White Librarianship in Blackface: Diversity Initiatives in LIS
Whiteness—an ideological practice that can extend beyond notions of racial supremacy to other areas of dominance—has permeated every aspect of librarianship, extending even to the initiatives we claim are committed to increasing diversity. This state of affairs, however, need not remain. This article examines the ways in which whiteness controls diversity initiatives in LIS, particularly in light of the application requirements set upon candidates. I then suggest ways to correct for whiteness in LIS diversity programs by providing mentorship to diverse applicants struggling to navigate the whiteness of the profession and concurrently working in solidarity to dismantle whiteness from within.1
Failure of Diversity Initiatives in LIS
It is no secret that librarianship has traditionally been and continues to be a profession dominated by whiteness (Bourg, 2014; Branche, 2012; Galvan, 2015; Hall, 2012; Honma, 2006), which is a theoretical concept that can extend beyond the realities of racial privilege to a wide range of dominant ideologies based on gender identity, sexual orientation, class, and other categories. In fact, recent years have seen LIS professional organizations and institutions striving to provide increasing numbers of diversity initiatives to help members from underrepresented groups enter and remain in librarianship (Gonzalez-Smith, Swanson, & Tanaka, 2014). The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and Society of American Archivists conduct the Mosaic Program to attract diverse students to careers in archiving; the American Association of Law Libraries manages the George A. Strait Minority Scholarship to help fund library school for college graduates interested in law librarianship; the American Library Association (ALA) runs its Spectrum Scholars Program to provide scholarships to diverse LIS students and a corresponding Spectrum Leadership Institute to help prepare these students for successful careers in the library field. Examples abound of library organizations attempting to address the “problem of diversity” in the LIS field.
Nevertheless, these efforts are not making any meaningful difference. As one of my colleagues has so accurately put it: “We’re bringing [people] from underrepresented identity groups into the profession at same rate they’re leaving. Attrition [is] a problem” (Vinopal, 2015). With minority librarians leaving the profession as soon as they are recruited, what can be done to render our abundance of diversity initiatives truly effective? Why are these ambitious and numerous initiatives failing to have the desired effect? Shortly after discussing this very issue with a colleague over lunch, I received an email regarding the approaching deadline for the ARL Career Enhancement Program, which is aimed at placing diverse, early career librarians in internships with member libraries. Reading through the onerous application process, the realization hit me: Our diversity programs do not work because they are themselves coded to promote whiteness as the norm in the profession and unduly burden those individuals they are most intended to help.
Whiteness in LIS
Studying whiteness in LIS has yet to hit the mainstream of library scholarship, but there have been a number of critical and radical library scholars who have taken up the challenge of interrogating and troubling the whiteness of the profession (Bourg, 2014; Espinal, 2000, 2001; Galvan, 2015; Hall, 2012; Honma, 2006). These critical examinations highlight the many dimensions of any accurate definition of whiteness as an ideological practice. As Galvan (2015) so succinctly puts it, “whiteness . . . means: white, heterosexual, capitalist, and middle class.” Hall (2012) takes a different approach to defining the breadth of whiteness in LIS by differentiating it from the “black bodies” of LIS: “I would assert that [whiteness] is an issue, a question, that transcends race, ethnicity, any broad or limiting categorization and unites all librarians who identify or are identified as different” (p. 201). For these writers, whiteness refers not only to racial and ethnic categorizations but a complete system of exclusion based on hegemony. Likewise, in this article, I use “whiteness” to refer not only to the socio-cultural differential of power and privilege that results from categories of race and ethnicity; it also stands as a marker for the privilege and power that acts to reinforce itself through hegemonic cultural practice that excludes all who are different.
This system of exclusion functions primarily through the normativity of whiteness within librarian and larger societal culture. As Branche (2012) notes, “Whiteness and white normativity are embedded in U.S. library culture” (p. 205). The normativity of whiteness works insidiously, invisibly, to create binary categorizations of people as either acceptable to whiteness and therefore normal or different and therefore other. The invisible nature of whiteness is key to its power; when it is not named or interrogated, it can persist in creating a culture of exclusion behind the scenes of LIS practice (Espinal, 2000, 2001; Galvan, 2015; Honma, 2006). As Yeo and Jacobs (2006) note, “One must ask oneself if it would be possible to really achieve diversity without challenging our racist, homophobic and sexist consciousnesses that are so deeply imbedded that we don’t even recognize them?”
For example, whiteness as hegemonic practice is at work when a librarian of color is mistaken for a library assistant by white colleagues at a professional conference. Likewise, whiteness is at work when genderqueer librarians are forced to choose between binary gender groupings, neither of which apply to their identities, when using the restroom at work. Finally, whiteness is at work when a librarian from a working-class background in search of employment is told by well-meaning colleagues, “Just take a job anywhere and move,” when the unemployed librarian lacks the financial privilege to do so. This working of white normativity occurs without thought and intention but is still powerfully exclusionary and damaging to the profession.
A major contributor to the invisible normativity of whiteness in librarianship has been the fact that whiteness has played such a fundamental role in the profession from the start. Public libraries in the U.S. developed initially as sites of cultural assimilation and “Americanization” of immigrants needing to learn the mores of white society (Hall, 2012; Honma, 2006). Given the historical context, white normativity continues to be a hallmark of modern librarianship.
White normativity in LIS extends to the ways in which we discuss and address diversity in the profession. Rather than being framed as a shared goal for the common good, diversity is approached as a problem that must be solved, with diverse librarians becoming the objectified pawns deployed to attack the problem. With this white-centered thinking at the fore, many LIS diversity initiatives seem to focus primarily on increasing numbers and visibility without paying corresponding attention to retention and the lived experiences of underrepresented librarians surrounded by the whiteness of the profession (Gonzalez-Smith, Swanson, & Tanaka, 2014; Honma, 2006; Yeo & Jacobs, 2006). Focusing on numbers rather than the deeper issues of experience and structural discrimination allows the profession to take a self-congratulatory and complacent approach to the “problem of diversity” without ever overtly naming and addressing the issue of whiteness (Espinal, 2000, 2001; Honma, 2006).
In many ways, this article serves as an extension of Galvan’s (2015) examination of the practice of whiteness in LIS hiring and job recruitment. She identifies culture, conspicuous leisure, and access to wealth as barriers to entry for members from diverse backgrounds (Galvan, 2015). My research extends that framework to examine ways in which similar barriers come into play even before the hiring process—in diversity initiatives supposedly aimed at encouraging members of marginalized groups to pursue the education and training necessary for a career in librarianship.
“White” Diversity Initiatives
The profession is so imbued with whiteness, extending even to the ways in which we discuss and address diversity, it is no wonder that our myriad diversity initiatives are not working. When we recruit for whiteness, we will perpetuate whiteness in the profession, even when it comes in the form of a librarian with a diverse background. A look at the application requirements for a typical LIS diversity initiative demonstrates this point. In order to qualify for an internship through the ARL Career Enhancement Program, for example, applicants must submit:
- a completed application form;
- a resume;
- a 500-word essay detailing their professional interests and goals;
- an official letter of acceptance to an ALA-accredited MLIS program;
- official transcripts; and
- two letters of recommendation, one of which must be from a professor or employer.
Each of these requirements assumes that applicants are situated in positions of white, middle-class, cisgender normativity that allow for the temporal, financial, and educational privilege that fulfilling these criteria would require. Only an applicant with access to the privileges of whiteness would have the tools needed to engage in the requisite work and volunteer opportunities called for by the diversity program, have the high-level of educational achievement required, possess the close relationships with individuals of power needed for stellar recommendations, and be able to provide all the documentation necessary to complete their application through the online form. In many ways, this long list of requirements resembles the complex application processes of the most elite private institutions of higher education. Many public institutions, including almost all community colleges, do not require such detailed paperwork for matriculation into their undergraduate programs (see e.g., St. Petersburg College). These institutions take their public mission seriously to provide education to all members of the community. However, diversity initiatives in LIS that are meant to benefit members of underrepresented groups require lengthy applications that many individuals from diverse backgrounds may not be equipped to complete.
These applications are created particularly to recruit for whiteness and require the ability to play at whiteness in order to succeed. For example, applicants are required to submit resumes detailing their work experience, but an applicant from a working-class background may not have the requisite experience, either through work or volunteering, to place on a resume. Building a relevant resume assumes the applicant has the white, middle-class background that allows for early career professional work or volunteerism, whereas many applicants do not have that privilege (Galvan, 2015). It may also be the case that the applicant has plenty of work experience in low-wage jobs but is unaware of ways to frame that experience to reflect the transferable skills that relate to librarianship. Without the white-normative experience of applying for professional opportunities, the applicant will not know how to frame their resume to meet the requirements for the application and, because of this lack of knowledge, may decide not to apply at all.
Another example can be seen in the requirement of official transcripts. A genderqueer applicant who has since changed names and gender identities may not know how to navigate the legal and bureaucratic labyrinth of transferring their personal information from one name and identity to another. Because the transcripts must be official, the applicant will likely have to work with the educational institution, as well as the diversity program, to verify their identity. This process adds additional labor to the already onerous application process—labor that is not required of the white-normative, cisgender applicant—and could likely discourage the applicant from applying.
In both cases, an application process rooted in whiteness can have a chilling effect on the types of applicants who actually apply, creating a self-selection process that further promotes whiteness in the profession. Even for those applicants who successfully apply and are accepted into these diversity programs, playing at whiteness is still a requirement for career success. Programs like the ARL Career Enhancement Program assume that successful applicants possess the privileged free time, financial backing, and familial circumstances to allow them to relocate for these internships, residencies, or ALA-accredited library programs. Moreover, these diversity initiatives not only require whiteness for the application process but they also require continued whiteness to succeed in the profession (Galvan, 2015). Thus, those applicants who find success in these diversity programs are those who can successfully replicate necessary whiteness. As Espinal (2000, 2001) observes, “Many librarians of color have commented that they are more accepted if and when they look and act white” (p. 144). This means the inverse is also true: Those librarians not able to play successfully at whiteness will be continually excluded from the profession (Satifice, 2015).
This phenomenon is not unique to LIS. Writing about the technology sector, Kẏra (2014) notes, “When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we necessarily position marginalized groups as naturally needing to assimilate into dominant ones, rather than to undermine said structures of domination.” Jack (2015) makes a similar observation regarding elite undergraduate institutions matriculating underrepresented minority students—the “privileged poor”—from private high schools: “Elite colleges effectively hedge their bets: They recruit those already familiar with the social and cultural norms that pervade their own campuses.” Manipulating diversity programs to recruit for whiteness ensures that only those diverse candidates adept in whiteness will succeed.
My own experience serves as a prime example. I am a cisgender, heterosexual, middle-class black woman, raised by two highly educated parents who taught me from a young age the importance of playing at whiteness to achieve. I can specifically remember my mother admonishing me to “play the game and do what you want later” throughout my life. I have grown very adept at playing at whiteness; it has allowed me to complete a number of post-graduate degrees, spend time practicing corporate law at an award-winning global firm, and successfully transfer careers to a rewarding position in academic librarianship. This playing at whiteness also allowed me to apply for and successfully obtain a position as an ALA Spectrum Scholar in the 2012 cohort. Knowing how to replicate whiteness has served me well.
“Lifting as We Climb”
While my own ability to play at whiteness has served me in my career, it is a privilege that I know I cannot use selfishly. As my mother reminded me in a recent conversation about the issue of diversity in the professional world, “You play the game and give the white world what it wants just to get through the door. Then, once you’re inside, you blast that door wide open for others to follow you” (B. Evans Hathcock, personal communication, August 18, 2015). Just as the National Association of Colored Women exhorted fellow middle-class blacks to do in their motto “Lifting as We Climb” (Wormser, 2002), it is important that those of us in LIS with privilege—be it the privilege of actual whiteness or the privilege of skill in playing whiteness—serve as effective allies to those who do not. We need to make space for our diverse colleagues to thrive within the profession. In short, we need to dismantle whiteness from within LIS. We can best do that in two equally important ways: by modifying our diversity programs to attract truly diverse applicants and by mentoring early career librarians in both playing at and dismantling whiteness in LIS.
One of the first steps to washing away the blackface of white librarianship is to reframe diversity initiatives so that they attract and retain applicants from truly diverse backgrounds. When we recruit for whiteness, we will get whiteness; but when we recruit for diversity, we will truly achieve diversity. It is important to note that reworking application processes to accommodate applicants with different backgrounds and experiences in no way requires lowering standards. Talented applicants from truly diverse backgrounds—that is, backgrounds not functionally equivalent to standards of successful whiteness—exist and can be recruited and retained for these programs. To identify and attract them, however, requires framing application questions and required material in ways that make sense for the applicants’ experiences.
For example, instead of requiring that at least one or all letters of recommendation come from professors or former employers, it may be useful and more relevant to allow applicants to submit letters from community members or other acquaintances who can provide equally informed assessments of the applicant’s work and goals. Assuming that an applicant has the necessary relationship with a professor or supervisor means assuming that applicant attends school or works in a white, middle-class, cis-male environment where closeness with professors or supervisors is the norm. A diverse applicant may not have the opportunity to form those kinds of school and work relationships. However, that same applicant may know a staff member at the local public library who is well aware of the applicant’s career goals and the work they have put toward achieving them. The local library staff member would not qualify as either a professor or former employer but can still provide valuable insight into the qualifications of that particular applicant.
Dismantling whiteness from the infrastructure of our diversity programs is key, but it will take time. In the meantime, there are diverse individuals out there who wish to become and remain successful librarians. Thus, another important step in washing away the blackface of white librarianship involves teaching new librarians from diverse backgrounds how to navigate effectively the white system that we have. We also need to teach these new librarians how to dismantle whiteness’ stranglehold on the profession. Being a nonwhite librarian playing at whiteness is an isolating and lonely practice, so it is essential that new librarians from diverse backgrounds get the support they need and have safe spaces to go in the midst of this work.
Fortunately, there are a number of communities of radical and critical librarians who are willing to provide support, guidance, and mentorship in bringing true diversity and anti-racist practice to the profession. One colleague and fellow beneficiary of LIS diversity initiatives has created a mentorship group for students of color to help them navigate the realities of learning and working in a privileged space and to assist them in fulfilling the requirements of whiteness necessary to succeed (Padilla, 2015). Social media spaces, such as #critlib and #radlib on Twitter, provide public spaces for librarians to vent frustrations and share strategies for combating whiteness—comprising a range of hegemonic statuses, as defined above—in LIS. For those not comfortable with speaking out publicly, social media can also provide useful points of contact for more private, offline relationships and discussions aimed at combating whiteness in the profession. Even within our professional organizations, a number of caucuses and interest groups, including the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table and the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association exist to help members of diverse identity groups find community in the midst of the whiteness of librarianship (Espinal, 2000, 2001; Gonzalez-Smith, Swanson, & Tanaka, 2014).
There are many ways for nonwhite librarians and library students to gain the support and knowledge they need to enter the doors of the profession and subsequently “blast them open.” Likewise, there are many practical ways more experienced librarians—from all backgrounds and levels of privilege—can help to fight whiteness in our diversity initiatives:
- Volunteer to serve on ALA and workplace committees and working groups tasked with organizing LIS diversity initiatives and speak up regarding ways those initiatives can be modified to embrace a more diverse applicant pool.
- Offer to take part in formal mentoring programs through professional associations or within your institution. Help library workers new to the profession to navigate the culture of whiteness in the profession at large and within your specific place of work. For example, the Association of College and Research Libraries’ Dr. E. J. Josey Spectrum Scholar Mentor Program pairs academic librarians with current Spectrum Scholars interested in academic librarianship, and mentor applications are always welcome.
- Participate in informal mentoring with nonwhite library workers and students. With social media, it is possible to serve as an effective resource and ally for someone, even from miles away. Do what you can to let new colleagues from diverse backgrounds know that you are available as a resource for advice, to serve as a reference, etc.
- Even if you are yourself new to the profession, you have a role to play. Develop relationships with more seasoned librarians who have demonstrated a commitment to inclusivity and learn from their experiences in the struggle. If you have privilege, begin speaking up for those who do not and signal boost their messages.
Fighting whiteness is hard work that requires additional labor from everyone. As Lumby and Morrison (2010) note, “It is therefore in the interest of all to address inequities, and not just in the interest of the apparently disadvantaged” (p. 12, citing Frankenburg, 1993).
Washing Away the White Librarianship in Blackface
Whiteness has permeated every aspect of librarianship, extending even to the initiatives we commit to increasing diversity. We can, however, make meaningful and important changes. With continued critical study of whiteness and its effects on LIS, it is possible to redirect our thinking about diversity from a problem to be solved to a goal worth achieving. Moreover, we can and should develop real strategies for attaining that goal. The first step is to help diverse applicants navigate the whiteness of the profession and make a concerted effort to dismantle whiteness from within. In doing so, we can recreate the profession into one that truly embraces inclusivity. We can wash away our white librarianship in blackface.
Huge thank you to Annie Pho, Jennifer Vinopal, and Erin Dorney for reading, reviewing, and helping to revise this article. It is so much better having come across their desks. Unending gratitude to Betty Evans and Dewitt Hathcock for teaching me how to play the game successfully and raising me to be the radical I am today.
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Galvan, A. (2015). Soliciting performance, hiding bias: Whiteness and librarianship. In the Library with the Lead Pipe. Retrieved from https://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2015/soliciting-performance-hiding-bias-whiteness-and-librarianship.
Gonzalez-Smith, I., Swanson, J., & Tanaka, A. (2014) Unpacking identity: Racial, ethnic, and professional identity and academic librarians of color. In N. Pagowsky & M. Rigby (Eds.), The librarian stereotype: Deconstructing perceptions and presentations of information work (pp. 149-173). Chicago, IL: Association of College and Research Libraries.
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Honma, T. (2006). Trippin’ over the color line: The invisibility of race in library and information studies. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 1(2). Retrieved from http://escholarship.org/uc/item/4nj0w1mp.
Jack, A. A. (2015, September 12). What the privileged poor can teach us. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/09/13/opinion/sunday/what-the-privileged-poor-can-teach-us.html?_r=0.
Kẏra (2014, December 10). How to uphold white supremacy by focusing on diversity and inclusion. Model View Culture. Retrieved from https://modelviewculture.com/pieces/how-to-uphold-white-supremacy-by-focusing-on-diversity-and-inclusion.
Lorde, A. (1984). Sexism: An American disease in blackface. In Sister Outsider (pp. 60-65). Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.
Lumby, J., & Morrison, M. (2010). Leadership and diversity: Theory and research. School Leadership & Management: Formerly School Organisation, 30(1), 3-17.
Padilla, T. [@thomasgpadilla]. (2015, August 18). @AprilHathcock we started a students of color group, tried to mentor incoming groups to privileged realities, req. of entrance. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/thomasgpadilla/status/633660350337019904.
Satifice. (2015, September 10). It’s time to get personal, dirty, and downright nasty [Tumblr post]. Retrieved from http://satifice.tumblr.com/post/128776550132/its-time-to-get-personal-dirty-and-downright.
Vinopal, J. [@jvinopal]. (2015, August 18). @AprilHathcock we’re bringing ppl from underrepresented identity groups into profession at same rate they are leaving. Attrition a problem+. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/jvinopal/status/633652864087404544.
Wormser, R. (2002). Jim Crow stories: National Association of Colored Women. The rise and fall of Jim Crow. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_org_nacw.html.
Yeo, S., & Jacobs, J. R. (2006). Diversity matters? Rethinking diversity in libraries. Counterpoise, 9(2). Retrieved from http://freegovinfo.info/files/diversity_counterpoise.pdf.
- The title of this article is a variation on a quote by librarian, scholar, and activist Audre Lorde (1984): “Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface.” In this article, I am arguing the opposite as it relates to diversity initiatives in LIS in that I posit that diverse librarianship as we conceive of it is in fact white librarianship in blackface. [↩]
This article has given me much to think about and confront within myself. Thank you for getting under my skin, helping to remind me of my need to confront my own comfort, find comfort in the uncomfortable, and arrive at new understandings from which to act.
Thanks, Karl, I’m glad to hear it. These conversations are never comfortable, but nonetheless, so important. Thanks for joining in.
Your points are valid, although I feel that what you are calling for is happening already, particularly within ARL’s CEP. I am exactly the kind of diverse applicant you talk about in your article: returning to school after a 20 year gap, single mother, immigrant from Mexico. Not only did I find it fairly simple to navigate the process, I had an amazing experience with the librarians at my CEP internship location, UC San Diego, when it came to housing and relocation (they accommodated me bringing two of my children and set us up on an apartment on campus). The program opened a whole new world to me and I am on my way to help others take advantage of what I have learned. I do understand the frustration expressed here, particularly as it relates to letters of recommendation. Last spring, I too had hoped to apply for the Spectrum scholarship and the only reason I did not was that they required 3 letters of recommendation. I ended up applying to the ARL/SAA Mosaic fellowship where the requirement was only 2 (beyond not having enough people that fit the faculty/supervisor requirement, some are just too busy and have already written enough of those for applicants like me). Guess which program I am now a part of? I do feel that what’s missing here is testimony from current applicants, from people living this issue, not just from those observing it from on high. I wish you had more than circumstantial evidence and academic papers (yup, you sure played at whiteness right there) to back your arguments and truly strengthen your case. Had you taken the time to go that extra step, you might have been pleasantly surprised.
Given that this is an academic article in a peer-reviewed journal, it isn’t really all that surprising that Hathcock, you know, wrote this like an academic paper and used academic sources.
That said, given that she also cited an email from her mother, I’m really not sure where you are getting this impression that she has her head stuck in the ivory tower or whatever.
Regarding the ARL’s diversity initiative, I was one of their recipients of the scholarship for Recruiting a Diverse Workforce Initiative, something I think they no longer do. Now, getting the scholarship was amazing and I had a great experience, overall, doing the various activities that were part of the reward. Moreover, because I was attending school in Canada, the scholarship paid for most of my MLIS tuition, a real blessing.
But I also know of someone in my same program who didn’t apply for the scholarship because he didn’t understand where South Asians fit into the American 2010 Census classifications for race. Stuff like this? Is a real barrier.
Moving on, though, I got the scholarship. And it was great. Perhaps you might’ve noticed that I’m actually the person Hathcock cites as an example of how the whiteness of LIS doesn’t really care if I’m able to participate. I encourage you to read that post. Because I ought to be a cautionary tale for any marginalized person entering the field. I did all the right things. I got a prestigious scholarship. I even published an article in this very journal. I’ve been attending conferences, given talks and such. And yet… I am still stuck in the same part-time position I got when I graduated three years ago.
Note how one of Hathcock’s main points is that attrition is happening as fast as recruitment. I am one of the people who will be out of the field whenever I loose my current (contract) position. I’m too poor to keep persisting in a field that has made it very clear that there is little or no room for people like me.
These changes? Aren’t happening ‘now.’ If they were, my situation might be a little less bleak. You know I’m starting to research how I can maybe ‘safely’ do sex work if it becomes necessary? I’ve run out of time and options after bumping into pretty much every barrier that exists within this field.
For your sake, I truly hope that everything stays as wonderful and rosy as the picture you are painting. You should talk to some of the people in my cohort. They’ll tell you I was probably one of the most consistently optimistic people in the program.
So, yeah, I’m ‘living’ this issue but on the other end of where you are. A place where I truly hope that you never find yourself in.
ARL does still have IRDW around–it helps to keep up with one’s colleagues, and to stay involved. I am sorry about your situation, and since I am in still in school, not sure where I will be when all is said and done. That is besides the point, however–and the point is that there was simply no need for this article to single out one program, particularly one that IS doing so much for students like myself, these diverse types whose plight the articles claims to address. For an academic paper, I find it simplistic and suspect–if this is such an issue out there (and, yes, it is with some programs, of course) then why not offer other examples? Talk about a small sample size… I find the article makes vast generalizations, likely based on this twitter conversation you all had and to which, I’m willing to bet, not many of us “diverse” people were represented. When well-ran initiatives like ARL’s get clumped with issues that may plague others out there, it doesn’t do anyone any favors. In a time when we must justify our value to continue receiving funding, this sort of articles are counterproductive. Go ahead and critique, but do it constructively and, for goodness sake, talk to more than just your friends, who most likely will do nothing but reinforce whatever you believe. And, please, do keep in mind that those who are watching and could use your very words to justify less funding, less support. You paint quite the bleak picture, nina–are you sure we are all destined for the same? Is that what you would like to see? Articles like this are very unlikely to help either you or me.
A person who has done “all of the right things” and still finds themselves on the outs in this profession is hardly beside the point, Hanni. It is very much the point that regardless of how POC in this profession try to navigate and perform whiteness, as long as we aren’t the ones making hiring decisions and directing/shaping this profession, there will always be someone who will find our performance lacking. Once that happens, one can rapidly find themselves on the outside.
As a student, it would serve you well to be aware rather than casting doubt on people who have lived experience to the contrary. We’re not suggesting it will happen to you, only that it *could*.
Oh, I have plenty life experience and I’m personally aware of the depths of what can happen even when you think you have it all figured out. That’s the thing with real diversity–you don’t always hear what you *think* you are going to hear. And, by the way, I was not disregarding nina’s experience in the least. I was trying to keep the argument focused on what I see as flaws in this article’s approach. If you are going to (rightly) exercise your right to critique those who try to advance a cause, put more thought into it, is what I’m saying here. To just pick one example and, because it fits, pound on it without checking your facts or a broader experience, can lose you credibility. And cause unintended harm. That was my point. Yours, @ skeskali, seems to want to put me in my place and tell me what serves me well or not. Nice try.
I see. I find it interesting that you claim to be staying focused on the academic merits of the article, accusing it of making ‘vast generalizations’ based on some alleged twitter conversation where “not many of us ‘diverse’ people were represented”. And then accusing me of only talking to my friends…
Lol. Given that, no, I quite clearly said that not everyone is going to end up in my position (in fact, I hope no one does). But you are claiming to invalidate the generalizations of the article about the ARL programs using your individual experience. What I did was confirm the generalizations based on my own experiences.
The funny thing? It actually doesn’t matter what our individual experiences are because this article is talking about systemic, institutional problems. Which is why examining the form and content of the program, rather than talking to individuals, is a perfectly sound way to approach this topic, especially since you confirm one of the ‘vast generalizations’ by pointing out that you couldn’t apply for the Spectrum Scholarship because you weren’t able to get three letters of reference. This is the *exact* thing that this article was intending to address. Perhaps you may not want to attribute your inability to apply for a spectrum scholarship to an inadequate performance of whiteness. How you understand your own experiences is your business.
Also, I see that on nitpicking on a single point, you are missing out on the positive, substantive contributions this article is making. Yes, it is being highly critical of specific programs. But did you miss the part where she offers possible suggestions for improvement and to reduce barriers? Great, you think the ARL programs are great. But does this mean they can’t get *better*. Or do you really think they are perfect as is? How is an article that offers up concrete, actionable suggestions to improve the problems it highlights counterproductive? How is this not constructive criticism? Did you stop reading after she mentioned the ARL?
Thanks for your comments, Hanni. I’m thrilled to learn that an LIS diversity initiative has worked so well for you. But as others have already pointed out to you, there are so many others who have not been able to perform whiteness as successfully as you have. I accept your challenge to learn more about the lived experiences of others and encourage you to do the same.
As someone new to the profession, you can greatly benefit from hearing from the folks who have engaged you in dialogue here, including nina and Seskali. This article and it’s beginning Twitter convo actually grew from conversations I had with several people I’d never met or interacted with. You point out my academic citations, but I also cite to nina’s Tumblr, which I discovered while exploring this topic. There are also some blogs cited in my work, as well. The willingness of nina and these others to share their lived experiences candidly in such a public space has been eye-opening and inspiring.
I chose ARL CEP as one of any number of programs to illustrate the point. I understand if that makes you feel uncomfortable as a recipient, but really the analysis is the same if you substitute any of the other programs. I mention this in the article and also talk candidly about Spectrum, a program I successfully participated in.
In all my research and conversations, I ultimately realized the truth of my mother’s wisdom, also cited (I chose ITLWTLP because I knew they’d accept alternate forms of “scholarship”), that I needed to look beyond my own success story to the systemic oppressions operating against others. I had that responsibility. And you do, too, Hanni. Don’t get comfortable with the status quo.
I did not accuse you of only talking to your friends–I was saying that about the article, which does come across like a conversation had only with those on one side of the issue.
Your experience are as valid as mine. So if you can speak up and make yourself part of this conversation, so can I.
We do have different ways to understand our particular experiences and you might be surprised how much we agree on things, if you would just engage openly and honestly, instead of being defensive and taking offense simply because I happen to experience or see certain things in a different way.
I was not nitpicking on a point, I was focusing on the one aspect in which I did not agree with this article, the ONE area where I saw potential to invalidate what could otherwise be a good effort.
We all want to make things better, at least I assume as much of those who come here. I don’t think anything or anyone is perfect, and we continue to evolve as the world around us does–either that or we don’t make it. Perhaps I just like to give credit where credit is due, and not just pounce at anything that looks like the enemy out there. There are so few of us, we need to work together, to communicate and help each other out. Singling one program out without basis (which is what I specifically point out with CEP, since it is what I do know something about), that was my main concern here.
Any of this still funny? I’m sure you’ll tell me now
You make sharp points, Hanni Nabahe! Thanks for expanding this conversation :)
The ARL Initiative to Recruit a Diverse Workforce is still in place despite constant threats from the government to reduce funding for IMLS. I’m an Asian, a Southeast Asian to be exact and I never have a problem filling in the census. I just choose Asian. That’s why the choice enumerates several Asian types and then says “and so on.” So I don’t see why that can be a barrier.
How is being able to submit letters of recommendation an (successful?) act of “playing whiteness”? Don’t most academic jobs ask for letters of rec, if not references?
Thank you for taking on this difficult topic. I agree with your misgivings about some of these diversity initiatives. However, I can’t help but think the Galvan definition of whiteness gives non-hetero identifying librarians (present company included) a bit of a pass, and I think this is terribly unhelpful. I have never witnessed a more gay-friendly work culture or have had a higher percentage of gay colleagues than in the 2 libraries I’ve worked (I almost think one could make an argument that the groovy lesbian librarian has replaced the stifled spinster librarian as the majority stereotype). Yet whiteness *still* overwhelms the profession! In other words, the queering of librarianship does not dismantle whiteness.
My biggest frustration with the whiteness of our profession stems from my students who never have the chance to see themselves mirrored in the person presenting information literacy and research. (I work in an urban, minority-serving institution with only white and Asian librarians.) It makes research appear as a white undertaking of sorts, and honestly, it doesn’t matter if a Marxist lesbian is presenting to them. It doesn’t matter that I am the first in my family to finish college. To the students, whiteness is, well . . . whiteness. (Yes, we asked.) So although I agree with the importance of intersectionality, I think this expansive definition of whiteness muddies the conversation and obscures the actual problem.
My definition includes heterosexuality because of the intersection between whiteness and heteronormative expectations. Although I too have worked for several libraries with many openly LBGTI faculty and staff, I can’t help but notice a particular presentation of what it means to be gay–as you say, “groovy lesbian”–is acceptable. LBGTI colleagues for example, do not guarantee their existence in leadership.
My definition does not give non-hetero identifying librarians a pass, but is meant to emphasize the performative nature of gender as necessary for success during hiring. That so much anxiety surrounds interview clothing is a clear indicator of gender-as-performance for the comfort of others, not authenticity of the self. Performing whiteness means performing gender, because whiteness conflates gender with sexual orientation.
I echo, Galvan. And just want to point out that I can’t imagine queer folks getting a “pass” at anything. Intersectionality is essential if we’re to break down the system of oppression at work in our profession.
I agree with the importance of intersectionality. Yet I think we can be intersectional without conflating identities, and I maintain that adding heterosexuality to the definition of whiteness is unhelpful. Can’t we be intersectional and discuss gender representation specifically? When feminists embrace intersectionality they do not lump racial or economic discrimination into their definition of sexism. They are able to consider these related concepts together without redefining words. I was thinking a lot last night about this, and I wonder if it is a matter of perspective. The student body at my institution is 30% black and 36% Hispanic. Librarianship is 88% percent white, and so are the librarians at my university. By your definition of whiteness, we are doing much better, but this is not true for my students. I couldn’t look them in the eye and maintain this definition. (I suppose it would be easier if I worked at a majority white institution.) There are intersections and there are definitions. By lumping heteronormative expectations (using the word “heterosexuality”) into a definition of whiteness, you not only obscure the whiteness of libraries, but you deny the heternormative pressures felt within communities of color. I don’t buy it. But I do really appreciate the dialog, and I understand the intention.
As a side note, I would love to find statistics of LGBTI representation in librarianship and within leadership positions.
Heteronormative pressures felt within communities of color is a necessary discussion. It’s also beyond the thesis of my (or April’s) essay. Given your enthusiasm for the discussion and unique perspective, I’d encourage you to submit your own essay to Lead Pipe.
As someone who has been active in advisory work for at least one of the diversity initiatives mentioned, an LIS doc student conducting research in intersectionality, LIS leadership and lived experience, an LIS administrator and member of one the diverse groups these efforts target, this article reminds me that as a profession we must have some honest dialogue about the intent of these diversity initiatives. How is that intent carried out beyond graduation and into professional life? Given the rate of retention, there is disconnect between stated goals and objectives of these initiatives and those of LIS institutions. Yet we persist with these initiatives as a primary strategy for an issue to which we have not applied a critical lens. I am again called to question the intent of these initiatives which drive processes and outcomes. This does not mean that I believe that we should abandon these initiatives. After years (in some instances decades), it is time that we engage is a deeper critique and examination of what we are really trying to achieve when it comes to diversity of all kinds in LIS.
Yes! This has been a great discussion thus far. Let’s keep it going.
I love this and you are spot on. I would also say that the hierarchies that are used in committees, and other organizational structures have domination and oppression built into them. We need new social structures for organizations if we want to break out of the White-supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist shitstem. Every group I have been involved in has taken that teaching POC how to ‘succeed’ in a White-supremacist culture is the outcome. I am a graduate of the Emporia State Diversity Initiative. In the library where I worked (while in grad school), I was given edifying tasks like sorting the mail. I was called “unprofessional,” “angry,” and people said things like, “he hates White people!” about me–because I wasn’t the docile stereotype that they wished for. US culture is fundamentally White-supremacist–it is so ingrained in the national unconscious–I don’t see how we are going to shake it without our nation applying therapeutic treatments. However, I don’t see this happening anytime soon. I’ve come to the conclusion that, in order to have any chance at a fair shake, POC need separate institutions. Thank you for writing this article. I was surprised to read it on this site.
Thank you, Max. And thank you for sharing your experiences.
Thanks for your comments Max and for everyone else contributing to this discussion. I’m new to librarianship and your comment about teaching POC to ‘succeed’ in a White-supremacist culture had me thinking… If POC need to act white to succeed then how can we break down white supremacy? Aren’t we just furthering it? I feel like we’re stuck in a bind. How can using “the master’s tools” “dismantle the master’s house”?
That’s the key, isn’t it, JY? In the article, I advocate for helping others succeed in the white environment while also working with them (once they’re in) to dismantle white supremacy in the profession. It certainly won’t be easy, but I believe it can and should be done.
You know what’s sad? when POC, in the same institution, don’t help each other out… I’ve seen this personally and it surprises me when there isn’t more solidarity among co-workers…
Great read (thank you) including each one of the comments and replies. I recall in 1997-1998 (as first Director for Office for Diversity at AL) working on developing “non-traditional” criteria for applying for the Spectrum Initiative Scholarship as well as criteria for using the scholarship. The intent was to allow applicants to express their story and interest in librarianship/info management etc.. in varied ways (as not all of us are strong in print), including by audio, by video etc…Essay questions were also non-traditional having to do with life experience and volunteer/non-paid work, and others really challenged those that unconsciously played the game of whiteness by asking for experiences with any other groups, other than with the group(s) an applicant identified with/as. Also we felt that some “winners” of the scholarship may need to use the finances in non-traditional ways due to individual situations e.g. gas to commute, childcare etc..I don’t know if the criteria was kept. I do remember that some applicants preferred to go the traditional route of application, perhaps based on reasons you state here in your piece. Challenges about working-in-a-new-way were everywhere. People involved in that work of cultural/ethnic infusion included Ken Yamashita, Khafre Abif, Lillian Lewis, Jose A Aponte, and others. Well, thank you for this piece and making me remember some spirited authentic work.
Thank you, Sandra! It’d be great to bring that important work back. I’ve read a lot of your work and it is so valuable to the profession. Thank you.
I find the following statement regarding the qualifications for the ARL internship to be extremely stereotypical and it deeply saddens me that it basically implies that non-whites are poor and uneducated and could not possibly have had any opportunities to meet influential people to use as references. That is completely ridiculous and is the epitome of white privilege. “Only an applicant with access to the privileges of whiteness would have the tools needed to engage in the requisite work and volunteer opportunities called for by the diversity program, have the high-level of educational achievement required, possess the close relationships with individuals of power needed for stellar recommendations, and be able to provide all the documentation necessary to complete their application through the online form.”
No, Niomi, my overall argument is much more nuanced than that. It requires reading the entire article.
It is white supremacy to assume those examples of excellence are the ONLY means of finding exceptional non-white applicants. And as a non-white professional myself, I find that greatly troubling.
Why automatically assume we did not read the article in its entirety? Is it that only if we praise your efforts in their entirety we pass the literacy test, but if we don’t, it means we can’t or didn’t read? April, realize that one does not need to be buying into the status quo to critique someone’s perceptions or actions–you did just that yourself. Yes, there are ways to make these programs better, no one is denying that. Yes, there are changes that need to happen, mostly in the system, but sure, some of them have to take place in the initiatives themselves too. But just because we do not agree with you 100%, it does not mean we don’t understand your argument or that we side with the “white supremacist system”. I spoke up as a participant in these programs, not because I am already successful (as a student, it remains to be seen how far I get), but just to let the record note that not all is working against us out there, that there are actually people working for us, fighting the good fight. I stand not by this system you critique, but by those who are making a difference. I myself already do what I can to make a difference where I can, and realize we do have a long way to go. Your mother may have encouraged you to look beyond your own success, but I highly doubt she would have been ok with your forgetting those who helped you get to where they are and or to skip giving credit where credit is do. That is all I am doing here.
When someone takes a single phrase of my work and interprets it out of context and in complete opposition to my stated meaning, then I assume they didn’t read my entire work.
I’m not going to engage anymore because this conversation isn’t constructive. Not because you disagree–I welcome disagreement and discussion–but because you keep misrepresenting my words. It’s a frustrating way to discuss anything with anyone.
I will say this: My mother is incredibly proud of me and my work, including this article. I give due credit to those who have helped me, particularly in this very article, which you assure me you read in its entirety. So, please do not attempt to speak for my mother’s thoughts or feelings again.
I wish you all the best in your new career, Hanni.
I see. I did actually read it in its entirety and did find that to be a dig but I understand why you said it so it’s no problem. I enjoyed the article. The statement that I referenced just stood out to me. Basically, I feel like whatever stipulations that are required, non-whites can meet them. For persons of every race there are exceptions and instances where this is not the case which should be considered by internships such as ARL. I have just run into people assuming that non-whites coming into the library profession are lacking in one way or another compared to white people. Anyway, no need for us all to get rattled up. The article was good overall.
@Niomi, what a great point! I was thinking the exact thing… how is it a “privilege of whiteness” the act of being able to submit a standard application? what would an anti-privilege-of-whiteness application look like?
Thank you for this piece. I agree wholeheartedly with the comments above from Max Macias. We need more honest, open critiques of LIS diversity initiatives. The literature is full of reflections from individuals who have successfully progressed through the various programs. Experiences of those who haven’t been as successful are lacking. Knowing more about the barriers faced by such individuals would certainly help the profession to refine its approach. Until multiple perspectives (positive and negative) are considered, we can convince ourselves that what we are doing is working, when in actuality our efforts could be improved. Also, I appreciate the personal references in your article. Too often the LIS field has turned to quantitative data alone to assess its progress in diversifying the profession. More experiential reflections from marginalized individuals and groups would certainly help to refine and explain the quantitative findings. Thanks again for a powerful piece of work.
Thank you, Shaundra.
I was extremely excited to apply for the ARL- IRDW program and I had the most difficult time trying to get my transcripts delivered to them. The person in charge contacted me, at almost 2pm east coast time indicating that if I couldn’t get the transcripts to them electronically by the end of the day, my application could not be considered. Neither of the universities that I had attended offered that option. I was not able to communicate this because their office was already closed on the east coast. The very next day, I received a voicemail indicating they had received my transcripts and how would I like them returned to me. One day and she would not allow my application for consideration. Extremely frustrating.
That is extremely frustrating, Cynthia. I’m so sorry to hear about this.
That IS unfair and frustrating, Cynthia–they should have been flexible.
Thank you for this article. I am new to the profession and still consider myself an outsider. Coming into librarianship from a different profession, I was shocked that diversity initiatives have been going on for so long, with little change. I’ve been on several interviews, and consider myself versed in playing whiteness, but have experienced hostility. I agree that the programs have been ineffective at retaining librarians of diverse backgrounds, but also agree with another poster that there needs to be diversity in human resource departments and in leadership. These are the two barriers that filter diverse applicants out. Another point, the job climate still hasn’t fully recovered and some feel like “why should I hire this person of color/lgbtq/disabled person if I can simply hire the white person.” In short, it’s deliberate exclusion at this point.
Lastly, thank you for highlighting the recommendation letter. It’s very difficult to get more after you’ve exhausted the pool of people who can do it for you the first time. And it’s frustrating to see time and time again all of these applications requesting rec letters, and then have people say to you “Just apply again.” It’s not that simple.
It is tough. But you are certainly not alone. Please feel free to reach out to me and others as you struggle to get going in this profession. We need you!
Asking for letters of recommendation was a hassle for me, too, because I wanted to apply to many things and I felt embarrassed/shy asking repeatedly for letters from the same handful of people… I felt it was exhausting for them too but I could only express to them that they were they only persons who could write me a relevant letter…
I very much agree with what you say here, but I would add some additional consideration to the issue of classism. Those who come from the working class or are poor face obstacles at times similar to those of race, ethnicity, and gender orientation. I wonder how many libraries would hire a candidate who spoke non-standard English whether because of race or class. I think that saying “He don’t” would be a strong negative on any interview no matter how intelligent the candidate was.
I’ll agree that being white makes it easier to cross the divide, but learning middle class ways may be a requirement for all those who would become librarians with a working class background.
My one final comment is that Harvard University and perhaps other elite institutions have special funds for poor students to participate in activities that they otherwise could not afford even with full scholarships for tuition and board. The example I remember is getting a small grant to rent a tuxedo (I know this is a sexist case) to attend an important social function.
Thanks for those insights, Bob.
April, thanks for getting this valuable conversation going. In reading the comments section, I have appreciated the addition of personal experiences and would like to share my own to the discussion.
As a previous ARL/SAA Mosaic recipient, the program granted me my first LIS/archives experience outside of the classroom. For my application, I had my supervisor (I was working in a charter school) and a PhD candidate at my school who I had connected with in local activist spaces write my recommendations. While this is likely out of the norm for most applicants, it does somewhat fold in your suggestions for community members to be a recommenders.
I would also like to point out the requirements for the applications to these diversity initiatives are very similar (if not the same) requirements to the LIS programs. (My program’s http://www.simmons.edu/admission-and-financial-aid/graduate-admission/dual-degree-archives-and-history-ma) Although, I will admit I experienced self doubt around my application’s attractiveness as a Mosaic candidate, and I greatly thank that PhD candidate at my school (who is a poc) who encouraged me.
You mentioned mentorship as a way to correct for whiteness in LIS diversity programs, and I would also like to share that this is already a component of ARL’s diversity programs. I agree, mentorship is crucial. In relation to my own personal attrition, speaking candidly with people about my observations and concerns as a black (and unapologetically pro-black), queer, gender non-confirming woman has been the near only sustaining factor at times. Being a part of LIS diversity initiatives has granted me access to a network of upcoming and seasoned professionals who have listened, validated, and sometimes even pushed my perspective.
Awareness of our attitudes and actions is beneficial, and I appreciate the reminder. But isn’t categorizing labeling, stereotyping, and shaming “white and middle-class” just as discriminatory as racism, sexism, or any other -ism? At some point, all of us have been sneered at by narrow minded snobs, overlooked because of our race, class, religion, or gender, or rejected because we weren’t a good fit. I’ve been turned down because I’m white and female and programs I’ve applied to wanted more “diversity.” I do not mean to belittle anyone’s struggles or challenges- they are real and they exist. On the average, library culture is one of the best professions for demonstrating respect for all individuals. Increasing this and mentoring all who want to join in will help. But harping on the differences and creating a greater divide won’t help diversity. It will only set up a different set of exclusionary rules. As a library director, I have the opportunity to look at applications and believe me, I don’t disregard anyone’s experience! If someone has worked at MacDonald’s then I know they understand customer service. I want the best librarians on our staff and I don’t care what shade they come in. But I do care about competence, attitude, and the ability to get along with others. Those traits have nothing to do with race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. They are qualities found in a good human being.
“Each of these requirements assumes that applicants are situated in positions of white, middle-class, cisgender normativity that allow for the temporal, financial, and educational privilege that fulfilling these criteria would require. Only an applicant with access to the privileges of whiteness would have the tools needed to engage in the requisite work and volunteer opportunities called for by the diversity program, have the high-level of educational achievement required, possess the close relationships with individuals of power needed for stellar recommendations, and be able to provide all the documentation necessary to complete their application through the online form.”
I wonder if the author actually attempted to reach out to more than a few previous ARL CEP or Diversity Scholars? As a former ARL diversity scholar and male POC librarian I find the characterizations made in this piece disappointing and exhausting. Maybe the transcript requirements are needed for the program grant (My undergraduate grades were pretty poor btw)
“For example, applicants are required to submit resumes detailing their work experience, but an applicant from a working-class background may not have the requisite experience, either through work or volunteering, to place on a resume. Building a relevant resume assumes the applicant has the white, middle-class background that allows for early career professional work or volunteerism, whereas many applicants do not have that privilege…”
So white privilege is now a requirement to volunteer or have work experience? This is just absurd…I’m sorry. You also need to submit a resume to work in fast-food…Hegemony? oppression? Fighting whiteness?…that’s a bit extra. If that’s been your library experience, I would leave the profession too. Librarians and libraries have been the most supportive and generally progressive professional environments that I have ever experienced. If the ARL application requirements are onerous and present a real burden and you feel so “oppressed” by the whiteness in librarianship, I fear for your journey in Business, Law, Medicine, Engineering (or practically any other professional environment). The author admits that she’s successful because she played “white”, so never mind I consciously used “whiteness” as a tool to become successful, but shame on you for using it too. This seems to almost send the message that being professional and having initiative is in a sense; whiteness. Of course the author, and many other “conscious” and “radical” POC librarians shame (directly or indirectly) other POC librarians if we don’t align with their views–we’re sellouts and self-hating of course. It reminds me of being a kid in an all black and latino school, and because I did my homework, participated in class, respected the teacher, etc I was “acting white”. Diversity discussions in LIS have turned into shaming sessions. And now to pick on ARL, who does more than any other LIS organization, including ALA–sigh.
Wow you are right on point! @ARLDiversityScholar
Thanks for this article! It got my juices flowing and thinking. I know there have been some very visceral reactions to it, but I needed to make this personal from my own perspective. I am an ARL scholarship recipient and am delighted for the experience it offered me. But I’m always the one looking for ways to make it better. I was an older recipient than most of my young colleagues so I brought a certain angle to it along with the fact that I am black and gay and had about 8 years paraprofessional experience before pursuing the MLIS. I guess the issues that left me sometimes discouraged were the fact that there was no mentor for me to be found. And it wasn’t only ARL but another scholarship I received put me with someone that I felt we were about as awkward as virgins on prom night. I always felt age had something to do with it. Don’t get me wrong he was kind. But as far as ARL I felt like I got overlooked on some levels. I tried not to take it personally but being black gay and male in a sea of white females for the most part can be a bit disconcerting. I don’t need for white women to disappear. I just needed some point of likeness to say, “I see you.” I honestly reached out beyond ARL to black women I knew in the field who I had never disclosed my sexuality to wanting to connect with another black gay male. I got responses that fizzled due to I believe some black men’s either homophobia or need to put me in some tribal matrix of them being the elder and me being the initiate. Believe me I’m too old for anybody’s initiate. I’ve been around the block more times than I care to admit. Still what I needed was a personal touch. I get all the mentoring jive and all. But I just needed somebody to call and say “I’m not quite sure I’m in the right field after 8 years.” You see even after I got the degree I was looking for other black gay men who might be in the field to bond to ala mother hen to chick if for no more than security sake in this academic sea of drama. I’ll never forget preparing to apply for a position at the academic library where I worked as a circ supervisor and a white female mentor reminding me of a sudden that I wasn’t the only one with degrees and experience and quickly named every white female in the building who she thought had like credentials and would be competing with me. My heart broke. I didn’t apply for the academic position. I got a call from Virginia Tech to come to their school for a diversity interview and couldn’t go because on my clerk salary I didn’t have the funds. They responded almost indignantly as if I’d slighted them. I handled it diplomatically by telling them I didn’t have the money up front. I felt humiliated. I got an offer from a public library (because academic libraries are slow as molasses in winter) which I really didn’t want hearing the mantra from well-meaning white folks and church going black folks to “take what you can get.” I took it as you’re not good enough to be an academic librarian. My heart broke again. Well I got the public library position and I’m miserable handing out computer tickets and telling unruly kids whose parents have mistaken the library for a babysitting service to “stop…quit…and don’t do that.” They just wanted a black man! My doctors are talking about doubling my blood pressure medicine. It’s harrowing being black gay male and a librarian. Regardless of what anyone says for or against what you wrote you got everybody’s ear. What I’ve seen are whites zealously preserving their own systemic privilege and blacks (especially gay ones) making sure they’re not judged by their sexuality over their ability to be librarians. I’ll be honest, at this rate, if a job offer came from another field today, I won’t say I wouldn’t take it dragging my $40,000 MLIS degree along for a life time as a cautionary tale.
While I appreciate your insight, the problem doesn’t lie with the diversity initiatives. The issues of privilege and attrition are attributed to the high cost of graduate school and the abysmal salary range.
Great point! Graduate school debt (most times in addition to undergraduate debt) can wear one down not only financially but emotionally/psychologically…
Kudos on your extensive research. I am a current CEP Fellow. With all due respect, I just want to make a few points.
I agree that based on statistics, the librarianship is predominantly white. I am an Asian and I know based on ALA statistics show that barely 3% of my race group are librarians here in the U.S. You do have to take into consideration that these statistics will include people who entered the profession as far back as 50 years ago when diversity initiatives were not in place yet and people who had access to college were mostly white. I believe as the years go on that there will be a more equitable distribution of races in this profession. What we need to really achieve is not to eradicate whiteness but reach a point when race should not matter.
Culturally, as an Asian, librarianship is not one of those “go-to” professions. In my experience, Asian parents push their children to become doctors, lawyers, etc. Becoming a librarian is a choice I made as a 48-year old woman after working in a library for 6 years. But even then, my siblings and former friends from college wonder why I chose to be one (which is none of their business). But this is a phenomena I associate with the Asian value system. One only needs to observe and it will become apparent that certain races gravitate to certain careers. I noticed this as well when I was attending staff meetings during my fellowship at Bethesda. All the computer scientists were Asian.
Lastly, I didn’t feel that any of the requirements for the program is any indication that only white people can apply. In fact, these requirements are less than what I needed to get into graduate school. Just to deconstruct your argument on this set of requirements:
1. a completed application form – (all scholarship requires an application form)
2. a resume – (it is fair to assume that someone who is an early career librarian has already built a resume; if you are old enough to be in grad school, you should some work experience)
3. a 500-word essay detailing their professional interests and goals – (any college student should be able to write a 500-word essay, especially if it is about him/herself)
4. an official letter of acceptance to an ALA-accredited MLIS program – (all colleges send letters of acceptance to students who are accepted)
5. official transcripts – (any student can request their transcript)
6. two letters of recommendation, one of which must be from a professor or employer – (this is also very attainable)
As a mother of two grown children, when they were in high school I helped them scour for scholarships and even the ones for minority or under-privileged students require basically the same requirements. So I really don’t see what your basis is for saying:
“Each of these requirements assumes that applicants are situated in positions of white, middle-class, cisgender normativity that allow for the temporal, financial, and educational privilege that fulfilling these criteria would require.”
Statements like this imply that non-whites are incapable of fulfilling these requirements.
Another thing you pointed out was:
“Only an applicant with access to the privileges of whiteness would have the tools needed to engage in the requisite work and volunteer opportunities called for by the diversity program, have the high-level of educational achievement required, possess the close relationships with individuals of power needed for stellar recommendations, and be able to provide all the documentation necessary to complete their application through the online form.”
Even if a student doesn’t have a computer, there is always the public library. If someone really wanted to break so-called barriers, they can. Professor are more than happy to help. Volunteer work is not a requirement for the Career Enhancement Program and neither are high grades. That is not to say that these are not things the scholarship judges look at. I can’t speak for other LIS grad schools but my school, SJSU, encourages us to do keep a high GPA. I am an online student so I don’t have “close relationships” with the powers that be. I have worked for them online, but I haven’t even seen any of them in person, yet I am able to get letters of recommendation. Again, this is a matter of preparation. Someone who asks at the last minute probably won’t get it.
I just want to say that my ARL CEP fellowship was a gratifying experience and I was lucky enough to be called for a job interview two days before my fellowship ended. The government contractor hired me on the spot. And he was a white guy – who looked like John Kerry. I will be working at a federal library which hopefully is not “white-washed.”
Thank you, Emily, great points! :)
You make good points about the need for continued support to help people of color remain successful in the librarian profession. However, I see no need to throw the ARL and ALA diversity initiatives under the bus in the process. They are doing great work in helping POC fund their education and get started in the field. Is there room for improvement? Always. Should they be considered to be failing their mission because not everyone sticks it out? Absolutely not. I don’t think they should bear the brunt of the responsibility for ensuring retention. It truly takes a village, and we all have a role to play. There is room for the initiatives to expand or strengthen the support they can provide, but I see no reason to disparage the good work they are already doing.
The application requirements for ARL, ALA, and other diversity scholarship/fellowship opportunities are completely reasonable in my opinion. You use community college applications as comparison. But MLS students are not fresh out of high school. We are talking about people who have completed high school and college, and are now pursuing an advanced degree. I would expect them to have some type of work experience (even if it’s not libraries), to be able to write 500 words, and to have a couple of professional references. The CEP Program (since you want to pick on that one) is for students who have completed a minimum of 12 credits towards the MLS. I would expect someone halfway through their degree to be able to have at least one professor who can write a reference. I personally find it offensive to say that anyone who can accomplish these things is exhibiting “whiteness.” I would not want to see application criteria for graduate schools or graduate level scholarships/programs lowered for me just because I am a person of color. I don’t want less expected of me.
I am an ALA Spectrum Scholar, and an ARL Initiative to Recruit a Diverse Workforce Scholar (IRDW). The scholarship money was appreciated, but the most valuable part to me is the mentoring and the connection to a network of other POC librarians I received through ARL. As an IRDW Scholar I was matched with a mentor. I was fortunate to have a good mentor who took time to meet with me on a regular basis, give me professional advice, and kept in touch after I finished the program. I have kept in touch with several people from my cohort who in turn have introduced me to others in the field when we cross paths at conferences. So my network continues to grow and it feels good to have that support system. I feel very blessed to have benefitted from the hard work Mark Puente and others at ARL put into their diversity initiatives.
Even though I disagree with some of the points in this article, it does remind me to continue to be available to provide the same support to others that was given to me. Also to be more involved in diversity conversations/efforts. I’m still an “early career librarian” but if anyone wants to pick my brain for advice – specifically medical/academic librarianship, I’m always happy to chat.
Yes, yes, yes @LibGirl09 …especially on: ‘I personally find it offensive to say that anyone who can accomplish these things is exhibiting “whiteness.”’
Also, librarian jobs (in my experience) at community colleges are the hardest to obtain and they sometimes ask for more documentation (like, an essay prompt on the spot)…
I hope this find you well, thank you for opening up this dialogue. My preference is conversation and not long winded text, but since that is not possible I hope I can achieve everything I want to in this piece.
As a mixed raced urban indigenous black women who is educated, and benefited from the ALA spectrum scholarship program, ARL Career Enhancement program and ARL Initiative to recruit a diverse workforce. I have read this article a few times now finding myself in agreement with some parts and saddened by more.
I agree that there needs to be more work put into the retention of diverse folks in the profession, and I think that most people in the field would agree that we are missing the mark on creating spaces that hold up indigenous and racialized librarians of colour instead of silencing their every move. However these programs that are cited are not only making education more financially accessible to racialized and Indigenous students, but also supporting professional development, networking and mentoring opportunities. Through these programs I have created a network of mentors, and colleagues who I have connected with constantly, relied on when facing institution racism in the field. I know that I can only speak for myself but these communities have supported my work, my struggles in the academy and held space for the fight. As part of these communities I have returned support by reviewing applications of my colleagues, supporting students entering my program and working on diversity initiatives within the school I attend. I wish that this article provided more personal experiences with people who have benefited from these programs.
Yes, like everything we must constantly re-evaluate our efforts, re-think our process and re-define the ways we approach things and I believe there is space to provide this feedback to program directors. This could be an opportunity to look at the criteria for applications. I would be personally interested in hearing some suggestions. How to we effectively connect with a variety of diverse populations while maintaining commitments to sponsors and institutions supporting these initiatives? How do we create a more accessible process while supporting people to be successful in their future endeavors, much of which will operate in these institutional practices?
That being said, I cannot personally agree with the way in which whiteness is centered in the article and continues to be the framework to which we write upon. In order to dismantle these arch structures to which libraries are build on we must name these institutions and practices of colonization as such. Furthermore, the way in which this article erases the Indigenous and racialized identities but provocating this idea that “we play white” in order to achieve our goals deeply saddens me. Yes, there are institutional practices that we must understand in order to achieve this idea of “success”, but to imbed that success, that fight and that journey into a process of whiteness is a permeation of colonial violence against the communities that we should be holding space for in the field.
The struggle is real! We need to stop addressing our issues among our communities using colonial practices and tools, we need to open up collective dialogue and start truly listening to each other in order to change the professional practices.
OMG yes @Jessica:
‘Furthermore, the way in which this article erases the Indigenous and racialized identities but provocating this idea that “we play white” in order to achieve our goals deeply saddens me. Yes, there are institutional practices that we must understand in order to achieve this idea of “success”, but to imbed that success, that fight and that journey into a process of whiteness is a permeation of colonial violence against the communities that we should be holding space for in the field.’
Hello all. What effect will initiatives designed to eliminate the problems outlined here, have on the capacity of US LIS as a whole to serve diverse populations as well as achieve a diverse workforce as the norm? Here is Australia, the population is still so white (and the library workforce so small numerically as a proportion of the population) that I think it would be impossible to recruit enough people from different groups, even allowing for all the overlaps in identity that one person can have, to reflect the diversity in the population as a whole. The library workforce here, in my opinion, ought to be able to operate cross-culturally regardless of whiteness (which most of us are, as far as it’s been measured). Optimally of course there would be more library staff from a myriad of backgrounds or identities; but I think the role whities have to play in making libraries places where people from other groups want to be, is pretty key too. I guess you’re not saying that white librarians don’t have a role; just that your focus is the experience of people of colour.
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The main issue of this opinion piece -which is by no means is a research article- is the poor definition of the variables and the assumption (without evidence) that one variable affects the other. Here are the two: Variable A= recruitment. Variable= B retention. The author assumes that recruitment is wrong (no evidence shown) so retention fails.
Variable A= Recruitment:
Diverse initiatives (including the ARL Career Enhancement Program) have been effective and successful in recruiting a huge number of librarians from diverse backgrounds. I recognize many of my colleagues from the references the author uses to support its arguments. Many others- thank to the leadership component of these programs- have been able to secure positions (even managerial ones) at very prestigious institutions that would be unimaginable before the implementation of such diversity initiatives that the author attack here. I am happy meet with many of my previous diversity fellows at professional events, workshops, etc.
“Each of these requirements [essay, resume, assumes that applicants are situated in positions of white, middle-class, cisgender normativity”
This is an author’s not these program’s assumption. The author forgets that these initiatives are recruiting for a PROFESSION and that the number of applicants is bigger that the positions in the programs- IT HAS TO BE COMPETITIVE. First, they have to demonstrate that they can do the job. For example, positions in medical and law librarianship will require candidates that will have to compete with applicants (from non-diverse background) with previous education in law and biomedical sciences. How come are you going to select candidates without a proper essays skills and education that will later fail to compete (with the non-diverse pool) for a position at an academic library?
Variable B= Retention
May or may not depend on the recruitment process. There is no evidence in this opinion piece (nor in any previous work to my knowledge) showing a relationship between recruitment of diverse background librarians and their retention. Would it not be logical to think that what we need is to study, analyze and determine what are those variables negatively affecting retention?
I hope someone comments on that out-of-context picture used to support the article- e.g. where was the picture taken, what is the person doing, why a B/W picture and not a color one? Why not using a figure legend to provide the context?
Unfortunately, opinion pieces like this, far from creating the basis for a revolutionary transformation, destroy those that have already been the result of recruiting programs like the ARL Career Enhancement Program.
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