All posts tagged “diversity

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This Conversation is Not About That

Two people sitting on a bench talking

Conversation by Francois Bester via Flickr

St. Mary’s College of Maryland’s commencement ceremony was on Saturday, and although I was home sick instead of at the college, I did spend some time this weekend reflecting on the spring semester. Of course my thoughts immediately focused on the recent acts of bigotry on our campus, including Confederate flags at basketball games, the pick-an-“ism” Natty Boh hunt, and the almost brushed aside Trump-campaign-slogan graffiti on academic buildings–“Build a wall,” being the most prominent statement. I’ve been thinking a lot about our college’s responses to these incidents, as well as the conversations we do and don’t have about race, racism, ethnicity, and bigotry on this campus.

After the racist/sexist/homophobic Boh incidents (which you can conveniently read about on the Washington Post), there was a flurry of campus conversation. People were talking at faculty meetings, student groups were hosting discussions, and all students, faculty, and staff attended a college-wide open forum. At each of these points of interaction one thing was clear:

There was never just one conversation going on. 

This is best illustrated by example.

The scene: Post-Boh faculty meeting. A rough summary of the conversation follows:

White faculty members: “Confederate flags are racist. Racist jokes are racist. Racism is bad.”

All white heads nod heads approvingly. 

Senior black faculty member: “I don’t actually want to talk about confederate flags or symbols. I want to talk about the deeper implicit biases I’ve encountered my entire career that are still happening now. The symbols are a distraction from the deeper issues of racism, bigotry, and bias on this campus that we don’t discuss.”

Junior white faculty member: “I think we should all just respect one another. It’s really just about civility.”

This, of course, only repeated itself on a grander scale at the all-campus forum, which really just turned into an Airing of Grievances by people who didn’t want to talk about racism. That conversation was even more troubling. To summarize:

All students of color: We aren’t surprised that these incidents happened on this campus. We feel smaller versions of this everyday. The St. Mary’s you experience isn’t the St. Mary’s I experience. We aren’t responsible for educating you about racism. We are on a college campus. Read a book.

Most (but not all) white students: We should just love one another and say hi to everyone. I think that there needs to be more school pride and camaraderie. We should respect our college.

White faculty member interjects: Can all the white male students just sit down and can we focus on issues of race/ism?

As you can guess, that last comment became THE TAKEAWAY from that campus-wide forum. Not the pain expressed by students of color, not the need to acknowledge our own biases, not a questioning of the structures of our institution that create an environment in which racist actions continue to occur. Suddenly voice was taken away from a group that always has a voice, and that group didn’t like it very much. It happens time and time again–most recently as documented in April Hathcock’s excellent post about the ALA ScholComm listserv “blowup“–and suddenly it becomes THE CONVERSATION.

It’s switchtracking in action. 

I first learned about switchtracking from NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast. It’s a super-common occurrence in which person/group A gives person/group B feedback, and person/group B’s reaction to the feedback is to change the subject. It happened at our faculty meeting–a gathering of lots of liberal-minded, well-meaning, mostly white folks. Conversations about race get transformed into conversations about civility. A faculty member is stating the harm she has experienced because of bias and bigotry and the response is not to address and acknowledge the harm, but to shift the topic completely towards a discussion of respect in the classroom.

I get that it’s uncomfortable. Conversations about race and racism usually aren’t soothing and heart-warming. No one likes to get called out on their behavior and beliefs. But if a group of faculty, who facilitate classroom discussion on a day-to-day basis, can’t have a meaningful conversation without switchtracking, what hope is there that we’ll be able to engage students in productive, critical dialogue? There is power in discomfort, in sitting with awkwardness and questioning why a statement just made you uncomfortable. What use is all the lip service we pay to diversity and inclusion if we can’t pose difficult questions and expect to have even one conversation specifically about those questions?

My hope is that discussions about the deeper issues surrounding diversity and inclusion at St. Mary’s continue throughout the summer and lead into the fall semester, but I’ll admit to a healthy dose of skepticism. Out of sight out of mind is the mantra for most people, but perhaps things have gotten just uncomfortable enough that they can no longer be ignored.





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How Should We Respond?

On Sunday, March 27, 2016, non-college-sponsored tradition became a vehicle to demean and belittle students of color, women, and LGBTQ students. Every year around Easter our students hold what’s affectionally known as the “Natty Boh Hunt.” Students paint cans of National Bohemian beer in Easter egg motifs and hide them around campus for others to find (I know, Natty Boh is AWFUL, but, well, college).  This year’s fun was ruined by several cans found painted with the confederate flag and extremely racist, sexist, and homophobic “jokes.” This comes on the heels of an incident earlier in the semester where a student wore a confederate flag to a home basketball game. The student claimed it was in answer to an assignment on violating social norms.


There of course have been other incidents, much like those at colleges and universities across the country–swastikas on vehicle dust, highly offensive anonymous comments on yik yak, “are you a student here?” questions, microaggressions both in and out of the classroom, etc.  It’s constant, oppressive, and completely antithetical to our public, liberal arts college’s code of conduct. This latest hateful incident has proven to be one too many for our students, faculty, and staff, who, in wave of conversations, emails, and classroom discussions have decided to stop, critically examine our role at this college, and figure out how we can make our community safer, more inclusive, and better able to support those who have been targeted by recent events.

So what is the library’s place in all of these events? What is our role? 

You’ve no doubt seen the recent emails from ARL’s Director of Diversity and Leadership Programs, Mark Puente, sharing short articles on what ARL member libraries are doing to advance diversity, inclusion, and equality at their home institutions. Libraries are doing everything from archiving and sharing activist tweets to creating videos, to hosting workshops on social justice (if you explore nothing else, please visit the Washington University at St. Louis’ Documenting Ferguson project).  Recently, the ZSR Library at Wakeforest University issued a statement of their commitment to diversity and inclusion in response to the North Carolina House Bill 2.

Our own library’s response was directly inspired by the Amherst Library’s Amherst Uprising Information and Source Guide, which was a wonderful resource not only about the event at hand, but about the larger issues underlying the Amherst protests. I’ve tried to do the same with our Support & Solidarity website,  because this latest event at St. Mary’s is just a symptom of larger issues of implicit bias, prejudice, and unacknowledged privilege in our college community. As one of our student leaders so eloquently put it: Events like the Natty Boh hunt make us focus on the smoke instead of the fire. I don’t want our library’s response and reaction to begin and end with this one event. I’d like create a library that is inclusive; I’d like to have difficult and awkward conversations with my colleagues about our unacknowledged biases and prejudices and how they impact the community we serve.

Not surprisingly, when I shared our library’s response on Twitter, I got one troll of a response, stating that “I guess all libraries have gone PC.”

  1. I don’t feed trolls.
  2. If “going PC” means responding to my community’s needs then I fully embrace that. It’s what libraries at their best can and should do.

To ignore what’s going on on our college campuses isn’t an option. As a librarian, a Latina (specifically a light-skinned Latina who often benefits from white privilege because of other people’s assumptions based on my appearance) I feel obligated to renounce any semblance of neutrality. I think that asking librarians and libraries to embrace the path of detached neutrality means that we’re being asked to negate important facets of our own identities (shout out to Fobazi Ettarh’s excellent article on intersectionality) as well as those of our communities. Our students of color are our students and they deserve our attention, respect, and focus.

I’m not sure how to end this post, as I’m still processing recent events, statements made at yesterday’s faculty meeting, and disappointing comments shared at an all-campus meeting earlier today. I think I’d like to learn more about other libraries’ responses to similar issues, particularly those from non-ARL libraries, since we often don’t hear about efforts at smaller schools.

Share what you can.

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On Diversity Initiatives

IMG_2829Like a lot of introverts, I suffer from what I’ll call “social regret.” It’s a feeling of wishing I’d spoken up or volunteered coupled with an ability to only come up with a witty retort or thoughtful comment hours (sometimes days) after the social situation is over. It’s also usually accompanied by a solid dash of disappointment that I couldn’t quite get the thoughts in my brain to connect with the words coming out of my mouth. After Friday’s unconference at the Critical Librarianship and Pedagogy Symposium I’ve been feeling some acute social regret that I hope to work out in writing.

The Context 

After David James Hudson’s stellar opening keynote I felt this strong sense of connection and validation. His discussion of the ways in which “diversity” as a concept and “diversity initiatives” as action born out of that concept are problematic was a thoughtful, intelligent expression that resonated with the deep feelings of discomfort I’ve long held as a participant in diversity programs and the target (woman, Latina) many institutions aim for as they “diversify.” In other words, David is brilliant and said what I don’t think I would have been able to come up with on my own: Changing the colors of faces in an institution doesn’t change the dominant power structures that created that institution. Inclusion does not necessarily equal agency or empowerment. This idea, combined with my Type-A tendency to want to problem solve, led me to propose an Unconference topic on alternatives to “diversity initiatives”–not the term but the actions and the spirit in which these actions are undertaken.

Come the day of the Unconference, and I’m kind of a mess. I’ve just listened to the closing keynote speaker talk about trauma studies and I’m feeling all kinds of ways about it (that’s a different, upcoming post). I’m tired, my brain is full, but I go to the session anyway, because I proposed it after all. Then I fail.


I choose not to moderate because suddenly I’m in a room with some frighteningly smart people and I’m intimidated. I’m unable to clearly articulate my thoughts. I can’t seem to nudge the discussion towards constructive solutions or suggestions. I’m hard on myself, I know, so this post is my attempt at self-care. After much thought and reflection…

Here’s What I Wish I’d Said

David James Hudson’s keynote, combined with a brilliant discussion on libraries and accessibility facilitated by Alana Kumbier and Julia Starkey helped me better understand why I bristle at “diversity initiatives”–the term and practice. Diversity feels like a checklist. It’s a way to make a room visibly browner without actually remodeling the room. A college library can start a Diversity Residency Program and wash their hands of diversity. Done! Check! Diversity initiatives put the onus on the people of color (women, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, etc.) to do the work of “diversification”–whatever that might mean–within a structure that may not be supportive or even want to change. Some might argue that at least it gives us a seat at the table, but what does that table look like and where exactly are we sitting?

I wanted to take the time at the Unconference to discuss the ways in which those of us in the LIS world with a critical point-of-view can and have work(ed) to change racist, homophobic, transphobic, patriarchal power structures within libraries, higher education and our larger societal context. I don’t think I made that clear. I’m kicking off my discussion below, and would love to hear/read your thoughts.

On Spectrum 

At the start of the discussion I called out the Spectrum Shcolars program in a way that I did not intend. Spectrum has been good to me. It helped me pay for library school. It introduced me to some lifelong friends. It gave me a chance to travel to ALA for the first time. I love Spectrum, and I encourage library students to apply every chance I get, but I’m also critical of the program AND the way it’s been treated within ALA and the library profession over the years.

Spectrum has never carried the same cache as Emerging Leaders, despite being around much longer. Many people in the room and in the profession have never heard of it before. It’s been understaffed for years, championed by its alumni and allies, but has rarely found traction among ALA leaders. It’s disappointing but not surprising. It is ALA doing diversity. Done! Check!

It’s primary aim is to introduce more librarians of color into our libraries, which I fully support, but there’s also a big focus on being successful within the machinery of ALA and our profession as it currently exists. I wish it did more to encourage new librarians to question existing power structures and work to dismantle and change them. I know I need to shut up and actually do the work of helping Spectrum make these changes.

What Do Diversity Initiative Alternatives Look Like?

If I think, thanks to David’s insight, that diversity initiatives are inherently flawed, what then, are examples of alternatives? One Unconference discussion attendee, shared a deep dissatisfaction with a residency experience, but later on Twitter commended ARL’s Career Enhancement Program for creating and experience that was about her needs rather than those of the institution. Perhaps that’s a first step in the right direction? Create programs for librarians of color that are not about adding a different face but about giving us opportunities to grown, learn, and create positive change that is meaningful to us, not them. It’s a subtle shift in focus but it’s important. It takes the pressure off the librarian of color to educate and be the face of diversity and let’s them explore ways to critically engage with work and the library/greater community in a meaningful way.

Annie Pho shared a great example of this: Just in seeking out other Asian faculty she found a scholar with an amazing queer Asian archival collection that was then included in her library’s archive. Granted, much of the success of this example is a result of Annie’s initiative and warm, open personality, but think of all the wonderful opportunities we could take advantage of if we are able to work in a supportive structure that values difference and encourages critical reflection.

I wonder sometimes if Spectrum and other diversity initiatives like it would be more effective if they spent less time encouraging librarians of color to be successful within existing structures and institutions (ALA, libraries, academia) and more time encouraging us to be critical of these structures, to call them out and develop our own alternatives. I realize this is vague, but I could see it playing out in a variety of ways.

We could mentor librarians of color to better organize and empower disenfranchised patrons, students, and colleagues at their place of work (a skill set I desperately need). We could devote a solid, good faith effort to creating processes that routinely examine our library’s policies, collections, practices, and expressions of language (shout out to language justice!) for instances of bias and oppression. We could employ our diverse interns and residents, but make critical librarianship a part of the work we all do, rather than something that our “diverse librarians” teach us.

I’m running out of steam and low on words as my caffeine high subsides, but I so want to engage in conversation with you about this. Comment. Tweet. Respond in a post. Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me I need to do more reading. I just don’t want this conversation to end. I have too much to learn.