Why We Need to Talk About Intersectionality in Library Settings

Like many of you, I have been experiencing a lot of emotional fatigue lately. Between our ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the events that have unfolded over the last few weeks after George Floyd’s horrific death, it honestly has been a lot to process and internalize. This is especially true as it has been difficult for me to figure out how I can support and contribute to the social movement occurring right now outside of posting on social media without contributing money out of my already incredibly small budget or traveling to protests and risking getting sick. In a time where it seems like absolutely everyone (or almost absolutely everyone) I am connected to on social media is posting in some capacity about our collective current state of affairs and how they are contributing to the cause, the feeling of possibly not doing enough has been continuous; even though I know I am honestly doing what I can and can do well to contribute to inspiring progress while demonstrating that #blacklivesmatter.

Thus, it was hard for me to write this article because, as a white, cisgender woman, I feel there are some topics I could have discussed; but ultimately did not feel they were or may not be appropriate for me, personally, to discuss as my lived experiences would not allow me to do those topics justice. However, in embracing the difficulties of this time and reflecting on the topics I felt I could do justice from my perspective on top of the perspectives Lauren, Aubrey, and Kerri presented last week, I elected to explore one topic I have seen largely overlooked in many of the conversations I have seen unfold online: the importance of intersectionality in the positive, effective, and lasting change we hope our protests and other acts of social justice inspire going forward across all of our respective communities.

In a time where performative allyship, passive racism, and implicit biases are being heavily, regularly deconstructed in an attempt to improve how we relate to and interact with one another, intersectionality is also important to acknowledge. A term created in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality helps deconstruct the different parts of our identities that make us who we are (like gender, race, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, etc.) and how those parts may overlap and shape our lived experiences and the discrimination we may subsequently face, as evidenced by an excellent article written by Jane Coaston for Vox last May.

For those not familiar with the concept, Teaching Tolerance published a great, brief video explaining it in 2016; and Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 2016 TED Talk on why we need intersectionality is another great resource to check out. MTV’s Decoded web series is also worthy to mention as it has deconstructed a lot of different identity-related concepts in an approachable way over recent years; as has @courtneyahndesign on Instagram. Even #librarytwitter can be a great resource to reference while trying to learn about lived experiences different from your own. Lastly, there are also many academic articles and more colloquial resources available for review online if you would like to further survey the conversation currently surrounding intersectionality. So, there are various ways you can personally engage with it and incorporate into your own worldview.

Thus, seeing that there is no one way to be Black, just as there is no one way to be white or any other race or ethnicity; our intersectional identities uniquely shape how we experience and interact with our environments. In turn, we as librarians and other information professionals have a lot of work to do, as evidenced by the information previously presented by Lauren, Aubrey, and Kerri. First, not only do we need to take the time to independently educate ourselves on history and perspectives different from ours, we need to ensure the solutions we draft and implement during this time to address the different injustices and discrimination many patrons and fellow colleagues of color have experienced for centuries recognize and are conscientiously responsive to said injustices and discrimination. This is so we are not essentially putting a small bandage on a fire threatening to destroy our entire hypothetical neighborhood if left unaddressed (which is succinctly demonstrated by a comic strip published by Kris Straub in 2016). From updating our collections, creating more diverse programming and resources focused on promoting social justice and celebrating our intersectional identities, and making our collective spaces more inclusive, there are various ways in which we can improve our libraries so everyone feels recognized and valued within the spaces we provide our communities.

But, we cannot do that if we do not listen to what our patrons and fellow colleagues of color say when they talk about their lived experiences and unique positions within our communities and how their experiences and positions may translate into improvements to and within our spaces. So, we also need to realize when it is important for us to listen and when it is important for us to talk. For so long, it appears many have talked over others and have not listened to what they have to say – or listened to what they had to say and wrongly dismissed it because it did not align with their preexisting perspective. Thus, while it is a good thing to promote book lists and other social media resources denouncing racism and any other form of discrimination that strive to inform people on how to affect change in their lives and in the lives of others online (which I have personally done), it is another thing if the change you preach online is not what you actively embody in real life.

This cannot happen anymore, and it angers me that it has happened at all; even though I admit I have not always been a perfect ally and am subsequently trying to be better by educating myself on how to be a more effective one. Clearly, if we want current events to inspire the change we so desperately need to propel us all forward without running the risk of undermining its success before it has a chance to work, we need to work together to ensure the future we build for us and future generations is as diverse, inclusive, and equitable as realistically possible; and we cannot do that without first acknowledging our different intersectional identities. Thus, we also need to acknowledge that, until we realize the effects our intersectional identities have on us all, we cannot truly fix the issues affecting us all as they are just as complex as the people trying to fix them. Our humanity is our superpower; but it can only be so if we learn how and when to use it.

Photo by John Lockwood on Unsplash

3 replies

  1. I run a biweekly Twitter chat on library issues and trends with a librarian friend from Philly. For 2 weeks last month, we tried to run a chat on intersectionality in honour of BLM, Indigenous History Month and Pride Month. We couldn’t get enough people willing to actually engage with us to actually run the chat. I was incredibly disappointed, seeing this piece from you is a bright spot though! We absolutely need to be talking about intersectionality more. If all of us as marginalised groups come together to support one another we would have the loudest voice.

    Liked by 2 people

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