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"Tells, Safety, and the Tenets of the Profession"
Should we do outreach to hate groups?
The above was originally the entirety of a post I wanted to make about a comment thread in a library Facebook group this weekend. Some participants seemed to argue that yes, it is reasonable and appropriate to ask your outreach librarian who identifies with intersecting marginalized populations to cold-call or visit an organization whose mission is to promote the eradication of those populations from America.
I'm not linking it here because I don't want to exploit or endanger the Original Poster, who was sincerely looking for help. Additionally, I encountered two additional threads in other groups that have mirrored past conversations I’ve seen in list-servs, on Twitter, and in real life, so clearly this is not an isolated incident. My post here can’t be as simple or snarky as I originally intended.
Here’s the thing: I get it. I get that a lot of library folks got into the [capital letter P] Profession to do good. We’re service-minded. We get a rush when we geek out over a book with a patron, and when we get a thank-you card from a community member it gets posted on the wall.
So it hurts to hear when we’re doing it wrong. But when we find it hard to draw a line in the sand with outreach, or collection development, or partnerships because we are caught up in our own “Vocational Awe”, there is a problem. And that problem means we’re consistently reinforcing the status quo.
When we rely on the Tenets of the Profession, we either do not recognize or refuse to recognize that they are built on a foundation that treats marginalized populations like Some Other Thing. People who are not white, straight, cisgendered, abled, and neurotypical are considered Not Like Us and in some cases Less Human than Us. And I’m not saying that’s what you actively think now, Reader. I’m saying that this idea is sewn into the fabric of the Profession, like how the Constitution was written specifically for the people at the table way back when but it still affects how we see our country today.
We have to take care with the way our commitment to librarianship affects our actions as library staff.
Conversation as a Signal
The phrase “our words matter” has been thrown around so much lately that it’s seemed to lose all meaning. But here’s what it means to me, and it didn’t occur to me until I read this article by David Wong (CW: Hate speech, graphic descriptions of the Holocaust, lots of other stuff where basically if you have have a fundamental understanding of what I’ve said so far just don’t read it. I have not carefully read all of it and my linking is not endorsement) that my decisions about word usage signal myself as someone who is does not tolerate hate speech, and how that works. Socially I tend to code pretty blue-collar, so this may happen to me more than it happens to you, but please believe it happens.
It goes like this:
I encounter a person who is new to me and we start a conversation. I do not know if their values disregard or are even hostile to marginalized populations. During the course of the conversation, there’s tells. How they refer to people versus how I refer to people. Jokes they make versus jokes I make. All of these things tell us about each other without having a personal discussion about how we regard a variety of populations. After a few minutes it’s clear if we absolutely do not align, and the conversation ends.
Occasionally, one of us gets it wrong and there’s this thing that happens.
They make an unambiguously offensive joke (like, not just repeating some unfunny stuff from TV to be “edgy”; just, really gross by most standards of human decency), laugh too loudly to know that I didn’t also laugh, and sigh, saying “I’m so glad there are still people in this world I don’t have to be politically correct around.” People like this assume EVERYONE actually has hateful rhetoric inside themselves, they’re just not allowed to say it. I used to get really scared when that would happen, because these encounters have usually happened with men in a setting where drinking is involved. But lately I noticed that my husband Caleb has a great way to reset the boundary and let people know we don’t welcome people who share ideals with hate groups:
“Takes all kinds."
If pressed, he just repeats it. Like a broken record. And they get the point and stop talking and usually end up walking away. But they’re still THERE IN THE SPACE though. And their ACTUAL safety is not encroached upon. They understand the rule that they can be there but their rhetoric might not be accepted.* ( UPDATE: This has continued to feel incomplete, so I respectfully ask that you also read "Conflict is Scary" by Jessica Schomberg on overcoming fear and facing conflict.)
So, what does this mean in the library?
I say all this because just like people who are looking for like-minded people to "safely" share hate speech with, people from marginalized groups can look for these “tells” to feel out whether you are a safe person to talk to or not. (I've noticed more how I experience this since becoming a more vocal member of the disability community, but that's a post for another day). Sharing information about oneself can be really high-stakes when you haven’t figured out whether or not the person you’re talking to recognizes your humanity, and often you might rely on that person’s power for safety. Which is why we need to be very clear that we are communicating to marginalized populations that they are welcome in our spaces or welcome in our lives. As opposed to the type of person referenced in the anecdote above, they may feel their ACTUAL safety is compromised, and may not further engage. This can be seen in these Facebook comment threads, where very seldomly a librarian from a marginalized group will participate once a someone has commented with a platitude that seems to support the status quo and deny them their experience/identity.
These “tells” pop up during choices you make with partnerships, collection development, and your daily interactions with patrons and colleagues (in real life and online). They’re there, whether you mean them to be or not, so we should probably get deliberate about it.
And this is not just about serving patrons; one of the largest impacts of reinforcing the status quo through the Tenets of the Profession is that we need to be consistently reminded that our fellow library staff can and do belong to members of marginalized groups. What are you telling your LGBTQUIA+ employees when you partner with a company that opposes gay marriage? What are you telling your Black colleagues when you call an incomplete and White-centered passage about slavery “factually accurate”? What about First Nations/Native colleagues when they find their creation stories shelved in “folklore”? Your autistic colleagues when you do a “Light it up Blue” display? How about doing outreach to hate groups, when outreach is by nature an attempt to form a closer connection with the library and that group?**
The message any of this sends is one that you may not think is very strong, because We’re Doing Good Things and we’re Following the Code of Ethics and Libraries are for Everyone and That Means EVERYONE, Correct? So That Makes Up For All the Pesky Micro/Macroaggressions. But it’s loud and clear to people who rely on those tells to figure out where they are actually welcome.***
What Can You Do?
Now, I know a lot of White readers may feel overwhelmed reading all this. You’re not in a position to change your whole library. Even directors may be scared of losing support and funding. I’m not over here shunning people who have the wrong “tells” and don’t know it. And I’m not asking for something you cannot do. What can we do? Here are a few things that have helped me.
Think critically: Why do we do what we do? What choices do you make throughout the day and how do they show what you value?Follow #critlib on Twitter. Two of the first library folks I followed on Twitter were Annie Pho and rose l. chou. Follow them and then keep on following suggested follows for days and weeks and years. Await and read their upcoming book called "Pushing the Margins: Women of Color and Intersectionality in LIS", and check out the Storify of the live-tweeting of their recent conference of the same name compiled by Tamara Rhodes. Listen and sit with the idea that you could be wrong and reflect on what that means (believe me, I'm doing this as we speak about whether or not to keep this post up, and what purpose it serves). Do not approach library staff from marginalized populations for comfort.
Examine our history: Learn the history of librarianship and why we are here. Fun fact, libraries in the South used to be segregated, and the ALA Code of Ethics was first written in 1939, and you can absolutely bet that our segregation was defended as Upholding the Tenets of the Profession.
Do better: You might not be perfect at it and it might be awkward and it’s okay. Just try little things at first then keep adding. I know that my very first foray into the language-showing-values practice was years ago when I tried my best to replace “you guys” when speaking and “ladies” when sending emails to feminine people with “everyone”. It was really hard to do for this very small change, to be honest. But it is something that tells some marginalized people that I recognize their existence.
I can't believe I had to write that sentence, but White Librarians, it needs to be said. We're not looking good.
* There is no “takes all kinds” to swing back with for people in marginalized populations. This is a tool for people with social power, and I’d like to give it to you, fellow White librarians, in case you need it and up until now have been unsure of what to say. It is short, and the people who need to hear it from you clearly know what it means. It isn't the greatest, but it's better than nothing. Consider that your silence is maintaining the status quo. It is imperative that we do not make room for people who wish marginalized populations harm in the library. (When running this by Caleb, he asked me to add that sometimes people are intentionally obtuse or may not know the phrase to interpret its meaning, so he’ll say in full “Takes all kinds to make the world go round.”)
**There is a definite difference, to me, between individuals as tax-paying library users, and specifically reaching out or allowing gathering space to increase use among groups.
***I intended to link to more articles by library staff of color here, but I don't want to inadvertently force them into a conversation about their humanity or otherwise make additional work for them.