On Friday, May 20, a group of librarians from all over the country—and Canada—gathered at Brooklyn College for the annual Library Association of the City University of New York (LACUNY) Institute. The theme for this year’s LACUNY Institute was “Race Matters: Libraries, Race, and Antiracism,” an important topic that is long overdue for discussion in a profession that is 87% white.
I was honored to give the opening talk for the day and focused on how “Race Matters in Our Profession.” I discussed whiteness as an ideology that values the lives, experiences, and values of white people over those of others and the ways that whiteness operates in the library profession to erect barriers to the creation of a more diverse workforce. In particular, I used a combination of personal family anecdotes, social media discussions, and scholarly material to talk about the importance of both diversity and inclusion, recruitment and retention. These are key issues that must be addressed if we ever hope to have a profession that accurately reflects the populations we serve. We need more than just numerical equity; we need to ensure that our institutions are open and inclusive to allow people from diverse backgrounds to thrive.
Later in the afternoon, award-winning author and NYU and Columbia professor Mitchell S. Jackson delivered the keynote, detailing the heart-wrenching reality of his child- and young adulthood as a poor, drug-dealing, black kid on the streets of Portland, Oregon. Using captivating storytelling, Jackson highlighted the concept of revision as a means of taking the pain of a racialized past and revising it into a life-affirming future. Specifically, he noted that revision is an act of social revolution that breaks beyond the bounds of structural oppression.
Throughout the day, there were a number of breakout sessions dealing with race that allowed attendees to join the conversation. One session focused in particular on the experiences of African-American male librarians in the U.S. and the practice of a Black Feminist Librarianship. Another session later in the day featured chief librarians from throughout the CUNY system discussing the practical ways in which they promote diversity and inclusion in their hiring practices. In the middle of the day, a few of the librarians involved with the LIS Microaggressions zine project—an informal print publication founded by women librarians of color to discuss instances of racialized and gendered microaggressions in the workplace—led the group in exploring the ways that subtle racist and sexist attitudes and actions affect the work we do.
Overall, it was a great event creating an effective forum for beginning some of these really difficult but vitally important conversations in the library profession. Current events make clear that the myth of “post-racial neutrality” and “colorblindness.” We live in a highly racialized world, and our work is integrally affected by race and racism. We cannot afford to pretend these issues do not affect our profession and the communities we serve.
As I noted at the end of my talk, using a modified version of a quote by singer and musician Nina Simone:
Let’s reflect the times we live and work in and continue to have these important conversations about race in the open.