Equality is Not Pie; Libraries and the Insidiousness of Subtle Racism

It’s funny. I started this blog post over a week ago. The original catalyst for the post was affirmative action, google guy, and personal experiences in my own life. The reason it was taking so long was because I wanted to make sure it had the best mix of personal and professional tone. And primarily, because librarianship is a very white and female field. And a post like this, if not done right, could hurt me professionally in the long run. So, I really wanted to make sure that the information was portrayed in a way most palatable to what would most likely also be the post’s biggest audience — white women.

And then this weekend happened. And now, honestly, I do not care about palatability. This weekend has reinforced what most people of color know to be true—“civil” discourse is only reserved for white people. The differences in response between Charlottesville when the alt-right/Nazis marched and all of the Black Lives Matters protests are telling. The system isn’t broken. The system is doing what it was built for—the suppression and oppression of Black people and other people of color.

But this post isn’t about white male aggression. White male aggression is easily seen and understood. It’s all over Charlottesville (though white women marched as well and have actively supported them). White male aggression manifests as outwardly physical aggression. The goal is to take up as much space as possible whether it be physically (making themselves bigger, crowding your space, etc.) or verbally (the ten page antidiversity screed, the reason “are men talking too much” was created, and why certain library and archive listservs are rendered unusable, etc.).  There are a lot of great articles about how white male aggression is deployed in multiple contexts.

But I’m in librarianship which is a predominantly female field. And so this post is about white female aggression. White female aggression, like its male counterpart, is also born of white resentment. But it manifests in drastically different ways. In fact, while instinctually I knew what it was, it wasn’t until Leslie Mac broke down the exchange with White House Press Secretary Sanders and White House Press Correspondent, April Ryan that it all came together. Similar to my experience with the word microaggression, reading the breakdown suddenly put a name to various experiences I had had in my personal and professional life.

So, what exactly is white female aggression? It is the indirect, and often passive aggressive, ways that white women exert control and establish dominance over people of color, especially Black women. Unlike white male aggression, it is executed in phrasing and tone, and the goal is to damage or destroy one’s social standing. Like other types of relational aggression, it uses psychological manipulation to advance their own interests, while claiming ignorance of its harm to others. A great visual example of this is Kirsten Dunst’s role in Hidden Figures as the head of the computing women’s unit. Throughout the movie she actively builds roadblocks and attempts to stall careers, but maintains that she is not a bad person. Not only does her character maintain that she is not a bad person, but the movie does so as well, by having the scene where she shows a grudging modicum of respect to the Black women, as if the bare minimum is all that is needed to no longer be racist. 

White female aggression often uses the constructed idea of white womanhood (a precious fragile thing that must be protected at all costs) as a weapon and patriarchy as a shield against critique. It’s how we can know that 53% of white women voted for Trump, but still get stuff like this:

picture of prominent white liberal feminist saying that men are better at nazism than women

Many white women will tone police, dominate conversation, and then when challenged follow the following playbook— cry, accuse people of bullying, and/or attempt to excuse their behavior using self-care (check out this thread for numerous examples).

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If you know me at all, you know I’m all about self care; here I speak to the specific tone policing reaction that occurs when many white women are challenged on their problematic behaviour, and they in turn bow out of the conversation because of their need for self-care.

Like I said in my previous post, “nice white women” will lash out as soon as their allyship no longer maintains their own personal comfort. And this lashing out is often not loud and can be said with a smile as often as a frown. It’s insidiousness lies in its openness to “interpretation.”

And in libraries, many white women will fight together with women of color against the injustices of sexism and male domination in libraries (e.g. the fast-tracking of men to leadership), but are offended when confronted with the many ways they often fulfill their roles as oppressors. The equality white women strive for then, appears to women of color, as not equality but the freedom to oppress, when in fact, equality is not a pie. Uplifting women of color doesn’t mean less equality for white women, just like uplifting women as a whole doesn’t mean less equality for men. (Check out the root word of equality ya’ll, by definition no one is supposed to get more.)

Now that the macro has been covered, here is how white female aggression plays out in the micro. These are a few ways it has impacted me specifically, as well as other people of color I know.

  • The constant undermining of achievements. This is across the board. So it manifests in discussions about:
    • Me winning scholarships and travel grants: (“Well, it was probably one targeted for diversity, right? It’s hard because I’m X, but that isn’t considered diverse.”)
    • Me getting job offers: (“Congrats! Yeah, it must be nice that the field is trying to increase diversity.” This statement is sometimes followed with a “poor so and so” (white person) still hasn’t found a position,” or with a statement of how long it took them to obtain a full-time job with benefits.)
    • Money, negotiating, and salary: Conflation of pay statistics, as if all women are in the 77 cents to a white man’s dollar stat. In reality, Black women make 64 cents and Latinas make even less at 54 cents. Also, the insinuation (or direct accusation) that you are being paid more for adding to the institution’s diversity. It is often suggested, that this is, of course, at a more qualified white person’s expense.
    • Cultural fit. And all of the horror those two words contain.

And finally, vocational awe is most often and most dangerously deployed against POC in libraries. With the loaded history of stereotyping of Black and Latina women as lazy and not team players, as well as the stereotype of Black women as loud and aggressive, many white women use these stereotypes, and their own racist assumptions, to justify the exclusion of women of color from professional fields. And while the exclusion may not be from the field totally, white female aggression created the roadblocks that keep women of color in staff positions and/or those with lower pay. Things POC hear in the workplace time and again:

Statements like these intersect with these racist assumptions about qualifications, and ultimately exclude those who do not fit their standards of success.

Ultimately, white female aggression can be as violent, if not more so, than white male aggression. It operates within the most socially acceptable forms of white supremacy. By using passive aggressive and indirect methods of control and oppression it is hard to parse out, identify, and call out injustice, let alone fight against it. But just like microaggressions, once it is recognized, it can be challenged. Remember, equality is not pie. White women in libraries need not break the glass ceiling on the backs of WOC.

 

 

p.s. Many thanks to Elena, partner, and bomb-ass editor of this post.

Post-ALA Fatigue and “Nice White Ladies”

So this post has been brewing for a while. I am not sure if all the recent big changes in my life (new coast, new job, etc) have just made me more sensitive to the toxicity of nice white ladies or the summer months have been making them worse. Probably a bit of both honestly. But it has been exhausting to be in librarianship recently.

Honestly, I wish I could say I could be more eloquent about this. If you want to read that post, go look at April’s. She does an awesome job at describing racial fatigue and how that plays out at ALA. Here are just some examples from my experience.

ALA Microaggressions (a few of many)

  • “I hear what you’re saying about diversity, but it’s all about diversity of thought and experience. Confidence and “leaning in” will cure any and all things when it comes to being a leader in your workplace/libraries.”
  • “Dealing with the book vs ebook debate during my ALA presidency is on the same level as you (Todaro) dealing with the Trump administration.” (Yes, this was said without irony and with complete sincerity)
  • Various one on one interactions with white librarians.
  • The entirety of the Hillary closing keynote.

 

Not to mention just the environmental microaggression that is just being in a primarily white space. Seriously, there are not a lot of things as uncomfortable as just being in a space where you are so very clearly the minority. The anxiety and unease as you wait for the other shoe to drop (and it always always ALWAYS does) is like what I imagine walking through a minefield is like. The worst. And I know it’s not just me. Aisha Mirza describes that otherhood in her personal essay “White Women Drive Me Crazy.”

We trot out that statistic all the time about libraries being hella white. Yeah…that one. And we talk all the time about the feminization of the profession and how men might be the numerical minority (though some librarians at ALA also wanted to talk about how that too is diversity and that aggression is so big it’s basically a macroaggression) but are disproportionately represented in library leadership.

But what hits me most at these conferences are how often white women act as oppressors. How their “niceness” and “civility” are just weapons used against me and so many other librarians of color I know. How their allyship is so tied to their own comfort. How they will employ their tears over and over again to recenter themselves in the conversation.

But it’s ok! Because despite my pain, my fatigue, my struggle, white women will make posts like this.

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I love knowing that my body is seen as diverse. Not as a person. But as a pat on the back. But don’t worry when challenged (can it be a challenge if POC are sharing their experience???), she’ll listen, right? Right?

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And the support is always there. I’m sorry we made you uncomfortable. Of course you didn’t mean any harm. Of course your statements can’t cause any harm. Aisha puts in her byline “Innocent until proven innocent.” And so let it be written so let it be done.

 

After ALA I went to go see my partner in Boston (we’re currently bicoastal which sucks to say the least) and it was so lovely to be in a space with another queer person of color who loves me. Who I could actually recharge with. Who I could be all of myself with.

Part of the reason I hate the rhetoric around vocational awe is because I cannot love a field that doesn’t love me. I cannot love a profession where I cannot thrive due to facets of my identity. And I do not want to. I will continue to do the work I can to make the field better, but I will not put my whole self into a field that does not accept all of me. All of my blackness. All of my radicalness and attempts at decolonization.

Perhaps white women who will inevitably read this–go past the initial defensiveness and really hear what we are saying. Why is it that April and I and so many librarians of color I talked to feel this fatigue at ALA and other library spaces? Why is it that awesome leaders in our field like Jarrett Drake are leaving the profession?

As for me, I’m going to take a step back. I’m going to continue what my vacation week started and rest, recover, and recharge. And maybe soon I’ll have the energy to jump back in.

Vocational Awe?

Aka the humblebrag post in which I discuss how I came up with a term. 

When the call for proposals for the Identity, Agency, and Culture in Academic Libraries conference, I was super excited. It often felt like these topics were mentioned at other conferences, but not thoroughly and in only a select number of sessions. This was the opportunity to speak on how these things affect not only our work, but how we interact with other professionals.

Sveta invited me to be on a panel about being feeling ambivalence experienced while being a librarian, and I was like YES, these are the kinds of conversations that, in my opinion, are not done nearly enough and should be explored. As we were brainstorming, I mentioned that I was interested in deconstructing this idea of vocational awe in librarianship. I saw the concept as the root of a lot of problems within librarianship, especially in creating a work/life balance and in larger critiques of the field. As I worked on this panel, and in facilitating a roundtable with Rachel Fleming, I experienced just how pervasive it was within librarianship.

So it wasn’t until the night before the conference, when Sveta told me that I created the term, that I realized that this language wasn’t already in the discourse. For me, the phrase seemed so apropos that I thought everyone was using it. (ok humblebrag over)

So what exactly is “vocational awe?” Well simply put, it is the idea that libraries as institutions are inherently good. It assumes that some or all core aspects of the profession are beyond critique, and it, in turn, underpins many librarians’ sense of identity and emotional investment in the profession. The closest that Sveta found to a similar concept was occupational mythology in the journalism world.

Now there are many ways this plays out, but this is something that a librarian in my friend group recently put on Facebook.

vocational awe1

The story is about how a bunch of middle school students refused to participate in a photo op with Paul Ryan in DC due to disagreements over his alignment with Trump and general policies. But look at the comment. The person who shared this uses it as a platform to show how the amazing impact of libraries going as far as to say that since Alexandria, libraries have imparted these freedoms (freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedoms of communication, etc) on its peoples. If libraries are so inherently amazing, then why were so many libraries segregated? If librarians raise such free thinkers, why are there such rampant -isms (racism, sexism, ableism, etc) within librarianship? How can one really critique a field and the people within it, when it is held to such high esteem?

And so what happens when librarianship is seen as a calling rather than a profession? Well, you get articles like the one below:

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The language becomes about passion (and lack thereof) rather than advocacy and fulfillment. The more one struggles for their work, the “holier” it becomes and the less likely that people will fight for a healthier workspace, and the less likely it will be that people will actually separate themselves from their work. I mean how often have you heard someone say that they work through lunch and on the weekends, because they’re so “passionate” about what they do? Or that they should put a bed in their office? Since when is living at your workplace seen as a badge of honor? Why should working until you literally burnout due to physical and emotional exhaustion be the norm? While this article does go on to talk about emotional labor and some concrete strategies to belay it, the article title and abstract seem to conflate burnout with lack of passion rather than lack of institutional support.

Vocational awe is f*cking toxic and we as librarians need to stop spreading this rhetoric that libraries are this beacon of democracy and critical thinking. Libraries are just buildings. It is the people who do the work. And we need to treat these people well. You can’t eat on passion. You can’t pay rent on passion. It is not a sustainable source of income, and we need to stop treating vocational awe as the only way to be a librarian.

Huzzah! A new blog

So gonna try this blogging thing again. I’m not the greatest at long form writing, but it is helpful when 140 characters isn’t enough. So here I am. This blog will be my thoughts, rambles, and rants on libraries and librarianship; diversity and inclusion; education and instruction; and anything else of interest that crosses my path.