find our invitations to enter and serve are temporary and precarious: they’re happy to have us in a “special program” for a year or two, but we’re never meant to stay.

That’s bad enough, but this analogy is far from done. Outside the house is a massive complex of “field Negros” and “poor white trash,” on whose backs and labors the day-to-day work of the plantation progresses and flourishes. These folks are euphemistically termed “paraprofessionals,” while their time and experience in the profession is unerringly undervalued and unrecognized. Never are they welcome to enter the manor house: their role is to serve out in the fields of the field, their labor and experience kept at a careful distance from the tender sensibilities of the elite. And for those who wish to advance beyond their assigned “station”? Forget it. Again, one finds oneself quickly put back in one’s place.

Meanwhile, the lovely, lily-white, young ladies and gentlemen from neighboring plantations (other disciplines), with all the class and pedigree that is valued in our own manor (read: advanced degrees in those other fields), are welcome to move right into the “big house,” to learn and grow under the careful wings of the masters and missuses. These eligible gentlefolk leapfrog right over the folks in the field, the folks working in the house, to fast track on the path of future master- and missus-hood, thereby guaranteeing the continuation of the privileged and privileging status quo.

Yes, librarianship is a plantation. And if we truly value equity and inclusionif we truly wish to change the literal face of this professionthen we need to conscious and intentionally let go of this plantation mentality.

I want to extend a gracias de mi corazón to D.M. for helping me think through this blog post and for offering me una amistad that truly gives me life.

Have you learned from my work? Please consider making a contribution at PayPal.me/AtTheIntersection.

ALAMW: What Happened, and What Should Happen Next

**Update at the bottom of this post

TW: racist and misogynistic trauma

It seems I will never be able to attend an American Library Association meeting without encountering some kind of racist, sexist trauma. ALA just isn’t a safe space in our profession for me. And I’m not the only one.

During Council Forum, a small, informal discussion session for ALA Council and general ALA membership, a fellow councilor, a white man, verbally attacked me. He accused me of being a hypocrite, for doxxing people and making “racial innuendos” on my blog. He accused me of being uncivil and unprofessional (yes, he accused me of this in a tirade in a public forum amongst our colleagues). Then, he ended by claiming that I give him “nightmares.”

There were about 30 people sitting around witnessing this, including the Council facilitators; including some Councilors who have served repetitive terms for the last decade or more and are well-versed in how Forum should be conducted; including a couple of newly elected Executive Board members; including members of the Ethics Committee; including a slew of library professionals who tout our profession’s commitment to inclusivity and diversity.

No one said a thing.

There was an awkward pause and then business continued. Someone raised their hand to discuss other business. Someone else did the same. The meeting ended. No one said a word about the verbal attack just launched against me.

Me? I said nothing. I was struck dumb with fear. I have been attacked by white men just like this person through trolling and harassment in the past. These people have called and emailed me at work. They’ve called my library dean. They’ve called the president of my university. One even sent me a postcard full of vile language. Why? All because I speak up unabashedly against racism and systemic oppression. And now here I was living my own worst nightmare face-to-face in person. And no one was there to protect me.

Please note, I have never spoken directly to this person before. I know from debates on Council floor that we stand on opposite sides of many issues. But we have never interacted directly before the day he verbally attacked me. I have never said anything to or about him. I barely know him. There was no history between us. He came for me in a public space in a personal way out of the blue.

Immediately after the meeting ended, this person tried to approach me. While I was still terrified. I told him to stay away from me. To not speak to me. I told him he made me feel unsafe. Then, I ran to my room to curl into a ball and cry in terror. At some point, I realized I needed to report him. I saw what lack of support I received in the moment; I needed to report the incident and get it through official channels. I knew if I didn’t do it, no one else who was there would. I had my doubts, even about the official channels, but I wanted what happened to me on record. I tweeted about my experience, as well. I refused to be silent and let this slide.

The next morning, less than twenty-four hours after my traumatic experience, I received a call in my hotel room. I don’t know how they received my room number; that information is supposed to be confidential for all hotel guests. It was from someone named Paula from ALA who wished to meet with me at that moment to talk about what had happened. She said President-Elect Wanda Brown would be joining us. I thought they were following up on my incident report, so I gladly agreed, impressed that things were being handled so swiftly. Boy, was I naive and wrong.

It turns out Paula is the legal counsel for ALA. I don’t remember her identifying herself as such. As a lawyer myself, and one who has conducted these kind of conversations before, I feel like I would’ve made note and probably declined the meeting. I know from experience that when lawyers jump in early, it’s usually a matter of intimidation. I’ve done my fair share of that jumping.

In any event, she wanted to warn me about posting about my trauma in a public forum like Twitter in the event anything happened to my attacker and I “found myself liable.” “We’re just looking out for you and ALA,” she kept saying. She then turned to Wanda Brown and asked her to “take over from here.” Paula is white. Wanda is Black. And this meeting was not framed as an official response from the organization: there was no reference to the progress of my pending report; the current president was not present; and neither was the interim executive director. No, I was being handled by the company lawyer, and they’d brought a Black lady along to help out. I terminated the meeting in the midst of the lawyerly bullshit to inform Paula that as a lawyer I knew full well what they were trying to do. I made it clear in no uncertain terms that I would not be intimidated into silence, and with the most ridiculous, baseless claim of legal liability possible, no less (um, hello, First Amendment? you know, that constitutional right that we love to talk about so much in our profession?). I had exercised my constitutional right to speak of my personal trauma. I had not named names. I had not spoken of my attacker, really at all. The experience was mine, and I was sharing it. I also warned them that the real liability they faced was in not enforcing the ALA Conference Code of Conduct, leaving me in fear for my safety. I then threatened to contact my own attorney if need be, and left the room.

Keep in mind, this was less than twenty-four hours after I was verbally attacked in front a crowd of my colleagues. In less than a day, I had been publicly berated by an angry white man and then had the company lawyer sicced on me with the token Black woman in tow. And I still had one more Council session to attend.

To start the session, President Loida Garcia-Febo took a moment to acknowledge, without details, what had occurred. And some great allies proposed that Council take time out of the agenda to talk more broadly about the ways in which racism and white supremacy have been plaguing our profession, and thus, our professional gatherings. It turns out this ALA Midwinter was a doozy for people of color; several of us had to file reports on incidents of racist aggressions. You’d think, given ALA’s oft-repeated committed to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, that Council would jump at the chance to begin addressing these systemic issues. Those who proposed the discussion made clear they weren’t looking to dig into specific events; they wanted us to allow those events to spur a much-needed systemic conversation.

Whoo boy. What followed was about 15 minutes of gaslighting and victim-blaming that left me paralyzed in my seat. Several councilors, including some who were actually present at the time I was verbally attacked, made excuses for their silence, claiming they “didn’t know who was being referred to” and “didn’t know the history or background of the two individuals.” I don’t see how any of that mattered. What was done and said in that moment was completely unacceptable and a violation of the ALA Conference Code of Conduct. What is more, there is no history! I barely know this person. But even if there  were history, there was no excuse for that behavior and others’ complicit silence. None.

The discussion then devolved into a conversation about looking into “civility and professionalism.” But I could read the white supremacist undertones, same as they aways are. I know there are members of our profession—mostly white, though not all—who do not like me, do not like that I write and talk about race, do not like the direct and unapologetic way in which I call out systems of racial oppression. They find my work “divisive,” “uncivil,” and “unprofessional.” Some of them are leaders in our profession. Some of them were there sitting quietly as I was being harassed. When they talk about having conversations about “civility and professionalism,” they’re not talking about the inexcusable behavior that happened to me; they’re talking about tone-policing and silencing me. It’s a common tactic in white supremacy’s arsenal. But I won’t have it.

Council eventually voted to move on with regular business and leave the questions of systemic racial oppression in our field and our events where it always is, quietly hidden and not dealt with. I’ve returned home and finally feel a little of my sense of safety returning. Meanwhile, I continue to wait on real progress on my incident report.

In the meantime, I’ve had several people ask me what I want, and on the long flight home, I’ve had a chance to think about that.

  1. I want meaningful consequences enacted against the person who verbally attacked me, including barring his future participation in Council. What good is a Code of Conduct if it’s not enforced?
  2. I want ALA to apologize and acknowledge that what happened to me at Forum was unacceptable, not only a violation of the Code of Conduct on the part of my attacker, but also on the part of the members present who allowed it to happen without intervening.
  3. I want ALA to apologize and acknowledge that it was inappropriate for their lawyer to contact me the morning after my traumatic experience to attempt to intimidate me into silence (a lot of good that did; this is my longest blog post yet).
  4. Finally, I want ALA to set up town hall sessions with Council, the Executive Board, and the general membership to talk about the way white supremacy and racism has permeated our profession and our professional events. Like I said, I am not the only POC to have a traumatic racist experience during this and other conferences.

We deserve a better organization. We deserve a better profession. What happened to me and what happens to so many others cannot be allowed to continue.

********************************************

Update: After a bit of emailing back and forth with President Loida Garcia-Febo, the ALA Executive Board has released this statement. The initial draft did not include reference to my ambush meeting with the ALA attorney, and a nice, weak, sort-of apology has been added after my pushback. Also, the verbal attack is referred to as “the incident” and my attacker as the person “who instigated the incident.” Clearly, this response is not ideal, but I appreciate its release and the action items it includes.

Statement from the ALA Executive Board

 

We should not – and do not –accept harassment, bullying or discrimination of any kind in our profession or the work of our Association. These behaviors go against our values. Violations to our code of conduct will not be tolerated.

We established a code of conduct because we take the responsibility of being respectful to each other very seriously.

We send our sincere apologies to Councilor April Hathcock for what she went through at Council Forum, which is unacceptable and doesn’t align with our core values.

The ALA attorney and President-Elect met with Councilor April Hathcock in the Council meeting room shortly before Council III to share some nonpublic information about events after the incident in question. ALA leaders deeply regret any distress this caused; it was not intent of the attorney or ALA to threaten Ms. Hathcock in any way.

The Councilor who instigated the incident has resigned and the Executive Board has accepted his resignation.

We also offer our sincere apologies to members who also experienced violations of the code of conduct at the Midwinter meeting.

We want to recognize that this incident has caused a lot of hurt and we are working diligently to ensure that at all ALA events participants are – and feel – respected.

The Executive Board will form a working group to look at Council Forum and ways to make it a safer space up to its continued viability.

We will review the current code of conduct complaint process to make it stronger and more effective.

We will work on facilitated racial equity training for Annual Conference during Council 1; that training and the code of conduct will be built into Council Orientation moving forward.

In collaboration with the Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services, we will coordinate online and in-person resources on equity, diversity and inclusion for all members and for ALA staff members.

ALA and its Divisions have developed resources to embed principles of equity, diversity and inclusion in the work library workers do; see specifics for 2018 here. Last October during the 2018 Fall Executive Board Meeting, the Executive Board voted to affirm that ALA will apply a social justice framework to the ALA Strategic Directions for the next three-to-five years in the areas of Advocacy, Information Policy, Professional and Leadership Development, and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. We are building on the 2019 President’s Program about “White Fragility.”

This work can be messy, it takes time, but the Executive Board strives to create a better association every day. We ask for your collaboration to help us break through the systems of oppression and do the right thing at the right time, each time, as it should be done.

Of particular importance to me are the following plans:

  1. To convene a working group of the Executive Board to examine Council Forum and ways to make it a safer space;
  2. To review the current Conference Code of Conduct reporting process to make it “stronger and more effective”;
  3. To arrange for facilitated racial equity training for Annual Conference Council Session I and to build that training and the Code of Conduct into future Council Orientation sessions; and
  4. To coordinate with the Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services to provide online and in-person resources on equity, diversity, and inclusion. I’d like to note that I really, really appreciate the work of Jody Gray and the team at ODLOS. They do amazing work and help to move our profession and our professional organization forward in a huge way. However, this work is not their responsibility alone.

This experience has been truly awful. To have experienced that kind of personal attack and then to have so many colleagues attempt to turn the conversation into a discussion of “professionalism” and “civility” that aims to silence the work of POC rather than reprimanding those who attack us. It has been truly disheartening. But I am also glad to see this experience serving as an opportunity to move our profession and our professional organization forward. And I am so grateful for the overwhelming support I’ve seen from those aiming to make things better. Now it’s time for us to get to work. Let’s do it.

Why Don’t You Want to Keep Us?

I’ve been thinking about temporary job appointments and precarity, especially as it relates to people of color in the library profession:

Whenever this topic comes up, there are always some interesting discussions to help explain how and why things like diversity residencies and temporary jobs are okay. More than okay, beneficial to new career folks, even. They can provide experience with pay. They expose early career professionals to new and different types of work. They help to diversify the profession.

That last one is totally not true because our profession has been holding steady at 85+% white for the last several decades despite all the programs.

So my question—to all the folks who proudly tout these precarious temp appointments—is: Why? Why is it so important to have and maintain these precarious positions? Why are your institutions so excited to spend money year after year on a different set of POC to do the work that a more permanent staff member could do? Why are you so willing to welcome POC into your temp positions for a year or two or even four, but you don’t want to invest in keeping us for the long haul? Why do you parade us before your search committees, like many of our ancestors on the auction block, year after year after year for short-term appointments; yet fill your tenure-track lines and full-time, long-term positions with the same young, white, female faces? Why is it okay to help “diversify” the profession within your institution for a little while but not for the course of our careers?

Why don’t you want to keep us?

I’ve seen the job postings for many of your positions that you claim require “3-5 years of experience.” Hell, I’ve served on search committees for them. Very often, those jobs don’t require 3-5 years or even any experience. A talented and hardworking POC new to the profession could learn what they need to do within the context of your unique institution (that institutional learning curve is always significant no matter your experience). They could grow and develop; and likely, if it’s a good place that has shown its willingness to invest in their career, they’ll want to stay and grow and keep making it better. What’s more they’ll want to remain in the profession, instead of leaving feeling tired, microaggressed, and demoralized. You take on white people without the requisite experience and keep them and train them all the time. I’ve seen it. You could keep us. So why don’t you?

I’ll tell you. It’s because many of you and your institutions aren’t serious about diversifying the racial and ethnic homogeneity of our profession. You aren’t serious about dismantling whiteness in your institution and in our profession for good. You’re happy to have POC visit your institutional and professional neighborhoods, but you’re not ready to have us move in. You’re just not ready.

We, as a profession, need to be brutally honest about this. We need to stop dancing around these coy discussions about early career experience and shifting budgets and confront the true nature of these temporary solutions we uphold. The whiteness of our profession is a problem that is persistently and historically entrenched. We need to get to the root and develop persistent, permanent solutions.

Hiring us, supporting us, and keeping us isn’t the only answer. But it’s a good place to start.

My Fire, This Time

I’m reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time finally for the first time.

It’s beautiful to see my reality reflected in someone else’s words, even over the distance of several decades. In some ways, it’s disheartening to see how little things have changed; but mostly it’s empowering, just as it’s always empowering to connect to the ancestors’ wisdom for how to make it through to another day of struggle.

photograph of a single candle flame up close

“Still” by roujo via Flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In his short book of two letters, Baldwin says some things that really sync with my current reflections on life in this white supremacist patriarchal world:

In a letter addressed to his nephew: There is no reason for you to try to become like white ppl & there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that THEY must accept YOU. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that YOU must accept THEM.

and

In a self-reflective letter: There appears to be a vast amount of confusion on this point, but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be ‘accepted’ by white ppl, still less loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet.

This makes me think about conversations I’ve had with family, friends, and allies lately. How I’ve grown past the point of wanting to bond with white people or even be a part of their world; how I’m now just struggling with them for the right to live my life, equitably, fairly, without their censure or policing or gaze. Free in my physical body. Free in my mind. Free in my spirit. To be my whole Black woman self.

It’s hard.

The thing is, it’s the so-called Nice White Folks™ who do the most damage, who stand most in the way of my freedom. Baldwin calls them “the innocents.” The ones who don’t believe they’re doing any harm, who hardily support “diversity” and “inclusion” and “multiculturalism.” As long as it doesn’t cost them anything. They’ll eat our food and learn a bit of our languages, steal our music and watch our tv shows, peer avidly into our lives as a form of “cross-cultural exchange” because doing so is free. They cede no power or privilege in treating us, the very real physical traumatized fact of us, as exotic anomalies for their amusement.

That makes me tired.

I’m tired of allies treating my presence, my very reality, as a problem that needs solving. As if I’m little more than part of a clogged pipeline that just needs a little adjustment over here, off to the side; again, not costing them anything. Sprinkle a little scholarship money here, a program there, some assimilation over here…it’ll all be fine; I just need to stop being “bitter” and “angry” and “divisive” and start being filled with gratitude for my generous white saviors. Who still have not been cost anything.

Yeah, well, I’m done with all that. I’m with Baldwin. Because ultimately it doesn’t matter if they like me or accept me or want me. It doesn’t matter if they understand me. I don’t have to continue squeezing the wholeness of my Black womanhood into tiny bite-sized, white-sized parcels that they can swallow. Because nothing will ever change that way. Nothing can ever change until they’re willing to accept the cost. There’s a price to be paid for the undoing of their privilege, for the dismantling of their so-called supremacy.

And how many of them are really ready to pay?

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.

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.

Columbus Day 2017: Tear It All Down

Today is Columbus Day, but I’m in the midst of a social media break so you won’t see this post until much later. Still, I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, and it’s really come to a point where I’ve got to get the thoughts down.

I just eavesdropped on a white woman talking about her family’s participation in the New York City Italian-American community’s Columbus Day celebrations. (Columbus Day became a holiday in the U.S. initially as a way for marginalized Italian immigrants to celebrate their heritage.) There will be protest by native folks and allies against the settler colonization and genocide that Christopher Columbus represents. In the words of this woman, “I get it, but I don’t get it.” Then, she proceeded to give all the usual trite arguments:

  1. It’s a celebration of Italians in America, not Columbus per se (though he was Italian in America and a genocidal one at that).
  2. You can’t judge historical figures by today’s standards of morality.
  3. I supported the taking down of the Confederate monuments, but where do we draw the line?
  4. Blah, blah, blah.

I don’t mean to rag on this woman. She’s only saying what many other well-meaning, white, liberal Americans say. But this thinking is the very epitome of why we will likely never decolonize and dismantle white supremacy in the country (or anywhere else really).

White people are just too married to their own supremacy and privilege. Even the well-meaning, so-called “liberal” and “progressive” ones.

Over the last few months with all the hullabaloo about taking down Confederate monuments, so many well-meaning liberal white folks took to their thinkpieces to explain why it’s the white (do I mean “right”? Is that really a typo?) thing to do to take down the Confederate monuments, and why it’s okay to leave monuments to other well-known slave-owners and native murderers because of “all the good they did in founding our great country.”

Huh. Cue thinking-face emoji.

What “good” did they do? For whom? What “great country”? For whom?

Because from where I sit, I see native peoples being chased by dogs and teargassed for trying to protect the sanctity of their (and all of our) water.

From where I sit, I see black athletes, whose very bodies are owned by wealthy white men (sound familiar?) being castigated and Black-balled (quite literally) for engaging in peaceful protest against state-sanctioned, racist violence.

From where I sit, I see Spanish-speaking, colonized Americans, Black, Brown, and every shade in between, being left to die of thirst and disease in the midst of one of the worst natural disasters in their living history.

But yes, let’s please preserve the racist legacy of the racist people who built this racist country. By all means.

I say tear it all down. I say this as a proud American who wants to be even prouder of her country. I say this as a Black woman, most of whose ancestors didn’t choose to be here, but here we are, so deal with me. I say this sincerely and unequivocally.

Until we’re willing to, figuratively and literally, tear down every vestige of our nation’s racist, white supremacist history—from Washington to Jackson to Tr*mp—we will never attain the equality and equity we like to talk so glibly about. We need to confront our history and our present, and then we need to tear it down.

Until then, enjoy your ridiculous parades and bank holidays. I’ve got better things to do.

 

This Is What (Straight, Cis, Capitalist, Christian, White Male) Democracy Looks Like 

If I hear one more white person whine about free speech, I will scream with a deep primal yell borne out of the viscera of my enslaved ancestors down through the ages on whose blood, sweat, and stolen tears this mock-democracy of a country was founded and built. 

A little while ago, the almost-ironically named American Library Association Think Tank on Facebook was full of white people determined that we should go out of our way to do outreach to the KKK, and other white supremacy terrorist groups, in the hopes of promoting free speech and intellectual freedom. Not just allow them to use public facilities, mind you, but do active outreach. Because their opportunities to share their hate-filled message are so limited. 

Lately, many white people have decried the negative response from many black folks and allies to a proposed new HBO show, from the makers of the already problematic Game of Thrones, about an “imaginary” world in which the confederacy won the Civil War and slavery still existed. As if the white supremacist legacy of slavery and settler colonialism and genocide isn’t still very much alive and well in this, the real world. These folks falsely, though typically, equate the #NoConfederate response as a form of “censorship” and call for all of us to relive the spectacle of black subjugation for the sake of “free speech.”

Just recently there’s been literal outrage about the firing a white dude from a big private company for releasing a statement about the so-called “biological inferiority” of women in his field and the need to do away with calls for more diversity and inclusion. Because, ya know, when your private employer fires you from your at-will job for behaving in the job as a racist, sexist jerk, that’s such a travesty of the constitutional protection against government sanction of speech. (Please note the intense sarcasm here.)

Apparently, white people care a LOT about free speech. 

They care so much that a couple of weeks ago many of them took to calling administration at my workplace, sending me heinous emails and tweets, and leaving me threatening voicemails to demand my firing because I dare to exercise free speech to call out white supremacy and racial oppression. 

They care so much that when researchers of color across the country are faced with reprisal, including job loss, for speaking up about oppression, many celebrate the destruction of these professional lives as the cost for speaking the truth. 

They care so much that some of them, who are long-time members of the Society of American Archivists, are quitting in a huff because the SAA dared to allow a program on dismantling white supremacy in archives, in which archivists of color and white allies exercise their freedom of speech to educate others about the inherent oppression of the profession. 

(Again, please note the sarcasm.)

The fact is, these fighters for free speech only care about free speech that serves to maintain the white supremacist status quo. Freedom and democracy for all comes with an unspoken asterisk.* (*Only straight, cis, upper-class, Christian white men need apply.)

I’m tired of these proponents of oppressive democracy. Folks who pretend to care about equity and inclusion but only care about keeping whiteness front and center. 

But I appreciate the work of those who continue to speak up and speak out, even when it’s made clear that freedom of expression is just not for us. Those who take on the burden and personal risk on behalf of their communities or as allies, or both. Let’s continue to support them and each other. Let’s make “freedom for all” really mean something. 

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.”

How to Be Less of a Gentrifier

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“snob” by Charles LeBlanc on Flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

Since moving to my Harlem apartment about three years ago, I’ve been thinking a ton about gentrification. Not that it’s anything new to me. The black community in Tallahassee where several generations of my mother’s family have lived (and where my grandparents still reside) has been fighting encroachment from Florida State University for decades. (One of my long-held dreams is to do a big oral history project of the area, including my family’s history. I gotta get on that. Archivist friends, I’ll definitely be asking for advice.)

I know about gentrification and have seen its effects, but moving to Harlem really made it hit home for me because I knew that I myself was a part of the problem. I make more and pay more in rent than the average for the area. I’m helping to raise costs for the people who live here. And I reflect on that and do my best to mitigate the effects. I buy most of my groceries at the local latinx-owned and operated store up the street. I grab coffee and hot breakfast from the Syrian-owned bodega at the end of my block. I use the black-owned laundry service for my washing. I bypass the new hipster brunch spot a few blocks away to head to the black and latinx-owned and operated diner.

I love my adopted neighborhood; it feels like home to me, and I want to invest in its continued existence as a place created by and for marginalized folks.

But even in these last three years, I’ve seen the changes. More hipster brunch spots popping up. More Peapod trucks and fewer folks at the local grocery store (I’m also guilty of using Fresh Direct for big purchases myself.). And, as my sister noted on one of her last visits, “Damn. There are a lot of white people around here.”

Other folks who have lived in Harlem their whole lives have written and spoken on the effects of gentrification on their home neighborhood. So I won’t try to retread that ground. But I do want to offer a bit of advice for the average—particularly white—gentrifier who wants to be more careful about the effect they have on their new black/brown neighborhood. So, here are a few tips:

  1. Shop local. Yah, I know you just love that organically-sourced kale that you got every week from the coop you left behind in Brooklyn, but guess what? The more you invest in local grocery stores, the more financially stable they’ll be; the more able they are to provide affordable fresh produce for everyone—not just you. Need a caffeine fix? Forgo that brand new Starbucks and check out the bodega on the corner. Why settle for an overpriced half-caff macchiato that tastes like scorched earth anyway when you can have a delicious paper cup of fresh java with two scoops of sugar and cream, all while helping a local POC businessperson? It’s not hard. Get out of your apartment and find local replacements for the stuff you pay for anyway.
  2. Speak to your neighbors.  I know there’s this myth out there that New Yorkers keep to themselves and don’t know their neighbors, but that’s only true of white New Yorkers. In black and brown neighborhoods, we speak. And if you don’t speak back, it is the very epitome of rudeness. I can’t tell you how many of my new white neighbors hear me or one of my POC neighbors say hello to them and they proceed to look at us like we’re growing tusks out of our nostrils. Get over yourself and say hello. Start a conversation. In the stairwell. On the stoop. Outside the bodega. Talk to your neighbors. We all speak around here, from the Jehovah’s Witness granny who sits outside her building handing out religious tracts, to the block’s resident pusher man, to little ones tossing the Nerf football around. Everyone. It’s a cultural thing. You’re in a new culture. Acclimate. Which leads me to…
  3. Don’t try to change stuff. Don’t be like every other generation of your forebears and come into the POC neighborhood to stake your claim, plant your flag for queen and country, and kill off whatever you find of the existing culture. Don’t pass out your metaphorical smallpox blankets or set up your metaphorical slave trade. Don’t colonize. You are a guest. Learn the culture, the language, the rhythms. Adapt. There’s going to be the smell of fried fish and the sound of gossip and pleasantries in the lobby. Deal with it. Embrace it. Don’t complain. Soak it in. And for crying out loud, don’t try to change the name of the neighborhood.
  4. Show respect. When you do speak to your neighbors, show the proper respect. Refer to older folk by “Miz [name]” or “Mr. [name].” Don’t ever ever ever look an older POC person in the eye and use their first name without permission. There’s a ton of racist, oppressive history behind that. Be aware. And show respect. Not just for the culture but also for the people. Which finally leads to…
  5. Don’t call the cops!!! Obviously, if there’s a real emergency, you do what you gotta do. But if you see an unfamiliar black or brown man sitting on your stoop, you may want to back off. Chances are, he lives in your building and you just don’t recognize him because…white supremacy. Whatever it is, just ask yourself, “Would I want to phone the cops if I were living in a white neighborhood right now?” Then examine your honest response. For anything. Because you think you smell weed or you hear your neighbors music or it sounds like someone’s arguing outside…just take a moment to reflect. And realize that, again, there’s a huge amount of violent, racist historical and present context that makes inviting the cops into your new neighborhood for any old thing not a great idea.

These are just a few tips. I’m sure there are many more. But ultimately, it all comes down to self-reflection. We can all mitigate our effect as gentrifiers if we engage in a bit of self-reflection and take time to learn from our new surroundings. Let’s leave our new neighborhoods just as great as we find them.