How Do We Talk About Structural Racism?

We talk a lot about equity, diversity, and inclusivity – or some other combination of those words – in our field a lot. It makes sense, given that librarianship is a service profession and involves so much contact with the general public, as well as requiring knowledge of local and national current events.

But, I often find myself growing frustrated at the ways in which these words (and their corresponding acronyms) often get thrown around without a clear understanding of what they actually mean or entail. They are terms that have grown flat and colorless with use, and so I want to state clearly what I want.

I want us to learn more about structural racism.

So much of how we think about racism today is reactionary. It is easier to summon up indignant anger when there is a ready target – an unjust police shooting, a group of white supremacists bearing Tiki torches – rather than to think about the invisible power structures that surround and bind us all together. However, responding to individual events, while important, is not the way that we develop our understanding of our profession, its classist and racist roots, and how we are both complicit in and resist against that history today.

How do we learn these things?

This past quarter, I found myself in the slightly absurd position of being in a Zoom breakout room of almost all BIPOC students while a guest librarian – a white woman – talked to us about the importance of diversity in school collections. The optics of the situation were awkward enough to be laughable, but it made me think about a few things.

  1. So many of these discussions are led by white women.
  2. Even when they are not, the discussion or course content is geared towards white people, who often have not experienced the subtle, everyday workings of structural racism in their own lives.

I have often entered courses or training sessions that promise to discuss equity and diversity, only to find myself surrounded mostly by white people who want to learn about what a microaggression is and/or unload all the times they have witnessed injustice being enacted upon a person of color. Maybe these sessions are productive for other participants, but they are not for me. I’ve since become wary of joining such courses, since they are clearly not made for BIPOC participants, who often either remain silent or risk having to expose our own trauma for the white participants’ benefit. A space that is ostensibly dedicated to discussing equity becomes inequitable.

The most productive class I’ve taken in graduate school was not one of my department’s courses, but a one-credit seminar in Health Services. Despite searching for classes that would develop my understanding of equity and power structures, I would not have thought to look in that department; it was recommended by a fellow MLIS student, to whom I am eternally grateful.

During the first course meeting, I came to realize that the course’s foundation was different from other EDI courses in one very important way: it did not cater to white students that had no social justice background. While the professor welcomed questions and would define terms, we did not start with a softball discussion of what microaggressions are, or a gentle discussion of why diversity matters. The course was titled Structural Racism & Public Health; the fact that oppression exists was treated as a given, rather than as a new revelation. Instead of spending time on the basics, we delved further into history and how nearly all modern power structures have racist roots that play out in subtle ways.

My MLIS classmate and I discussed how we wished we had a class like this one available in our department, but quickly discarded the idea as unfeasible. Even if such a course were offered, the demographics of our program meant that it would never be possible to have a BIPOC-dominated classroom, the way that we had in Structural Racism & Public Health. Our course had been taught by a black professor who had pushed for this one-credit seminar to be required coursework for Health Services students; and while I could not really envision a white professor teaching the course to library science students, the idea of putting that burden on another professor of color did not sit well with me.

To use a term I learned from my therapist, this is a double-bind situation, where there is no real suitable course of action. The majority of future library science practitioners are white and need to learn more about racist power structures, but learning from well-meaning white people gives only a partial perspective of the situation. At the same time, trying to solve this issue by putting BIPOC educators at the front of the classroom does not solve the problem. On one hand, this is forcing BIPOC faculty to shoulder the emotional labor of teaching white students about racism; on the other hand, simply assuming that a BIPOC professor is equipped to teach about racism is an essentializing assumption. BIPOC is a term of solidarity, but we are not a monolith.

This is a broad and serious topic, and one that would be foolish to try and resolve within this article’s word limit. But, it is something that I have been turning over in my mind for months, and I want other people to think about it, too. I would like to continue the conversation in future articles, so please – leave your thoughts.

Photo by Axel Vandenhirtz from Pexels

3 replies

  1. Thank you for sharing this, Joanne. The reality of this double-bind conundrum has been frustrating me as well.

    As a white public librarian in a rural, white-dominated community, I have been struggling to find ways to begin to have constructive conversations and educative opportunities with my constituents that honors and acknowledges the experiences of BIPOC within and beyond my little village. I’m committed to learning and growing myself, and to keep this topic at the forefront of public awareness. I am committed to using my library’s institutional advantages – the trust, love, and respect that the community feels towards it – to try to raise awareness as best I can. I would love to share my strategies and experiences, and to learn from others’. If anyone out there would like to connect, my work email address is aandrasik at pypl dot org.


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