Race & LIS Institutions

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.

If you haven’t read the report, please do so now. It is required reading for anyone in this community, anyone who works in education, anyone who wants to be a conscious citizen, etc.

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.




2 thoughts on “Race & LIS Institutions

  1. People of color respond to racial microaggressions or discriminatory acts in many different ways.

    For example, when racial microaggressions occur, people of color may engage in “mental wrestling”. According to Dr. Derald Wing Sue, this behavior occurs because people of color may be in conflict for several reasons (1) unable to determine whether a racial microaggression has occurred, (2) at a loss for how to respond to the racial microaggression, (3) fearful of the consequences if they respond to the racial microaggression, (4) rationalizing that “it won’t do any good anyway,” or (5) engaging in self-deception through denial (“It didn’t happen”). Although these explanations may hold some validity for the people of color, studies suggest “mental wrestling” has the potential to result in psychological and physiological harm.
    Another behavioral response to a racial microaggression or discriminatory act is Racial Battle Fatigue. Racial Battle Fatigue is the physical and psychological toll taken on a student or person of color due to constant and unceasing discrimination, racial microaggressions and stereotype threat. The stress ensuing from racial microaggressions leads person or students of color to exhibit various psychophysiological symptoms, including increased sickness, tension headaches, trembling and jumpiness, chronic pain in healed injuries, elevated blood pressure, and a pounding heartbeat. Ultimately, these symptoms may lead to students of color losing confidence in themselves, questioning their life’s work or even their life’s worth.

    Here is a list of other possible responses people or students of color may choose in response to racial microaggressions or discriminatory acts.

    Discretion:Deciding not to address the racial microaggression at this time because of the dynamics of the situation (power imbalances, fear of physical retribution).

    Surprise: Responding to a racial microaggression in an unexpected way, such as reacting with constructive humor that names the racial microaggression and makes people laugh.

    Confronting:Naming what is upsetting about the racial microaggression person or organization and demanding that the behavior or policy be changed.

    Self-Censorship: Fearing the black intellectual inferiority myth. In Dr. Franklin Tuitt research, self-censorship represented one response resulting from the fear of confirming the black intellectual inferiority myth. Students at the secondary and graduate levels expressed not talking as much as their peers in class, not raising their hands, or toning down their responses.

    Proving Them Wrong: Countering negative racial intellectual stereotypes in the classroom. In this case, Dr. Dorinda J. Carter Andrews suggests instead of floundering under the myth of black intellectual inferiority, the myth served as a motivational tool to help students of color strive for academic excellence.

    Help Seeking: Venting frustrations in a safe space and getting to know others who have experienced racial microaggressions or discriminatory acts.

    Avoidance: Avoiding future racial microaggressive experiences by withdrawing emotionally from people or situations.

    Silence: Not responding to the racial microaggression although it is upsetting, not saying or doing anything.

    We can’t change the world, but we can lead by example, teaching one person at a time.
    Remain calm
    Assesses the situation (e.g., Are you safe? Is it worth the risk to confront?)
    Model the behavior you’d like to see
    Focus on the event and not the person

    Empower Yourself – Learn About Racial Microaggressions

    Addressing Racial Microaggressions in Our Schools

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