I Am Not “Just the Diversity Hire”: Racial Difference, Authenticity, and Tokenism in Academic Libraries

Today we welcome a post by Veronica Arellano Douglas as part of our collaboration with ACRLog (the blog of the Association of College and Research Libraries)Veronica Arellano Douglas is a Reference & Instruction Librarian and Instruction Coordinator at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Her research interests include critical information literacy, the gendered nature of work, feminist librarianship, and diversity and inclusion in academic libraries.

If there is one self-care rule I routinely violate, it is, without a doubt: Never read the comments. I read them over coffee, angrily sputtering in a caffeine-induced fit. I read them at my doctor’s office, silently fuming while I wait for the nurse to call my name. I know this is one of many bad habits I should break, but it remains a weakness.

In late August Inside Higher Ed published a news piece about the latest Ithaka S+R survey that revealed, to the surprise of no one, the overwhelming whiteness of academic librarianship. The comments were, for the most part, racist garbage. As a tenured librarian of color (LOC) I could roll my eyes at those hateful sentences, but I couldn’t help wondering how I would feel reading them as a library school student or recent grad on the job market. For people of color (POC) the job search is already fraught with tensions not shared by white colleagues. For all of our profession’s diversity efforts (which can easily be seen as problematic), academic libraries remain very white spaces, and trying to break into these spaces, with their unspoken norms and expectations, can be difficult for POCs.

A recent #critlib chat on “the weight and worth of professionalism” interrogated the loaded nature of the term “professional” and how it is often used to signal a particular brand of “whiteness” in the workplace (white, male, cis, straight, able-bodied, etc.). Some LOCs admitted to being on their guard during job interviews, fearing to reveal their authentic self because it didn’t fit in with traditional notions of “professionalism.” This sentiment was also recently expressed by Heben Nigatu on the podcast Another Round, who admitted that she never advocates for women of color to be 100% real during job interviews. The risk, in her estimation, is too great. Everyone needs to make money to live. As much as I want to encourage LOCs and future LOCs to be themselves during job interviews I recognize that this is not always in a job-seeker’s best interest.

In a recent article in the Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies, David James Hudson takes the academic library notion of “diversity and inclusion” to task, arguing that diversity, as “the dominant conceptual framework through which LIS addresses questions of racialized power and difference” is problematic. It’s a surface treatment, one that often leads to a situation that inspired the title of this post. One too many of my colleagues of color in academic libraries have had the experience of being seen as, or openly called out as “the diversity hire.” I’ve heard liberal white academics actively covet a particular job candidate because of their black or browness, without any thought or care to the day-to-day realities this POC would face in an overwhelmingly white library and campus. I’ve heard of diversity residents being under-mentored and ignored in academic libraries. All of these negative experiences are rooted in the idea that diversity is a check-box. It’s the notion that if we in academic libraries just add more POCs to the table then we won’t be racist, right? Never mind that the table itself is uneven and probably broken. This kind of tokenism is a breeding ground for microaggressions that in turn impact the profession’s ability to retain LOCs.

So what’s a POC seeking work in a library to do when the job market is tight and experience is essential? I’ll try to avoid concluding with the usual job-seeking advice and instead focus on self-care, which is essential to succeeding long-term in libraries and really in any profession as a POC.

  1. Talk to previous Diversity Residents. They will always be real about their experiences at the residency site, which will in turn help you decide which libraries are best to pursue. ACRL’s Residency Interest Group is a great resource.  
  2. Talk to LOCs and POCs at potential job sites before job interviews. Again, they will be able to share their own experiences and strategies for seeking comfortable work situations. My own advice to POCs seeking jobs in academic libraries: Pay close attention to the people you are dining/lunching with during the interview. I’ve heard my share of awkward racist comments during these meals and always new those libraries were NOT FOR ME.
  3. It’s ok to take what you need from a job and move on. I have a friend who spent a few rough years at an academic institution to gain the experience necessary to move on to a more diverse, inclusive, and thoughtful library. There should be no guilt in doing this. You are giving a library a few good years of your hard work, brainpower, and emotional labor in exchange for gaining experience for future jobs. You should not hesitate to move on to should you so choose.
  4. Find your people. I feel lucky to have found a core group of supportive, encouraging LOCs at different academic libraries around the country. We vent, share advice, and help one another develop professionally and personally. They provide a daily reminder that I am not a token brown person, but an important member of my college community and this profession.
  5. Save something for yourself. This piece of advice comes straight from friend and colleague Sofia Leung who encourages POCs to “save the best of yourself for yourself.” You don’t have to give all of yourself to every job interview or job role. It’s ok to hold back emotionally, to say no, to not speak for all brown people. You owe it to yourself to stay sane and strong.


Featured image “Checked Cross” by Oliver Tacke in Public Domain

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