The Two Towers: Vocational Awe and Neutrality

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from author and librarian Josh Chan.

In May 2021, I had the great honour of being one of five presenters for the British Columbia Library Association’s panel on “Colourful Perspectives.” This marked a rare moment in BCLA’s history where an all IBPOC/BIPOC panel of librarians convened to speak candidly about their experiences with racism in librarianship. During the presentation, our moderator posed a key question to us: How was equity, diversity, and inclusion incorporated into your library school curriculum? As the most recent graduate among us, I candidly replied that these topics were virtually absent during my time in library school. I then offered three cogent examples to illustrate the absence of racism as a discussion topic in particular.

The first example that I provided involved a course called Management of Information Organizations. One of the assigned readings for this course was Alabi’s (2015) article on “Racial Microaggressions in Academic Libraries.” I made thorough notes for this article as I fully expected that our instructor would set aside time to do a debrief of it in class. This was after all, the normal procedure for every other assigned reading up until that point. That discussion never happened however, and Alabi’s article (the only one related to racism on our course syllabus) was ultimately forgotten about.

The second example that I provided involved a course called Human Resource Management. As a course about human resources, this could have been a perfect opportunity to learn about strategies for implementing more equitable hiring practices in the profession. In fact, one of the main reasons that I even signed up for this course to begin with was in the hopes of learning about concrete strategies for evening the playing field for IBPOC/BIPOC job applicants in the profession. Disappointingly however, racial equality was completely omitted in our class discussions (one of which, by the way, was devoted to whether or not employees should have the right to smoke marijuana in the workplace!).

Lastly, the final example involved a course called Extending the Progressive Tradition of the Information Professions. Early in the course, our instructor handed out a signup sheet with a list of topics for students to lead seminars on. The list of topics included key social issues such as class, gender, et cetera. Although race actually was one of the topics this time around, no one in our class except for me, a fellow student of colour, and another student who identified as multiracial signed up to lead it. The seminar on race in other words, was all but avoided by our white peers.

In all three of the examples that I provided above, a conscious decision was made either by white instructors or white students to avoid discussions about racism in the library profession. At the heart of this avoidance were the time-honoured values of vocational awe and neutrality. For prospective and recently admitted LIS students who are reading this blog post and may not be familiar with the first term, vocational awe is “the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in notions that libraries as institutions are inherently good” (Ettarh, 2018, Introduction, para. 3). Neutrality meanwhile, is just like it sounds like: Librarians are expected to remain neutral and not take sides when confronted with social issues. Together, these values help to maintain the illusion that our profession and the people working within it are impartial and beyond reproach.

But as DiAngelo (2021) states in her latest book, Nice Racism, the reality is that: “There are no neutral moves – inaction is a choice that has consequences and, thus, is a form of action” (p. 58). This is why I cannot, and will not accept the argument that inaction is a form of objectivity, especially when that inaction has very real consequences for IBPOC/BIPOC in the profession. This was why I felt compelled to speak about the virtual absence of racism as a topic in my library school education during the 2021 BCLA Conference. I will say now, as I did then, that if someone intentionally chooses to avoid, gloss over, or suppress discussions about racism in our profession, then that decision is anything but neutral. In essence, one could say that I am drawing my inspiration from Oluo (2019) who argues that: “There is no neutrality to be had towards systems of injustice – it is not something you can opt out of” (p. 211).

So while it is not obvious at a first glance, the time-honoured values of vocational awe and neutrality do in fact have consequences for IBPOC/BIPOC students in the classroom. As a former student of colour, I here to tell you that I saw firsthand how vocational awe and neutrality combined to create a culture of silence buoyed by an aversion to having authentic conversations about racism in the classroom. I saw furthermore, how this culture of silence pressured IBPOC/BIPOC students to toe the line and avoid speaking openly about their experiences with racism. Even in the few cases where IBPOC/BIPOC students like myself felt compelled to “brave the elements” and offer our insights about racism, I knew that we could only do so in a manner that did not make our white instructors and white peers uncomfortable. In other words, IBPOC/BIPOC students had to tone police themselves to avoid triggering white fragility in the classroom.

Thus, it is here where I turn to the crux of my argument for this blog post. The main problem with vocational awe and neutrality (at least from this librarian of colour’s experience anyway)  is that they obscure power and privilege in our profession. This is a key point in Chiu et. al’s (2021) article, “Not the Shark, But the Water.” In discussing vocational awe the authors argue that it “directly ties into White Supremacy culture by creating a narrative of librarianship as inherently good and sacred work while delegitimizing all other narratives” (p. 55). Not surprisingly, “all other narratives” include those of IBPOC/BIPOC students and librarians (who it must be noted, face the very real risk of being invalidated by white peers and colleagues if they decide to break with the status quo and speak to their experiences with racism in the profession).

Similarly, in discussing neutrality the authors state that: “By virtue of their privileged position, librarians of the status quo can afford to remain neutral toward issues that don’t affect them personally. The legacy of a homogenous profession has given power to this position” (p. 56). Thus, when white librarians invoke vocational awe and neutrality in defense of the profession, they are (whether they realize it or not) doing so from a position of power and privilege. As former library school students themselves, they enjoyed the advantage of graduating into a profession where a) they constitute the overwhelming majority and b) their perspectives (ie. whiteness) are the default. Having recently graduated myself, I can say with confidence that this is still the case in library schools where vocational awe and neutrality continue to shield white students from having to come to terms with how the racialized past of the profession continues to shape its racialized present. But avoiding, shying away from or refusing to talk about racism does not make the problem go away; on the contrary, it keeps the problem in tact. This is why prominent antiracist scholars like Kendi (2019) argue that  ”racism is steeped in denial” (p. 47).

A complete analysis of the manifestations of white supremacy culture and its relationship with vocational awe and neutrality are beyond the scope of a single blog post. Those who are interested in learning more about this are advised to consult the bibliography at the end of this blog post. Thus, I will instead bring this blog post to a close by saying that it was with some tongue and cheek that I called it the “The Two Towers.” I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that vocational awe and neutrality are akin to evil forces like Mordor and Isengard! Nor am I suggesting in any way that those who believe in vocational awe and neutrality are inherently bad people.

I am however suggesting that vocational awe and neutrality need to be re-examined within library schools as they produce future generations of librarians. And perhaps now is as good a time as ever for this re-examination to take place, especially considering what has transpired since 2020. As we saw with the death of George Floyd and the massive spike in anti-Asian hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic, libraries and library associations like ALA were quick to issue statements condemning anti-Black and anti-Asian racism. In order to move beyond virtue signaling and become reliable allies in the fight against racism, our profession must ultimately part ways with the time-honoured values of vocational awe and neutrality that are ingrained in library school students from the moment they start their programs. If we pause here and take a moment to remember DiAngelo’s (2021) words of wisdom that “There are no neutral moves” (p. 58), then the choice becomes obvious. Being a true ally in the fight against racism inevitably means choosing a side. And this choice must start in the very library schools that my colleagues (both white and IBPOC/BIPOC alike) and I have graduated from. So with that, dear reader, I will ask you now: What choice will you make? What side of history will you stand on?

Suggested Readings

Alabi, J. (2015a). Racial Microaggressions in Academic Libraries: Results of a Survey of a Minority and Non-visible Minority Librarians. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 41(1), 47-53.

Brooke, F., Ellenwood, D., & Lazzaro, A.E. (2015). In Pursuit of Antiracist Social Justice:  Denaturalizing Whiteness in the Academic Library. Library Trends, 64(2),  246-284.

Chan, J. (2020). Beyond Tokenism: The Importance of Staff Diversity in Libraries. BCLA Perspectives, 12(1).

Chiu, A., Ettarh, F.M., & Ferretti, J. (2021). Not the Shark, But the Water: How Neutrality and Vocational Awe Intertwin to Uphold White Supremacy. In S.Y. Leung & J.R. López-McKnight (Eds), Knowledge Justice: Disrupting Library and Information Studies through Critical Race Theory (pp. 49-71). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Collins, A. (2018). Language, Power, and Oppression in the LIS Diversity Void. Library Trends, 67(1), 39-51.

DiAngelo, R. (2018). White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk About Racism.
Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

DiAngelo, R. (2021). Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Ettarh, Fobazi. (2018). Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves. In the Library with the Lead Pipe: An Open Access, Open Peer Review Journal.

Galvin, A. (2015). Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias: Whiteness and Librarianship. In the Library with the Lead Pipe: An Open Access, Open Peer Review Journal.

Government Alliance on Race & Equity. (n.d.). Advancing Racial Equity in Public Libraries: Case Studies from the Field.

Espinal, I., Sutherland, T., & Roh, C. (2018). A Holistic Approach for Inclusive Librarianship: Decentering Whiteness in Our Profession. Library Trends, 67(1), 147-162.

Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an Antiracist. New York, NY: One World.

Okun, T. (2021). White Supremacy Culture – Still Here.

Oluo, I. (2019). So You Want to Talk About Race. New York, NY: Seal Press.

Saad, L.F. (2020). Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become
a Good Ancestor.
Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.

Schlesselman-Tarango, G. (2017). Topographies of Whiteness: Mapping Whiteness in Library and Information Science. Sacramento, CA: Litwin Books & Library Juice Press.

Josh Chan is an Outreach & Legal Reference Librarian at the Vancouver Courthouse Library in downtown Vancouver, Canada. He graduated with an MLIS from the UBC iSchool in 2020 and enjoys providing reference, research, and community outreach services to clients of Courthouse Libraries BC (CLBC). Outside of CLBC, he is also an active participant in BCLA. In 2020 he published a research paper called Beyond Tokenism: The Importance of Staff Diversity in Libraries. Freely available in Volume 12, Issue 1 (2020) of the BCLA Perspectives journal, this article contextualizes the harmful practice of tokenism, including suggestions for how to overcome it. This paper led to a BCLA panel presentation in May 2021 called Colourful Perspectives, which featured a panel of librarians of colour who spoke candidly about their experiences with racism in the profession. As a Chinese Canadian, Josh gratefully acknowledges that he has been able to live and work his entire life as an uninvited settler on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of the Coast Salish Peoples, including the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.

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