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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Acknowledging Whiteness, part 2: Whiteness as Default

In part 1, I talked about my personal journey towards acknowledging being White. In this post, I’ll reflect on becoming aware of the Whiteness as default in librarianship. Part 3 will be about cataloging! *pause for cheers* And yes, the focus throughout is about explicitly acknowledging Whiteness.


What is the problem with Whiteness as default? The problem is that it affects how we think about ourselves, how we think about libraries, how we think about people who work in and use libraries. It leads us to think of White people as a universal human standard. It Others those who are not White. This happens in classification schemes, in outreach efforts, in purchasing decisions, in hiring decisions, in promotion decisions, in everything we do as library workers..  

As Gillian Schutte says, specifically related to Blackness in South Africa, Whiteness as the default pushes “blackness into the shadows, onto the outskirts, into prisons and poverty stricken homelands, played out in our unconscious as black people being less valuable than white people.” In the United States, our local combination of racism and colonialism similarly harms Black people, Indigenous people, Latinx people, everyone who is not considered White.

Now combine Whiteness as default with advocating for neutrality as a pre-eminent value. If Whiteness is the default and we must maintain a neutral stasis, anything coming from a non-White perspective is automatically suspect, controversial, political, dangerous.


Whiteness as default is dangerous.

I didn’t come to this realization on my own. It came after I made the choice to deliberately seek out non-white perspectives on a variety of social and cultural issues and saw it stated flat-out by many, many people of color. (I like Trudy’s writing, so I’ll suggest reading this article.) It came from seeing the emotional and financial cost brilliant librarians including Lesley Williams, April Hathcock, nina de jesus, and many others have had to pay because they speak out on behalf of library workers of color and library users of color. It came from not seeing enough white people speak up against racial injustice. It came from seeing too many white people call out librarians of color for being upset about racial injustice.

White folks, we’re around 80% of the profession (higher than that for MLS librarians, lower for technical staff). I’ve been in library conference sessions with no people of color (afaik). I’ve never been in a session with no white people (although I’ve been to a few racial justice sessions with no white men).

If we White people are always there, where are we in the fight for racial justice? Switch that: Where are you? What are you doing to support your colleagues who need your solidarity? What are you doing to understand why intellectual freedom proselytizing might cause your colleagues of color to become upset? What are you doing to understand why indigenous people might not want their intellectual property put in the commons? What are you doing to make space in the center for people of color?


For more discussion of this topic, I highly recommend these resources. Open Access link provided where available.

Artiles, Alfredo J. “Untangling the Racialization of Disabilities: An Intersectionality Critique Across Disability Models.” Du Bois Review 10, no. 2 (2013): 329-347.
Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6: 1241-1299. Retrieved from: http://multipleidentitieslgbtq.wiki.westga.edu/file/view/crenshaw1991.pdf
de jesus, nina. “Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression.” In the Library with the Lead Pipe. (September 24, 2014), http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2014/locating-the-library-in-institutional-oppression/.
Dudley, Michael Q. “A Library Matter of Genocide: The Library of Congress and the Historiography of the Native American Holocaust.” The International Indigenous Policy Journal 8, no. 2 (2017). Retrieved from: http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/iipj/vol8/iss2/9  DOI: 10.18584/iipj.2017.8.2.9
Galvan, Angela. “Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias: Whiteness and Librarianship.” In the Library with the Lead Pipe (June 3, 2015),
Hathcock, April. “White Librarianship in Blackface: Diversity Initiatives in LIS.” In the Library with the Lead Pipe (October 7, 2015), http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2015/lis-diversity/.
Honma, Todd. “Trippin’ Over the Color Line: The Invisibility of Race in Library and Information Studies.” Interactions 1, no. 2 (2005), http://escholarship.org/uc/item/4nj0w1mp
Kumbier, Alana and Julia Starkey. “Access is not Problem Solving: Disability Justice in Libraries.” Library Trends 64, no. 3 (2016): 468-491. Retrieved from: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/c233/6f6e16119187531a81a3ef8dc99d95fd63a6.pdf (paywall) https://muse.jhu.edu/article/613919
Schlesselman-Tarango, Gina. “The Legacy of Lady Bountiful: White Women in the Library” Library Trends 64, no. 4 (2016): 667-686. http://scholarworks.lib.csusb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1033&context=library-publications  doi:10.1353/lib.2016.0015.

Vinopal, Jennifer. “The Quest for Diversity in Library Staffing: From Awareness to Action.” In the Library with the Lead Pipe, 13 Jan. 2016. http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2016/quest-for-diversity/

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