New BIPOC Burdens or Great Ideas? A Black Law Librarian’s Reaction to DEI Ideas Post George Floyd

After the tragic police murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, there has been a sudden groundswell of interest in beginning the monumental task of tackling the racial injustice and systemic racism suffered by Black Americans. As a result, there has been a proliferation of diversity and inclusion webinars sponsored by a large variety of organizations, including of course AALL. Recently, I attended an informative AALL jointly sponsored webinar entitled Active Steps to Increase Diversity & Address Racism, in which law librarians described their commendable efforts to address racism and promote diversity in their libraries. Useful ideas were shared such as creating task forces to support BIPOC, partnering with other organizations to promote social justice, increasing diversity in the profession through storytelling, creating racial justice LibGuides, providing anti-oppressive pedagogy training, and many others.

As I watched, I found that, instead of listening with normal sympathetic white liberal interest, I suddenly channeled the cynical (rightly so!) critique of a slice of Black Twitter. Since sadly, like most white Americans, I don’t have any close Black friends, I get most of my opinions on the views of Black people from Twitter, mainly by following authors Nicole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project, and Michael Harriot, board-certified Wypipologist/writer at TheRoot.com,  and reading the tweets of their followers. These folks are fed up! They are beyond tired of the white American racism that murders them with impunity, disproportionally imprisons them, pollutes their neighborhoods, sacrifices them to the Coronavirus, neglects to educate their children, etc., etc., etc. They are deeply suspicious of liberal white America’s commitment to tackling systemic racism, weary of #notallwhitepeople defensiveness and tears, and impressed by white people’s ability to make everything about themselves (oom…ourselves, since I am white).

One of the perfectly reasonable diversity and inclusion ideas suggested by a presenter was creating a mental space in the library for anyone who wished to share their feelings after a terrible event, such as the murder of George Floyd. White liberal Sarah pondered the merits of this idea when some imaginary black tweeters in my head erupted:

  • OMG, if I don’t sit here and listen to white people express their newfound grief over the never-ending brutalization of Black people, I won’t be a “team player.”
  • White people feelings?! It is their feelings about Black people that allow this kind of abuse to go on in the first place!
  • How do they make EVERYTHING about themselves…
  • No, they aren’t going to look to me to speak for all Black people again, are they?
  • Where is my microaggression armor… I can’t do this today…

It happened again when a presenter mentioned including a candidate diversity and inclusion statement as part of the law library’s application process. “Good idea!” thought white liberal Sarah, until an attendee questioned the wisdom of requiring such a statement, releasing my imaginary tweeters again:

  • Great, we already have to work so much harder to find a job, and now we have another hoop to jump through!?
  • Considering the insider preference bias in hiring, why would we want to declare ourselves as outsiders?!?
  • I am glad that I can do my part to give this institution an opportunity to signal its wokeness…
  • By making our minority status salient while we look at job postings, are they hoping imposter syndrome or stereotype threat will discourage us from applying in the first place so they can hire their white friends?

I started to wonder how some of the presenters’ well-meaning ideas might be received by the actual intended beneficiaries of these efforts. Could some very well-meaning efforts even be counterproductive? Since I have no experience being Black, and the Black tweeters in my head are imaginary, I have zero insight into what a Black law librarian might think of our profession’s laudable efforts. So, I decided to ask one! (Oooh noooo, as I wrote the above, my imaginary tweeters reminded me that it is not the responsibility of Black people to educate white people about their own racism, and that they find it exhausting… So, now I realize that my interview request might have been a bad idea in the first place (yet another well-meant idea that might actually be counterproductive to the goal of diversity and inclusion!).

Wypipo Management

Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed, but feel free to change your mind about it (see above)! I really appreciate you taking the time to view the webinar and share your valuable insights and opinions. As an initial question, I know from my Twitter reading that Black people report having to manage the feelings of wypipo (white people) to avoid getting fired, jailed, murdered, etc. For this reason, when I asked if I could interview you, I mentioned the option of anonymity in case you want to say harsh stuff, but don’t want it attributed to you for professional reasons. You said that you would decide after you saw the questions!

After seeing the questions, do you want me to use your name, or would you like to be forever anonymous? Whatever you decide, is having to manage the feelings of white people to protect your career a consideration in your decision?

I want to be forever anonymous. Unfortunately, yes, managing the feelings of others is a consideration for the decision. (White feelings are often a consideration for a lot of people of color in their daily work.)

Spaces for Sharing

What do you think about libraries creating mental space for employees to share feelings about racial incidents/injustice/discrimination/etc.? Do you think they would be effective in increasing feelings of inclusion in the profession?

Creating a space for employees could be beneficial to increase inclusion if what is being said has some positive effect on the library work environment. A couple of things come to mind about this. First, would sharing those feelings make some positive contribution to the department? For example, if a librarian talks about what a “MAGA” hat symbolizes to them because someone wearing it called them a slur, would that make a difference if a patron wearing that same hat came into the library when they were on reference?

Second, how is what’s being said going to be used later? Will it really be a safe space? I, along with other librarians of color that I know, have experienced the use of their expressing feelings negatively later. While a supervisor or co-worker may not intentionally do this, it happens often. For example, I know someone who brought up to their supervisor about some struggles they were dealing with during the pandemic and the racial incidents in this country and how it was distracting them. Weeks later, the supervisor brought it up in a way to talk about their work performance instead of helping to lead the employee through it. One thing that may help to make it a truly safe space is adding a library policy around safe spaces that don’t allow managers to take negative actions against employees for speaking out about their negative experiences.

Lastly, I hate saying this, but it may be hard for some librarians to share feelings about racial incidents or discrimination if they are dealing with it within the library they work. This is still happening in multiple law libraries. As a person of color, I could not imagine speaking about these incidents to someone who’s subjecting me to it at work. Also, I would be hard-pressed to speak about my concerns when I’ve seen that it is not treated in the same way as my white counterpart. I know of some examples where librarians of color have voiced concern and receive little to no support, while their counterpart voiced a similar concern and got overwhelming support.

Insider Preference in Hiring

One presenter discussed the tendency of people to hire those similar to themselves, first described by author Derrick Bell as “insider preference.” He noted that, since law librarians tend to be whiter than their patrons/students, involving them in recruitment and hiring might help to diversify the law librarian profession. What do you think about this idea? Do you think it would be effective in increasing diversity in the profession?

Students need to be involved in the process. Involving students is effective in increasing diversity in the profession as they are oftentimes more diverse oriented. For example, in another library, there was a librarian of color hired based on the feedback (and pressure) from students, faculty, and staff who wanted a diverse candidate. They were hired contrary to the director’s choice of another candidate. The director was outvoted and could not explain to the Dean about making a different decision.

Diversity and Inclusion Statements

What do you think of the idea of requiring diversity and inclusion statements in the law librarian application process? Do you think they would be effective in increasing diversity?

I was intrigued by the idea of including D&I statements in the law librarian application process. I think that it can send a message to the applicant that diversity and inclusion are important to the law library that they’re applying to. It also allows the library to see how an applicant is interested in creating and sustaining a diverse and inclusive environment by their statement.

It remains to be seen whether or not it will be effective in increasing diversity. There is an overall problem within the profession for hiring and retaining librarians of color and there are many factors at play for this. To work, the statement has to be combined with actions by people in power who are willing to do the work to build an inclusive culture that pays, empowers, and treats black employees equitably to their white counterparts.


Code of Conduct and Violation Reporting System

Another presenter mentioned that her AALL chapter is creating a code of conduct for events and its listserv. They plan to have a mechanism to report violations of the code, including microaggressions. What do you think about this idea? Do you think it would be effective in increasing inclusion in the profession?

I love the idea. I am a firm believer that for change to occur, there has to be some sort of call to action and/or reaction to violations. Also, bad behavior needs to be called out. While there is the silent law librarian reporting system where librarians who know each other share stories, not everyone knows what may be going on within a particular library. An official reporting system will create a way for the chapter to take a stand against libraries that violate the code of conduct. It would be great if it could go further and let members know of the violation. People of color should be warned about going to places that are emotionally dangerous for them.

Other Ideas?

Were there any ideas in the presentation, or otherwise, that you think would be especially helpful or unhelpful, for furthering the goal of diversity and inclusion in the law librarian profession?

Overall, I thought all of the ideas were helpful in some way. I especially liked the ideas that involved some action item or code of conduct that the members or applicants would be responsible for. There are people in leadership or hiring positions who have a bias that affects librarians of color. Whether they choose to participate in D&I initiatives or training is often up to them. Some people may be stubborn or stuck in their old ways, and they might ignore a LibGuide, training, etc. However, having policies or a D&I statement application requirement, for example, doesn’t give that person who may want to avoid it an out. It could also force people to take a look into their behavior to see if there are problems that they may not be aware of or are ignoring.

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1 Response to New BIPOC Burdens or Great Ideas? A Black Law Librarian’s Reaction to DEI Ideas Post George Floyd

  1. Pingback: Making Our Voices Heard: Black Law Librarianship in 2021 – The Black Law Librarians Blog

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