Watching whiteness work.

After receiving some requests, I’ve decided to post the text of my Twitter thread on professional development and diversity. A bit of context: I wrote these tweets on the way home from ALA Midwinter, which was for me a mixed bag of inspiring and frustrating moments. I flew to Atlanta on the day of the inauguration, with all its attendant emotions, and I skipped a few sessions to participate in the Atlanta Women’s March. I met and reconnected with countless wonderful colleagues, for whom I’m overwhelmingly grateful.

I also encountered, however, the full spectrum of attitudes that enable and entrench this profession’s whiteness. Anastasia Chiu and Zoe Fisher, among others, have already written eloquently about some of the overt racism at Midwinter in Council and featured speaker events. At the sessions and meetings I attended, I particularly noticed a stubborn insistence that librarians are overwhelmingly “liberal” and thus 1) racial minorities must feel perfectly at ease in such a liberal environment and 2) it’s the conservative “minority” who really feel unwelcome and whose feelings we really need to worry about.

(There are many smart critiques of white liberalism out there; I’m a fan of Charles W. Mills on the whiteness of liberal political philosophy, but Brittney Cooper is a more readable place to start.)

My tweets were a reaction to my colleagues’ disbelief that people of color find themselves unwelcome – and often outright oppressed – in our profession, and to the advice frequently given to people of color who try to navigate success in this field and who may call out the obstacles they meet along the way.

My thoughts on whiteness, labor, and memory work have been influenced by too many of you to name. For further reading, allow me to recommend:

I’ve edited lightly for clarity and the shift in format, and added a few links. I keep my Twitter account locked, but I will happily accept follow requests from fellow librarians and library-adjacent folks; to view the original thread, start here:

Ok, it’s time for some cranky librarian theory.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that our professional organizations run on free labor. This is a challenging reality for an already exploited, underpaid, feminized workforce with great disparities in labor conditions. We are also, as has been well-documented, an overwhelmingly white profession with a troubling history of participation in structural racism. Our equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) efforts often hinge on assimilating marginalized folks into our existing professional structures, including our models of uncompensated professional service.

A common gut reaction is to encourage minorities to “get more involved!!” I think I speak for many Nice White Ladies™️️  when I say that this comes from a place of good intention. We want to show our colleagues that we value their opinions, experiences, and talents; that we view them as “one of us”; that we want to see more diverse leadership; and that we want to see them “succeed” according to the established markers of success for our profession. I would like us to take a step back, however, before we follow up on this impulse, because it implies a few problematic things:

1) That they aren’t already working their ass off

2) That we white/able bodied/cis/whatever-form-of-privileged folks lack responsibility for achieving EDI goals

3) That their other professional interests and goals should be subordinate to their duty to help us fix our diversity problem

4) That they should participate in a problematic and exploitive professional system in order for us to feel that we’re being “inclusive”

Instead, I challenge us, before we just say, “get involved!!” to find out if the person actually wants that type of position or responsibility. If so, figure out how you can support and advocate for them. If not, listen to and internalize their concerns so that YOU can lift them up. If you can’t do the work yourself for whatever reason, recruit one of your privileged friends to do it.

Meanwhile, we must take seriously the reality that our profession’s labor challenges and our EDI problems are two sides of the same coin. We must advocate for professional development and service to be considered “real” work for ALL kinds of librarians. We must advocate for better compensation, for an end to contingent employment, and for robust workplace equality legislation. Until then, the attempt to assimilate marginalized people into our professional habitus will continue to be exploitive.

Written on February 16, 2017