Our librarianship/archival practice is not for white people: affirming communities of color in our work
Recap submitted by  Shamella Cromartie, MLS 
Photo Credit: Sofia Leung, MIT

With April Hathcock, Scholarly Communications Librarian at NYU as moderator, the session begins with an acknowledgement of the land. She asks for a moment of silence; a full 60 seconds was taken.

Hathcock gave the panel the time to introduce themselves and noted that Fobazi Ettarah, Student Success Librarian in California , brought the group together. Ettarah gave a shout out to the Leos, “the important people in the room”, which gave way to laughter from the group.

The opening question for the panel begins with the blockbuster question  How do we affirm ourselves and our communities of color? Talk about the work you do the decenter whiteness...Fobazi works for her instruction to represent the students she works with; at a Hispanic serving institution she uses cultural references to affirm the community.

This question spawned a plethora of quote worthy responses. Rebecca Martin, Collections Strategist and Scholarly Communications Librarian at Harvard, notably posited that we should recognize that “white supremacy operates even without white people in the room.”

Jennifer Ferretti, Digital Iniatives Librarian at Maryland Institute of Art, who founded the popular “we here” Facebook group, noted, for instance, she is not going to show Mona Lisa, instead she shows an artist of color in an instruction session. Ferretti mentions that every time she is front of students, she teaches from a place of passion. For instance in her “Hello Sessions” she explains immediately that she is coming from non-neutral standpoint.

Rachel Winston, Black Diaspora Archivist at University of Texas at Austin Libraries, who is the first in her position at her institution, notes that her work centers blackness and she believes that to be magical. She believes her very presence holds colleagues accountable in some ways, especially as it relates to collections development and feels privileged to change the dynamics. Winston notes that “Everyone should be documenting people of color and their contributions”.

Charlotte Roh, Scholarly Communications Librarian at University of San Francisco, who in the opening introductions noted that she is “late to wokeness” pushes individuals to claim “our communities of color”, rather than “your communities of color”. She believes her message is well received, but acknowledges that she is presumably perceived as non-threatening. She is constantly centering communities of color, because so many of us are “only”s in our institutions.

How do you protect yourself and fellow POV, maintain safety when situated in predominately white spaces? How do you cope with microaggressions?

Fobazi tells us that she is aggressively herself at work; always outspoken but currently learning to choose her battles.Of others she states “by 40, you should have gotten it by now, don’t be the typical professional—be authentic. “If white people aren’t uncomfortable, maybe you are not doing your job”. Very often, they don’t want your whole self at work.

Jennifer noted she does not always feel safe, not always protected, and just started saying “no, that’s not okay”.

Charlotte, who noted in her introduction that she was “late to wokeness” explained that she no longer sugar coats the issue, rather she has begun saying “oh no, that racist” instead of pandering with political correctness. “Let people know they shouldn’t say that”. She further explains that often reverse racism comes from ignorance, rather than a place of maliciousness. She uses the agreement (with some aspect even if its minute), then counterpoint strategy, to have these conversations.

Another panelists says that there is “no subtle racism” and it is good to have strategies for handling these situations, that is, if you are up for the engagement. The impact is your decision if its a teaching moment for someone else.

What is made possible in our work by centering voices and experiences of those often marginalized?

Rebecca says to build accountability to, with and for each other, move past individualism and perfectionism toward community building.

Rachel says her work is about about legacy and preserving. Show and understanding that black lives have always mattered and their stories aren’t forgotten. So much is possible after that first layer of work is done, which is why urgency is needed.

Fobazi told the audience that your opinions are valid and valued and that deserves recognition. She goes on to say “If we had a tenth of the entitlement that white people do…. whew! Pretend you are a mediocre white man, you are overqualified for everything. Ettarha also gave a warning with this message though, “Don’t be Killmonger” but get to a point where you have some entitlement. After a brief pause, she tells us “it takes energy to survive whiteness, but recognize you mess up too, which is why you need community”. You can create systemic change… just continue the work; this is generational work.

The dialogue sparks Rachel’s memory of one of April’s recent tweets in which she mused “sometimes I raise my hand and talk in meetings just so it isn’t white dudes doing all the talking”. Here in the session, Rachel says, “imagine what can happen if I just contribute more in that space at the table, and actually take up space”.

One of the many standout moments in the session came when an audience member stepped forward to tell her story of an older white male colleague who correctly identified a micro-aggression he witnessed and asked her to validate. She questioned whether she should have to give him props for recognizing this problem. Before the panel could answer, an audience member interjects loudly “It’s not our jobs, you would have not time to sleep”… Yet another audience member offered up “no cookies for basic shit” to laughter from the room.

Fobazzi smilingly told the audience —if you want to be that person its fine, 101 workers are superheroes. Charlotte likes the 101 work. Charlotte would put the onus on that person is…give them props.

And finally, April surmised that we all have different approaches and stated plainly “I’m not your social justice mammy” and still noted that for some people that effort will be made. Find that balance for yourself.