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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.]

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