Quick overview

All posts still in progress. If you have additions you want to suggest, please let me know in the comments or on twitter @schomj.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Acknowledging Whiteness, part 8: Silence is Complicity

This series has been an interesting reflective process for me. It's also been an interesting observational experience. The posts in this series have generally received a good number of hits, at least compared to the normal things I post. But compared to the normal things I post, I have received far fewer comments. The silence has been interesting.

Some of those few comments have been in praise of a given post (thanks Max!) but some of the comments have been expressions of white discomfort. Discomfort at the expectation that as white people they have a right or responsibility to call out racism. Let's pause a moment, and dwell on that; let's take a moment to experience discomfort right now.


I saw an article a few days about how sometimes when we talk about being lazy, what we're actually describing is fear, overwhelmedness, procrastination and avoidance driven by perfectionism.

Are we silent because we feel like we're not ready yet to speak out? Because we need to prepare more so when we do speak out, we don't mess up? Let me take this opportunity to remind you of April Hathcock's wonderful blog post called You're Gonna Screw Up.

You're never going to be ready. You're never going to be perfect. If you're lucky, you'll be good enough. Good enough is a reasonable goal.


I learn most effectively by trial and error. By screwing up, noticing where and how that screw-up happened, and watching to see what improvements are made the next time. This is how I learn/ed how to manage my diabetes, how I learn/ed how to write, how I learn/ed how to catalog. This is how I am learning to unravel the racism that was threaded into my being before I learned to talk. I fully expect -- no, I hope! -- that in 10 years I'll revisit this blog series and feel amused fondness for my past self and how much I still had to learn.

Because I know I'm not perfect. I know I make mistakes and missteps and that I stumble and fall both up and down the stairs. But at least I'm trying. And I'm not letting my fear of imperfection lure me into silence. Because for the people I care about, my silence in the face of systemic racism is more damaging than my stumbling attempts at building a more just society.


This is the end of this series, at least for the summer. Thanks to everyone who came along on this ride with me. If this has prompted you to write your own blog posts or engage in antiracism work in new or different ways, please drop me a line either in the comments or on twitter. Peace, love, and justice to you all.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Acknowledging Whiteness, part 7: Colonialism

I'm writing this from Dakota land. Technically it was ceded via treaty, but then the U.S. government broke the treaty. I don't know what this means legally, but ethically/morally, it's very sketch.

I'm writing this from a town that was the location of the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged here in December 1862 for "uprising" against U.S. settlers in response to a decade of treaty violations. These uprisings led to the Dakota War of 1862. Let's think about that statement for a second. Thirty-eight Dakota men, who were fighting as members of a sovereign nation against the invading United States, were executed as unlawful combatants, not treated as enemy soldiers. Originally 303 men were to be hanged, but President Lincoln reduced that number to 38. Yes, the president who is hailed for freeing enslaved Africans was responsible for the deaths of unknown numbers of indigenous peoples during the course of his presidency. Then after they were hanged, some of their bodies were dug up and dissected as part of William Mayo's medical studies. Yes, that Mayo. History is complicated.

I'm writing this as the descendant of settler-colonialists. If my ancestors had been in the U.S. at the time of the Dakota hanging, they would have cheered it on. Even though they immigrated later in the nineteenth century, they still financially benefited from those treaty violations, from the forced migrations and mass deaths. As a result, I have financially benefited from these same events.

I'm writing this as a white descendant of settler-colonialists, which is true of many of us who work in libraries. I cannot provide the perspective of an Indigenous American. In order to encounter that perspective -- and I should clarify this to say those perspectives, plural -- you need to read/listen to the words of indigenous people. Then you need to cite them when you use their insights in your research. And/Or hire them to speak at your library events. And/Or pay them so they can afford to share their insights, either by buying their books or putting cash in their paypal accounts.

I'm writing this as someone learning to recognize the harm caused by mainstream (white) narratives about indigenous people. As someone learning to recognize the silent places in my library's collections. As someone learning that no one owes me their words or thoughts or time; I have to earn it by being trustworthy and morally responsible.

I'm writing this with the knowledge that I do not have the skills, expertise, or moral authority to tell anyone how to decolonize libraries. Who taught me that my position as colonizer means I will always be in the learning seat when it comes to de/colonialism? I'm trying to keep a list. So here we go!
  • Katherine Crocker - scientist and citizen of Kaw Nation
  • Mari - SF/F author, tribally enrolled Ojibwe member, and making of fabulous threads
  • Debbie Reese - librarian, tribally enrolled Nambe Pueblo member, who maintains a great blog about American Indians in Children's Literature 
  • Jody Gray (her twitter account is locked so I'm not going to post a link) -  ALA Director of the Office of Diversity, enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Nation
  • nina de jesus - Their twitter bio describes them as transpinay, so I'll go with their words. No, they're not Indigenous American, but this article they wrote a few years about about the relationship between libraries and indigenous genocide was eye-opening for me!

I'm hoping to add to this list of books over time. But these were a good start:

Also, check out the work of AILA (American Indian Library Association)

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Acknowledging Whiteness, part 6: Conflict is Scary

I did a couple of quick twitter polls to see what topics people would be most interested in for the next installments of this series. The winners were: conflict is scary, silence is complicity, and colonialism. I'll get to all three, but first off: conflict is scary!

In part 5 of this series, I linked to a list of traits associated with white supremacy. None of these traits are explicitly based on the idea that whiteness is superior, but they are (often unspoken) characteristics of Anglo-Saxon and other Northern European cultures, and all of us are required to adhere to these characteristics whether that is our cultural background or not. One of the traits listed is Fear of Open Conflict, described as:
  • people in power are scared of conflict and try to ignore it or run from it
  • when someone raises an issue that causes discomfort, the response is to blame the person for raising the issue rather than to look at the issue which is actually causing the problem
  • emphasis on being polite
  • equating the raising of difficult issues with being impolite, rude, or out of line 
How many of you have witnessed this happen in libraries? *pause for everyone reading to raise their hand*

Conflict is scary because many of us white people were raised to view it as taboo.

I remember hearing my grandmother express disgust with people who challenged authority, whether it was challenging (her) religious leaders, teachers, doctors, police, or other types of authority (that she recognized). I remember being told by my parents to be quiet, to behave, to follow the rules. The purpose and power of those rules were never questioned. My elementary school teachers always said that I was "a pleasure to have in class" because I was good at being obedient and non-confrontational. None of them noticed that by 7th grade, I'd stopped smiling, laughing, or talking. I wasn't causing trouble, I was compliant, I was white, I faded into the background of "good kids."

So what happened between my early conditioning and now? Diabetes. Living with diabetes caused me to break rules by necessity. "Be polite and accept candy from strangers" became "you can't have candy, so you have to be rude and refuse that candy." The alternative to refusing candy was to accept the candy, and thus be non-compliant with my doctor's directives. That double-bind caused me to notice other rule-breakers -- who in turn were the first to notice my silence and to encourage me to laugh, cry, yell, take up space, be.

And at this point, we're about to cycle back to post 1, so I'll pass over my personal history and get back to libraries.

We are human. We care about our fellow humans. We white people are in positions of relative privilege. If we are afraid to speak up when we see injustices done to our colleagues and patrons of color, how do you think they feel? If we can see the risk of calling out a supervisor, a colleague, an influential member of the profession for accidental racism, do we think that people of color can't see that risk? Or do we think it's not our responsibility, because we don't feel the direct impact?

Being conditioned to fear speaking up for ourselves or others is a direct impact. That in itself is a negative consequence. 

As Angela Pashia notes in a description of a panel presentation at IACAL, in which librarians who call out oppressive practices at work discuss the emotional cost:
It's exhausting when you are the only one to "take a stand in a meeting or take a risk in speaking up about a problem, and are left hanging out there all by your lonesome… But then after the meeting, people want to come take your time to tell you how much they appreciate what you said, how much they agree, how frustrated they are by the situation. Great, so why didn’t you say that in the meeting? And why do you expect the person who did speak up to continue to discuss this one-on-one with you, demanding even more emotional labor?"

Bryce Kozla recently wrote a post describing a situation in which white people can use the phrase "takes all kinds" to redirect racist statements in a non-confrontational way. Sometimes we're not up to pursuing direct conflict, and this is a handy script to have ready for when you need it.

But sometimes direct conflict is what's needed. Some of the ChangeWork recommendations to overcome fear of conflict include:
  • role play ways to handle conflict before conflict happens
  • distinguish between being polite and raising hard issues
  • don't require those who raise hard issues to raise them in "acceptable" ways, especially if you are using the ways in which issues are raised as an excuse not to address the issues being raised (this is also called tone policing)
  • once a conflict is resolved, take the opportunity to revisit it and see how it might have been handled differently
What other ideas do you have?

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Acknowledging Whiteness, part 5: Compliance Culture

"To bring up racism is to bring up the issue of compliance and even suggests a failure to comply." -- Sara Ahmed, On Being Included

David Perry writes a lot about the cult of compliance, and how it’s used to harm disabled children -- particularly disabled children of color -- within educational and criminal/police/incarceral systems. He has not to my knowledge written about how the cult of compliance manifests in libraries, but he could. Reading this American Libraries article about homeless and mentally ill people who “are hurting the library experience for others,” makes me think he could write a lot about libraries’ cult of compliance.

Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun wrote about the characteristics of white supremacy culture. These characteristics “are damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being pro-actively named or chosen.” The full list has more details, but briefly, those characteristics are:
  • Perfectionism
  • Sense of urgency
  • Defensiveness
  • Quantity over quality
  • Worship of the written word
  • Paternalism
  • Either/Or thinking
  • Power hoarding
  • Fear of open conflict
  • Individualism
  • Progress is bigger, more
  • Objectivity
  • Right to comfort (who has it and who doesn’t)

When I think about these two points, the cult of compliance and white supremacy culture, it reminds me of my childhood. It reminds me of my schooling, including my LIS grad program. It reminds me of how I was acculturated to be a library worker. It reminds me of all the reasons I’m in therapy. It’s damaging.


When we white library workers talk about privilege and diversity, when we talk about serving our communities, when we talk about creating healthy workplaces… we need to think about these things. We need to challenge these things. We need to challenge ourselves, and lean in to our own discomfort. We need to consciously and deliberately identify what norms and standards we actually do want, and why, and then discuss them… yes, even with people who disagree with us.


And now, I am going to go read Emily Drabinski’s new article about “Teaching Critically in a Time of Compliance.”

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Acknowledging Whiteness, part 4: So Many Questions

Attempts to answer the questions I posed in part 2 of this series, and that Max Macias posed in his own series on whiteness from 2016.
·         What am I doing to support colleagues who need solidarity?
Listen, signal boost, try not to ask too many annoying questions (I am an endless fountain of questions, so this will always be a work in progress!). Also, contribute funds and time to projects as I can. Position myself to be present and prepared to speak up if needed.
·         What am I doing to understand why intellectual freedom proselytizing might cause colleagues of color to become upset?
I had never put my occasional sense of disgruntlement about intellectual or academic freedom into words until I started reading nina de jesus. But once I started to understand their concerns, I saw justifications for that concern everywhere. The more I looked, the more I realized that political actions both for and against academic/intellectual freedom are more likely to harm people of color. The arguments themselves can be used in proxy fights to maintain white supremacy. This isn’t to say that IF is bad – or good. It’s too complicated for that kind of simplistic language. Being aware of context and how IF arguments are being framed and utilized is important. I am still learning how to be both critical and sensitive in my understanding of these topics, and often find myself relying on the good judgment of librarians of color to deepen my understanding. (And no, librarians of color don’t always agree on everything – they’re individual humans – but sometimes paying attention to discussions without interfering can be really informative.)
·         What am I doing to understand why indigenous people might not want their intellectual property put in the commons?
Following First Nations/Native American people on twitter makes me aware of how damaging cultural appropriate can be. Reading about the history of indigenous peoples in the Americas has made me more aware of everything that has been stolen from indigenous people. Educating myself is encouraging me to listen more and unlearn my settler-colonial conditioning.
·         What am I doing to make space in the center for people of color?
Paying attention to signs that POC aren’t being heard and trying to signal boost and otherwise support their work. Also really, really trying to be aware that making this space means stepping back and trying to get other white people to step back, not shoving POC unwillingly into the center of a space that won’t be safe.
From Max’s post, Embedded Whiteness.
·         How do you see Whiteness relating to Education?
It’s the default.
·         Can you think of some examples of Whiteness in Education that you have seen?
Standard white English being taught as the only acceptable form of English, students who are fluent in AAVE being told that they are speaking “slang” i.e., a substandard version of English. Which is both untrue and damaging. Students whose home languages aren’t English being punished for speaking those languages in schools, but (white) native English speakers being rewarded for learning Spanish.
·         How can we mitigate Whiteness in Education?
Recognize Whiteness and remove it from the position of unacknowledged default.
·         Should we mitigate Whiteness in Education?
As a step towards decentralizing and undoing Whiteness in education, yes.
·         How does Whiteness impact Educational Technology?
Interesting question. I’m not sure that I have an answer. I know that ableism impacts EdTech. Maybe expectations that everyone can afford home internet and other technologies disenfranchises POC, who are statistically more likely to be lower income than White people? (Talking averages here, not everyone.)
·         Does Whiteness come in between the truth and investigators?
Unacknowledged Whiteness means unacknowledged bias. So, yes.
How would you answer these questions? What questions would you add?

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Acknowleding Whiteness, part 3: White Elephants

Part 1 of this series was about my personal awakening to my own Whiteness, part 2 was about the dangers of Whiteness as default. This post is about Whiteness as unspoken default within cataloging specifically.

Screen captures included with permission of Emily Drabinski.


At the 2017 American Library Association Annual conference, during a discussion of cataloging ethics, someone in my field gave a presentation about the importance of being aware of critical theories. This person is a well-loved and much-lauded LIS theorist, and for good reason. This post is not a call-out of her particularly; it’s a call-out of unexamined Whiteness. This example just happens to be recent and on my mind.

During that presentation, this presenter advocated that catalogers have a responsibility to the Other, to those outside the in-group, and suggested using feminist theory to address ethical concerns. I will acknowledge that I followed this session via twitter, so was not in the room, but I did ask questions of people who were present..

[Screencap text: Resist Aristotelian linearity. Address specific imbalances of power. Use feminist theory in women-intensive profession.]

The specific reference to feminist theory caught my attention, as that covers a lot of ground. I asked Emily if the difference between White Feminism and more intersectional forms of feminism had been mentioned. Alas, the answer to my question was no.

[Screencap text:
Jessica: Is there any talk about white feminism vs more inclusive kinds of feminism?
Emily: Not in this talk. A broad gesture.
Emily: Which is unmarked and therefore white.]

The lack of acknowledgement of Whiteness combined with the argument that we catalogers are responsible for the Other caused me serious concern. Our profession is hugely White, cataloging as a specialty is hugely White, so I can only assume that the makeup of the attendees at this session was hugely White.

Remember what I said in part 2, about the dangers of Whiteness as the unmarked default? I am not the only White person to operate under that mental model. It is, unfortunately, extremely common. Add in a professional mythology that encourages us to take on the role of unappreciated (white) saviors, and these issues become compounded. How do we avoid the white savior/vocational awe tendencies that lead us to ignore the humanity and agency of people of color, even when they are our professional peers?


Probably my larger concern with this particular situation, though, is that as far as I’m aware, no one directly called the presenter on this point. Over 10 years ago, Todd Honma asked these questions:
Why is it that scholars and students do not talk openly and honestly about issues of race and LIS? Why does the field have a tendency to tiptoe around discussing race and racism, and instead limit the discourse by using words such as “multiculturalism” and “diversity”? Why is the field so glaringly white yet no one wants to talk about whiteness and white privilege?

These concerns are still outstanding. I am happy to see more general critique of the idea of library as a neutral space. However, outside of my twitter bubble (I <3 you, twitter bubble!) I almost never encounter librarians engaging in these questions beyond a superficial level. Even when talking about professional ethics in a room filled with people who describe themselves as critical catalogers, white library folks are not bringing up race and racism. Instead, that rhetorical space remains unfilled. It upsets me. The reason it upsets me is that this silence is dangerous. This silence is where racism perpetuates itself.

Recently, I have heard of efforts to revive the  AILA (American Indian Library Association) Subject Access & Classification Committee. The goal of this group is to improve LCC and LCSH coverage of American Indian topics. While it seems to be based on Sandy Berman’s approach of incremental improvement instead of “focusing on systemic injustice in the structure of LCSH, or a discursive approach to knowledge creation and deconstruction,” to quote a forthcoming piece by Kate Crowe and Erin Elzi, I think the AILA project sounds exciting and very needed. From a recent piece by Michael Q. Dudley:
In its capacity as a “node of governance” ... of the United States government, the Library of Congress has contributed to this “ideological matrix” of denial ... by minimizing, sanitizing, or erasing historical reality through the assignment of euphemistic, misleading, and colonial subject headings.
In this model, we can situate the Library of Congress classification and subject headings in their historical context: established in 1897—7 years after the Wounded Knee Massacre and 4 years after historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared America’s frontier closed—they are a manifestation of its “way of thinking” and “set of methods” of colonial governance and, as they concerned Indigenous Americans, were designed from the beginning to relegate them to history (the E class) while at the same time disguising (or derealizing) the cause of their presumed passage.

But this is from an article in a journal about indigenous policy issues, it’s not a central piece of discussions about what kind of work we expect from catalogers. If we’re not acknowledging or critiquing Whiteness or racism or colonialism in our discussions of professional ethics -- if in fact we think of them as separate topics, suitable for siloing in different divisions of our major professional association -- how can we do an effective job of this? How will we avoid replicating past injustices if we’re not willing to acknowledge the white elephant in the room?


Update: Violet Fox, who was at the Cataloging Ethics session, had a slightly different take on events. She also had some more information about the AILA Subject Access & Classification Committee that seems promising. I will admit that I don't completely share Violet's optimism here, but I appreciate her sharing her perspective.

Reposting her tweets here with her permission:

Link to tweet
[Image text: Violet Fox: Dr. Olson did specifically frame her thoughts as being in tradition of white feminism, though no alternatives were introduced. Personally, I saw Dr. Olson's comments as opening remarks of greater discussion which will including going/challenging beyond white feminism.

Tweet text: Link to committee's previous work
[Image text: Violet Fox: re the AILA classification group have you seen the wiki with committee's previous work? Focus is on revising LCSH/LCC NACO authority work compiling alternate vocab & class systems & bringing together bibliography. Not exclusively incremental LCSH change, but to act as resource for Qs (answers may incl "ask your local tribe") and highlight alternatives. Working with AILA to ensure tribal libraries are at heart of proposed changes.]