Neutrality is Hostility: The Impact of (False) Neutrality in Academic Librarianship
Originally presented as a guest lecture for Rachel Gammons and Lindsay Inge Carpenter’s Seminar in the Academic Library class at University of Maryland’s School of Information on February 6, 2018. This version has been edited for Medium.
This presentation is focused on my personal experiences as a woman of color and librarian at an academic institution. However, my experiences are reflected in the scholarship of this profession.
A little information about myself: My preferred pronouns are she/her/hers. I’m a first-generation American Latina, whose librarianship is guided by anti-neutrality, and critical perspectives. I practice critical librarianship.
Here’s a brief description of critical librarianship, also shortened to critlib or #critlib, from Kenny Garcia’s article, Keeping Up with Critical Librarianship:
“Critical librarianship includes the development of critical thinking, information literacy, and lifelong learning skills in students, as well as engagement with diversity, information ethics, access to information, commodification of information, labor, academic freedom, human rights, engaged citizenry, and neoliberalism. “ — Kenny Garcia
So, in other words, critical librarianship is not neutral.
Before we get going, I’d like to read this quote from bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress.
“If we fear mistakes, doing things wrongly, constantly evaluating ourselves, we will never make the academy a culturally diverse place where scholars and the curricula address every dimension of that difference.” — bell hooks
My teaching philosophy lies in critical pedagogy. I use the term “teaching” loosely because pedagogy is embedded within librarianship as a whole, no matter what area you’re interested in or end up working in. More on that later.
The main areas I’m going to touch on during this presentation are:
I’m going to start very generally with the profession.
In other words,
~13% of librarians are People of Color (POC).
A combination of reasons are to blame for this pathetically low number, one being the historical legacy of racism in librarianship, with the profession being closed to POC until the Civil Rights Era. Another reason is economic access to education. For more on the historical legacy of racism in librarianship, check out Dr. Shaundra Walker’s piece Critical Race Theory and the Recruitment, Retention, and Promotion of a Librarian of Color: A Counterstory, which can be found in the book Where are All the Librarians of Color? The Experiences of People of Color in Academia.
“The identification of whiteness and its structuralizing principles is necessary in order to combat its invisibility and normative effects. Hence, the theoretical investigation into histories of whiteness is a crucial intervention within the LIS field.” — Todd Honma
This isn’t happening enough in our field.
Something all librarians should ask themselves: Who is my community?
The community we serve is MICA.
The academic library is based around the college or university in which it is part of. The community we serve first and foremost includes our students, faculty, and staff. When we teach, we are predominantly teaching students at MICA, although we do see children ages K-12, and I, along with my colleague Siân Evans, have taught instruction sessions elsewhere, like University of Baltimore, Morgan State University, and at community events.
…but we also serve Baltimore.
We are open to the public. And we are located in Baltimore City. When students enroll and come to campus, they aren’t coming to sovereign MICA Land, they are coming to Baltimore City.
Similar to other institutions, including University of Maryland’s School of Law, MICA admitted Black students several decades before Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), but changed policies after protests from White students. The first Black student, Harry T. Pratt, was admitted in 1891. After doors closed to students of color in 1895, they didn’t reopen for them until 1954.
As I stated earlier, many academic institutions have a similar history when it comes to race and the student body. Largely, academic institutions were erected with the White student in mind, not students of color. But more on space later.
So let’s talk about Baltimore.
Shortly before I started at MICA, the Baltimore Uprising of 2015 happened after Freddie Gray, a 25-year old African American man died in police custody. Gray sustained injuries to his neck and spine while in transport in a police van. His death was ruled a homicide.
The uprising came after two other widely publicized deaths of Black men at the hands of police: Eric Garner, a 43-year-old placed in a chokehold by police in Staten Island, NY, and Michael Brown, an 18-year-old shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, both in 2014.
This the first example I’m going to discuss of work that I’ve made for the communities we serve that has been questioned for its lack of neutrality: After the Uprising, I made this research guide: Understanding Civic Unrest in Baltimore, 1968–2015. The guide spans 1968 through 2015 because Baltimore experienced riots in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The purpose of the guide was to provide resources to investigate and understand not only what was happening in Baltimore, but also the historic context of civic unrest. There are a wide variety of resources related to the Uprising, but also material on the history of the city, including race relations, economics, social issues, and more in books and films available at Decker Library, as well as lists of exhibitions and performances related to the Uprising, community organizations, and more.
Geographically MICA is located very close to where much of the protests were happening. Many of our students, staff, and faculty participated in the Uprising in some way, including protesting, clean up and food drive efforts, writing and creating art in response. It was important for me to develop this guide as a way to frame research questions based around social issues.
As an example of how neutrality impacts the communities we serve and the profession, I’ll share this story: A White cis male librarian criticized my decision to create and publish this guide because it appeared that I was “pushing a political agenda.” In other words, betraying a false ideal of the neutral librarian. The act of putting together resources on a major event around the death of a young Black man at the hands of police and subsequent demonstrations in a predominantly Black city, within extremely close geographic location to the college at which I am a librarian, was viewed as too political for this particular librarian.
This conversation has had a lasting effect on my opinion of our profession.
The second example of work I’ve done that has been questioned because it is not neutral is around Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade.
Before she released Lemonade, there were a couple other works by Beyoncé that caught my attention:
Beyoncé released a music video for the song Formation a day before the Super Bowl in 2016 where she performed this song during the halftime show.
The video for Formation was very focused on New Orleans and reflected imagery of Hurricane Katrina.
The video has been described as “socially engaged art” for several reasons. One being this section in which a young hooded boy dances in front of a line of police officers. He ends with his hands up, after which the officers also raise their hands. This scene evokes images of Black Lives Matter protests and recent police shootings of unarmed African Americans.
After the Formation video was released, Beyoncé performed this song at the Super Bowl. On the left is an image from Beyoncé’s Instagram account of her dancers. The right is a Getty Images photograph of The Black Panther Party outside a New York City courthouse. Clearly Beyoncé’s stylist/designers/etc looked to this iconic era and the Black Power Movement for inspiration.
This made me think about how our Fiber Department majors might do research and create works without parody, insensitivity, or appropriation.
I watched Lemonade the weekend it premiered on HBO and created a research guide on this work just a couple days later. I wrote about it on Medium a couple days after that.
Some background in case you’re unfamiliar with Lemonade: It’s a ‘visual album,’ which is essentially a short film with music rather than traditional dialogue. It’s an hour and five minutes of music, poetry, and references to history, literature, and art. It required several directors and cinematographers to create a beautifully shot, cohesive narrative story of a woman going through stages of grief. I saw the visual album as something similar to the work our students might work on or create in the future — styling, photography, cinematography, filmmaking, fiber/fashion, choreography, etc. all reflect academics at MICA.
I find it unnecessary to be a fan of Beyoncé’s music in order to understand this work because I look at it as a film — as a work — rather than a Beyoncé album.
The contemporary and historical ideas Beyoncé is touching on in Lemonade lends itself to a perfect opportunity to discuss research and information through a point of reference everyone more or less is familiar with.
The Lemonade research guide is meant to provide different perspectives, opinions, and ideas referenced or directly addressed in Lemonade. It follows the ACRL Frame Information Has Value: information possesses several dimensions of value, including as a commodity, as a means of education, as a means of influence, and as a means of negotiating and understanding the world.
Pages on the guide includes Literary References and Poetry by Warsan Shire; Art and Architecture References; Black Womanhood and Feminism; Black Lives Matter; Collaborators; Copyright Issues; Response and Criticism; Production Details, and a page where people can make a resource suggestion.
I’m going point out a couple areas of the guide to give you a better idea of what can be found here.
Beyonce recites poetry by Warsan Shire throughout Lemonade. Shire is a 29-year old Somali writer, poet, and teacher who emigrated to the United Kingdom with her family at the age of one.
Beyoncé’s decision to narrate her visual album with Shire’s words made me think about the artists we choose to highlight in our instruction sessions. Exhausted by the White male art canon that is typically represented, the kinds of questions I ask myself when I use an artist as a research or concept mapping example in instruction sessions is “who does my artist represent?”
For example, I run the workshop Digital Humanities for Art Historians at my library. In this workshop I teach our students about text mining. As an example, I choose to use a James Baldwin piece — Letter from a Region in my Mind. Using Baldwin as an example of text mining has led to interesting discussions about his work.
There’s an amazing short documentary called The Room of Silence, which features interviews with students from marginalized communities who attend the Rhode Island School of Design. In it they talk about the fact that their classes don’t often focus on art by POC, but when they do, these artists are usually thrown in at the end of the semester. One student talks about a professor who very obviously throws in Kara Walker as means of checking off a diversity box.
I want to circle back for a second to my comment on the White male art canon. I had the absolute pleasure of meeting and talking with FavyFav and Babelito from the Latinos Who Lunch podcast after their talk/podcast recording at MICA and Babelito said something I thought was very powerful:
What I took this to mean is that we have to critically teach canonical works in order to dismantle them. The idea is not for you to ignore certain resources, people, movements, or things because they were not made by marginalized people. The idea is to critically engage with everything and to meaningfully weave diverse works into the discourse.
Back to the Lemonade guide: It was important for me to have a place to provide some context for a particularly heartbreaking section of Lemonade. In the Forgiveness chapter, three mothers of victims of gun violence and police brutality appear individually with photographs of their sons, looking directly into the camera, directly at us, the viewer.
They are the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown. I wondered if our students would know who these women are and made a place for information about their sons on the Black Lives Matter page of the guide. Also included are resources available through the library, including books, streaming video, recording of MICA’s 2015 Constitution Day on the topic of Black Lives Matter and structural racism, and a catalog from Baltimore Rising, an art exhibition at MICA that included works from faculty and Baltimore residents that addressed the social, economic, political and racial issues that propelled the city to the national spotlight in 2015.
I’ve been criticized by at least one librarian for using a topic that is very “now” that may not be “now” for very long. This criticism is both confusing and not surprising. It is also offensive.
Here are two reasons:
1. I see this work as a film, as art. To think a work like this has an expiration date is perplexing.
2. Regarding topics such as Black womanhood and Black Lives Matter as “now” and claiming they won’t be “now” for very much longer is offensive.
I’ve also been criticized for using a topic not everyone might be familiar with, which is something I can understand. Whether or not you are a fan of her work, the chances that you’ve heard of Beyoncé, or are vaguely familiar with her is a common ground we can begin from. This is particularly important for our large international student population.
The guide is about much more than Beyoncé and her music. There are very few topics every single person in a class will be familiar with. The idea that you can only touch on issues everyone has the same level of understanding of completely removes any type of diversity from entering your learning space.
When I think back to the past couple years, a few events/changes come to mind: Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem at football games; the Women’s March on Washington, after Trump took office, organized not without controversy; Trayvon Martin would’ve turned 23 this year if not killed in 2012; Trump’s travel ban; the Trump administration ending a humanitarian program called Temporary Protected Status for ~200,000 people from El Salvador, something that impacts us significantly on the local level. Maryland has a large population of Salvadorans. I myself am Salvadoran and Nicaraguan. This is but a mere sampling of things that have happened that we cannot ignore.
The tragedy in Charlottesville was something We Here (a group for POC library and archive workers I’ll describe in more detail later) definitely could not ignore. In August 2017, several hundred alt-right torch-bearing men and women marched on the main quad of the University of Virginia, at an academic institution. They converged with counter-protestors, which resulted in violence, leaving one person dead and dozens injured.
Until shortly after Charlottesville, Baltimore had quite a few Confederate Monuments. The weekend after the tragedy in Charlottesville, I attended a solidarity rally at the location of the Thomas J. Jackson - Robert E. Lee statue in Baltimore. A couple days later Baltimore removed Confederate Monuments and a statue memorializing Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney — the author of the Dred Scott decision, which denied granting African Americans citizenship. It’s important to note that not one of these statues went for approval or were installed by the city — they were installed by wealthy White residents. Today Baltimore’s Black residents make up 63% of the population. Imagine being one of those residents who had to move through a space that honors White supremacy.
I recently volunteered at a local Baltimore history unconference and I was in a session about the removal of the monuments. One woman thought the monuments were more of a work of art than any type of offensive symbol, which, in my opinion, is a response devoid of empathy or critical thinking.
While not on MICA’s campus and having nothing to do with the college, a confederate monument stood across from the building that houses the library and many art history classes. Students, staff, and faculty walked by it everyday, some noticed what it was commemorating, some didn’t. Before it was removed, someone threw red paint on it, which you can still see here at it’s base after it had been removed. MICA’s president, Sammy Hoi, addressed the removal of the monuments by releasing a statement.
MICA, at the institutional level, was not neutral on the topic of Confederate Monuments.
We have themed classes for one of the 100-level art history classes and one of those themes is Cities and Empires. These sections are examining articles about the Confederate Monuments. This immediately brought to mind spatial justice, which Freeda Brook, Dave Ellenwood, and Althea Eannace Lazzaro have written about, specifically related to academic libraries in In Pursuit of Antiracist Social Justice: Denaturalizing Whiteness in the Academic Library. Spatial justice posits that “an analysis of the interactions between space and society is necessary to understand social injustices.”
Through that article, you’ll learn that space is not neutral.
If you’re ever front and center, you have power.
If you’re co-teaching, teaching solo, creating a research guide, developing a digital collection, or doing anything that gives you creative power, I implore you to think critically about what you’re focusing on, saying, reviewing, etc.
Back to pedagogy and librarianship, pedagogy plays a role in web work, digital humanities, social media, digitization programs, collection development, cataloging, pretty much every area of librarianship. We tell students to think about what is missing — what isn’t being discussed in information sources. We should also ask ourselves questions like, “who is represented in this digital collection? Whose work is deemed important enough to archive? Who has the privilege of knowing this collection exists at this institution?” Critical pedagogy and critical librarianship is the method library and archives workers should be using to do this work.
You can use concepts from critical pedagogy and be a critical librarian without introducing social justice concepts, if that is something that is controversial at your institution and would place you in jeopardy. You can use active learning techniques to disrupt power dynamics in the classroom. If you can take it further, I would encourage you to.
I do this work in my official capacity as a librarian at MICA, but I also do this work as me, on my own time.
Our political climate, police brutality, and events and tragedies in this country all contributed to my creating We Here. Ultimately, I started We Here because I wanted to be part of something like We Here. So many library and archive workers of color are the ‘only’ at their institutions or organizations and we endure prejudices, oppression, racism, microaggressions, and general ignorance at our predominantly White institutions or from groups we have to work with on a daily basis. This is trauma. It is trauma we shouldn’t have to endure alone.
The slogan “we see you” has double meaning — we see you, POC, and know what you’re going through. But we also see our oppressors.
The group has grown to over 600 members spanning multiple platforms. I like to think of it as a support group, collaboration network, and mentorship platform, but it could mean other things to different people. I don’t feel like We Here is mine, I feel like I am part of We Here.
Yes, I wear this ribbon to conferences and it makes people uncomfortable. Friend and colleague Amanda Meeks and I purchased 100 Black Lives Matter ribbons last year to hand out at a national art librarian conference. While plenty of people approached me to ask for one, several White women would inquire and when I asked “would you like one?” I got a head shake.
We know there are people who view We Here as ‘radical,’ or speak of it as a threat. Those sentiments are reflective of colonialism. If a group of individuals who are othered because of structural racism and oppression are gathering in order to support one another is viewed as ‘radical,’ we must look at what this profession is actually representing. I don’t take it lightly that several people have reached out to let me know We Here has helped keep them in this profession. We Here is doing the work our institutions and organizations have not yet built into the fabric of our profession. It’s actually helping with retention of POC.
As a woman of color, I see neutrality as being anti-me, anti-marginalized folks. Neutrality upholds White supremacy, the dominant narrative in our society. If discussions of race, gender, sexuality, economic status, etc. are not discussed when information literacy and critical thinking are main objectives, you’re making a conscious decision to leave us out, thereby not actually being neutral, but effectively privileging one group over others. I can’t ignore the fact that I’m Latina. So when an educator ignores marginalized identities, it reinforces structural oppression.
Neutrality is ‘polite white supremacy.’
In The Subtle Linguistics of Polite White Supremacy, Yawo Brown states:
“Polite White Supremacy is the notion that whites should remain the ruling class while denying that they are the ruling class, politely.” — Yawo Brown
But neutrality is also other things…
Neutrality is polite misogyny.
Neutrality is polite homophobia.
Neutrality is polite transphobia.
Neutrality is polite classism.
Neutrality is polite xenophobia.
Neutrality is polite oppression.
And therefore, harms both the profession and the communities we serve by perpetuating such oppression.
While discussing this presentation, my colleague, Siân Evans, a White woman, reminded me that I’m speaking from the perspective of a woman of color, and that neutrality oppresses all marginalized folks.
As I’ve previously written in a post on Medium:
Neutrality or deliberate ignorance speaks as loudly as directly addressing social issues. Neutrality is an opinion. As a librarian, you engage the issues that arise in your community, your nation, your world. Neutral librarianship intentionally ignores marginalized communities and experiences.
“The unwillingness to approach teaching from a standpoint that includes awareness of race, sex, and class is often rooted in the fear that classrooms will be uncontrollable, that emotion and passion will not be contained.” — bell hooks
hooks goes on to say that if this happens, there is a possibility of confrontation, forceful expression of ideas, or even conflict. Some might argue the classroom should be a ‘safe’ space, and by that neutral. However, students of color may not feel ‘safe’ in what appears to be a neutral setting.
From personal experience at MICA and talking with students belonging to marginalized communities, I know students want the opportunity to have difficult discussions in the classroom.
bell hooks discusses treating students as whole human beings with complex lives and experiences rather than simply as “seekers after compartmentalized knowledge.”