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.