Big Picture / Diversity

Black OR Queer? Life at the Intersection

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Fobazi M. Ettarh.

Black people are more homophobic.

Racism is over. LGBTQ rights are the new Civil Rights.

Well at least Black people can get married!

My classmates spit these words at me during the discussion of Civil Rights in young adult literature. I had expressed my discomfort at the conflation of the Civil Rights and LGBTQ movement. These words, while familiar, still stung. As usual, I was the only person of color (POC) in the room. Many students and librarians have talked about diversifying the MLIS and field of librarianship. But what about the librarians already in the field?

My journey in getting the MLIS has been difficult. As someone who identifies as a queer person of color (QPOC), the overwhelming white heteronormativity of the program here at Rutgers is disheartening. I have been able to build racial and queer themes into almost every class I’ve taken at Rutgers. From term papers on the information-seeking practices of QPOC youth to creating sites highlighting authors who have QPOC protagonists, to bringing up these intersections in various discussions, I have made sure that voice is heard.

Still, I am only one person and privilege is a pervasive and strong opponent. Unlike some other programs that require a course in diversity (such as UCLA’s Ethics, Diversity, and Change), Rutgers does not. It doesn’t even have a specialization focusing on outreach to diverse populations like UMD’s iSchool. It shows. The conflation of race and sexuality is accepted by many as fact and prompts statements like the ones above. The problem? Privilege. In Patricia McIntosh’s article White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, she notes that she was taught to see herself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will and not a part of a damaged culture as an oppressor and unfairly advantaged person. This blinded her to the effects race played in discussions of gender, feminism, and sexuality and prompted statements similar to that of my classmates.

But I am proof that these are not separate issues. I am not Black one day and Queer the next. Instead, I am Black AND Queer. In Principles of Searching we learn how important and, or, and nor are in Boolean searching. Too long has the environment been Black OR Queer. Instead of positioning it in terms of Black OR Queer and treating these oppressions separately, librarianship should put in terms of Black AND Queer, and understand that these identities and oppressions are interrelated, interlocking spheres that sometimes affect people simultaneously. As others have pointed out, ALA has very progressive policies around diversity and access to information as well as a wealth of information about diversity in librarianship in general. However, this treatment of race and sexuality as two different spheres is reflected not just at Rutgers but in librarianship in general, in the types of panels at the conferences. Out of the “diversity” panels, there will be one focused on race/ethnicity, and another focused on LGBTQ issues, and never the twain shall meet.

I learned about the Civil Rights movement in the public school system, where educators portrayed it as something historical. A battle that had been fought and won. That we now lived in a “post-racial” society. In college, I learned that racism didn’t go away–it changed. We live in a world where there is racism without racists and this color-blindness, this privilege, is reflected in discussions about other oppressions like sexuality, gender, disability, etc. These oppressions are not like video games with a clear and linear path of beginning, middle, and end. The “game” of racism is not over with the ending of the Civil Rights movement. The “game” of homophobia is not conquered when same-sex marriage is legal throughout America. And treating each oppression like it’s own separate battle leads to the belief that the issues are isolated. That these spheres of identity and marginalizations are separate. Which is patently untrue.

So what can be done? The first and most important solution is education. If the MLIS students are not being taught how to engage in intersectional librarianship, then they cannot be expected to be intersectional librarians. Intersectionality is a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another. Instead of treating these issues as separate spheres of identity, there needs to be discussions and classes explaining how intersectionality and white privilege play a role in interacting with both patrons and each other.

For instance, why does Rutgers require all of its MLIS students to take a class like Cataloguing, but not Planning Outreach Services? If that is not possible, why is there no mandatory webinar or colloquium on diversity and intersectionality? If MLIS programs reflect the knowledge deemed important to become an information professional, does this therefore mean that Rutgers does not place an importance of learning to deal with diverse populations? As another has mentioned, if libraries aim to be on the cutting edge of technology to remain relevant, why can’t libraries also aim to be on the cutting edge of diversity? Increasing diversity within programs is important, but it is also important that the librarians entering the workforce truly understand diversity and intersectional librarianship. This involves challenging and deconstructing privilege and considering how race, gender, class, disability, etc., affect patrons’ information needs.

Has your program discussed diversity or intersectionality? If so, do you think it is sufficient? If not, how do you think it could be implemented into the program?

My name is Fobazi Ettarh. I am a second year grad student working toward an MLIS with a school media specialization at Rutgers University. I aspire to work with teens in either a middle school or high school. Besides young adults, my interests include social justice, outreach, and diverse representation. I’m also a proud member of the tumblarians (librarian community on tumblr) and you can find me at asthedaysgobylifehappenss where I discuss life, grad school, and libraries. 

37 thoughts on “Black OR Queer? Life at the Intersection

  1. This is a really important point to be making. There is not enough diversity in library schools, and I imagine that extends to the profession generally, and it’s not something my program has addressed at all. (I’m at St. John’s in NY.) I think the intersectionality of being part of more than one so-called minority group is part of a larger discussion that needs to be taking place on the national level. It’s an especially pressing topic in education, which librarianship is definitely a part of, and I’m glad you are bringing it to the table.

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  2. Pingback: "Black OR Queer? Life at the Intersection" - Fobazi M. Ettarh | iSchool MLS

  3. Fobazi, thank you for this post. I’m trying to write an appropriately thoughtful response but worry that I could spend the entire day writing (bad plan, since I’m at work!) and not come close to responding sufficiently.
    As a cis-, white, straight woman I need reminders like yours sometimes. I grew up with the best intentions but in a very white, very middle class, very straight world. (As an aside, though, I will note that while I was growing up, I knew more trans people than people who I knew were gay. Which I suspect means that I was just oblivious.) It wasn’t until I moved to DC, and then not until I worked for the city government, that I became integrated (integrated myself?) into a more appropriately diverse community and realized what I had been missing. Which merely means that I now recognize that my experience is still lacking.
    Which sounds like it’s all about me, which is not what I intend! Rather, my point, which I am tripping over, is that if our community– for whatever reason — remains non-diverse, we might think our intentions are good and not realize the important people we are leaving out. I certainly don’t want to suggest that we need “token” (ugh) people at intersections, but that until we’ve achieved an open, thoughtful, sufficiently diverse profession, we need people like you to continue to speak out about your experience. And I hope that we all will listen and take your words to heart.

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  4. F.,

    I loved everything you’ve written above. Librarians are on the whole unconcerned with critical theory, and are mostly uncritical of their intellectual foundations, as well as their social ones. Please keep railing on it throughout your lifetime in librarianship.

    Thanks,
    Joe

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  5. Thank you, Fobazi. Twenty years ago when we had similar conversations in high school, I thought by now there would be no more of the only person of color/and/or/queer in any given situation, particularly classrooms. I’m disappointed that it’s still the case, but heartened by people like you who tackle the issue head on. All my love & support.

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  6. Yay for this post. That line about Boolean terms was clever. Yes to the whole dang thing. :-)

    I attend UMD and I’m specializing in Information and Diverse Populations and it would be great if at least one of the IDP classes was mandatory for everyone.

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  7. I am very proud to say that I am the University of Maryland’s iSchool, which has (as far as I know) the only masters program with a specialism in Information and Diverse Populations. Because I am in the specialism, I have discussed many aspects of diversity within LIS, but am sad to report that the required core classes do not touch on the topic at great length (though have mentioned it, which sounds better than some of the other commenters).

    I am also the current Vice President of the student group, iDiversity (idiversity.umd.edu), which specifically tries to get students aware and involved with diversity-related projects within LIS. Again, as far as we know, we are the only such student group, although we would be MORE than happy to help any other students who want to start their own group (in fact, we are trying to get a packets of resources together to hand out for that very purpose).

    So, we are very lucky at UMD that we have resources available to us if we want to educate ourselves about diversity. However, the impression I get is that it is STILL not seen as an important issue by administration.

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  8. Reblogged this on Whimsically Yours and commented:
    Snaps all around! Intersectionalities exist, they always have, this is not a new phenomenon. Changing the system, understandably, is difficult, however we as individuals, as communities, can work to change our mindsets in order to promote society as it really is, to have our libraries, books, and so forth reflect reality. Intersectionalities exist and when they’re ignored, poc, woc, qwoc, etc…are forced to check only one box thus erasing everything else. -Patrice

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  9. “For instance, why does Rutgers require all of its MLIS students to take a class like Cataloguing, but not Planning Outreach Services?”

    I am not on the Rutgers curriculum committee, but I rather strongly suspect it’s because cataloguing is a skill central to the very concept of effectively managing large amounts of information, utterly indispensable to the daily work of any librarian, whereas outreach-service-planning is an ancillary task that falls to only some librarians in only some contexts where responsibility for community engagement has (for whatever reason) fallen on the library’s shoulders. A corporate librarian, however, or a database designer, would have absolutely no use for a special concentration on outreach.

    Indeed, those particular librarians would gain no professional value from an examination of privilege and intersectionality at all, so I question the relevance of diversity requirements to the MLIS degree. As part of a broader curriculum in the liberal arts, there’s a plausible case to be made, and as a particular area of interest for researchers in the field, I can see some benefits, but in general it seems to be a case of mission creep.

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    • With all due respect, I have absolutely no use fo a cataloging course. I’m planning on staying in academia and never setting foot in a library as a librarian. As you correctly allude, there are many different career paths someone with an MLS can take (something which we are trying to get the UMD iSchool to highlight on their website), but one thing I can tell you FOR SURE: not everyone you come across in your career as an LIS professional is straight, white, and able-bodied.

      Examination of privilege and intersectionality is relevant to every person heading out into every modern workplace. I’m not necessarily suggesting that there should be a specific core class only on diversity issues, but I do strongly believe that there is need and opportunity in every class, be it on database design, cataloging, or reference interviews, to discuss diversity, be it race, sexual orientation, or disability (to name just a few diversity ‘categories’).

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      • With respect, exactly what do you plan to do in an academic librarianship that will not involve cataloging? Granted, the particular catalog “languages” are transient, no more inherently important to MLIS than JavaScript is to Computer Science, but the core skills you learn working on catalogs are at the core of every information science job.

        Or so I thought, anyway. I could be wrong. Have been before. Please correct me if I am.

        As for diversity: certainly, we are all going to encounter people who are not of the same race, sexuality, and ability. But that’s not a fact peculiar to the MLIS field. Everyone’s going to encounter such people during their lives. Hence my argument that any critical examination of diversity belongs properly in a broad liberal arts curriculum or a specialized degree program on privilege and justice, not in the core of a specialized library science degree. We’re here to learn how to manage information, not how to be good people who are also agents of change in society. That’s for other programs — which can no doubt do the job better anyway when diversity’s not being shoehorned into the curriculum.

        That said, I do agree there’s a place to discuss diversity issues in most courses. Certainly a class on acquisitions, for example, would be woefully incomplete without substantial examination of these matters.

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        • I’m planning on a career in the higher education teaching field, not academic libraries. If I was going to work in an academic library, I couldn’t agree with you more about the importance of knowing how to catalogue.

          We’re not doing degrees in broader topics, we’re doing them in LIS. And diversity is relevant to everything we do – at the very least, librarians need an awareness of it. So I’m glad that you see the need to discuss it – not just in obvious ways either.

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        • In the age of copy cataloging unless you’re cataloging special collection items, most things will have the LC record available. So again unless another government shutdown happens, most librarians in most fields will not be doing their own cataloging. And we should be learning diversity in every field for every profession because America is becoming an increasingly diverse place. And people due to privilege and ignorance do not understand how to talk to and work with diverse populations. And this leads to alienation, microaggressions, and frankly, a toxic environment.

          Our field is information yes but it is also service. How we act to other librarians and to our patrons directly correlates to our privilege and experiences. And so it is imperative that we know the information needs and practices of diverse populations and can communicate with them in a way that does not infringe on the safe space that a library is supposed to provide. Examination of privilege and intersectionality is not only important but necessary for those in academia and the workplace. Because privilege leads to racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., if left unchecked. And that it the opposite of what a safe space is.

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        • This is a service profession. It is absolutely essential to at least have a basic academic knowledge of the issues at play when it comes to dealing with people from underprivileged backgrounds. They are going to be the people using and needing library services more than straight white upper and middle class men and women.

          Should knowing how to to do outreach be a core requirement? I would say yes, if cataloging is. I likely will do a lot more interacting with patrons than I will unique cataloging.

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    • Information management doesn’t take place in a vacuum. A theoretical understanding of social forces can only help with better placing information for use.
      In the particular example of cataloging, people who determine “aboutness” benefit from an understanding of diversity issues, people who write rules about how an author’s identity is described benefit from an understanding of different identities, and people who create controlled vocabularies benefit from being able to use current terms and concepts (I’m sorry that right now I can’t remember that paper I read on bias in LCSH).
      Cataloging isn’t all counting pages and knowing the correct abbreviations. There are qualitative judgments and real live people involved.

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  10. I did a lot of work on similar issues as an undergrad in Latin American studies. The issues you raise are vital and must be addressed in LIS programs, especially given the lack of diversity in librarianship overall. If anything, I worry that one class might be too little to significantly alter people’s perspectives. My program does have an elective on information and diversity, but I suspect that many students would rebel against requiring such a course because many would see it as a “soft option” not requiring “hard skills” like RDA or XML. I hope this post will spark conversations and actions extending beyond HLS.

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    • Yes some of my classmates have brought up that argument in other conversations. My reply to that is that librarianship, at its core, is a service profession. We are in the business of giving our patrons, whether it be in a school, university, hospital, jail, etc., what they need. And while hard skills are important, the ability to communicate effectively and respectfully is incredibly important. If we create an environment that is only conducive to white, straight, able-bodied people, than those are the only people who will show up in a library. And the field will never stop being the way it is. We need to change ourselves before we can try and recruit people of color and other diverse populations into the field. Because right now, the MLIS is toxic to non-hegemonic populations.

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  11. Reblogged this on Archivasaurus and commented:

    Please check out this exceptional post from guest author Fobazi M. Ettarh at Hack Library School on intersectionality in the MLS field. This is one case where I definitely recommend reading the comments, because the conversation happening there is every bit as informative as the post itself.

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  12. Thank you for this post. I’m finishing my second semester of Library School and I’ve seen how some of my peers often dismiss the need for having conversations about diversity. I think I’ve heard the “color-blind” argument too many times now. And it hurts. And if this is only school, I wonder how my experience in the workplace is going to be. We definitely need to have this conversation while in school.

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  13. I made sure to read this post from top to bottom and all the comments in between, because this IS a conversation we should all be having in our workspaces and classrooms. Fobazi, you brought up a great point that the LIS program does not do more to include an active and constructive discussion on the facets that make up diversity, be that sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, age, gender, social standing, economic status, household identity (single-parent, parents, multi-generational, no children, etc.) We need to better understand who we are, who we are serving, in order to harness strong relationships with our colleagues and provide the right information to our patrons. I agree that no matter the library aspect we decide to work in, cataloging, database management, reference, academic, instructional, outreach, youth services, the list goes on and on, we are failing ourselves if we do not take into account the diversity of the world we live in. My school offers courses on diverse populations, but I can say that it’s hard to feel as though diversity is embraced when the faculty staff of color is in, well… the minority. But I digress. If it ever compels you, let me suggest now, that you would make a great professor in this subject matter. Go all the way to the top, write a doctoral dissertation and as they say, if the class doesn’t exist, create it and spread this awesome knowledge to others. I’d be happy to attend.

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  14. Thank you so much for this post, Fobazi. Keep doing what you’re doing- your voice is essential in making this field a better, more inclusive place.

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  15. Pingback: On privilege | DC.Nerd

  16. This is a wonderful post and a crucial discussion. Fobazi is an incredible advocate for encouraging the conversation on diversity issues at Rutgers and beyond. I’d like to raise a point that has so far been neglected. Setting aside (just for the moment) curriculum issues, the best way to improve diversity in LIS and to facilitate the conversation is by bringing more people like Fobazi into the LIS schools and into the field. While ALA has initiatives to achieve this, including scholarships, I urge that MANY MORE scholarships be provided to prospective students from diverse backgrounds. LIS programs are inherently expensive (especially considering that relatively few significant scholarships exist for attendance), thereby encouraging the privileged to attend at the expense of diversity.

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    • As important as financial considerations are, I worry that our professional organizations and schools are using money as a cop out to avoid dealing with larger issues. We have all seen calls for diversity scholarship applications be issued and reissued because of a lack of applications. You can offer as many scholarships as you like, but if you’re not getting a wider swath of kids in K-12 and undergrad excited about the future of the information science field, you won’t get the diversity of library school applicants you want.

      I’m not saying scholarships don’t help- it’s just that if they’re our primary recruitment effort, we’re not doing enough.

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      • I agree Steve. While scholarships are definitely a method to increase recruitment, it cannot be the only way. And in addition, bringing more POC, queer people, etc into the program changes nothing if the environment is toxic to those who do not fit the hegemony. The numbers do not matter if the program does not recognize and prioritize diversity and intersectionality into its curriculum because the results are still the same. Those who do not fit the hegemonic white straight paradigm will experience othering at the hands of other students and faculty. And that is what needs to be changed. It is not enough to get more diverse people into the program, but to have them stay and complete the degree.

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  17. This is a great post/discussion that is sorely needed. Thanks for it!

    Fobazi, I can (unfortunately) relate to your experience. Going through library school as a black woman with a disability was…interesting. The only time disability or race was ever really mentioned in any of the courses I took was in a short section about sensitivity towards minority groups in my reference class. That’s it. At one point I signed up for a course on addressing the needs of underserved populations but it eventually got canceled due to low enrollment. Telling. So, I tried to address diversity issues in my coursework whenever possible, whether it was presentations on bias in the LCSH, or research projects on the experiences of information professionals with disabilities in the workplace. Some of my efforts were more successful than others.

    I think one of the other issues with diversity in the library world is that there’s so much talk about it in terms of outreach and scholarships and recruitment but very little support for those ‘diverse’ recruits once they leave the confines of their program and go out into the work world. So, yes, we absolutely need to increase time devoted in library school to discussions of diversity and intersectionality as it relates to patrons, but employers also need to translate those discussions into action when it comes to hiring. Diversity needs to be less a buzzword employers put on their websites next to their mission statements and more a concrete pattern of behavior. Otherwise, what’s the point of recruiting all these diverse applicants if there are no spaces that are willing to accommodate them?

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  18. Fobazi,

    First, I commend your post and the issues it raises. However, I’m not sure a class on intersectionality or diversity is a necessary requirement for MLS programs. Perhaps incorporating the themes you discussed into the existing curriculum would be easier. For instance, a cataloging course could discuss how the Western, Judeo-Christian tradition defines the Dewey Decimal system. The 200’s provide the most striking example of this bias.

    As for your personal experiences at Rutgers, I think this is a much larger issue of geography, program cost, and the diversity of faculty and their academic interests. Personally, I could not afford that program, and it’s not in a convenient location for me. Even if I completed it virtually, it’s still out of my price range. This is a reflection of my socioeconomic situation more than anything else, but it is noteworthy. I’m in my final year at North Carolina Central University a historically black college (HBC) in Durham, North Carolina. I personally have encountered no issues with diversity within the School of Library Science. Our students and faculty come from diverse professional and personal backgrounds. Although I am the only Muslim student in hijab, I never felt “left out” or disconnected from our SLIS community. I have not researched diversity within SLIS programs, but I feel the issues you face at Rutgers are relatively unheard of in my program and may not be shared by other programs.

    As for the ALA, I think they do a great job promoting diversity. I do agree that it’s difficult to be an outsider, if you will, in a relatively homogenous field. However, much of the issues I’ve personally encountered are situational and not systemic. For example, last month I attended the North Carolina Library Association’s Biennial Conference in Winston-Salem. I was the only woman in hijab there and I definitely got some stares. However, I never felt excluded and no one treated me differently. And, it’s not necessarily the NCLA’s fault that there aren’t more hijab-wearing library professionals in the area or in attendance at their conferences. One systemic issue I’ve encountered was an article entitled “Understanding the Woman in Hijab” published by the Colorado Library Association (see the citation at the end of my comment). I’m sure the author was well-intentioned, but I found it offensive and was hurt by its publication. Another systemic issue was exhibited by a local public library’s decision not to apply for the Muslim Journeys grant offered by the NEH. The system I contacted felt some of their patrons would deem it to be too controversial and opted not to apply for the grant. However, not long after they carried a grant-funded exhibit on the King James Bible. Would diversity classes in SLIS programs make libraries more willing to showcase “alternative” (for lack of a better word) perspectives? I’m not sure.

    Reference
    Hornreich, D. (2011). Understanding the Woman in the Hijab. Colorado Libraries, 35(4), 1-2.

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