A chronic lack of nuance & a love of the hypothetical: a library story

Author’s note: Content warning  – this post contains discussions of transphobia and TERF rhetoric.

I’ve been doing my best not to engage with the Toronto Public Library situation, because I’m exhausted by it and all the other similar examples out there. But these situations demonstrate how so many libraries seem determined to drive out their marginalized library workers and patrons  – and so I felt like I should say something rather than potentially be complicit in my silence. And, to be fair, it is not like libraries are the only places doing this. For instance, Facebook is currently under fire for including Breitbart under its tab dedicated to quality news, a decision Zuckerberg defended as a need for a “diversity of views.” There has been a steady increase in providing space and amplification for the “views” of bigoted outlets, individuals, and groups -like Nazis- in the interest of “hearing both sides.” But it seems especially isolating and sad when institutions like libraries, that pride themselves so much on the values of inclusion, are so determined to exclude the ones who need support the most.

So, for those who may not know, there is a conversation surrounding Toronto Public Library (TPL) and the hosting of the conservative writer/journalist, Meghan Murphy, who is regarded by many as a trans-exclusionary radical feminist or TERF. For those who are unaware of the rhetoric of TERFs, here are some of the main arguments/beliefs:

  • only those born with vaginas are women
  • trans women, therefore, are not women
  • trans women are men pretending to be women to encroach into women’s spaces and rape them
  • and many other, awful, and bigoted beliefs.

The issue of meeting room spaces and hate groups have been a growing conversation in libraries. The main argument for proponents of letting hate groups use the library is “neutrality.” Jennifer Ferretti has done an amazing job at demonstrating how neutrality is hostility and polite oppression. In fact, she, Anastasia Chiu, and I will be releasing a book chapter about how vocational awe and neutrality intertwine to uphold white supremacy in librarianship. But, the long and short of it is this:

Libraries were, aren’t, and can NEVER be neutral because they are an institution situated in a white supremacist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic society and therefore reflect those hegemonic, bigoted views. It is only through ACTIVE work against those values that libraries can push back against the “natural” and therefore “neutral” state of things. And thus, “neutrality” in most all cases upholds white supremacy and further marginalizes communities in need. Subsequently, upholding “neutrality” goes directly against the “safe and welcome spaces” that libraries purport themselves to be. Because the only people who can be safe in a space with Nazis (or in this case TERFS) are those who are either or both:

  • comfortable with the ideology
  • privileged enough to not be harmed by those with said ideology

 

That’s it. No one else.

And the thing is, bigotry is the norm. I’ll say it again. White supremacy is the norm. Transphobia is the norm and enforced by state power. And we all have access to it, all of the time. It’s policy. We’re swimming in it. It isn’t a radical act to create a space where bigoted voices are “heard” and people are marginalized. And libraries, like other institutions, have demonstrated with these instances that it isn’t marginal speech that is being protected, but that of the bigoted powerful. Library workers told the Nashville chapter of Black Lives Matter (BLM) that they weren’t allowed to host meetings in the library because the BLM meetings were only open to people of color and therefore excluded white people. Yet, wouldn’t a Nazi meeting by its very ideology exclude people of color? Jewish people? Why is the outrage suddenly present when the marginalized want to protect themselves? The Nazis or TERFS might not explicitly put “no Black/trans people” can come, but the sentiment is there. The very ideology driving the groups’ need to speak and meet, explicitly says to the marginalized person: “You should not exist, and we are meeting with the goal of figuring out how to make sure you don’t.” But because they don’t fill out meeting space paperwork that says the marginalized groups are not invited, they, or anyone with an interest in propping them up, can lean on the hypothetical Black or trans person who technically can attend the meeting (as well as the extremely rare case in which such things do happen).

But – let’s be honest, if a large group that was all-white had a meeting in most libraries, would it be pegged as exclusionary? No, like most whiteness, its power lies in its invisibility, the extreme normality of its exclusionary existence. Another example was the outcry by some librarians when they learned of a Black Lives Matter book display a librarian created in the library’s teen space. She received pushback stating that “all sides” should be heard and therefore All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter displays should be created as well. But when library displays have all white and/or all straight authors/characters, how often is it noticed as exclusionary? Are these same “champions of neutrality” raising their voices at every YA book display with only white authors? If so, those voices would be very hoarse by now. Again, why is it only when the marginalized come together as a collective that it is suddenly important to include the “other side?”

Toronto Public Library’s statement shows that they privilege some hypothetical LGBTQ group that isn’t harmed by homophobia and transphobia rather than the very real people of their community who are protesting the event, explaining how TERF ideology harms them and their ability to safely exist in the same space. TPL argued that protestors are asking them “…to censor someone because of the beliefs they hold and to restrict a group’s right to equitably access public space and we cannot do either.” Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences. TPL cannot purport to be a safe space for LGBTQ people and also invite someone who does not believe in their humanity and personhood. There is no such thing as “civil discourse” between someone who doesn’t believe in your very existence and someone who does. Not only does the onus then fall on the marginalized group to “prove they should exist,” but – as hatred and bigotry are based on ideology and not facts – there’s no way for the marginalized to “win” in what, is again, a hypothetical “dialogue” TPL claims it must “champion.” In fact, TPL is most honest when it explains what it means when it says it welcomes the LGBTQ community: “Libraries have always been committed to supporting vulnerable communities by welcoming and creating space for different perspectives…” Indeed, TPL “welcomes” the vulnerable by creating space for entrenched “perspectives”  like that those vulnerable people should not exist. They don’t at all claim they’ll value marginalized perspectives like those expressed by community protestors: we’d like to be welcomed into a library free from those who would harm us.

So again there is, and never was, a dialogue or debate to win. The only people “winning” here are the bigots and the complicit. And a place where the bigoted feel safe cannot also be a place where the marginalized feel safe. In fact, let’s break that down a little bit. What has TPL “won” by showing that they privilege hypothetical people and ideals over the reality?

  • the alienation of real LGBTQ patrons and community
  • the alienation of real LGBTQ library workers
  • the alienation of LGBTQ allies (e.g. Toronto literary community)
  • the approval of hate groups

It seems to me then that the only thing Toronto Public Library has shown is that it does not actually want to represent the community, but instead represent “ideals” and hypothetical patrons and debates. They are not the first library to make these decisions, nor, unfortunately will they be the last, but I believe that change can occur. And, in fact, I believe that libraries are situated in a place where they can truly begin to counter these larger misunderstandings of neutrality and other instances of “both sides” rhetoric.

Currently, the sociopolitical climate is such that marginalized voices are being even more repressed and hatred and bigotry are increasingly endorsed outright by those in power. As such, wouldn’t “the other side” we need to hear be that of the marginalized? Having all Black or all queer displays are seen as political, because the identities of the authors who get published and the stories that are told, are so entrenched their identity politics are not recognized as such. Yet these “mainstream” authors and stories don’t accurately reflect the demographics of America and the world. So, there is a “side” that truly needs to be lifted up and heard, it is that of marginalized people. Where there is an inherent imbalance of narratives, giving equal weight to the privileged and the marginalized does not create balance, it gives more weight to the privileged. So, when libraries use “welcoming all” to give equal weight to hate groups and activists, they are not in fact being neutral, but instead giving more support to hate groups and bigotry.

Libraries, as repositories of information, hold the keys to understanding the nuances of marginalization and power. If anyone should be able to replace hypotheticals with realities, it is the library.

 

5 Years: A Reflection

As I prepare for my presentation at ACRL, I realize that it’s almost 5 years to the date that I did my very first presentation. It was for MARAC (Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference) and I was terrified. I was weeks away from graduation, and had no idea where I was going or what was coming next. The reason I was on this panel despite no archival experience was because Anna-Sophia Zingarelli-Sweet heard me bumble my way through a lightning talk about intersectionality at Midwinter, and thought my perspective might be worth hearing. I’ll forever be grateful to her for asking. And to God for putting the right people in my path at the right time.

So much has changed since then. I first started speaking about intersectionality because of my experience at Rutgers during library school. I had been so excited about going to Rutgers for my MLIS, not only because it was one of the best school library programs, but also because the campus itself was so diverse. After spending four years at a PWI (primarily white institution) I was excited to be surrounded by people who actually looked like me. And Rutgers, the campus lived up to that reputation! As I wandered campus and walked through the student centers, I saw people from all walks of life…which made it all the more heartbreaking when I realized I was the the ONLY women of color on the school library track in my cohort. And that the people of color in the entire program could be counted using one hand. I felt isolated and alone. It seemed like no aspect of my identity was considered valid let alone valuable to the profession.

Although the profession hasn’t become more diverse in these past 5 years, I do not feel quite so alone. I have found a community of amazing and radical women of color through programs such as MIECL (Minnesota Institute for Early Career Librarians) as well as at conferences. Oftentimes those conversations had over dinner and in hallways have been more vital to my professional development than the actual conference! And as I’ve grown in the field my research has changed and grown with me.  I would never have been able to coin the concept vocational awe without understanding white supremacy and how it intersects with librarianship and institutional culture, power, and labor.

From writing articles, speaking, at conferences, to making a microaggressions game, and  coining a concept are all things I never would have guessed I could do back when I was doing a 5 minute lightning talk or speaking in a small room in Rochester. I’m still learning and growing, and I’m excited to see where the next 5 years takes me.

Giving Thanks

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)

 

Whether it’s from the song Turn! Turn! Turn! or from the Biblical chapter of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, I’ve always loved the idea that there is a season for everything. And although November is usually the month of giving thanks, technically, you’re supposed to be giving thanks always. And so now, as the last month of 2018 continues marching ever slowly, here are some things I’m thankful for:

 

  • Getting to go to JCLC and speaking with amazing people (Sofia, Rae, Charlotte, April, and Rebecca!) to a room of amazing and beautiful POC.
  • Getting a new job!
  • Moving back to my homestate of New Jersey
  • Eating delicious tacos and burritos in Cali and delicious bagels and pizza in Jersey
  • My beautiful and amazing partner without whom I’d be lost always
  • Christmas time! I’ve been listening to Christmas music since September, but it’s nice to finally be in a month where even the Grinchiest of Grinches can’t begrudge my joy.
  • And finally, writing my vocational awe article and seeing the amazing reach that it has had in libraryland. Can you believe it came out January of this year? I feel like the language of libraries has changed just slightly because of its naming and its humbling and amazing to be a little part of that.

 

Happy December everyone! 2018 has been hard, and while it’s so much easier to remember how horrible things can be; it’s much more brave and radical to remember how amazing our lives has/can/will be.

 

Black Face–White Space

It has been a long while since I’ve been to a smaller state conference. It’s been just over two weeks since I returned from the California Academic and Research Libraries (CARL) conference. It was, for the most part, a great conference. I got to speak about critical pedagogy which I always enjoy. I met some cool and interesting librarians. And I got to reconnect with friends that I don’t normally get to see outside of conferences.

But throughout the conference I couldn’t help but think of the Starbucks boys handcuffed and put in jail for hours just for existing in a gentrified space. They were in the building for only two minutes before the police were called. Two minutes.  During the opening plenary, Miguel Figueroa mentioned that when he posted about Philando Castile, that he lost a lot of followers because “it has nothing to do with libraries.” As if the lives of our communities mean nothing to us. It’s not like one of our espoused values is being open to all or anything. But since ALA and librarians in general have shown time and time again, that caring is dependent on whether the victim was a librarian (like with the Charleston 9 — besides Cynthia Hurd can you actually name any of the other victims?). So, I wasn’t necessarily expecting librarians to say anything about this event. However, the few things I did see from the library world were not what I expected. The response was basically a self-congratulatory pat on the back for being a space where one doesn’t have to pay for anything in order to be present.

And it just broke my heart. Librarianship seems to pride itself on being better than these “commercial” spaces when it comes to equity despite its own history. And sure enough, despite the field’s apparent superiority complex when it comes to being safe spaces for all, a new story broke yesterday about a police officer who broke a teenager’s jaw in the library. The teenager was yelled at for putting her feet on a chair and even though the teen complied, she was pushed into a book cart and onto the floor, dragged toward the exit, and then had her jaw broken.

There have been countless studies showing that Black people are seen as “violent” and “angry.” This phenomenon starts at birth. In Sister Citizen, Melissa Harris-Perry likens the experiences of Black women to that of attempting to stand up straight in a “crooked room,” all while being “bombarded with warped images of their humanity.”

CARL was a nice reprieve in many ways because I spent most of my time surrounded by people of color. From my roommates to lunches and other gatherings, I was enveloped in the comfort of librarians of color. But, despite the shielding, it was hard not to notice the very different conversations that we were having vs our white colleagues. After Charlotte Roh’s amazing discussion about the structures of power and privilege in scholarly publishing, the first question was “how do I add diverse books to my collection?” Now at its face, this question may not seem like a bad one, but this question without fail is asked when any women of color (WOC) discusses the inequitable experiences that people of color (whether it be the librarians or the patrons) undergo. On its face, it implies a desire and willingness to learn. And yet, in no other sessions, have I heard questions on how to do question development. Why is it then when faced with race do the skills and knowledge about how to build a collection evaporate? Currently, there are multiple award winners written by POC. To me it is reminiscent of the questions around hiring people from diverse backgrounds. Choosing people of color does not somehow diminish the quality of the library. And ultimately these questions come off as “help me do my job” and the optics of white people continually asking librarians of color to help them with diversity is not a great one. Especially when the question/comment that inevitably follows is a defensive one that basically boiled down to “not all librarians.” As I sat at my table with only librarians of color, we couldn’t help but look at each other and sigh because it’s not hard to know just what is thought of us. How unwilling some of our colleagues are to see us as people. At conferences, my hair has been groped, I’ve been mistaken for a server or as the help, and experienced plenty of other such fun microaggressions.

So, as I read the stories about Starbucks and libraries who refuse the personhood of Black people, all I can ask myself is “if I wasn’t a librarian, how would they see me in this room?” And unfortunately, I know the answer to that. Despite the fact that I am in fact a librarian, they still only seem to see my Blackness.

 

But, I will say this. My Blackness is beautiful. My Blackness is magic. My Blackness is powerful. And while librarianship may try and contain me, I will not be contained.

 

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).

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 3.29.36 PM

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.

whitewomen1

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?

whitewomen2

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.