Module 1b: Introduction

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Module 1a: Agreements
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Module 1b: Introduction
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Module 2: History of Race and Racism

After working through this module, you will be able to:

  • Describe why learning about race and racism is critical for library professionals and educators.

Race and Racism: A Brief Introduction

Before we dive into the heart of the curriculum, let’s make sure we are on the same page about some fundamental assumptions that underlie this work. If any of the ideas below are challenging for you, it’s okay to sit with these for a while and explore the linked resources before moving ahead.

Please note: The Project READY curriculum includes history, themes, exercises, reflections, and injustices that will encourage you to reflect on your background and the backgrounds of your family and ancestors. This may cause discomfort, especially to BIPOC library workers and educators. Please exercise self-care when working through this curriculum. 

Assumption #1: We do not live in a “post-racial” world.

When Barack Obama was elected as America’s first Black president, the national dialogue was full of optimistic rhetoric declaring our attainment of a “post-racial” society. His election was seen by some as proof that race was no longer a barrier to achievement, or at least, that it was a barrier that could now be overcome. The following decade, however, showed just how premature that conclusion was. Explicit racist attacks on the Obamas and on people of color generally increased in visibility as the news filled with stories of unarmed Black men shot by police, renewed Islamophobia and controversies over immigration, and Native tribes facing threats of environmental and physical violence. These conversations have only increased in their stridency and impact since the election of President Donald Trump in 2016.

Aside from high-profile individual examples of continued racial tension, national statistics on issues such as wealth and income, employment, education, and healthcare continue to show persistent and in some cases growing disparities between BIPOC and whites in the United States (we will share much of this data in later modules). These disparities are upheld by the fact that the political and economic power in this country is concentrated among white people. Consider the following statistics from 2016-2017:

  • All ten of the richest Americans are white.
  • The U.S. Congress is 90% white, and 96% of U.S. governors are white.
  • The US presidential cabinet is 91% white.
  • The people who decide which TV shows we see are 93% white.
  • The people who decide which books we read are 90% white.
  • The people who decide which music is produced are 95% white.
  • The people who decide which news is covered in the U.S. are 85% white.
  • Full-time college professors are 84% white, and K-12 teachers are 82% white. (DiAngelo, 2018, p. 31)

For more information and unpacking of this assumption, explore these resources:

Assumption #2: Racial inequity cannot be explained away by socioeconomics.

In response to the idea that racism is still present and harmful in today’s America, you may have heard someone argue that socioeconomic inequality, rather than racial inequality, is the primary driver of our society’s problems. This argument proposes that people of color and Native people are primarily disadvantaged not because of their race, but because they are disproportionately poor, and if we were somehow able to equalize economic inequality across racial categories, the impact of race would disappear. This pervasive myth has been repeatedly debunked by extensive research showing that even after controlling for economic circumstances, race plays a central role in determining life outcomes in the United States.

This does not mean that socioeconomic inequality and racial inequality are unrelated. In fact, socioeconomic disparities are one of the clearest points of evidence we have for the continued negative impact of racism on BIPOC. Explore the data presented in the slides below related to the racial wealth gap. In the next module, we will discuss how we have reached this point, but for now, it’s important to understand that racial disparities cannot be explained away by socioeconomic data.

Assumption #3: Niceness will not end racism, even if we could magically eliminate racial prejudice overnight.

One common misunderstanding about racial inequity is that it is primarily supported and perpetuated by a small number of actively hateful individuals. Much of our national conversation around race and racism focuses on improving our individual behaviors across racial lines, implying that if we could all simply get along and treat each other with respect and decency, racial inequity would disappear. This is an attractive idea for a couple of reasons. First, it feels doable, or at least more doable than changing the basic structures and systems of our country. Second, it allows people – especially white people – to feel good about themselves for the simple act of being nice to people of color. Unfortunately, this is not nearly enough. To understand why, watch the video below, in which anti-racism expert Robin DiAngelo (author of White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism) unpacks this idea.

For a fuller exploration of this myth, read DiAngelo’s White Fragility book and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America

Assumption #4: Libraries and librarians are not neutral.

The American Library Association maintains a list of the profession’s Core Values, including commitments to social responsibility, diversity, and democracy. What’s not included on that list is neutrality, although there are still some librarians and library stakeholders who believe that libraries are, or should be, neutral. On issues of social justice, however, we hold that neutrality only benefits those who already have privilege and power.

For example, librarians who want to claim neutrality often say that they have a responsibility to collect resources, invite speakers, and offer programs that represent “both” or “all sides” of every issue. This argument creates a false equivalence between issues on which there are reasonable disagreements possible, such as which diet best meets health needs, and those on which the “other side” denies the basic humanity of entire groups of people. Presenting “both sides” of racial issues as if they are equally valid can do real harm to BIPOC, and can make them feel unsafe or unwelcome in the library. Furthermore, racist ideas such as the myth that white people are inherently more intelligent than people of color have been thoroughly debunked by decades of empirical research and history. If you would not keep an inaccurate science book on your shelf, why would you promote disinformation about race and racism?

Even librarians who agree that libraries should not be neutral can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that they themselves should provide neutral service to their users. Certainly, librarians should treat every user they serve with respect. However, neutrality would take this a step farther – it would require that librarians not “take sides” on issues that affect the children and teens they serve, such as police violence, educational inequities, or the detention of immigrant children at our nation’s border. When librarians choose to opt out of these conversations by simply staying silent, BIYOC lose potential allies and may assume that the librarians’ silence means they agree with the positions of the oppressors. As above, attempting to stay neutral in this way does nothing to help BIYOC, and can actively harm them.

At the 2018 ALA Midwinter Conference, several prominent practitioners and scholars debated the idea of library neutrality at the President’s Program. If you are challenged by the idea that libraries and librarians are not, and should not be, neutral, please read their remarks from the program below.

Dr. Kathleen de la Peña McCook (Distinguished university professor, University of South Florida) and Kelvin Watson (Director of libraries, Broward County, Florida) also spoke at this panel and argued that libraries are not and should not be neutral spaces; however, the full text of their remarks is not available online.

Assumption #5: Libraries can make a difference.

Racial equity is the work of a lifetime, and none of us are likely to see true racial equality in the United States within our lifetimes. However, immense progress has been made over the past several decades, and immense progress can be made in the near future. For you to benefit personally from your work with Project READY, and – more importantly – for the youth you work with to benefit, you must believe that libraries and librarians can make a positive difference in the lives of BIPOC. Furthermore, you must believe that you, personally, have the power to create positive change.

Too often, we hear librarians say things like:

  • This work is simply not politically possible for me because I work in a rural, conservative town.
  • As a junior librarian, I don’t have the authority to change my work environment.
  • My library is a government institution, so we can’t legally take a stand on these issues.
  • My coworkers don’t care about equity and inclusion, and I can’t make them value this work.

These frustrations are common and human, but ultimately unproductive. Instead of focusing on what you can’t change, ask yourself: What do I have power over? What change can I make? In what ways do I serve as a gatekeeper for information or resources at my organization, and how can I use those responsibilities to conduct racial equity work? There may be understandable reasons why libraries and librarians haven’t yet reached their potential in the realm of diversity and inclusion, but these reasons are simply not good enough, and never will be good enough, to justify the continued marginalization and oppression of people of color and Native people. Therefore, we need to accept our ability and responsibility to engage in this work.

Share your anonymous answers using the Padlet below to help others identify areas in which they may also have the power to create positive change: What do I have power over? What change can I make? In what ways do I serve as a gatekeeper for information or resources at my organization, and how can I use those responsibilities to conduct racial equity work? All Padlet posts will be moderated; your post will not appear until an administrator has approved its content.

To post a comment, simply click the pink “+” icon in the bottom right of the Padlet window.


References

DiAngelo, R. (2018). White fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Boston: Beacon Press.

 

Go Back:
Module 1a: Agreements
You Are Here:
Module 1b: Introduction
Next:
Module 2: History of Race and Racism