According to philosopher Charles Mills, a racial contract exists among whites in which they keep full citizenship rights and resources for themselves. Mills asserts that the resulting white-supremacist state oppresses blacks by ensuring differential access to civic and economic opportunities. Much of the power of the racial contract arises from its invisibility to the whites who benefit from it: “white misunderstanding, misrepresentation, evasion, and self-deception on matters related to race are among the most pervasive mental phenomena of the past few hundred years.”
The surprise that some white people register on learning of the historical existence of separate libraries for African Americans suggests that we need to counter the hegemonic narrative of white public library history. Conceptualizing an unacknowledged underlying racial contract among whites intent on expanding their own material, political, and cultural resources at the expense of non-whites makes differential access to public libraries unsurprising. (From Cheryl Knott’s Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow, University of Massachusetts Press, 2015. Italics original to Mills)
I am in Colorado right now, preparing for a day of travel back to Kansas. Yesterday, I was the lunch speaker at an all-day workshop for youth services staff in Colorado public libraries. The title of my talk was “Beyond Bilingual Storytime: Best Practices for Culturally Relevant Public Library Youth Collections and Services.” The talk went well, there were some good questions, and I even quoted a bit from Knott’s book, as I am in the midst of reading it.
Immediately after I finished speaking (and sporadically over the course of the afternoon), I was approached by many people with questions and comments that they hadn’t want to share in the open Q&A following my talk. Some talked about the difficulty of either purchasing or getting patrons to check out books that have won many of the awards I had mentioned during my talk (like the Coretta Scott King Award, for example). With many libraries moving toward patron-driven acquisitions or high-demand collections, librarians are being forced to actually withdraw these books because they aren’t circulating in their communities.
Others spoke to tensions between departments and management when requesting to do programs for youth of color in their communities, of either being told that such a program had been tried once before and no one came or that that “type” of programming could be handled by the outreach department, because those people don’t come to the library anyway!
WAIT… WHAT? First of all, I am so sick of the old “We tried that in [insert year here]!” chicken shit argument in our profession. Where would we be as a species if we gave up after something failed the first time we tried it? Basically every medical or scientific advancement came about through a process of trial and error. As children, we learn to keep trying things when we fail the first time, regarding everything from eating by ourselves to riding bicycles to learning to read and calculate math problems. But have a library program fail, and we just give up?!?! We see you when you make these excuses and hear them for what they are: excuses to cover your own prejudices and biases.
And, to any LIS managers, directors, and supervisors out there reading this: If you are using phrases like “those people” to refer to any segment of your community, do us all a favor and retire or find some other profession to harm. Don’t let the Library Bill of Rights trip you on the way out!
Finally, another librarian and I spent some time talking about something I didn’t even cover in my 45-minute talk: the “new” public library. She mentioned how her library had recently renovated to focus more on technology (recording studios, gaming rooms, maker spaces, etc.) with physical book collections receiving considerably less floor space and prominence in library programming. Since the library had reopened, she was noticing a disturbing trend in the types of patrons using the library. Even though the community was becoming increasingly more racially and ethnically diverse, the users were becoming Whiter and more affluent since the redesign. This trend is something I’ve noticed myself in public, academic, and school library settings. Others have written about this as well. Who are we welcoming (and not welcoming) with our modern library designs and focus on technology? Who is your library privileging? (Please don’t even suggest anything that buys into the Model Minority Myth here!)
So, White librarians, where does that leave us? I’d say not too damn much better off than where we were in the 1970s and 1980s, when the profession was having many of these same conversations. While things like actual physical access have improved since the period covered by Knott’s book, there are still so many other ways we privilege Whiteness in public (and other) libraries every single day, from what we collect to where we locate branches to who we hire.
How do we change things? More of us have to come to grips with the White supremacist society in which we all live and which undergirds the very institutions in which we work. More of us have to learn to listen and stop getting defensive every, single time anyone starts talking about race or White Privilege or intersectionality. And, at the heart of it all, we White librarians have to start holding each other accountable when we see our fellow White librarians making decisions (small and large) that actively or subversively oppress segments of our communities.
“If you want your library to thrive, the community must thrive. To be a librarian is not to be neutral, or passive, or waiting for a question. It is to be a radical positive change agent within your community.” R. David Lankes