Microaggressions in Library and Information Science

“You speak excellent English.” “I don’t consider you as Mexican/Black/any other racial minority.” “Where are you really from?” Microaggressions are a reality for many minorities as we go about our daily lives and are now present in our workplaces.

Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target person based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” Here is an example that fits the definition:

One reoccurring patron interaction that starts with an appropriate question concerns the educational requirements to work in my position (it’s a bachelor’s degree), which is then followed with a question asking what my degree is in. I tell them I have a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish. That’s when things go awry. “But isn’t that kind of cheating because you already spoke Spanish?” “That was probably easy for you!” It takes so much effort to not reiterate that the requirement was a single bachelor’s degree. It takes even more to not ask them if they ask English majors who grew up speaking English the same question. Instead, I put on my customer service smile and say I focused on linguistics and literature; vague and true yet satisfies their need to know I didn’t earn an “easy” degree.

Library school teaches us to focus on the user, how to find information, and other great things related to information. We learn to navigate databases until the user is satisfied with the information. We love helping others and even see it is a calling. This is all great, but that vocational awe can lead us to create unhealthy boundaries with our users. Your life story is valuable and can be a library resource . . . if you want it to be. So how do you navigate these situations while keeping the user in mind? 

When patrons ask me where I’m really from and won’t accept that I was born in the hospital just down the road, I almost always give in and say my parents are from Mexico. The skies part and suddenly they understand why I am different. Unfortunately, not every day is a good day and sometimes I’m just sick of it. Informing them that what they asked was a personal question and then asking if there are other library-related questions I can help them with is my response. It immediately ends the inappropriate intrusion on my personal life in a professional manner and dictates that, while we live in a small city, my life is not open for all to question. I admit this is not always the best response, but unfortunately, it is sometimes the only option to get out of the situation.

Another option is to take the opportunity to educate the microaggressor on how the situation made you feel. As someone who prefers not to talk about my feelings and recoils from confrontation, I rarely use this option, as saying “your question made me feel like I’m a foreigner in my own hometown” is awkward. However, pointing out that the question itself can be perceived as racist (not the person) can show how their intentional or unintentional behavior is not okay. Hopefully, this will alter their behavior and cause them to reflect on how their language affects others.

Ideally, your employer would have some sort of support system in place when these microaggressions inevitably happen. That may be having someone immediately take your place at a public desk to give you a break, a discussion with others in a safe, supportive environment on how it affected you, or mental health coverage in medical benefits. If you are still in library school, reach out to other students, see if your school offers counseling sessions, or see if a diversity office has any resources. Kelli also has an entire HLS series for BIPOC, so make sure to check those out for resources.

I know microaggressions are experienced by BIPOC in every field in addition to microaggressions based on gender, sexual orientation, and other minority group memberships. I acknowledge my privilege in only having to deal with one of those in my job. For those interested in racial microaggressions in academic libraries, check out this article. Have you experienced microaggressions in your library school program or job? What are some other ways to respond to these microaggressions?


Conrrado is an online MLIS student at the University of Washington iSchool and an Adult Services Specialist at the Natrona County Library.

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

Categories: social justice

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