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.

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Hamilton and the White Gaze

After shelling out way too much on a ticket about a year ago, I finally went to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton last week. It was amazing, of course. And yet.

I have such conflicted feelings about the experience of sitting in an audience that looked like this:

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Tweet of emojis about what it felt like being the only POC in my section at Hamilton.

Here I was at a f-cking brilliant Broadway show that borrowed heavily from black musical traditions, written by a genius of a latinx man, with a cast full of people of color, and all of it, all of it, taking place under the laser focus of the ever-present white gaze.

Especially given the period-ness of the piece and the references to black enslavement, it made me think about how white slave owners, like Washington or Jefferson, used to make their enslaved folks perform songs and dance from their native traditions for the amusement of white folks on the plantation. Even today the white gaze voraciously lays claim to the cultural heritage of us “others”: white people designate their “spirit animals” as they sit back and listen to jazz, rock, or pop and contemplate checking out the latest film featuring ancient traditions from this or that culture that has been white-washed beyond recognition. Yet, for many, never once do they stop and reflect on the cultural appropriation taking place to make their chosen entertainment possible.

“It must be nice, it must be niiice…” to be able to use your gaze to claim ownership to the creations of others. To mark that territory as your own just as surely as your ancestors planted flags in inhabited lands and killed the native “scourge” in the names of their kings and queens.

All of this felt so real to me sitting there with all those white folks, watching this amazing show that showcased so much of what people of color bring to culture, and sensing that so much of that simply bounced off their privileged white bubbles. To my dismay, my seat-mates sat stone-faced while I rejoiced openly at all the sampling and references to music my people have created, most of which I recognized right away. (Except, good grief, I don’t know where I was when Biggie released the “Ten Crack Commandments” cuz I didn’t catch that one and my sis had to set me straight. Forgive me, y’all.) I cried “Amen!” when Jefferson got called out on his ownership of slaves and watched as the folks sitting next to me shifted uncomfortably in their seats. I hooted and whistled, much to the annoyance of those around me, when someone successfully spat a particular witty and fast-paced set of lyrics. I groaned out loud when a character said or did something stupid, thereby catching side-eye from those to my left and my right.

To them, I was disrupting their enjoyment of this show on the “Great White Way” (oh, so much loaded into that phrase)—this show that was their show, created for their amusement. Just made me shake my damn head.

I wish I had millions of dollars—with the gentrified ticket prices to this show, it would take that much at least—to buy up the Rodgers Theater and hand out tickets in my Harlem neighborhood (“Hey, neighbors! Did you know Hamilton lived right up the street? You can still visit his house. Also, this show is great!); “In the Heights” that Miranda has always called home; in Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy where Biggie grew up (well, what’s left of his neighborhood given the rampant gentrification of Brooklyn); in the Bronx where hip hop was born; throughout all the communities of color in this city that witnessed the actual events on which Hamilton is based. “Folks, come on in! Feel free to whoop and holler and dance! Make some noise! Enjoy! Relish in seeing folks who look like you on stage. Live the experience. See what it’s like to finally recognize yourself in the story of a Founding Father. Delight in this brilliant show. ‘History has its eye on you’…but maybe, just maybe, this can be a moment for you to enjoy outside the white gaze.”

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. 

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.

Performing Whiteness with “Little Black Tombo”

This past summer I read Lois Benjamin’s book The Black Elite (check out my Recommended Reading list) and in it she quotes a story written by Arthur Hoppe, a white columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. The story was published in 1968 in the midst of the black civil rights movement.

In the story of “Little Black Tombo,” the title character, an enslaved boy, wants “to be free, to be equal and to be a man.” So a group of characters known as “some Nice White People” set out to help Tombo achieve his goals. First, they change the laws and offer him freedom from slavery. But Tombo still doesn’t feel equal to them. Then, they help him secure an education. To no avail, though with education, Tombo decides to change his name to “Tom.” Then, they change the laws to allow Tom to purchase a home in their neighborhoods. That still doesn’t work. And so, they conclude,

“The problem,” said some Nice White People, “is sociological. You must dress like us, talk like us, and think like us. Then, obviously, you will be equal to us.”

Tom does all this, and while he is never accepted as an equal of the Nice White People, he does get invited to their cocktail parties and asked to share his opinion “but only about racial matters” as the story goes.

Reading through this story made me think about the work I’ve been doing in examining the ways in which people of color perform whiteness in order to gain and maintain privilege in our society. When I wrote my article on whiteness for ITLWTLP, I was saddened by the number of POC, most of whom enjoying some privilege or other, who responded so defensively to the idea that performing whiteness is a natural part of our defense in a racially-charged world. They wanted to believe that their ability to enjoy the fruits of their hard work and boot-strap-pulling was solely a matter of their own innate, racially neutral, color-blind efforts.

And I get that. I used to feel the same way. But the fact is that, like Little Black Tombo, we all reach the point in this white supremacist world when we realize we have to be a person of color-but-not-too-much-color in order to get ahead. We have our own well-intentioned, liberal-leaning, self-proclaimed allies of Nice White People subtly encouraging us to “dress like [them], talk like [them], and think like [them].” And when it’s necessary, we do just that.

There’s nothing wrong with being a POC performing whiteness for self-preservation. At least, there’s nothing wrong in the sense of self-blame or shame for POC. We live in the world of white supremacy, and we do what we must to survive. In the black community, we are often taught the importance of wearing “The Mask” to get in the door and up the ladder, so that once we’re there, we can change things up and make things better for everyone else.

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“Vergessen” by Rubina V. via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

And that’s the key. We perform whiteness without shame because we’re answering to a higher calling, if you will; we’re doing so for reasons that reach beyond ourselves. It’s one of many strategies in our mission to force change in our white supremacist world. So, while I perform whiteness without shame to move up in the world, as I move to each new level, I also shout out against the white supremacy that requires my performance in the first place. It’s a multi-level approach in my radicalism. Each level I clear, I strive to make less racist for the next person coming through in the hope that the need for performing whiteness can be done away with altogether.

One last note: It’s important to realize that performing whiteness and having privilege are not the same. We, as POC, can have privilege on our own merit. We’re smart and charismatic and talented and brilliant people. We don’t have to be white for that. But in some cases, in far too many cases, we have to perform whiteness in order to have our smarts, charisma, talent, and brilliance fully recognized. We can work hard and gain privilege, be it financial or educational or something else. But more often than not, we have to perform whiteness successfully to be able to enjoy the fruits of that hard-won privilege.

So, we do. For now. But the struggle continues and the struggle is real. And with the way things have been going lately, they’re probably only going to get worse before they get better.

By the way, in the end of the story, Tom changes his name to “Tombo X,” grows a beard, wears dark glasses, and shouts, “Black is beautiful” before hitting a couple of the Nice White People over the head. When they complain with “deeply hurt” white feelings, the response goes,

“It’s funny,” said Tombo X, smiling, “but at last I feel like a man.”

 

More Thoughts on Diversity Initiatives in LIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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