To my fellow LIS Black, Indigenous, and People of Color [Series]: Introduction

When I applied to library school, I knew I was taking a risk. I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in American Ethnic Studies (AES) and my classes were always filled with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). Sure, my English classes, my other major, were full of white people and I had grown up in a predominantly white suburb, but I felt lucky that I had so many positive experiences in AES. But looking around at my MLIS orientation I knew that this would be different. My program, and as an extension the field, looked nothing like me. How was I going to survive three years, especially as an online student?

Librarianship continues to be overwhelmingly white and many MLIS programs reflect this. White librarians make up over 80% of the field compared to BIPOC. From 2011-2017 at Simmons SLIS, white students made up an average of 72% of students. Meanwhile, the University of Washington’s MLIS program reported that 74% of students entering the program in Autumn 2018 identified as white. This is not meant to single out individual programs but to demonstrate the difficulty of MLIS programs in recruiting BIPOC. However, with the dominance of whiteness, it isn’t surprising that recruitment efforts are still waiting to see significant results. For many BIPOC in MLIS programs, we often experience feelings of isolation, microaggressions, racism, and the pressure to educate our white peers and professors. What can we do to survive, thrive, support and open doors for other BIPOC? This series will explore resources for BIPOC in MLIS programs as well as advice from and interviews with BIPOC in the field.

Why is this important to me? 

I’ve had to deal with other students arguing that social justice doesn’t belong in archival work and that librarians should focus more on LGBTQ patrons rather than immigrants since “small immigrant populations will eventually assimilate and there will always be a next generation of LGBT youth in every area.” Often there would only be one or two other BIPOC in my class, and sometimes I was the only one. There’s constant pressure to be the face or champion of diversity. Moreover, I’ve taken on so many responsibilities since I started my program because I know that, as an Asian American woman, I have to work twice as hard to be considered on the same level as my mediocre white peers. I work three jobs, have numerous volunteer positions (including this one), and serve on two different student organizations. I don’t have the privilege of being unaware and ignorant of white supremacy in librarianship and archives. I have to delve into my traumas in scholarship applications, laying out my struggles as a woman of color for white reviewers who determine whether I have suffered enough. But you also have to be careful not to be that person who alienates their white peers with too much criticism. And while imposter syndrome plagues most MLIS students, it is tenfold for BIPOC when they don’t see themselves represented.

How do you connect with other BIPOC when you’re an online student? What’s the benefit of and where can you find BIPOC mentors? How can you combat anti-blackness and white supremacy in libraries, archives, and your own MLIS program – especially as a non-black POC? What are some important articles/books/resources that are not mentioned in MLIS classes? This series will address these issues and more.

To my fellow LIS Black, Indigenous, and People of Color: how have you hacked library school and what would you recommend to current students? 

Cover photo by Markus Spiske


Kelli Yakabu is a MLIS student at the University of Washington focusing on archives. You can follow her on Twitter @kelliyakabu.

9 replies

  1. Yes, it is difficult being in a predominately white field, but “mediocre” is a harsh generalization about peers. You can show by example your intelligence & excellence and your capacity for scholarship & leadership, but there are allies. Don’t disregard them as mediocre or you may miss friendships and networks.

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    • Obviously I’m not calling all my white peers mediocre; I’m talking specifically about my white peers who do only the minimal amount of work to earn their MLIS degree even though they are capable and financially stable enough to take on extra work, jobs, internships, etc. to gain real-world experience. It’s difficult to not develop great friendships with white classmates in an MLIS program since they make up the majority of students and it’s not something I actively avoid. I’ve worked under white supervisors who became great supporters and advisors. There are definitely allies, but focusing on the use of the word “mediocre” ignores the larger issue that BIPOC, specifically black and brown folx, are judged and scrutinized much harsher than their white peers, “mediocre” or not. Just “showing by example” doesn’t always work – I’ve been pressured by society and the predominantly white community I grew up in to be exceptional or to be nothing and to keep my head down and my mouth shut. White people aren’t pressured to prove themselves as exceptional individuals like BIPOC often have to in order to achieve similar goals.

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      • Kelli,

        Right on. As a white man soon to be going to library school and working in libraries now, I read your post and understood exactly what you’re talking about. White people definitely enjoy a great amount of flexibility when it comes to skirting by with bare minimum effort, hardly similar to the flexibility afforded to BIPoC. Folks don’t deserve to be scrutinized so, or white people need to be doing as much work and showing up.

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  2. As a mixed-race POC who also has experience in LGBTQIA+ realities and at least one other stigma which I can usually hide, but which has severely impacted me, I do empathize. I am a recent graduate of an online MLIS program, and have recently attained my first paraprofessional position.

    I believe it is easier for non-POC to understand disability and LGBTQIA+ and class positionalities, in response to your post, Kelli. It’s possible, that is, to be “white” and disabled, or “white” and LGBTQIA+, or “white” and not middle-to-upper-class. (I’m putting “white” in quotes because I don’t think the concept is a hard or simple or clearly delineated one…I dropped out of Sociology too early for that.)

    I think it’s harder to understand people who…well, for one thing, we often look different (which can be a stigma which POC are not immune to having against other POC [or ourselves]), and often have a different cultural background. I’ve had my daily lived experience referred to as, “exotic,” when for me it’s just normal and comforting (for example, disclosing how to make a hearty miso soup [I altered the recipe because I needed more nourishment], or the time someone brought in habutai to work, and the people who had never had it, thought that beans should never be sweet…whereas I was delighted and wanted others to try it). I’ve been confronted with surprise when I turned in a paper about realizing that my experience was explained by my being an ethnic minority. It was kind of like, “you’re not white, so why would you ever think you were normal?”

    It wasn’t really until I got back into my LIS program that I realized that my problems with the program were stemming from feeling “othered” within it.

    I also then realized that my feeling of being “othered” was because I was a racial and cultural (or ethnic) minority. I didn’t have to deal with it while I was a Library Aide (the lowest paid station I could hold in my library); but moving up the ladder via post-graduate work, meant that I was exposed to a cultural milieu that was alien to me.

    I am glad now that I’ve gone through the program. I know that it’s given me possibilities that I didn’t have before, and that most people I encounter in my life outside the library, probably can’t imagine. I kind of look at the world with different eyes, which is complicated to get across.

    It has to do with empathizing with service providers, while understanding that the current economic system we’re all under does privilege some (like those who can afford school), and not others. I can see the difference in outlook between Aides, Clerks, paraprofessionals, and professionals. I don’t mean so much paraprofessionals and professionals looking down on lower-ranking staff (though that can happen); I mean that the world — the psychic world of life possibilities — is smaller for people who can’t move up and aren’t adequately trained and aren’t paid enough to improve their situation.

    Of course, giving people the possibility of expanding their worldview is part of the reason why free libraries exist in the first place…which causes me to wonder why or how the structure of not properly and thoroughly training lower-ranking staff (or compensating them adequately for their labor), ever worked its way into our system. But that has to do with economics, legislation, pragmatism, among other things — not the altruism that libraries are known for.

    I also now connect much more with my co-workers of African heritage, because I know what it’s like to perceive alienation in a work setting and have to question whether it’s because of how I appear (which I can, or could, ordinarily forget). There’s also the fact, though, that even in my online classes, I stood out as a minority because of my views. That is, no one had to see me to know I wasn’t, “white.” My life experiences and training to that point had just been different.

    For example, in my younger years, I don’t feel my attempts at leadership were prefaced by others accepting it as justified. But I could speak a good idea — which would only be accepted after a “white” person repeated it. I could say something correct, that made sense, and be shouted down in negation by people who didn’t know what they were talking about. (That still happens. Why? Is that question actually worth spending my energy on?)

    If I hadn’t gone through the program, that is, I wouldn’t know what I was missing. If I hadn’t gone through Undergrad, it would be even more magnified. As a lower-ranking employee, I worked alongside people who only had high school and lower-division college education. I had a Bachelor’s, but to be frank, I was afraid of moving out of that position. I like being capable. I was fully capable of that position — but after a while, I knew I could do more. Now I have an MLIS, and am in a paraprofessional position which allows me to use more of my intelligence. My hesitation, caused by not wanting to be seen as inadequate (which probably has roots in my knowing that I’ll have to work twice as hard to be seen at the same level), has held me back for…enough time.

    Education can confer class mobility. When you see the economic and cultural systems, though, which impact so many of our patrons and staff; you also start, by sensitization, to see the racial and class systems (for example, the makeup of lower-ranking staff as versus higher-ranking staff). It’s not always comfortable. But seeing those systems is (arguably) better than not being able to, because once you can begin to see them, you can start to figure them out. If you can figure them out…

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    • Thank you for your response. I really appreciate you sharing your experiences. I grew up in a predominantly white area and never felt accepted but rather othered as you described. I knew I was overlooked or looked down on a lot because of my race (when I did achieve something, I sometimes heard people say it was because I wasn’t white). That does a lot to your own self-confidence and it feels like nothing you do is enough. Becoming more knowledgeable about my own background and identity in undergrad helped me not only gain more confidence and a sense of purpose, but also begin to understand that I wasn’t alone when it came to these feelings and experiences. I also agree with your point that many white people often have a better understanding of LGBTQ issues and have seen it among my own classmates. Many of my white classmates are comfortable talking about LGBTQ issues but less so when it comes to anything relating to race or ethnicity. I’d love to chat with you more about this in a more private space especially as I also grew up Japanese/Okinawan.

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      • Hi Kelli,

        Thanks for reaching out! Apologies for not getting back to you sooner — my life isn’t all smooth sailing right now (I am going through training for this new job and meeting tons of new people — also meaning that I have a lot of anxiety, and time I have to set aside for sleep, to keep up my stamina). If you would still like to talk off-blog, 🙂 please leave a comment on https://goldmarble.wordpress.com with an email contact. I won’t publish the comment, but I will note the email address and then delete the comment. I will make another note in this thread to ask and ensure it is you, and we can go from there.

        — Haru 🙂

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  3. The Visible Minority Librarians of Canada Network (ViMLoC) started a mentorship last year, connecting POC in the field with students of colour. The mentors and mentees contacted each other via calls, emails, in-person, etc. This was an opportunity for students to ask about job hunting, work life, skills, etc.

    I was a great way to connect to someone who was already in the field and learn about their experiences and challenges.

    Link to mentorship: https://vimloc.wordpress.com/2018/08/08/vimlocs-mentorship-program/

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