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.

 

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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.

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.