The American Library Association (ALA) annual conference Sunday morning panel, “In Visibility: Race and Libraries” was a crash course in sociology and libraries, taught by Todd Honma PhD, assistant professor of Asian American Studies at Pitzer College and a former ALA Spectrum Scholar. Sponsored by ALA’s Office for Diversity and the Spectrum Scholars Program, the discussion asked the question: “Where do we locate race in relation to librarianship?”
Beginning with the concept that race is a social construction, Honma explained what that meant in relation to libraries and librarianship. “Race,” he explained, “is a classification system—a way of classifying human bodies. It’s dynamic, not static.” He outlined how race operates at many levels, both personal (e.g., when white people ask an American person of color “where they are from,” and are disappointed if the answer is Sacramento) and institutional (legally mandated segregation). Race also operates ideologically, for instance when it is used to explain social phenomena.“ As many people in here who are catalogers know,” Honma added, “there is a kind of power and privilege to assigning names.”
He discussed whiteness as a perceived neutral classification, quoting sociologist George Lipsitz as having said that, “Whiteness is an unmarked category against which difference in constructed, whiteness never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge its role as an organizing principle” in society and culture. Honma also touched on intersectionality—how multiple systems of oppression work in concert with each other—for instance sexism, homophobia, classism, ableism, and more.
Moving on to how race has shaped libraries, Honma explained that the mission of American public libraries in the 19th century was to assimilate European immigrants into white (Anglo) U.S. society. This Americanization project was a two-part process of English instruction and preparation for citizenship, making libraries “complicit in the construction of the United States as a white republic.”
Honma added that the phrase “making room at the table” is often heard in conversations about diversity, but asked, “Whose table? And do we really want an invitation?”
Quoting Angela Davis, he said, “a multiculturalism that does not acknowledge the political character of culture will not, I am sure, lead towards the dismantling of racist, sexist, homophobic, economically exploitative institutions.” “Librarians use the term [multicultural] in many ways,” wrote L. Peterson in a 1995 LJ article titled “Multiculturalism: Affirmative or Negative Action?,” which Honma also quoted. “From our literature one cannot tell whether multicultural refers to racial minorities, concerns marginalization and equity, or merely celebrates differences as exotic.”
He concluded his talk by asking, “Is it just that we want to insert bodies of color into already existing structures / institutions? Or do we want to transform the structures themselves?” before turning over the discussion to the groups sitting at tables throughout the room—the majority of which occupied by Spectrum Scholars and program alumni.
DEEPER CONVERSATIONS; FAMILIAR THREADS
“I feel like this is one of these things where I’m like, ‘Hi, I’m Monica, I’m a Latina,’” said Monica Lagares, a Spectrum Scholar getting her library degree from the University of Maryland, which got a round of knowing laughs from her table.
The conversation deepened as it continued, though. Vivienne Layne, a scholar studying at McGill University, reflected “I’m mostly Chinese, but I’m from the Anglophone West Indies, so culturally we are really in line with Angloconformity. My dad knows how many pounds there are in a shilling—that’s like something out of a Dickens novel!”
Emily Chan, a 2013 ALA Emerging Leader from Oakland, said, “As a kid, I grew up with a lot of Spanish around me.…In some ways, I identify more with the Latinos in my neighborhood, because we had the same socioeconomic background.”
“I think I’m privileged because I’ve gone to college,” explained Beverly Coleman, a retired librarian and now a member of the Board of Trustees at Matteson P.L. in Illinois. “On a personal side, I’m privileged because I grew up with parents who were very strong minded and who believed in education.”
“Because I’m older, I’ve seen the gamut of racism. My parents grew up in the South. Many times when I was a child and a teenager, I had gone to places in the South were they wouldn’t serve us.”
When the discussion opened up across the room, many familiar threads emerged: feeling like a statistic, like a token, like they exist to have their photo put on the website. Many complained about being “cold called on minority perspectives” because of their appearance, about how their names prompt assumptions, about how people’s perception changes because of something as simple as hair. “It’s something you can’t even control,” one Scholar said.
“What do we do then?” Honma asked. “There’s no pat answer, I’m afraid.” While few solutions were offered, the conversation raised several important points.
“Black history month at many libraries is treated as a very historical thing,” one audience member said, “Racism exists now.”
One librarian, who grew up during the civil rights era and was the second black person to attend her otherwise all-white school, argued, “We are not educating our children. It has to start at a school level. We don’t teach American Indian history. We don’t teach black history. We don’t teach Hispanic history. I don’t know how to say this nicely. There was a time where black people could not even go into the library in the area where I live. White co-workers are so shocked.”
Another audience member asked, “Everyone chose to be here. How do you get to people who don’t go to these meetings?”
Honma urged them not to give up hope, concluding with, “Don’t forget that you all have power to change things.”