All posts filed under “Race/Ethnicity

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Spaces of (Dis)Comfort

Photo of the NYPL Rose Reading Room

NYPL Rose Reading Room by Sebas Ribas via Unsplash.com

When my partner and I decided to spend our sabbatical year in Houston, we thought long and hard about where we wanted to live. Criteria included:

  • In Town (we’d had enough of rural suburban living)
  • Affordable (think very small apartment)
  • Within walking/biking distance of Rice University (where my partner would be working on his research)
  • Zoned to a good public school (my son was starting kindergarten)

That last criteria, when combined with the others, pretty much restricted us to a very small and tidy garage apartment in a very upscale neighborhood near Rice University and the Texas Medical Center. When deciding on a place to live, I had lots of discussions about what made a school a “good school” with other POCs, white friends who get it, and my parents, who were both public school teachers. “Good school” is such a loaded term, and is often, unfortunately code for “white” for many white people and POCs alike. For us, good school meant a school that wasn’t falling apart, had caring teachers, a diverse student body, and good learning opportunities for students. Our son’s school has all of these things, thanks to the VERY WEALTHY families who live within its zoned boundaries and their ridiculously expensive property taxes.

As much as I love my son’s school, it makes me very uncomfortable on a daily basis. My husband and I might posses combined education equal to or greater than most of the parents in the neighborhood, but it certainly doesn’t translate into dollars (thanks, academia!), and it shows. The school repeatedly asks for money for upkeep, special events, classroom needs, teacher professional development, etc. and I can’t help but think a) I don’t have that kind of cash; and b) there are other schools with a much poorer tax base that need that money so much more. I was terrified at kindergarten registration that we wouldn’t have the necessary documentation to prove that we were actually living within the school zone boundaries after being asked to bring in far more documents than the school district actual requires because, and I quote “so many families try to sneak in” (side note: what does that say about other schools in this district and distribution of funding?). I felt small and brown and poor as I waited for the registrar to give us the ok (which we eventually got, after having to go home for more documentation). I felt like I was trying to sneak in.

I feel like an imposter at PTO meetings. Despite the diversity of the school, I can still count the number of black and latino students on my hands. The wealth is overwhelming. There are small apartments and duplexes hidden in this neighborhood, but I don’t ever meet those parents at PTO meetings or school events because they are, as I would be if I weren’t on sabbatical, working. I want to feel as though I have every right to be at this school with my son, but somehow I haven’t internalized the comfort in all situations that comes naturally to my white, male partner.

I write all this not to air my grievances at public school funding or socioeconomic stratification in large cities–ok, maybe I want to do this a little. I write this because I don’t stop to think often enough about the ways in which students may feel completely out of place and uncomfortable in our library spaces. There are likely many students who walk into an academic library for the first time and immediately think: nope, not for me. I had a wonderful time at the Identity, Agency, and Culture in Academic Libraries conference at the University of Southern California this summer, but again, felt way out of place in that library space. It felt old and dignified and rich and not for me. I feel that way (and did when I was an undergrad) about the Rice University library as well. It sounds ridiculous but if I see heavy wooden trim and oak desks I immediately feel like someone is going to tell me “I’m sorry but you can’t be in here,” and I’ve worked in libraries for 10 years!

There’s something about the University of Houston library and my local public library that doesn’t feel that way at all. They’re bright and bustling. I hear people speaking Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and a host of other languages I can’t readily identify. It’s loud. I see brown faces studying, working the service desk, conducting campus tours, and leading story time. It all makes a huge difference. It makes me feel like I belong.

I know that there is this tendency to want to blame people for their own feelings of imposter syndrome; that somehow it’s their fault that they are feeling that way and should just get over it. I want to call bullshit on that tendency. There are real divisions in our society that break down along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic status lines. Class, gender, and sexuality all have an impact on how we experience the world. We can’t expect all students to find our libraries comforting and helpful unless we think about ways to actually make those students feel welcome and comfortable. Re-examining our library spaces shouldn’t be confined to studies of function and use; they should include studies of feelings as well, particularly those feelings of students who never set foot in our spaces because it’s a source of discomfort to them.

I don’t know if I’ll ever feel 100% comfortable among the parents and teachers at my son’s elementary school, but I keep going to school events in hopes that one day I’ll sit next to another parent living in a duplex or garage apartment in this neighborhood. We’ll see each other’s worn out shoes, Target t-shirts, and outdated phones and think: Yes, I do belong here.

 

 

 

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Returning from the ACRL Delaware Valley Chapter Fall Forum

I was invited to speak at the ACRL Delaware Valley Chapter Fall Forum at beautiful Swarthmore College last Friday, November 11 (thank you, Sarah Elichko!). The days leading up to the event were, to say the least, emotional. On Tuesday, Nov. 8 my family and I stayed home from work and school to celebrate the birth, death, and brief, in-utero life of my son Connor. We planted tulip, daffodil, and crocus bulbs; made a chocolate pie; took a family trip to show that we were with Her; and generally just spent time together.

We also watched the election results.

I went to bed on the verge of tears, hating that what should have been a day of remembrance and celebration turned into an evening of fear, anxiety, and disgust. I woke up on Wednesday like so many others–angry, disbelieving, horrified. I exchanged hugs with students and colleagues on campus, and listened to people sharing their broken hearts. Then it was time to drive to Pennsylvania.

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel speaking in front of and being around a crowd, but thankfully, I was among friends. The topic of the forum–Critlib: Theory and Action–should have been a signal that these were exactly the type of people I needed to be around at that moment. It was inspiring to hear from Jeremy McGinniss, Romel Espinel, and Adam Mizelle about the work they’re doing in their own libraries. Also, the closing activity led by DeVon Jackson at Villanova University just tied everything together beautiful. It was a day of sharing, but also a day of planning the resistance for the four years to come.

I thought I’d share my slides which include the text of the talk with you, in case you’re interested in reading it (you can open the speaker notes by clicking on the gear below, or just clicking on the linked text above). I think now more than ever we’re going to need critical voices in librarianship and in our country. I might still be sad, disheartened and angry, but I’m also ready for the fight ahead.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Information Inequality

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Photo from the World Bank Photo Collection on Flickr – The Jugaani, Georgia Village School computer lab

I just finished rereading David James Hudson’s recent article — On Dark Continents and Digital Divides — and I think I finally *get it* (insomuch as anyone can really *get* a text once it’s released into the academic wild). I do my best sense-making while writing, so consider this post my attempt at understanding what I think is a really important piece of critical discourse analysis in LIS. There’s so much to unpack, and I know I’ll miss something–or misinterpret something–so I just ask that anyone reading this call me out when I’m wrong (trust me, I need it).

Hudson argues (convincingly, I think) that the narrative of “global information inequality,” otherwise known as the digital divide or information privilege/poverty dichotomy, “operates as racialized discourse in the field” and perpetuates colonial belief systems within LIS (p. 64). Essentially, when we talk about information inequality, we’re talking about race without the guilt? pressure? burden? of having to say the words. Despite our best intentions, we (the royal, librarian “we”) have adopted information inequality as our social cause without acknowledging the racist, colonialist historical and political context that set the stage for and continues to shape this disparity. There’s also an inherent privileging of Western ways of knowing and creating, accessing, and sharing information that needs a deeper critique.

So yeah, I’m a fan of this article.

I will admit to jumping on the end-the-digital-divide bandwagon without much critical thought early in my career, in large part because I am a librarian and this seemed to be an easy, non-controversial cause that librarians could easily get behind. Who doesn’t want people to do or be better? Why shouldn’t everyone have access to the current knowledge and technology economy? What Hudson really hammers home (to me) is this idea that the framing of information inequality (and its connection to poverty and “lack of progress”) places the deficiency squarely on the shoulders of individuals in the developing/majority world, rather than on developed/minority governments and cultures which are active participants in the shaping of economic and educational disparities. The current Western information-communication-technology model is presented as what all individuals and governments should aspire to attain, but we, as a profession and a discipline (LIS) do not take the time to really unpack and analyze why exactly this is “fact.” In doing so we “reproduce…racialized difference…implicitly” (pg. 74).

Earlier this week I led a small group discussion for a subset of our college’s orientation leaders on the novel Americanah. We quickly began talking about the American tendency to not want to talk about race, as though by not acknowledging a person’s racial identity, which doubtless has shaped every aspect of their interaction with the world, we are somehow rising above racism. Yet in doing so we just find other, coded ways of giving voice (and action) to our own biases. The racism isn’t eliminated, it’s just given a new suit. This narrative of information inequality that Hudson so compellingly dissects is steeped in racial politics and racist history we do not acknowledge. (I’d also venture to guess there’s some sexism / patriarchal bullshit in there too). It deserves critical attention from all of us and I so appreciate the space this article opens up for these conversations.