EDI, White Privilege, and Librarianship

This is a topic that has been on my mind almost constantly since I began work on my MLIS, and more prominently lately.

Last week I read White Fragility by Robin Diangelo. It’s a fantastically well-written book and something I’d consider required reading for all white people. Yesterday I attended the EDI training with Corie Wallace (where I once again realized just how many gaps I have in my knowledge). Today I read “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McInstosh after Lynnanne mentioned it during a discussion we had this morning.

I genuinely believe that EDI and confronting my own (and others’) white privilege is the single most important part of librarianship. Librarianship is vastly populated by white women. To say that I feel a natural comfort level in an around library spaces and communities is an understatement. While much of this is due to a shared interest, there is a large (often unacknowledged) part of this that is due to the fact that, generally, the entire crowd looks like me.

One of my best friends is my same age as me, has worked in libraries for 4+ years more than me, is in library school, and has many of the same interests as me. She actively reads and researches library culture and news as I do. She is hard-working, intelligent, and actively and passionately involved in what she does. However, her experience in working in libraries differs from mine constantly because she is black. Her authority and knowledge is questioned in ways mine never is (even though for 1.5 years she was my boss) by coworkers, employees, patrons, and our bosses. When she and I attend library conferences she is frequently one of only a few POC in the room. When the library started facing considerable scrutiny about racial equity she was continuously approached by senior staff members and asked about when she was planning on starting library school (something she was seldom, if ever, asked about in the preceding 5 years of her employment).

In my position at Evanston Public Library I work significantly with children. I lead weekly storytimes and provide additional programming for kids. In September, I hosted an enthusiastic, adorable, and very diverse group of 2nd graders from the local elementary school. For the last couple of months I’ve had kids continuously see me and yell “You read us Library Lion!!” or check out one of the books I “book talked” to the group. It’s been very heartwarming and incredibly professionally and emotionally fulfilling. (Great book, by the way).

At the beginning of this month, I had a distraught parent (a regular and one of the chaperones for the aforementioned library visit) come to me with a book list and a request for any materials she could use to talk about race with her child. As I was helping her, she let me know that the principal had sent home a note to every parent after a string of racially charged incidents had occurred at the school. It immediately hit me that some of the adorable, funny second graders I had hosted two months prior may have been subjected to horrifying language unacceptable in any space. They may have been made to feel unwelcome and unsafe in spaces that should assure both welcome and safety.

I was horrified. I was angry. But most importantly, I was energized. I spent the next two hours stripping down my current book displays and putting up new ones with a focus on talking about race. I asked the parent to give my email address to the principal and had her forward the reading lists to me. I put together a list of books my library did not currently own that addressed this subject and suggested them to my boss for purchase.

As library workers, what can we do to combat racism and increase equity? So much. We can consistently work to make our collections as diverse as possible – reflecting the diverse populations we serve. We can proud accessible and diverse programming. We can choose our storytime books with intent: showcasing diverse cultures, religions, skin colors, abilities, and neurodiversity. We can work to ensure our workplaces are welcoming and safe for diverse individuals as both patrons and employees. We can hold others in our personal lives or our professional spaces accountable when they display ignorance or intolerance. We can question and assess our own actions in every patron interaction. Perhaps most importantly, we can work everyday to further understand our own privileges and internalized biases.

Opportunities like yesterday’s EDI training are pivotal to offer again and again and again. Equity cannot be achieved in a 3 hour training session, but it can be combated by continuous work to ask ourselves and our communities difficult questions that challenge our beliefs and open our minds.

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