How to be a Brown Librarian in a White Librarian World
I want you to imagine if you were the only person who looked like you in the room. Really imagine it. Then imagine that you walk into the next room and you’re still the only person that looks like you. And the room after that, and the one after that.
Welcome to my reality.
I spent ages thinking about how I would write something of this nature because it’s hard. What every single person who is white fails to understand, is how hard to sit and explain all the ways in which being a person of colour has meant that I must put up with the all the little instances of racism. I say little instances of racism because (for me) racism exists on a spectrum.
Do you raise a complaint every time someone tells you that you’re a good immigrant? (I’m not btw, I’m 1 stgen) Do you raise a complaint, every time someone compliments you on achieving as much as you have done, given your background? (Epically middle-class with almost too many degrees). You don’t do you?
Because to do those things, to set one foot outside the tiny box that has been constructed for you, would be to label yourself a troublemaker and watch how you’re suddenly excluded from team activities. Add in being a woman and you’re dealing with all sorts of gender norms and cultural pressures that frankly sometimes make me never want to leave the comfort of my own home, because what an absolute effort. I say this from recent experience and when I have raised my experiences of racism I have been told I was ‘over-reacting’ or even better ‘are you sure it was racism’. Because how would I know?
For some background, I have never worked in a CILIP library. What does mean? A library that isn’t a public library, higher education library or a further education college. I cut my teeth in a corporate library at Microsoft and then I worked as an information officer at Oxfam and now I’m a database officer. Because #transferableskills. I have had to work doubly harder for any recognition of what I do as legitimate. I was a librarian-ing at a level that most don’t before I qualified and yet, that experience has been very hard to quantify in a lot of interviews at other institutions. You could argue that it’s because I don’t interview well or is for other reasons?
I hate having to consider the other reasons but let’s think about it.
I have never had an interview in a library/information setting where the library/information staff interviewing me aren’t white. This includes, The Institute of Mechanical Engineers, NHS Trust in Reading, Coventry University, GCHQ, Dyson, Civil Service, Oxfam, NFER…the list continues. But you’re getting the idea. There hasn’t been anyone who looks like me, that I have ever been able to emulate at any level. This problem is systemic and it isn’t going away. How can it? If people like myself aren’t recruited into those roles — then who is? The worst thing is, I would probably be surprised if I were interviewed by someone of colour, how awful is that?
The unconscious bias that is present insofar that because I don’t look like how a librarian should look (that’s one that gets tired pretty bloody quickly), and I don’t conform to a standard means that I have to work harder to be accepted as one. It can’t be my education, is it my accent? Nope. Is it how I dress? Nope. Is it my gender (probably a contributing factor)? Is it my personality (probably another contributing factor)? What about…
The colour of my skin.
There, I said it. And I whole-heartedly believe that the fact I am brown has limited me from progressing in this field. If you listed the above attributed on someone who was white and male, they would be snapped up in a heartbeat. Imagine that I have to factor this in to my interview prep — how do I downplay how brown I am, so they will look at my skills and how I would fit into the team and nothing else. This has harmed my perception of the profession because against my will I do stereotype it, and most of the time I’m not wrong. Isn’t that awful? To be proved right? That yes librarianship is filled (not all people) with people who adore their white privilege in an almost colonial way to the point where they are willing to accept diversity is Something To Be Discussed but not something to be enacted in their own workplaces.
A lot of people will read that and hate it. They will say that I can’t blame the colour of skin every single time. But to do that would miss the point of what I’m saying. That racism is so embedded in the system that we’re conditioned (myself included) to pretend that it doesn’t exist.
Every conference I’ve ever been to, there have never been more than 10 people of colour that I have been able to spot. This includes the big SLA conference over in the States. In the UK I am usually the only person of colour in the room. Usually the only female of colour in the room as well. Over the last 7 years of working in information-related professions both as a librarian and an information professional I have seen a worrying trend in which diversity is seen as a trend to hop on and off at will. Given the current climate in Britain it’s no surprise that a lot of people are being forced to confront how people of colour are treated in their immediate vicinity. Especially within the library sphere. A profession which is purportedly supposed to represent the communities it serves, barring London, I wonder how many do? I would wager that very few do. At the time of writing CILIP Wales 2018 has just taken place (#cilipw18) and they had a diversity panel.
Yay!! Panel, people talking about minorities, those are the best. However, here’s the problem — all the people on this panel were white. In fact, there were 4 men and 2 women who look like they were all in senior positions, of a similar age, no (visible) disabilities and from a similar social strata and I can’t really say either way on their sexual orientation. I’m not entirely sure what they spoke about, but I guess it was a passionate discussion asking for more representation — well at least one would hope so right? Alongside this, I have also seen via Twitter that SCONUL are doing a study of diversity and consulting library directors. Not sure which ones, not sure what the scope of the study is etc. But a study is Being Done. The tone being — that I should be grateful that my small problems are being looked at by these good white people in their positions of power. Is that language strong? Good. I hope so because that is what it is.
My favourite are those people who profess to understand my struggles — not sure what struggle they mean? When they look at me sympathetically and say, ‘I get it’. What is precisely that you get? ‘We’re trying to be more inclusive, but you know, it’s process?’ What process is it exactly? That people who aren’t white are able to work in jobs? You’ll have to make it clearer to me.
Diversity is a reality and inclusion is a choice but CILIP doesn’t seem to realise that.
I want to know why it is my responsibility to educate white people in my profession on how to make me feel more included? Why is the onus on the people who are marginalised and ignored to stand up and make our voices heard? Except. When we do, the people who say they want things to change somehow manage to miss the point. ‘We hear you’ they say. ‘We understand what you’re going through’ they say. But then committees and task forces are convened where you realise that actually no one has been listening and therefore nothing has been heard. All those platitudes of ‘you are enough’. Yes. If you’re white.
I don’t know how to fix it. But I’m not being silent anymore. There is something rotten at the heart of the library profession in the UK (and the charity profession but that’s a different story…) and I want it to change. And I want to be part of that change.
I hope you do too.
PS If you’re wondering why I’m writing something like this *now*, look at the news, at Grenfell, Windrush, the rise of nationalism across Europe, Brexit and the fact that my whole entire life I have tried to fit in. Tried and tried and I’ve realised that I never will. In some respects the deck was stacked against me the moment I was born.
This post was inspired by Reni Eddo-Lodge.