the problem with nice white ladies(tm)
October 3, 2014
A week or so ago, I tweeted this:
The biggest issue I’ve had with librarianship in general is that it is filled with Nice White Ladies(tm). And some Nice White Men(tm).
Sadly, this remains true. And since it turns out that my supervisor thinks I’m covered by academic freedom perhaps it really is time for a really frank discussion about the role white women play in white supremacy. As well as a discussion about racism, in general, in the library field.
A note on language: in the past few years I’ve favoured using ‘white supremacy’ over ‘racism’ because it is more exact and clear about the relationships of power that operate behind this type of institutional oppression. The unfortunate thing about trying to use racism is that we get super educated people like Richard Dawkins tweeting this:
Some people here think you can’t be racist against white people! Look it up in dictionary. Needless to say, no power asymmetry is mentioned.
This is a man with a doctorate telling people that dictionary is the authoritative text on racism. This, despite the fact that there are entire academic fields that study racism and that they do not use the dictionary as their guide. So you start talking about racism and you get a bunch of people trying to derail the conversation with absurd positions like this. Thus, I prefer to talk about white supremacy, since this is actually the organizing logic behind ‘racism’ as oppression. Of course, this comes with its own set of problems, but I’m okay with this.
Here is the source video for why I use “Nice White Lady(tm)” to talk about a certain kind of librarian:
And if people want an example of what this appears like in the wild:
Here we have a staunch, white feminist saying that I, a twoc, should simply trust my fate to the legal system (while also being ableist). A white woman, a feminist, advocating and supporting the prison industrial complex is pretty much a clear example of how white women are complicit within white supremacy1.
But why are Nice White Ladies(tm) a major problem within librarianship? A significant portion has to do with respectability politics. They wish to have ‘discussions’ and appear ‘reasonable’ when it comes to certain things. They believe that, if we are having a discussion, that this means that a consensus or agreement necessarily must follow, otherwise the conversation is unproductive. They truly believe that, just by showing up and doing their jobs, they are helping the world and doing good.
Except, that this is impossible within a white supremacist institution like libraries. So far as people are willing to buy into the argument I presented in my recent article, this means that working within a library, as they currently exist, means to be complicit with white supremacy. This includes me2. What is interesting about this, is that librarianship has historically been populated by white women. This means that, in general, white women have a lot of responsibility for maintaining this white supremacist institution. And, certainly, given the employment record, they have been some of the prime beneficiaries of this insitutional white supremacy.
Also note: the Nice White Lady(tm) trope as presented in the video is about well-meaning white women who, by failing to understand their relative position of privilege over people of colour, end up doing nothing at all to help. These women aren’t bad or evil. That isn’t what this is about. This also isn’t about me calling all white women within librarianship white supremacists. That isn’t how institutional oppression works. This isn’t necessarily about individual actions and individual morality. Because the library is an oppressive institution by working within it, we become complicit in its oppressiveness. As stated above, this includes me.
However, because Nice White Ladies(tm) do mean well and are, to give them credit, legitimaately trying to help, it also makes them incredibly difficult to criticize or engage. Because many of them are passionate, engaged professionals who care very deeply about social issues. And they really and truly want to do good and make the world a better place. They are good women with good hearts.
But institutional oppression restricts the number of choices we have and makes it very difficult to truly exist as an ethical person. A great example is choice activism and/or conusmer activism. There is no such thing as ethical consumption in late capitalism. Literally nothing we do as consumers is ethical. End of story. We cannot make ethical choices because there are no options available. Not a single one. The best we can do as consumers is try and pick the lesser of many evils. And, unfortunately, what we think is the ‘lesser’ of many evils will largely depend on your personal beliefs and priorities. But there is no moral high ground here. There is no ‘better’ or ‘worse’ since we are all unethical consumers.
Fortunately, the situation is not nearly as bleak for Nice White Ladies(tm). There are ways you can work to stop being a Nice White Lady(tm). The very first? Start with trying to understand your position within white supremacy. Start looking and taking intersectional feminist type stuff seriously. And, since we are information professionals, start educating yourself about these issues. Soon enough, you’ll find that even though you remain a white woman, you’re no longer capable of being a Nice White Lady(tm). Even better, you’ll finally understand the difference and the point of this post.