i dream of being possible

white women as default librarian #gsisc14

To anyone whose looked at the demographic data of librarianship recently, it isn’t any big secret that the majority of individuals working in the field are white women. This is just a simple fact. Concurrently, it is also a fact that in many different areas and discourses the default ‘human’ is white (cis/het/able) men. This leads to the interesting phenomenon that occurred yesterday at the Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies Colloquium whereby it is clear that “women’s” issues within the field are still relevant and important in a larger social context by the internal community dynamics are often smoothed over in the discussions.

Some people yesterday took my morning session tweets to be a call for increased instersectionality. They weren’t. Not least in part because of recent discussions about the misappropriation and misuse of ‘intersectionality’ by non-Black women:1

But at the end of the talk, their was a question and answer section. I had decided to ask her [Patricia Hill Collins] a similar question I asked Kimberle Crenshaw. How do you feel about the ways white feminists have taken your work on intersectionality as a feminist way to be more inclusive while erasing the creations as part of a Black feminist tradition and without a dedication to Black women’s lives in any way?

She gave an anecdote. She asked if the House of Blues was still in Cambridge or Boston. We said yes. Recently I was at a Bootsy Collins show there, maybe a year ago. So yes, it was there. I was so suprised when I arrived. And she elaborated on why with her anecdote.

She said what has become of her work on intersectionality and Crenshaw’s as well is what has been done to Blues, Jazz and Rock. When I went to the Bootsy Collins show I was actually appalled at how WHITE the audience was. these are NOT true Bootsy fans or lovers. but once whiteness gets their grasp on something they love that Black people have created, they have to make it more and more inaccessible to Black people while also whitening it to be no longer noticeable as a Black creation.

So, no my tweets about how many of the morning presenters were talking about white women only wasn’t about asking them to be more intersectional.

Rather, the tweets were more about a plea (an echo really, of past generations) for these white women to remember that they are not the default librarian. That their experiences within the field (especially in a historical context) are not universal and that treating them as such erases the reality and lives lived by women of colour.

One example from the opening panel… Melodie Fox’s talk discussed legal meta-narratives of sex and gender around the editions of the DDC (see here for full description). Early on, she mentioned the historical feminization of the profession and read some white guy’s explanation for why librarianship is suitable work for women… except that he was talking about white women. And so was she. But at no point was this mentioned.

I especially find discussions about the professionalization of librarianship, as well as its relative low-paying status to industries requiring similar levels of education but have a more balanced gender distribution or are weighted towards men, faily interesting in the ways that the race of these white women played a significant role in their ability to be professionalized in the first place.

When we think about the three classic women’s professions of teaching, nursing, and librianship, we can easily begin to see that these women’s professions in the early days were really for white women. The fact that these are considered professions whereas domestic service, for example, is partially a function of white supremacy.

Domestic servants are not today and could not ever have been ‘professionalized’ in the same way. Why? Well, because domestic service as a ‘job’ really only came about (if we are talking about the US) because white slave owners had to start paying their recently emancipated servants. Prior to this point a lot of the ‘positions’ were occupied by enslaved Black women. This is also true of nannies, farming, and a whole host of other ‘jobs’ that relied on forced Black women’s labour.

This is why discussions of the professionalization of librarianship must mention race. It is just as important to how the field and profession are constituted and created as gender. Librarianship might be devalued because it is women’s work, but it is valued because it is white women’s work. Both of these realities operate at the same time. This generally holds true for any discussion about how ‘women’ entered the workforce… as if Black women and other women of colour hadn’t already been forcibly working for centuries under colonialism.

In many different panels and talks, there was repeated mention about bringing in or using feminist ethics/epistemology/discourse within librarianship to do make the field better. And yet, for the same reasons I resist (white) feminism, I have to say I’m largely unmoved and unimpressed by the necessity of this based on what I heard yesterday. By assuming white women as default woman and librarian, by assuming that white women’s experiences within the field are universal and generally applicable, I find myself deeply unclear as to what changes feminism could possibly bring about within the library.

While, sure, it is true that men are over-represented within library management, it is still true that management is mostly white women. Presumably, given that the field is (at least according to most stated professional ethics) fairly progressive and liberal, how is the solution to bring in (more) white feminist ideology going to make a difference to the white women already running the show? Or is the idea to put different kinds of white women (eg white feminists) in management instead of the supposedly not-feminist white women currently managing libraries?

Am I mistaken to understand that one of the prevelant ‘solutions’ discussed yesterday was to essentially solve white women’s problems by applying more white women’s ideologies to the situation? That, essentially, what the situation calls for is a Nice White Lady(tm)?

  1. The other reason is that I think many of the topics were fine as they were. As in, they didn’t and don’t necessarily need to talk about women of colour if they don’t want to. But saying, as one presenter did, that ‘you don’t have time to talk about race’ is disingenuous because you are talking about race. Especially if you are universalizing white women’s experience. My point, in part, here is that if you want to talk about white women only, just say so. But framing your discussion about ‘gender’ with white women as the default assumption by just talking about ‘women’ is only to enforce this racist notion that white experiences are universal. What I’m saying here is that your talk is, whatever you might think, already about race. So, mark the race of the people you are discussing. If they are white, say so.