Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias: Whiteness and Librarianship
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Despite the growing body of research on our professional demographics and multi-year diversity initiatives, librarianship in the United States remains overwhelmingly white. I suggest the interview process is a series of repetitive gestures designed to mimic and reinforce white middle class values, which ultimately influence the hiring decisions—and relative lack of diversity—of librarianship as a whole. I consider how the whiteness of librarianship may manifest long before the hiring process. By identifying and interrogating the body of white, middle class values inherent to both librarianship and professional job searching, I offer suggestions to encourage an authentically diverse pool of applicants.
Whiteness is a shifting status bestowed by those in power, intertwined with class relationships and the production of structural inequalities. See the transformation of Italian, German, Irish, and Polish people from white ethnics to white over the 20th century in the United States. “The Italian comes in at the bottom, and in the generation that came over the sea he stays there. In the slums he is welcomed as a tenant who ‘makes less trouble’ than the contentious Irishman or the order-loving German.” (Riis, 1890)
For the sake of brevity, whiteness in this essay means: white, heterosexual, capitalist, and middle class. Whiteness is “ideology based on beliefs, values behaviors, habits and attitudes, which result in the unequal distribution of power and privilege.” (http://www.ucalgary.ca/cared/whiteness) Beliefs, values behaviors, habits, and attitudes become gestures, enactments, and unconsciously repetitive acts which reinforce hegemony.
Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias
Librarianship is paralyzed by whiteness. This will continue unabated without interrogating structures that benefit white librarians, including the performative nature of recruitment and hiring. The interview and academic job talk conceal institutional bias under the guise of “organizational fit” or a candidate’s “acceptability”, while the act of recruiting presents an aspirational version of the library to candidates.
The standing-room-only presentation at Association of College & Research Libraries 2015 on the experience of academic librarians of color suggests librarianship is at least aware of its demographics. Some libraries are attempting to recruit broader pools of applicants, with a few offering ever-popular diversity residencies and fellowships. The fellowship model is mutually beneficial and offers chances to experiment with otherwise risky initiatives. However, fellowships mask precarity under the illusion of faculty status and support, when librarians accepting these positions may have neither (Salo, 2013).
While recruiting initiatives and fellowships are reasonable starting points, they become meaningless gestures for institutions which screen on performing whiteness. These actions are further undermined by framing diversity as a problem to be solved rather than engaging in reflective work to dismantle institutional bias. Framing diversity as the problem implicitly suggests a final outcome, locating responsibility and discomfort away from white librarians while marginalizing colleagues who do not perform whiteness to the satisfaction of gatekeepers.
Finally, when librarians who are not white and middle class arrive, they are alienated as “the diversity hire”, erasing their skills, talents, and expertise (Sendula, 2015). Librarians with visible minority status are assigned more work, as many marginalized librarians are appointed to diversity and hiring committees by default. This strands non-white and middle class librarians in a “murky place between gratitude and anger” (Bennett, 2015) as their visibility changes to suit the needs of the organization. That librarianship remains overwhelmingly white suggests marginalized librarians are seen when the institution finds it convenient, but rarely heard during critical stages of the hiring process.
The current librarian job market solicits performance and creates barriers to entry in three ways: cultural negotiation, conspicuous leisure, and access to wealth.
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Barriers to Entry
The whiteness of librarianship begins long before the job application process, as traditionally underrepresented students come to university systems with varying experiences in libraries. Conclusions on this subject vary: libraries can be a source of anxiety for marginalized students (Haras, Lopez & Ferry, 2008); the university library can feel overwhelming compared to underfunded or nonexistent K-12 libraries (Adkins and Hussey, 2006); or the library as a site of abundance and discovery. Nearly all scholarship on the subject agrees the library is a site where information seeking and cultural hegemony are negotiated (Long, 2011; Sadler and Bourg, 2015). For marginalized students, an academic library may be the largest they’ve ever encountered. “For students from a nondominant culture, knowing how to use library resources is not merely about finding information but also about navigating culture.” (Adkins and Hussey, 2006)
White Savior narratives are found throughout librarianship, where white librarians are framed as benevolent actors toward people of color, who “lack the agency necessary to enact positive changes in their own lives. The underlying assumption is that people of color, on their own, fail to enact resilience,resistance, and success…Any achievements in these areas seem to result from the initiatives of the white savior.” (Cammarota, 2011)
Rather than disarm the “structural, systemic, oppressive conditions disproportionately affecting the most economically disadvantaged people”(Groski, 2008) the middle class White Savior perpetuates myths about poverty. Marginalized patrons in libraries become the saved and lifted, without necessarily seeing themselves in the space of the library.
Students not reflected in the culture of the library are unlikely to see librarianship as a possibility (Williams and Van Arnhem, 2015). Marginalized students employed outside the university system face additional barriers as their work typically does not cultivate the development of a white collar professional identity. The hospitality industry, food service work, call centers, and other low income employment offers prescriptive identities, removing most agency from the employee. Marginalized students in graduate programs arrive after enduring lifetimes of institutionalized oppression surrounding their origins, with a painful awareness the they of “professional language” refers to themselves (Overall, 1995; Johnson Black, 1995; Bennett, 2014).
Moving from a prescriptive work environment to a professional one requires a certain amount of socialization into white culture. I don’t think of myself as an ex-hotel night clerk, but will always be a librarian even if my job title doesn’t reflect this. Librarianship is not simply what we do at work but a component of how we identify as people (Gonzalez-Smith, Swanson & Tanaka, 2014). This creates a dissonant sense of self and belonging in the profession, when our identity does not conform to professional expectations, “worldviews, or emotional orientations” (Costello, 2005).
Librarians themselves manufacture the culture of whiteness, with its ever-shifting criteria and continuous trading in surfaces (Ewen, 1988). Our policies embrace the fiction of neutrality, while our spaces, practices, and culture are not neutral entities (Sadler and Bourg, 2015). The idea of library-as-neutral is seductive because of its usefulness and minimal intellectual effort required from white librarians: neutrality is the safest position for libraries because it situates whiteness not only as default, but rewards and promotes white cultural values.
Whiteness-as-default allowed the conversation about 2015’s Banned Books Week poster to incorrectly assume no Muslim women were part of the image’s construction, effectively acknowledging librarianship’s tendency to reproduce inequalities and in many cases manufacture them in our systems and practices. From organizational structures and descriptions, to images and policy, librarians engage numerous fictions upholding cultural hegemony (Drabinski, 2013).
“Libraries and professional organizations have put together documents and policies on information ethics and intellectual freedom in an attempt to broaden the professional perspective. While these are important policies and procedures, they still reinforce cultural hegemony as they are primarily written in the language of those in power. For example, statements on professional ethics are put together by professional organizations, the overwhelming majority of whose members are white. Intellectual freedom is influenced by the discursive formations of those who write and enforce these policies. It is those in power who decide what level of intellectual freedom the library will support.” (Adkins and Hussey, 2006)
While librarians may fill social media with images of what librarians look like, our professional organizations and policy language articulate further what successful librarians look like: how they organize, what voices are heard, how they construct strategy, which crisis are acceptable to address and which should be suppressed under tone arguments or claims of unprofessional behavior.
The fiction of neutrality became apparent to me as a circulation desk clerk in a large public library system. Over winter break I visited an affluent suburb of Cleveland, Ohio where my partner’s family lives. We toured the public library and I was impressed with the college and career prep resources available. At my home branch I asked if I could make a similar display. I was told “Our kids aren’t really the college type,” and reluctantly allowed to maintain a small collection in the young adult section. This same system employed several librarians who insisted on business wear for work in a casual dress environment, explaining “Children in this neighborhood need a model for what a professional is, because they don’t have contact with any.” Many public library systems continue to address poverty from a deficit theory framework, ignoring the connection between treating poor people as inherently flawed and the profession’s inability to recruit marginalized workers.
A question posted to Librarian Wardrobe suggests one applicant’s struggle to be comfortable, yet professional during interviews. “I tend towards a ‘soft butch’ style and a very broke budget, but I have a major interview coming up. Any suggestions for an outfit that gets across my personal identity, my willingness to crawl around looking for a book, but also my professionalism?” This poster reveals their gender performance during an interview is necessary to maintain the comfort of others, not to present the ‘authentic self’ search committees claim to want. Their question, like so many others I found during my research, is about this maintenance.
- How can I be butch, but not too butch?
- Should I buy a plain band for my left hand if I am unmarried?
- Should I dye my hair or have it relaxed?
- How provocative is a suit that isn’t gray, black, or navy?
- Where can I buy a button down shirt that will not gape at my chest?
- Will not wearing makeup cost me a job?
- If transcripts are required, how will I explain a differently gendered name?
Each question reflects problems about how to address the cultural expectations of whiteness in the context of othered bodies. Librarians who wear natural hair, whose shape/stature make it difficult to find professional dress, or librarians with disabilities have found their bodies as they exist to be deemed unprofessional. Rather than assign this failure to designers’ inability to account for variations in bodies, this is passed on to applicants. Few blame manufacturers for ill-fitting suits. We blame bodies for not conforming to them.
Such anxieties are pervasive, even when acknowledged. In 2014, I sat on a panel discussing gender, agency, and resistance where one presenter–a scholar from India–expressed concern in the context of her research how wearing a sari during her talk would mean risking objectification and dismissal in a room full of feminist folklorists. The academic job talk is similarly concerning, as the growing tendency to record and make available such talks transforms the interview process into a mediated performance. An intellectual understanding of bias isn’t enough, it must be interrogated to dismantle the mechanisms which produce bias.
Conspicuous Leisure and Wealth
In flooded job markets, barriers to entry can include requiring prior library service for any library job. While MLIS students benefit from on the job experience, such screening policies would exclude promising applicants unable to enroll in face-to-face programs: rural students, students with nonstandard work schedules, students with family obligations, students transitioning careers, and other MLIS-holders outside the fictions of “ideal worker” (Davies, 2014).
Hiring Librarians has documented responses from hiring managers claiming students in online programs cannot work in teams or learn effectively, when many students choose online programs for the exact opposite reasons. As with myths about poverty which overshadow the well-established resourcefulness of poor students, online MLIS students are dismissed as asocial and not “team players”. Bias against online MLIS students is especially harmful to rural and underfunded libraries, in light of the geography of MLIS-holders (Sin, 2011).
The reality of post-MLIS education includes thousands of webinars, MOOCs, chats, listservs, virtual meetings, systems work, and other collaborative technologies. Suggesting online programs lack rigor or cannot result in “real” learning is harmful, technophobic, and helps maintain the whiteness of academic libraries. This attitude favors applicants with the wealth and time to enroll in face to face programs, even though very little of their development as librarians occurs in lecture style, classroom settings. “Candidates must prove that they want it enough, prove that they are ‘the best’, where ‘the best’ sometimes just means the most willing and able to work for free” (Hudson, 2014).
Conspicuous leisure manifests in the time lost learning to perform whiteness and the wealth required to do so effectively. Unpack for a moment what the notion of being “put together” professionally involves: hairstyles, makeup, becoming comfortable in costuming which may or may not be designed for our bodies, voice coaching to eliminate accents and modify tone, time for exercise to appear “healthy”, orthopedics to address poor posture, orthodontics and teeth whitening, eye contacts if our lenses distort our appearance, concealing body modifications, and the countless ways marginalized librarians modify gesture, develop behavioral scripts, and otherwise conceal their authentic selves in the interest of survival.
Favoring applications with access to time and wealth is a larger manifestation of problems in hiring for libraries: we choose people like us because it is easy, rather than advocating for different views by picking “unfamiliar” candidates who might interrogate the processes. This manifests in micro (but no less harmful) aggressions if librarians who aren’t white and middle class manage to get hired and do not perform to “model minority” standards or otherwise refuse to sit quietly. “Our reviews are full of words like ‘shrill’, ‘abrasive’, ‘hard to work with’, ‘not a team player’, and ‘difficult’. We’re encouraged to be nicer and less intimidating and more helpful. Action items and measurable metrics are nowhere to be found.” (tableflip.club)
For marginalized librarians, the successful performance of whiteness may include integrating aspects of the self which allow White Saviors to feel good: I am resilient; I overcome; I have transcended my station. Such gestures convey applicants understand the rules of whiteness and hidden curriculum of the academy. Strategically revealed narratives of working nonstandard hours, surviving “bad” neighborhoods, single parents, holding multiple jobs while attending school, and similar stories can become currency in white culture (Cecire, 2015).
White culture embraces stories of overcoming intense odds while learning to perform whiteness, in the same way it creates and consumes stories of poverty tourism and role play for self-promotion: food stamp challenges, homeless awareness “sleep outs”, and the ever-expanding White Savior industrial complex. Recently, these stories have migrated away from individual librarians to libraries as institutions: media coverage of uprisings in Ferguson, Baltimore, and others center the library as a character in resiliency narratives. While the institution benefits in the short term from increased attention and support, this reinforces an ongoing messaging problem: libraries are most visible in the context of state sponsored violence. Libraries cannot simply possess inherent value, they must be framed as populist defenders or as sanctuary. Above all else they must struggle.
By contrast, librarianship assumes access to wealth or tolerance for debt to afford tuition, professional membership, and service opportunities. If I activate my American Library Association membership for all divisions and sections applicable for my job, the annual fee would come to $223 USD. This does not include conference registration fees, travel costs, a safe place to rest, or food. Activity in local and regional groups varies in cost, depending on the organization’s philosophy.
Competitiveness in the current job market requires at minimum a well-placed practicum experience conducting librarian level work, but only students with access to money can afford to take an unpaid internship. Galleries, libraries, archives, and museums throughout the United States continue exploiting unpaid labor, insuring the pool of well-qualified academic librarians skews white and middle class.
In the application process, asking for salary history is careless and further privileges a particular kind of applicant. For marginalized hires, salary history is another instance in a lifetime of humiliating scrutiny and surveillance on behalf of the state: the Free Application For Student Aid (FAFSA), housing vouchers, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), charity organizations, free or reduced cost student lunches, and invasive discussions with intervention professionals. FAFSA and SNAP programs are specific to the United States, but surveillance apparatus can be found wherever the “dole” exists.
Librarianship as a profession suffers when practitioners conflate sacrifice with worth, as though receiving comparatively lower salaries were justified due to our status as workers with a “calling”. Marginalized librarians–especially women–are taught to avoid negotiation and highlighting their accomplishments, to say nothing of diminished opportunities to build a livable salary history. This is culturally reinforced, as women pay measurable social costs for promoting themselves (Bowles, 2007). Marginalized librarians find themselves trapped in a rigged process: provide salary history and be underpaid, demand more and be rejected, all with the knowledge that salary will provide access to professional development opportunities.
For marginalized librarians, functioning at work requires navigating white cultural norms, conforming to professional orientations potentially at odds with their identity, taking on the additional work of speaking for an entire group of people (Gonzalez-Smith, Swanson & Tanaka, 2014) and for women, engaging in emotional labor to “be nicer” rather than producing tangible results. Librarianship can claim to recruit a diverse workforce, but without interrogating whiteness, the only winning move for marginalized librarians is not to play. The responsibility of fostering an inclusive workforce must fall to white librarians in power.
How can we interrogate the process? As I watch other marginalized librarians go through their job searches, a few ideas come to mind:
- In the absence of paid internships, offer professional development: pay for a conference or workshop attendance fees. If this is not possible, integrate opportunities for networking and mimicking the gestures of professional socialization.
- Offer hands-on, project driven assignments, and create opportunities to showcase critical thinking and data-driven decision making to interns. Weeding books for three weeks and journaling the experience in a blog is not a solid project, yet I’ve seen this offered as one a half dozen times. Practicum requirements in library and information science graduate programs are meant to be process assignments; a conversation about meaningful, engaging work is part of that process.
- Offer flexible times for internships. Requiring specific availability is the prerogative of the library, but understand this limits the diversity of your applicant pool. Partial or fully virtual internships offer tremendous opportunities for the library to expand as a truly 24-hour entity.
- Update boilerplate job descriptions to remove salary history requirements. Given the profession’s reliance on unpaid labor and part-time work, salary history does not reflect individual worth or ability.
- Screen interview notes for biased language.
- “Doesn’t seem professional” as criticism without articulating why is a problem.
- When someone says “I just like them better,” find out why.
- If search committees consistently defer to one member, find out why.
- Decide what you are attempting to measure with interview questions. Open-ended questions have answers that feel correct–there’s nothing wrong with behavioral interviews but hiding bias in a “correct” answer or “gut feeling” is a problem.
- Avoid using White Savior narratives when dealing with communities and patrons in poverty.
- When seeking marginalized employees to serve on diversity, hiring, or outreach committees, consider if this is the only kind of service work they’re asked to do. Consistently asking the same people to perform emotional labor causes burnout and suggests the organization is not listening to marginalized staff.
- Remember diversity is not always visible, and people should not have to disclose their lived experience to be heard by the organization. Provide anonymous options for employee feedback.
- Give people the power to do their jobs. Actionably curious librarians without basic agency required to explore reskilling and shifting responsibilities causes breathtaking harm to our profession. Research suggests a number of librarians are bypassing this conversation altogether to avoid paternal IT policy, hostile administration, and often both (Yelton, 2015). Librarians in environments with agency and trust consistently build wonderful things.
Librarianship in the United States lacks diversity because the existing workforce functions within oppressive structures, while the culture of whiteness in libraries maintains them. Recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce is the responsibility of all librarians, but this process will move faster with individual voices in power interrogating bias in their practices. While these suggestions are not exhaustive nor universal in their application, I hope they can function as starting points for difficult but necessary discussions.
Thanks to Cecily Walker, Jessica Olin, and Annie Pho for asking hard questions and wading through my rusty prose. Cecily in particular tolerated many stream-of-consciousness Twitter DMs. This essay would not exist without Stephanie Sendaula, Brit Bennett, and many other librarians and writers whose work shaped my thoughts. I am grateful for the library and information science job seekers who shared their anxieties, their victories, and infectious tenacity.
Adkins, D., & Hussey, L. (2006). The Library in the Lives of Latino College Students. The Library Quarterly, 76(4), 456-480.
Bennett, Brit. (2014, December 17). I Don’t Know What To Do With Good White People. Jezebel. http://jezebel.com/i-dont-know-what-to-do-with-good-white-people-1671201391 (Accessed 12/20/2014)
Bennett, Brit. [@britbennett]. (2015, April 3). As someone who has been in so many privileged spaces, I know that murky place between gratitude and anger all too well. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/britrbennett/status/584077605026029568
Bowles, H. R., Babcock, L., & Lai, L. (May 01, 2007). Social incentives for gender differences in the propensity to initiate negotiations: Sometimes it does hurt to ask. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 103, 1, 84-103.
Cammarota, J. (January 01, 2011). Blindsided by the Avatar: White Saviors and Allies out of Hollywood and in Education. Review of Education, Pedagogy & Cultural Studies,33, 3, 242-259.
Cecire, Natalia. (2015, April 26) Resilience and Unbreakability. Works Cited http://natalia.cecire.org/pop-culture/resilience-and-unbreakability/ (Accessed 04/27/2015)
Costello, C. Y. (2005). Professional identity crisis: Race, class, gender, and success at professional schools. Nashville, Tenn: Vanderbilt University Press.
Davies, A. (2014). The origins of the ideal worker: The separation of work and home in the United States from the market revolution to 1950. Work and Occupations, 41(1), 18 – 39.
Dews, C. L. B., & Law, C. L. (1995). This fine place so far from home: Voices of academics from the working class. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. See Carolyn Leste Law’s introduction and Laurel Johnson Black’s essay, “Stupid Rich Bastards”.
Drabinski, E. (April 01, 2013). Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly, 83, 2, 94-111.
Ewen, S. (1988). All consuming images: The politics of style in contemporary culture. New York: Basic Books.
Gonzalez-Smith, Swanson, & Tanaka (2014). Unpacking Identity: Racial, Ethnic, and Professional Identity and Academic Librarians of Color. In Pagowsky, N., & Rigby, M. E. (eds). The librarian stereotype: Deconstructing perceptions and presentations of information work. (149-173). Chicago, IL. Association of College & Research Libraries.
Haras, C., Lopez, E. M., & Ferry, K. (September 01, 2008). (Generation 1.5) Latino Students and the Library: A Case Study. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 34, 5, 425-433.
Hudson, Cate. (November 18, 2014) We Hire The Best. Model View Culture, 18: Hiring. modelviewculture.com/pieces/we-hire-the-best (Accessed 2/10/2015).
McMillan Cottom, Tresse. (2013, October 29) The Logic of Stupid Poor People. tressiemc http://tressiemc.com/2013/10/29/the-logic-of-stupid-poor-people/ (Accessed 03/25/2014)
Riis, J. A. (1890). How the other half lives: Studies among the tenements of New York. (Making of America.) New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Sadler, B., Bourg, C. (2015). Feminism and the Future of Library Discovery. Code4Lib Journal, 28. http://journal.code4lib.org/articles/10425 (Accessed 4/15/2015)
Salo, D. (August 15, 2013). How to Scuttle a Scholarly-Communication Initiative. Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication, 1, 4.)
Sendaula, Stephanie. [@sendulas]. (2015, March 26). LRT: Plus, it’s super awkward when colleagues and/or patrons ask if you’re the diversity hire. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/sendaulas/status/581152140955095040
Sin, S. C. J. (January 01, 2011). Neighborhood disparities in access to information resources: Measuring and mapping U.S. public libraries’ funding and service landscapes. Library and Information Science Research, 33, 1, 41-53.
Williams III, J., Van Arnhem, J. (2015) But Then You Have to Make It Happen Code4Lib Journal, 28. http://journal.code4lib.org/articles/10487 (Accessed 4/15/2015)
Yelton, A. (April, 2015). Political and Social Dimensions of Library Code. (Chapter 5) (Report). Library Technology Reports, 51, 3. http://dx.doi.org/10.5860/ltr.51n3
Great discussion and breakdown of this issue!
Sorry, but I didn’t get much past the first paragraph. I’m white. I’m heterosexual. I’ve been middle class for most of my life, and I’ve definitely benefited from capitalism. I came to librarianship at the age of fifty. This is the first full-time, permanent job I’ve ever had. It developed after I worked for two years as an intern. My internship was posted on the internship site of the library school at the multiculturally diverse university were I was earning my MLIS. My internship was at a multiculturally diverse university that’s on the cutting edge of diversity research and activism. Yet there were few (if any) other applicants, of any color or persuasion. I worked my butt off and was lucky enough to be hired full time so I could support myself after going through a nasty divorce, having major surgery, and finding myself in a newly emptied nest. Everyone’s different. We all have challenges to overcome, and we all have opportunities to make excuses or step up, but ultimately we’re all responsible for making our own paths. Just my two cent’s worth.
You’ve had a difficult time. There’s no question that the library industry is a tough nut to crack and it doesn’t give all that much return. Imagine how much harder it must be for people up against the inbuilt biases and obstacles that Angela describes. I’m an Australian librarian so I’m not familiar with a lot of the structures and processes that she mentions but I do know that as an Anglo middle aged female I benefit enormously from being white. I know for instance that I don’t have to wonder whether I didn’t get that job, or that tenancy, or was overlooked at the shop counter because I’m black or my English isn’t very good or I’m a migrant or refugee. Because I’m white and not black or a migrant or a refugee, I know I won’t get abused on public transport or singled out for contumely by my government. Further, I got my start in librarianship in a library that had a local Indigenous knowledge collection – and looking after it was my responsibility, a white woman from thousands of miles away, not a local Indigenous person. Yes we all make our own paths but we don’t all have the same start – some of us have much more difficult terrain to travel through. And some of us will be far more affected by reverses than others; and sometimes lack of resources and experience or different experience will be the factor that means we’re more affected by those reverses than others are.
There is much more debate in United States librarianship about matters like this than in Australia – well done to those who have raised them; I acknowledge your strength and the persistence it takes to raise them and get their veracity accepted, even if only by some.
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Thank you for your lucid breakdown of what is going on in librarianship when it comes to ethnic equity and inclusion.
The explication by you explains why there is no progress when it comes to ethnic inclusion and equity in librarianship.
This means that those people of color who do make it in libraries–tend to be beholden and reinforcers of the status quo.
This is also a reason for a lack of innovative thought in this area.
Thank you for this post!
Whilst I find your research and discussion fascinating and worthwhile, I have to admit that I’m extremely uncomfortable with the term “whiteness”. Just as I would be extremely uncomfortable with the term “person of colour” if somebody chose to describe me that way. Just as somebody of German / Irish / Italian / Polish descent might object to their cultural identity to be reduced to “white”.
I would suggest that a more appropriate term would be “privilege” – as this is something that race, gender and class all contribute to, without evoking overly-simplified ideas of racial identity.
But that aside, I pretty much agree that there’s a lack of diversity in libraries, and without it, libraries will struggle to truly represent the needs of its communities, whether it is in its collections, its services, or its capacity for advocacy as a community hub.
One of the reasons we fail to move forward in this conversation and conversations about privilege in numerous other fields is because white people are afraid to own their whiteness. Whiteness is not an insult. But it is what you are. It’s of course not all you are, but it’s important to recognize that having the privilege to be a part of whiteness and to LOOK white is a major advantage in the world.
I don’t know that we’re afraid of acknowledging our whiteness as we don’t realise we’re white and we don’t realise what being white means. White is the ‘norm’, so ‘normal’ that it’s invisible to those who are white. That invisibility means that conversations about discrimination start with the focus on blackness, or colour, or other differences – which focus of course reinforces the norm of whiteness, and so it goes.
Thank you for this article. In response to other commenters, I’d point towards Johnson’s ‘Privilege, Power, and Difference’ for more on why privilege sometimes gets tied in specifically with whiteness (even though not all white people get to *feel* the experience of social privilege). If you’re white (like I am!) please take the time to read more on whiteness; there are a range of educated perspectives. Pay attention to the stress, the worry, and the frustration that can come from reading about whiteness & diversity. I’m still learning, myself.
So much going on in your article, Angela. Thanks so much. It’s good for librarians to be aware of the impact of our implicit culture on librarians from minority communities (extra workload), young librarians (unpaid, menial tasks), new older librarians (often undervalued or face age discrimination), librarians from poor communities (who put the most into their job and get the least back) and librarians who otherwise struggle to ‘fit in’ to the expectations we have for each other. Keep with it, whether you’re white or of color, male or female, whatever your origin, sexuality, religion, or class — we need all of us here and recreating librarianship as a space that welcomes all of us.
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Thank you for this informative look at how the interview process looks though eyes different than mine.
I was just at the CAPAL conference in Ottawa and one of the leitmotivs in the sessions was the need to hire more diverse librarians. But as we furthered this discussion over mealtime it became clear to me that this is only the beginning of the process. I think what many of us really want is someone “diverse” to come on board so we can check off that all important diversity check box; Someone that will easily, by the time their tenure vote rolls around, learn to be more like “us.” (I a white male).
I think for diversity to really work we (who are in power in libraries) need to really WANT diversity, which means unexpected, and wonderful change. Not that we’re hiring diverse people TO change us, but knowing that we, and our institutions, will be changed in ways we don’t comprehend. We in power have to be open and ready for the struggles and ultimate benefits a diverse workforce will bring.
Thank you for this work. I would love to hear more of your thoughts on how we can support new librarians (especially “diversity hires”) once they get into their jobs.
As an early-career librarian, I moved to a new city to start a new job. I’m not the only POC in my office, but I will be soon. However, I don’t feel secure enough in my position to engage in hypercritical issues with my supervisors about race. I’m pretty good at navigating white cultural norms and I hate to be the token voice, but I’m also starting to feel very isolated.
What I miss most about my university days are the POC-only spaces I could access. There has to be a way to create safer spaces (virtually or physically) for self-identified minority librarians (what is the right term?) to get together and support each other.
And what if that means creating spaces where white folks aren’t allowed? Will there be a backlash? Will we make ourselves even more vulnerable? I’m afraid to find out.
Not to mention religious and technological biases – I worked for two small seminaries. People scoffed at theological librarians since they though we held dusty Bibles all day, but we do a variety of tasks. And getting a job at an impoverished library that lacks technology is not helpful when every job ad requires someone who knows how to use LibGuides, virtual chat, and other tools of affluence. Jumping from a job with little resources to a well-staffed library is hard.
This is a fascinating article generating a much-needed conversation. I think a lot of your “interrogation” points really challenge us reflect on the way we approach diversity in libraries, particularly your point about diversity not always being visible, and your comments about questioning biases that are couched in language of a candidate’s “fit.”
And can I just say, thank you for the call to end the “white savior” narrative. It is rampant in higher education (not just academic libraries and libraries generally) and it is completely marginalizing to the groups of students it claims to want to help.
Have just gone through the article and its quite good. Cheers
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One of the reasons for terminating my library appointment was “request to attend a wedding.” Of course, I am African-American in a white dominated library and university.
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The overwhelming whiteness and the microaggressions that come with being nonwhite and being young (can we talk about how white people always think people of color are younger than they are because they just don’t know how to look at people of color) are why I’m leaving the field two years after graduation. And why I never felt all that comfortable or welcome in libraries to begin with.
“I don’t think of myself as an ex-hotel night clerk, but will always be a librarian even if my job title doesn’t reflect this. Librarianship is not simply what we do at work but a component of how we identify as people”
This. I mean, not hotel clerk, but other jobs. I will have those tendencies, I know people will always ask me for booklists, I will always like to organize and standardize and control vocabulary…but I’m done with working in this area.
I appreciate the analysis and suggestions for practice. Nice work.
However, I just read (Haras, Lopez & Ferry, 2008) and I can not find where this case-study states that “libraries can be a source of anxiety for marginalized students.” I do not disagree with this statement; I just do not see college-student stress or anxiety addressed in the case-study cited. Perhaps this citation was an error.
Thank you for your comment. In this case no, that study does not ultimately _conclude_ academic libraries are a source of anxiety. My citation draws largely from the paragraph:
“While most students expressed confidence
that they were not “hopeless” when it comes to research,
they also recounted experiences in which teachers did not
adequately prepare them in the use of the library, of substandard
school library collections, and of frustrated attempts at using the
academic library. Barely three-quarters engaged in some form of
research activity during high school. One in four students did not
do any research until college. However, since information
literacy skills are not mandated in California’s public schools, it
is hard to make the case that academic library usage and library
comfort are inevitable for any student.” (431)
This suggested anxiety to me.
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Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that people instinctively show bias toward individuals who are most similar to them in terms of appearance and behavior. And that certainly helps explain in part why the library profession has struggled to reflect the diversity of the United States as a whole. But I think this is more a matter of human psychology than the result of some imaginary “white structure” implemented to oppress all people of color. Not all white people are the same and not all people of color are the same. In fact, almost everyone and every family is an amalgam of different races and ethnicities. It is strange that an argument for diversity can fail to capture this essential truth and reduce humanity in such…forgive me…black and white terms.
The author seems misguided by elements of critical race theory, which in turn cause her to make sweeping generalizations about categories of people without regard to differences relating to socio-political-economic class. Moreover, she has reduced American society to a Manichean dualism based on characteristics that she has arbitrarily determined as preeminent. That says more about her than it does about society. Seriously, why isn’t whiteness defined simply as the state of being white? (Incidentally, the author never clearly defines what “white” means either.) Why does a white person have to be straight, possess a savings account, and enjoy reading the Wall Street Journal? The author never answers these questions. Apparently, these are self-evident truths.
Does that mean if you are Irish-American and gay or a blonde communist that you’re not white? And who gets to decide racial/ethnic membership? Is there a white tribal council that determines all of this? And does that mean conversely that if I’m a person of color who dresses professionally, speaks standard English, and aspires to be a successful businessman that I’ve somehow joined the dark side (or the white side depending on how you look at it) and betrayed my people? This is what happens when one mixes victimhood with interdisciplinary studies.
I agree: the Library profession lacks diversity. But analyzing it from such a narrow, propagandist lens will do more harm than good. Race and ethnicity are complex concepts that require more sophisticated tools of analysis. I’m not saying that race and ethnicity don’t matter. But we can and should do better than this.
Hi, Ignacio, I see your point, but when I read the article, and re-read it now, I can’t say I agree. I feel like Ms. Galvan does explain who is part of the patriarchy at issue from the very beginning: “whiteness in this essay means: white, heterosexual, capitalist, and middle class.” The points Ms. Galvan makes are important, and they seem to be missed in your response.
The points in the article don’t treat “mainstream professionalism” as invalid. Doe does point out how exclusive it can be, and that value can come from people that don’t fit that particular mold. She seems to ask a broader question. Can a library worker look and speak in a way that others consider “non-professionally,” as you put it? Someone with a lisp, someone who mispronounces “libary” for library, code-switches, dress differently (bright colors, “loud” accessories, ethnic jewelry, thrifty clothes, soft-butch style)?
Just by asking the question, we are now able to bring to light the issues we face all the time: being hired, at staff meetings, when creating committees. We are limited, and continue to be limited. In my opinion, it doesn’t help to reduce the points made while also knowing that the full message of the article isn’t being addressed.
I am so excited by Ms. Galvan’s article! We talk so little about diversity, and offer such few solutions. It was thrilling when School Library Journal had an issue devoted to diversity, and it would be wonderful if other library publications followed suit. We don’t have one single problem when it comes to diversity, but many, and it is really, really great to see all the comments/discussions going on thanks to this article being published.
I think it helps to think about these issues from a systemic perspective, rather than an individual one. Here is Australia, our frameworks are Western, ie white, although there is another set of cultures (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) that have existed here for much longer than European settlement. Nevertheless we live in a Westminster form of government, an English system of law, in an environment where Protestant and Catholic religions are dominant and where most migrants come from Britain (yes still!). Our politicians are disproportionately white. I worked in a prison library last yea; the custodial officers were predominantly white, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were disproportionately represented and other minority groups were also present in larger proportion than they are in the general population. Every migrant, and the Indigenous peoples, have to fit into those systems. Yes those systems have changed to accommodate some aspects of the cultures migrants from other parts of the world (thank goodness) but they are still recognisably English. It’s still not uncommon for migrants from parts of Asia, for instance, to choose an Anglicised name when they get here, to fit in more quickly, rather than use their own name; people with qualifications in their home country have to gain equivalent recognition before they can work in their profession (this can mean starting their qualification from scratch). From this perspective, we live in a white world, into which individuals in all their complexity and diversity fit themselves, where ‘white’ is the institutional norm so that, for instance, the problems that arise for Aboriginal people living here are labelled ‘Indigenous issues’ rather than problems of inbuilt disadvantage. Even though the workforce in the library service where I am employed is almost as diverse as the rest of the Australian population, library systems are unchanged by that or by the diversity of the population; there is one person, one, in management who is not white. I think it’s more useful to think about issues of whiteness this way, looking at structures first and the consequences for people second, rather than try and measure individuals’ whiteness. Cheers
We’ve had to delete a couple of comments in this thread, so it seems like a good time to remind people of the In the Library with the Lead Pipe Comment Policy:
“We appreciate and invite your comments and discussion about articles on In the Library with the Lead Pipe. Constructive criticism is one of our primary goals, and we applaud it in our readers. Comments that violate our Code of Conduct, disregard the article’s topic, or fail to add to the discussion will be deleted. We do not edit comments except by request of the poster.”
In the Library with the Lead Pipe » Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias: Whiteness & Librarianship http://t.co/ncOFU69D43
Great article. No doubt that libraries reinforce, like any other institution, this whiteness. No news.
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