A few days ago I had a very startling and illuminating conversation with a group of friends about a colleague of theirs who had experienced harassment and unethical behaviors on our campus; after a series of meetings and conversations, the events were largely swept under the rug by our university. I am being purposefully vague as to protect the privacy of the colleague involved, but I was shocked to learn of these events. The revelation that something so awful could be allowed to happen at my institution was disarming. It also resonated with other campus and library events that I have learned about in the past year.
This past spring a report on “Racial Microaggressions in the Classroom” at the University of Illinois was released by a team of professors and graduate students. It details the barrage of discrimination, mistreatment, and non-inclusive behavior that racial minorities experience on a regular basis at this university and in this town. While many of the microaggressions detailed in the report did not necessarily come as a shock to me (we are, after all, still a campus composed of many students, staff, and faculty who actively campaign to bring back the “Chief” mascot, despite its racist and hurtful legacy), I was still very surprised at the occurrences of microaggressions in classrooms, advising sessions, and other academic settings and spaces. What hit especially close to home for me, professionally, was that “libraries” were listed at #7 in the 15 “Campus Locations where Students of Color Report Feeling Uncomfortable Because of their Race,” with 228 incidents. This (along with, of course, the other locations/incidents) is very upsetting for those of us who work at the library who try to ensure that our spaces are inclusive, welcoming, and free of discriminatory behavior.
A similarly close-to-home and mortifying example: a professor at my library school experiencing discrimination from her colleagues. I was fortunate enough to take a class taught by Professor Nicole Cooke and benefit from her wisdom as a member of my CAS committee. When I was taking her class, Information Services to Diverse Users, she shared a recent publication in which she details her “personal struggles with microaggressions, tokenism, invisibility, and hyper-visibility,” titled: “Pushing Back from the Table: Fighting to Maintain My Voice as a Pre-tenure Minority Female in the White Academy.” It was with horror that I read about instances that ranged from the disrespectful (not referring to her by her proper name) to the blatantly terrible (“In my first semester, it was suggested that I (along with another colleague) were ‘slack hires’ in a meeting”) and even threatening (“[I received a] lecture [from an irate colleague], which included the suggestion that I did not understand the nuances between ‘intent and perception’ (they didn’t mean to offend, so I shouldn’t be offended), was accompanied by red-faced rage, a shaking voice, and balled fists […] Within 5 minutes I found myself in an uncomfortable and hostile environment, one in which I felt physically threatened”). Numerous members of our class felt very disillusioned with our institution; many of us (naively) thought that our field was mostly filled with progressive idealists and innovators and was thus largely immune to the microaggressions and discriminatory behaviors that seem to pervade our campus.
What can be done with information like this? What should I do, moving forward? I’ve come back to these examples multiple times within the last few months as I reflect on this institution, where I am now a full-time employee. Here is my short-list of strategies (for myself, as a white woman who does not experience racial discrimination, but abhors that it exists within my institution):
- Listen to people when they tell you what they are experiencing. Some of the most disheartening elements of all three of the above examples were that one or more entities tried to invalidate or silence the experiences of those who were being mistreated. Unacceptable. Know that no matter what institution you are a part of (or how progressive you think it is) these incidents are happening and affecting people’s lives on a regular basis.
- Do not react defensively when it is pointed out that you/your institution are part of the problem. This goes along with not invalidating, but also involves reflection. Unfortunate fact: “libraries” were listed at #7 in the 15 “Campus Locations where Students of Color Report Feeling Uncomfortable Because of their Race,” with 228 incidents. This sucks. A lot. But I am not going to try to deny or explain it away. Instead, we need to be investigating what these instances look like, how they manifest, how we facilitate these incidents as a space, and what we can do as an organization to create an environment where these incidents do not occur.
- Which leads me to: working towards proactive change. Do what you can to express your discontent with the status quo to decision-makers and demand open reflection and change (while respecting the privacy and dignity of victims in the case of individual incidents). In response to the microaggressions report, our library is currently having informational sessions and discussions to work toward increased awareness and a set of guidelines to deal with microagressions as we see them occurring in library spaces. Are these sessions/discussions the end-all/be-all solution? Of course not. But they are a start that is not rooted in defensiveness or denial.
I would love to hear about personal and institutional-level strategies for responding to racial discrimination and microaggressions that readers have developed, taken part in, witnessed, etc. Please share in the comments or email me.