Whiteness, learning, listening (or not)

Urban renewal planning meeting, 1962
Urban renewal planning meeting, 1962 flickr photo by Seattle Municipal Archives shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

2020, what’s there to say? Last time I wrote here, I discussed moving from talking about being antiracist to actually doing antiracist work. A month later, it’s clear that we need to keep talking about it because so many white folks still aren’t doing the work.

Maybe it’s because for so many white people, they hear “doing the work” and they immediately think, “Let’s make a committee!” or “We need to account for every single edge case.” The first step though is taking time to check yourself and listen. Listen to Black voices, listen to Indigenous voices, listen to the voices of other people of color, listen to the voices of people with disabilities, listen to queer voices, listen to trans voices, listen to women, listen to older voices, listen to children – basically listen to the voices of those who are most often marginalized and ignored. Listening means *actually* listening. Not listening to respond, or to give the appearance of caring, but to hear and to learn and understand.

It’s also important to understand intersectionality when listening, because nobody is monolithic and most of us are affected by different frames. This means that there might be some conflicting views or interests, but that doesn’t mean it’s a fight. It just reflects how complicated these systems we’ve built to cater to a white, patriarchal society are and how much work it will take for us all to truly achieve liberation equity for all.

So it’s good to check in a month on from all the proclamations from companies, organizations, and individuals about Black Lives Matter and committing to antiracist work. It’s clear that many are failing. Last week I was going to write a long post about SLA really demonstrating that they (as an organization) don’t get it and are still really entrenched in whiteness (and capitalism). They had a chance to demonstrate that they value diversity and want to be inclusive, and they failed that test by issuing brittle statements, not listening to valid critiques from racialized members. I think in they might be listening now, but it was extremely disheartening to see that the leadership really didn’t the concerns and that racial justice and equity seemed more abstract.

There was also a chance for many white, abled urbanists this week to show that they could listen to the voices of people of color, or those with disabilities. In this case it was about banning cars – which is a great catchphrase for a super complicated issue with no simple solution. And there were some interesting discussions but also so many bad faith takes, where it’s clear that many don’t understand or don’t recognize the importance of intersectionality. This morning Stephanie Allen shared this link to Showing Up For Racial Justice’s Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture, which is something is a good resource for identifying many of the extremely normal but still problematic behaviors we exhibit that support white supremacy. Understanding and recognizing how problematic these traits are doesn’t mean you’re a bad person for doing that before, but you also need to stop. That is hard! It’s going to take work and be messy! But it also needs to start, and the fragility of smart boi white urbanists this week was a reminder that it’s not happening yet.

And that’s why I chose a picture of some white planners in Seattle planning their version of urban renewal in the 60s. Urban renewal was the racist policy system where municipalities destroyed Black communities in the name of progress. This is why many of our cities and their built environment were made in the image of what white suburbanites (thanks to white flight). And while that movement was pushed in a paternalistic, top-down way, the work to make cities and suburbs equitable and safe for all needs to actually include everybody and recognize there are conflicting (though not competing) issues that need to be supported.

And white allies doing this work, you need to keep holding yourself and others accountable. If we’re going to have a just society, then we need to commit to justice.

Stand up, fight back: Moving from words to action

Two minute warning
Two minute warning flickr photo by US Department of State shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

2020 is halfway over and it’s already been a transformative year of upheaval. It’s hard to remember what January was like – all of the plans I had that have evaporated in the wake of COVID, the on coming global economic depression, and people are waking up to how insidious systemic racism and police violence has been to Black people around the world. Which really gets back to the white supremacy inherent to everything because capitalism is rooted in colonialism and slavery. Anti-Blackness is integral to the these systems.

Which makes all of the statements coming out about diversity and inclusion, being against racism, being against hate — many of which don’t bring themselves to say Black Lives Matter, let alone refer to police violence or that the police murdered George Floyd — pretty hollow. As Professor Crystal Fleming said on Twitter: “diversity and inclusion” is the new academic version of “thoughts and prayers.”

When my union collective met to talk about drafting one of those statements, somebody pointed out that white people making anti-racist statements is part of the long tradition of whiteness going back to the abolition movement. It’s easy for white people, like me, to publish a pamphlet or sign a petition or post on social mead, “Racism is bad!” But we’ve been saying that for centuries and letting the systems that benefit us persist. Statements without sustained action are meaningless. We know that, but how do we get over the hurdles of discomfort, guilt, and inertia? So we’re taking the time to do internal work, find others to support, and make the campus more just.

And this is people waking up to systemic racism need to make the commitment to learn how to be antiracist. This means you’re going to have to take time to read, listen, and learn. (Here’s a reading list from Dr. Ibram X. Kendi if you need a place to start.) Then you need to act. Hold yourself accountable. Hold your family and friends accountable. Reading alone will not help, that’s just a different kind of whiteness.

And get ready to be uncomfortable and make mistakes. Even though Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility has a lot of problems, she does provide a framework for white people to do the work and not inflict more harm on their Black, Indigenous and friends of color. I’ve learned to sit with my discomfort, to not offer up and opinion on everything. I have started calling in people close to me who mess up, making it clear that racist behavior is not acceptable.

But I haven’t been willing to do this at work entirely – and that’s what I’m committing to change. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the whiteness of libraries – particularly academic libraries. But what about transportation? Structural racism is also baked into transportation. And so I’m committing to lean into my discomfort do this work more publicly. There’s a real concern that this energy will dissipate in a week, when the next crisis hits – and we can’t. I won’t let up. You can’t up either.

We need accountability for this work. To make sure that the work continues through the rest of the year, and doesn’t just die in a committee. Make this a priority in budgets and effort.

Let’s keep fighting for justice. Not just equity and equality. Justice. And defund the police.

Try a Little Tenderness…

Girl feeding fawn, circa 1930s
Girl feeding fawn, circa 1930s flickr photo by Seattle Municipal Archives shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Hello from the pandemic. I’m in the middle of my third week sheltering in place, working from home and juggling childcare responsibilities with my partner also working from home, trying to enrich said child and make sure they are doing ok. All of this is on top of my existential worrying about the world collapsing, people getting sick and dying (people I know, people I don’t know, the sheer humanity!), the social safety net already battered and tattered from the 2008 recession breaking under the strain. Add in the economy and the likelihood of many more job losses on the horizon, it’s hard not to be constantly on edge.

Normal is gone. This new normal seems like a white-knuckled ride that I have to take day by day. I have to check with my partner every evening and morning to figure out when I can fit my work in around child care, when do we have meetings, who’s responsible for lunch a the kid’s “quiet time”? It’s a lot to deal with and I feel like my mind is a million places. Always at work and always at home.

I feel like I’m doing the best I can, and in this moment, in this week, that’s good enough.

I know that I’m not alone and that helps me stay sane and productive. I deeply appreciate that the institute I work for early on took a very humane and rational approach to the situation. They’ve understanding that stuff still needs to happen but that we all have lots to deal with on top of our jobs. Every meeting seems to start with a check in on how we’re doing, some chit chat about how hard it is to buy food, and then we get to work. I have also really felt supported by my union siblings who have helped me feel connected and cared for. The mostly useless responses from many professional associations hasn’t really been upsetting, but a reminder that they are focused on organizations and not people. The displays of support and solidarity I’ve seen in libraries and transportation have been inspiring, though it’s bittersweet because it seems like many of us realize this is the end of so many things. How many libraries are going to close? How many transit agencies will be hollowed out? Is this it for the Highway Trust Fund? I take some comfort in knowing I have no control and just accept the situation will be what ever it will be. (I guess reading Zen Flesh, Zen Bones has been worth something…)

Using this week as an example: I spent all weekend working on some stuff for Monday deadline. The project had been hard to work on because the resources were off kilter, a reflection of the haste we all prepared to work from home. Also it’s hard to focus on complex analytical tasks when your whole life looks and feels like chaos. Just as I was finishing up my assignment I received the news that a colleague passed away from COVID-19 complications. I was stunned and sad, and then realized this was going to likely happen again and I would need to figure out how to work through this news. When I met with a team about my work, I mentioned the whole situation – well, not my messy desk and house – and it felt weird mentioning that I found out a colleague died as I was finishing it but it also felt weird not mentioning it.

The thing that has stuck with me is seeing how people are coping – those who are trying to get through with acknowledging the severity of the situation, those who may need direct help, and those who are trying to publicly act like this is fine. The last group seem so dissonant from the rest, and lately they’ve been in a distinct minority. Which is why this afternoon, when I checked my email after getting the kid down for a nap and saw an email re-litigating arguments that really aren’t that important now, I was really annoyed. And I realized a big source of my annoyance wasn’t only bringing up old grudges and conversations that had kind of been settled, nor that it’s not something really actionable right now because other parties are also more focused on survival than volunteer committee work. No the thing that really riled me up was that yet again some of my colleagues were sending terse emails with the subtext, “Kendra, you’re not doing enough” without acknowledging that I’m doing a heckuva lot. And they never will.

And it’s that weird emotional labor, that emotional weight I have to carry that they won’t. I have to be charitable to them because that’s how I want to be treated, even though they rarely demonstrate that charity towards me. I know I’m not alone with this situation and I truly value my friends and colleagues who are kind, understanding, and supportive. The only way we can get through this is if we all work together.

I wish everybody would just try a little tenderness.

The power is us – on library work, mental health, and unity.

A moment of power: UC-AFT 1474 demonstrating for academic freedom. (October 2018)

This week is LIS Mental Health 2020 – you can follow along with #LISMentalHealth. I wasn’t able to participate in the chat the other night, but I have been following along and it’s been enriching to know I’m not alone in my own struggles.

I’ve been kicking around this idea, and meant to write a reply to Chris Zammarelli’s post last week, “Libraries Gave Us Power.” About the importance of community and collaboration in doing library work on many levels – to develop best practices, to stay current and innovative, to have an emotional support network. Professional associations and societies filled that need in many ways, but they’re faltering. Chris describes how he pulled back, pulled away and now wants to re-establish connections. (Do it, Chris!) I identified with a lot of his thoughts, but it also made me reflect on the role the union has served for me in the last few years. Through UC-AFT, I have felt part of a different community and it’s reminded me that I do have power.

This afternoon I got some bad news at work that is a pretty significant setback on some fronts. I had that moment of panic where I catastrophized the situation, freaked out, and thought about exit strategies. Thanks to some classes on coping skills and some therapy in the last year, I was able to recognize what was happening – a perfectly normal response to bad news leading to anxiety, and I needed to let it dissipate before feeding back into spiral of thought distortions and panic. So I did some deep breathing, bought some records I have been meaning to buy, and then replied to the email that triggered the whole thing. Then I started mapping out a plan of action to compensate, sent off a few more emails to get things moving and decided to finally write this post.

2018 and 2019 were some of the hardest years of my career due to the ever changing nature of my workplace, the uncertainty of SLA, and my involvement with UC Librarian contract negotiation. The latter really forced me to grow and do things that made me uncomfortable, but I was able to only mildly breakdown because I had the support an community of my fellow unionistas. When one of us struggled or had a bad week, the others stepped up to help and that support was immense. It’s something I still carry with me now, the knowledge that they have my back, and I theirs, in a fundamental way that I’ve not really had with SLA or TRB. (Well, a couple of SLAers fit that description, but for the most part not quite.) One of the reasons the union has been so supportive is that we’ve been honest with each other. The work can be hard and soul crushing until its rewarding, and we remind ourselves of that. During one of my darkest days while waiting for the ratification vote of the new contract, I had a moment in my office with another union librarian where the months of emotional pressure from life, work, and the contract campaign were released. We were both vulnerable but human, and just having that moment and recognizing it made it easier to pick up and keep moving forward on all fronts.

I write this now during LIS Mental Health Week because I feel like in addition to being more open about mental health and mental illness in library worker, we need to also be open about the emotional weight of the work. (Or I guess all work.) It seems like most of the projects I’m working on right now are emotionally exhausting in that they require massive change and upheaval. And while I am excited to get to the end of these projects, have the results, and with a new focus, I also need to recognize to get there it’s just a string of hard decisions that have to be made that suck. It’s not pleasant and there’s a lot of second guessing, and some of it goes against my professional fabric, but it will be OK. The balance is giving myself the space to recognize this is going to be hard and painful, and maybe not as procedural as I would like, but also rolling up my sleeve and pushing forward. If more people just said, “Yeah, this is hard but we can do it” rather than just ignore the human element and assume everything should be fine, I think work would be better for everybody. But that also requires a humanity and vulnerability that lots of organizations and workers like to avoid.

And that’s why I derive my power from my union workers friends who hold me accountable but also empathize with my struggles, and give me a model of how to support my organizations and my colleagues as we figure things out.

Professional associations: maybe we should start from scratch?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the structures, roles, and necessity of professional associations since it seems like every one is going through some existential issues. TRB has its Strategic Alignment, to update the structure and make it less bureaucratic. SLA is going through a major realignment that will likely see a name change. ALA has its Core Question, and there’s several more.

I put forth my vision for professional associations last year in my manifesto. I should probably rewrite it because I think it’s a bit too safe. The thing that I keep thinking about is in remaking associations that we basically need to start from the ground up. Without a common understanding of the mission, vision, and purpose there are lots of not entirely productive arguments. Some of this requires hard truths, about the lack of resources or major blunders, but I think also a clear articulation of how we are similar or different.

Within the SLA context, I haven’t weighed in much in the official channels because I (of all people) just don’t have the energy. I don’t want to litigate the past, but I also don’t really find a lot of the old information useful. I understand people are invested, but I feel like we (the old timers) had our chance and it didn’t really work. Why not focus on what the future could be, not tied to the present. I worry in the SLA case that we’re going to waste energy and burn any goodwill with those who are still members and who still care in the process. That’s one of the reasons I haven’t engaged much. I don’t have time for grudges so old most people don’t know the players. It’s not moving us forward.

But then we need to get to the point. Do the associations exist so that they exist? (Then what’s the point?) Or do they exist for the members? And then what do members want? I want to connect with others doing similar work. I want to learn what they’re doing. I want to share what I’m doing. I want to advocate for a democratic information ecosystem. I want to support others in the profession.

The worrying thing is I might not have an organization like that anymore because SLA will go in a different direction. And then I’ll be reminded that the real value isn’t a certificate or the lines on my CV. It’s the friendships I built along the way…

So anyway I think it might be most efficient to start from scratch, rather than try to retrofit organizations that are still stuck in the 1990s.