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.

 

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