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

Another quarter, another white LIS student making me question whether I really want to be in this field. It’s often a comment left on a class discussion board, on a Facebook thread, or said aloud in class. Often these comments are thinly-veiled racist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, or ableist sentiments. What’s more, it’s often followed by the silence of professors and other colleagues. For many BIPOC students, we have to confront racism, whiteness, and white fragility on a daily basis, including in the classroom. What do we do? Many of us have realized that we have to pick our battles due to the sheer number of incidents that happen; so we sometimes stay silent ourselves. Other times we speak up, bracing for the pushback, flood of white tears, and punishment or continued silence from the professor. You’re not told about emotional labor when you apply to library school.

The American sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who first used the term “emotional labor” in 1983, explained recently in 2018 that it is about deliberately obscuring emotions at work to conform to societal guidelines. I would argue it also manifests in educational settings, including graduate school. You can find many articles about emotional labor in librarianship, but for this article I’d like to focus on emotional labor in LIS programs. Just like with most library work spaces, MLIS programs are predominantly white spaces. Emotional labor is an intrinsic part of library school for BIPOC.

While it’s true that many LIS students experience emotional labor,* BIPOC experience it at a higher rate from both daily microaggressions and racism and from dealing with dismissive behaviors and ideologies that downplay or hide racism. We not only have to police and often suppress our own emotions to be “accepted” by the dominant forces in our programs and workplaces, but we also experience white tears and white defensiveness that derails conversations about race and whiteness. If we call out these experiences that forces us to engage in emotional labor, we often are unable to succeed, move up, or be accepted by our white colleagues.

Robin DiAngelo, who wrote White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People To Talk About Racism, a book on many white librarians’ reading lists, explains how white fragility is “weaponized tears, weaponized defensiveness.” When DiAngelo spoke at ALA Midwinter in 2019, some white librarians walked out. Clearly, many white people in the field are still resistant to acknowledging the structural racism inherent in librarianship, the effects of whiteness on BIPOC, and how their lack of self-reflection and criticism continues to contribute to the low levels of recruitment and retention of BIPOC. Discussions on racism in the field can’t happen if our white colleagues center these conversations on their own feelings and guilt.

This weaponized defensiveness is too familiar. Isabel Espinal points out that not only do we have to deal with the overbearing whiteness of the field, but we also have to “deal with the emotions of whites when we try to address our situations as librarians of colour. We have to deal with white anger and resistance, with white fragility.” I find myself constantly exhausted from having to monitor and restrict my feelings and language when I do speak up. Even if I don’t speak up, keeping these feelings trapped inside me is tiring. Espinal acknowledges that  “emotional labor helps to explain why some of us [librarians of color] might be so tired all the time. It’s not that there is something wrong with us but that we are actually doing a lot more work!” 

So then, what can BIPOC do? These can be difficult when you’re a student or a precarious employee as negative reactions can range from dismissal, to gaslighting, to being let go. The article Librarianship as Mothering and Other Cries for Help from The Library Collective offers some suggestions on small actions the profession can begin to take on boundary setting. She suggests communicating boundaries around your work and academic life which includes having honest conversations with your peers and colleagues and letting colleagues know when you’re unavailable (such as through an email away message). However, remember that not all this work falls on you and that your white peers also need to educate themselves. As a student, it can be hard to completely separate your work, school, and personal lives, but setting up boundaries and creating time for yourself is important to cope with the amount of emotional labor many of us experience.

The article Impossible Burdens: White Institutions, Emotional Labor, and Micro-Resistance, while focusing on BIPOC in elite law schools and the commercial aviation industry, offers forms of resistance that individuals can engage in. “Micro-resistance” can involve developing internal dialogues and counternarratives that reaffirm one’s skills and experiences. Many BIPOC interviewed for the study pointed out that creating empowering inner dialogues can help them both take care and protect themselves: when BIPOC speak up, they are often seen as overly sensitive or too aggressive. While these acts do not directly address the racist actions and comments from white people and can still be a form of emotional labor as a great deal of emotional management is needed, remember: you are not responsible for individually dismantling institutional racism in your program or workplace.

How do you handle emotional labor?

*I bring this up because I know that some white people become defensive and angry when I don’t talk about or include them. This article isn’t for white people but to prevent some of them from messaging me or leaving comments filled with, ironically, white tears, I included this here. I hope to prevent the emotional labor I might have to experience when this is published.

Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile from Pexels.

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

4 replies

  1. If your professors are silent they need to read this article. Next time a comment is made send this article to the professor. I have found that male professors (of any heritage) are not aware of emotional labor. Insensitivity to emotional labor is certainly not limited to white males.In my many years of work I have found men expect respect for their degrees and don’t understand or see emotional labor. After many years of focus on EDI I have great difficulty engaging any male professor.They simply do not see it as part of their responsibilities. In fact I have been evaluated poorly by male colleagues of color for spending too much time on EDI. We do not yet have an academic culture that has a way to incorporate these concerns into the structure of evaluations. The men are pragmatic. There is no reward for them in caring. Entire academic structures need to change course to recognize these issues.

    Kathleen de la Peña McCook
    School of Information, University of South Florida


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