Saturday, December 12, 2015

The LIS "Minstrel" Show

(AKA The post in which I never cursed, although I really wanted to)

“The irony here is that while diversity is desirable on paper, it is often resisted in practice. This marginality and irony were not noticed or appreciated by the institution that thought hiring an African American female was enough to fulfill any larger organizational diversity goals. The care and retention of such a hire did not appear to be of consideration or concern.” Nicole Cooke (Full citation: Cooke, N. A. (2014, May). Pushing back from the table. Polymath: An Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Journal. Retrieved from

Libraries have gotten really good at diversity talk. Spurred on by this diversity talk in libraries and ALA, LIS education has finally gotten better at diversity talk as well. But, in both practice and education, almost everything I’ve seen isn’t really diversity. It’s talk. LIS* doesn’t seem to really want practitioners, educators, and students from diverse backgrounds. What LIS wants is a shiny, happy diversity that can’t exist in this world where so many forms of oppression continue to inform the lived experiences of so many people. LIS wants the PR photos for the websites and brochures, but not the reality in the stacks, offices, and classrooms. LIS seems to want people of color who aren’t ever allowed to be angry or even firmly state their opinions, immigrants (documented, of course) who want to slam the door behind them (while instantly becoming fluent English speakers), and Native peoples who have gotten “over” the genocide of the indigenous tribes in this (their) land.

All too often, when LIS does recognize various forms of oppression, it does so through a historical lens. Yes, indeed, things were bad for [insert group here]. We’re so glad things are better now!

Of course, now that we have an official designated month for almost every group, it’s become even easier for LIS to tokenize oppressed groups. We should just be thankful we have our specific month and stop talking so much. (Oh, while you’re here, would you mind chairing the steering committee for our new diversity action taskforce and mentoring these Spectrum Scholars?)

I have lost count of the times I have heard students and colleagues from oppressed groups described as “too sensitive,” or “angry,” or “having a chip on their shoulders,” or “dismissive.” These comments are all types of microaggressions, and LIS is a microaggression minefield. When you make an offhand comment about being surprised at how “professional” (or "articulate") my Black colleague and friend was (after she walks away), be prepared for me to ask you exactly what you meant. And you can believe that my comment about you to her later is going to be a lot less professional.

During my doctoral program, I had the great fortune of having a Black, retired school librarian in my cohort. Barbara and I became great friends through our coursework (capped by a seminar in Critical Race Theory (CRT) in Education seminar) and would often guest lecture in each other’s classes. As a Black woman teaching mostly White undergraduates, Barbara got no shortage of grief in her student evaluations, from “angry Black woman" comments to focusing “too much” on race. She and I eventually worked out a system where, before she ever broached the “diversity” subject, I came into her children’s literature courses and did a guest lecture about my research, the lack of diversity in youth literature, and an overview of CRT. In the course of that one lecture, I spent far more time talking about racism, oppression, and Whiteness than Barbara ever had in an entire course. But, because a White woman was the one doing the talking and bringing up the “r” word, it was no longer a problem for the students. It worked so well that Barbara and I were both appalled. (Honestly, I was far more appalled than Barbara, who was more sympathetically appalled in recognition of how surprised I was by the depths of racism and White privilege.)

I know that my Whiteness often gives me more freedom to talk about a lot of these issues than many of my colleagues have, particularly with other Whites. While I don’t have complete freedom (I’m apparently a “radical” and a SJW, which I had to Google), I can choose how I use my privilege. Sometimes that means really difficult conversations with White colleagues, practitioners, and students. It means not letting people get away with racist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, or microaggressive comments in my presence. Are there days when I don’t want to deal with it? Sure. Are there times when I know I should have said something and didn’t? You bet there are. I still make mistakes on this journey, but I believe I have a responsibility to make what difference I can.

I really hope that one day we as a society (or at least a discipline/profession) get to the point where I can stop doing this. (I mean people even say these things when they know what I teach and research!) Yet, again this semester, I had students in my multicultural course who chose to give more import to one of the few White writers we read than that they did to the plethora of African American, Asian American, Latinx, Native American, and bi/multiracial writers we also read. If, for whatever twisted reason, White people will listen to what other White people say while giving less importance to the voices of people of color and Native peoples, then we White people need to start making sure that we’re saying the right things.

So I’m saying: White people in LIS, if you really want diversity, inclusion, and equity, that means you have to acknowledge that racism is endemic in American society. Since LIS is a part of American society, racism is endemic in LIS. Talking about race and racism is hard, but we need to be doing more of it. And we all need to be doing it. Not just that special committee, task force, or action team you created. Every single one of us.

But before we even get to that point, we need to do something even more crucial. White LIS people, we need to listen. The African American, Asian American, Latinx, Native American, and bi/multiracial faculty, practitioners, and students (who haven’t already fled to other disciplines and professions after giving up on us) are already talking. They have never stopped talking. But we, White LIS people in general, have never really listened. We listened here and we listened there, over the course of time, but we never really listened. We only want happy talk, that “man, we used to have it rough, but those days are long gone” talk. Because, when people of color and Native peoples in our professional world start talking about contemporary oppression (even inside the library/library school/archives), we get defensive. Or offended. Or get our hackles up and shut down. 

Even among those of us who consider ourselves “allies,” there is still too much of a tendency to tell people of color and Native peoples how to feel or act or respond. Sometimes, we “allies” make things worse than other Whites, by confusing the issues and making situations more complicated for our colleagues and students. We, too, need to really listen.

If you are ready to listen, I would recommend that you join one of the organizations below and get involved with the intention of listening (not telling):

* Used to indicate overarching structures/habits/practices throughout LIS practice and education, while recognizing that there are (thankfully) individuals and institutions to whom this post does not apply.

(Thanks to Nicole Cooke for her feedback in writing this post.)


  1. Thank you!

    In 2000, I finished my PhD in Education from a Research I school. As the only Native person in the department and the entire college at that time, I was a lone voice and received support from some, but for the most part, the experience was unpleasant.

    In 2014 I finished my MLIS through San Jose State, as part of a cohort of Native people who regularly sought each other out for support. Going through the degree/classes together was a sharp and important contrast to my previous experience. The content of most of our readings were--not surprisingly--incredibly white. The institutionalized racism is very much part of what students in MLIS programs get.

    I'm pleased as can be with your writings on here and hope they're being read widely--and assigned, too--in MLIS courses.

  2. Thank you, Debbie, for your kind words and for providing me (and others) with such a commendable example of what public writing can accomplish.

  3. Thank you Robin--this is great. IMO--LIS and education in general are almost completely White-supremacist. I believe we construct knowledge. If the information we used is tainted by the lens of White-supremacy capitalist patriarchy--then the knowledge we construct from that information will be tainted with White-supremacist tendencies and un-examined axioms. LIS and education itself is almost completely uncritical of this. The legacies of colonialism are part of the pillars of our educational system. So many of the POC I meet in LIS and education are submissive to the system because they have bought into the system. While other, more radical thinkers publish dissertations and books that nobody reads for whatever reasons. We need to be proactive and also respond to backlashes in ways that are not reflections of victimization, but of empowerment, of voice and agency. Thank you for your work my friend!

  4. I really enjoyed this post. Thank you.

    It especially bothers me that, as a profession, we generally ignore the emotional labor that constantly being placed in positions where one is expected to "teach" his/her (even receptive, well-intended) colleagues must have on librarians of color. White librarians have a responsibility to educate ourselves about systems of oppression and subjugation, not simply rely on our colleagues of color to do so when we feel so inclined. If white librarians sometimes "don't want to deal with it," imagine how someone who constantly "has to deal with it" must feel.