My Experience as a Woman of Color at the Reference Desk

Working on the reference desk at a public library, I answer patrons’ questions every day. As many of you may know, these questions vary from finding a book, to more in-depth ones, such as the price of a stock back in 1976 – all kinds of questions you can think of! This is the fun part of the job – you never know what you will get asked every day, and helping people get what they need is the best.

But then fun can actually be intimidating at the same time, especially when you are a woman of color. Patrons started to ask or comment about my ethnicity, my accent, my marital status – sometimes inappropriate comments on my “exotic” appearance and, even one time a patron said he wanted to “try” me.

I was so scared the first few times I had these experiences. I remember I was shocked, didn’t know what to say, and realized my hands were shaking after the incidents. I started to rationalize these creepers’ behaviors – “maybe they just haven’t seen an Asian woman before,” “maybe they are just ignorant,” “maybe this is just the American way of being nice (not!).” I also blamed myself for being weak and nice – “I should have a stronger voice!”

Luckily, I have a group of understanding colleagues and supervisors. They reaffirmed me that I had done nothing wrong, and that the experiences I had were evidences of racism and sexism. After a year of working at the desk, I now finally feel more confident when I need to tell patrons what they just said was inappropriate. I have learned to reply that I would not answer personal questions. My coworkers constantly remind me that I do not need to take everything from patrons just because I am there to help. No one should feel unsafe at work. When needed, just leave the desk. 

Melissa from HLS had written an excellent article on sexual harassment from customers/ patrons in the service industry, especially in libraries. In fact, studies have shown that women of color and LGBTQ workers are more prone to these unfortunate events, for example, Asian American women are seen as “exotic, submissive, and naturally erotic.” Women of color don’t have the gender and race privilege compared to Caucasians or men of color.  Annie Pho and Rose Chou had conducted a study about lived experiences of women of color librarians at the reference desk. Although I am not a librarian yet, I can relate to all those experiences shared – inappropriate comments from patrons, not being trusted because of our skin color, having to dress “more professionally” because we are always being misunderstood as a student intern… To be honest, it was kind of a relief when I realized I wasn’t alone, but at the same time, I felt mad that these things actually happened that often. 

I am lucky to work for an institution that sees the seriousness of harassment, no matter it is towards staff of color or not. (Harassment does not only happen to women of color, it happens to Caucasian male also.)  We have a strong policy against harassment that patrons would be banned if they harassed staff members. I also have a group of staff of color to talk to when I need to, and they have been a great help and source of comfort to me. In fact, some of them have had similar experiences; one even was followed by a patron outside of the library! Although these things still happen, but I know that at least the library is willing to solve the problem. Yet, I know not everyone is that lucky. Some organizations may not have clear instructions on dealing with harassment – either they don’t know where to start, or they don’t understand the seriousness of the issue. Here’s some thoughts on what we all can do to help with the issue from my experience as a woman of color:

As an organization…

  1. Learn about harassment.
  2. Set clear policies against harassment. Educate staff on how to support each other when they see coworkers being harassed.
  3. Listen to your staff if they said they were being harassed. Do not dismiss their feelings.
  4. Provide anti-harassment, anti-racism and anti-sexism trainings for staff so that they understand these issues more.
  5. Take the responsibility to solve the problem. Don’t just ask your staff who were being harassed to come up with solutions.

As a person…

  1. Educate ourselves about racism and sexism. If you haven’t experienced them, great! But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
  2. DON’T dismiss your friends’ feelings of being harassed. It’s how they feel. Listen to them. 
  3. Don’t assume. Things you thought were appropriate might be offensive to the other party.

 

Sources:

Civitello, A. & McLain, K. (2018, May 15). It’s Not Just Part of the Job. Retrieved from https://plan.lib.fl.us/files/Sexual_Harassment.pdf

Lawton, S. (2018, March 5). Reflections on Gender Oppression and Libraries. Retrieved from

http://publiclibrariesonline.org/2018/03/reflections-on-gender-oppression-and-libraries/

Ford, A. (2017, November 1). Stop Sexual Harassment in Your Library

https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2017/11/01/stop-sexual-harassment-your-library/

Chou, R. L. &  Pho, A. (2017, October 1). Intersectionality at the Reference Desk: Lived Experiences of Women of Color Librarians. Retrieved from

https://cloudfront.escholarship.org/dist/prd/content/qt30r7s9nw/qt30r7s9nw.pdf?t=oycsm6&nosplash=1fed3003ab8353a6ee3d05cb892fedc9

Ontiveros, M. L. (1993, January). Three Perspectives on Workplace Harassment of Women of Color. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.law.ggu.edu/ggulrev/vol23/iss3/4/

Cover photo: Reference Desk, under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Alice Law is a MLIS student at Wayne State University. 

5 replies

  1. I am also a woman of colour and work front desk at a corporate skyscraper in Atlanta, and my experiences are similar to yours. My patrons can get me fired for stepping on their poor little toes by offending them with words like “that was inappropriate” so there is a lot of grinning and bearing. I have learned the art of subtly telling people to leave me alone — a very hard lesson for me, as I am not subtle. I am very blunt and generally would, anywhere else, not think twice about telling someone they have crossed the line.

    We don’t have any Asians on our team, but the first time I realised Asians still faced a lot of racism here was from a visitor. She was an old Asian lady who had taken to hanging around outside the building on the weekends. She said she lived with her son, but often took walks alone when he had company.

    She was originally from New York and had just come to live with him. One day, she got lost, not far from our building. When the supervisor found her, she was upset. She said she had asked for directions and a White person told her to “Go home! Go back to your country.” She has never lived anywhere else but Atlanta and New York…

    I am from Jamaica and of Mixed ancestry, so I get a lot of the “exotic” comments, as well. I don’t mind those so much until I find myself being called “chocolate”. One day I took out a chocolate bar and put it next to my skin and asked the White guy, “Do you see a difference?” He was stunned. I told him, “If you’re going to objectify me by the colour of my skin, at least pick the right shade: peanut butter, caramel, cappuccino even, but I am not chocolate.”

    I would love to tell you he learned his lesson. Plot twist: He did not.

    We are no longer friends.

    Like

    • Alexis,

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience – I am so sorry for you – it’s just so hard, and not right to have to bear with inappropriate and ignorant comments!! I kept thinking to myself, was it because these people were not told these actions were not appropriate? Was it because of the culture, or the environment they grew up with? Maybe if I tell them now, they will become more aware of what they are doing? But after reading your “chocolate” experience, I guess maybe some people just choose to be rude and ignorant…

      Like

      • Yes, many White Americans believe they have the right to TELL us what should or should not make us feel good about ourselves. I have often been told that my rejection of the chocolate reference is a sign that I am insecure about being Black, which is laughable. Black women who despise their race do not make a point of keeping their hair natural in a society that pressures us to straighten it. I have dreads!

        I think it’s terrible that there is another race who believes they have a right to tell us minorities what is or is not good for us. That is wrong on so many levels. Thankfully, they’re not all like that, and some really don’t mean any harm.

        Hubby is White and has never referred to me by any of those references. We do, however, joke about people who use them. We spent 10 minutes on the couch last Friday trying to decide what foods matched our skin tones, after I shared this same story with him. He decided that brown sugar and caramel are most accurate for me, and he told me I can just call him off-White. He’s hilarious. 😂

        Liked by 1 person

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