i dream of being possible

but really, where *are* the librarians of colour?

I caught a link on twitter to a call for papers for this forthcoming edited volume that ‘seeks to address the shared experiences of librarians of colour’. Of course, I was intrigued and potentially interested, being a librarian of colour with a lot of opinions and stuff.

That is, until, I reached this portion of the description:

These experiences are very similar and offer a narrative that explains the lack of librarians of color in academia especially those librarians that have experienced the daunting academic tenure process.

This monograph will offer a comprehensive look at the experiences of people of color after the recruitment is over, the diversity box is checked, and the statistics are reported. What are the retention, job satisfaction, and tenure experiences of librarians of color?

There is a lot to be troubled about here.

First. Are the experiences of various marginalized races actually similar? I’m inclined to think not. The experiences of people of colour are (necessarily) as diverse as various peoples, cultures, ethnicities that organize in solidarity under the banner of ‘people of colour,’ which is not quite intended to be an identity, but rather a means of inter-racial solidarity for the people impacted and oppressed by white supremacy. As is explained by Loretta Ross on the origin of ‘women of color’ (which is also where people of colour originates).

Furthermore, Andrea Smith argues that:

the three primary logics of white supremacy in the US context include: (1) slaveability/anti-black racism, which anchors capitalism; (2) genocide, which anchors colonialism; and (3) orientalism, which anchors war.

So even if one is disinclined to believe that different races have different experiences, that there is serious conceptual issues with speaking to a common or shared experience:

Under the old but still dominant model, organising by people of colour was based on the notion of organising around shared victimhood. In this model, however, we see that we are not only victims of white supremacy, but complicit in it as well. Our survival strategies and resistance to white supremacy are set by the system of white supremacy itself. What keeps us trapped within our particular pillars of white supremacy is that we are seduced by the prospect of being able to participate in the other pillars. For example, all non-Native peoples are promised the ability to join in the colonial project of settling indigenous lands. All non-black peoples are promised that if they conform, they will not be at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. And black and Native peoples are promised that they will advance economically and politically if they join US wars to spread “democracy”. Thus, organising by people of colour must be premised on making strategic alliances with one another, based on where we are situated within the larger political economy. Coalition work is based on organising not just around oppression, but also around complicity in the oppression of other peoples as well as our own. ibid

In Smith’s formulation, these three logics don’t delineate racial groups, but rather varying and often overlapping strategies (logics) used by white supremacy to retain its current position.

Second. The focus on tenured librarians. Not only is it the case that there are many academic librarians working at institutions that do not have tenure or even a tenure-like status for academic librarians, we exist in a higher education environment that – across all fields, faculties, and departments – is seeing a continuous reduction of tenured positions and an increase of adjuncts, or other types of precarious positions.

Academic libraries are no different.1

(I normally would discuss the ARL stats for librarians of colour…. but those are behind a paywall and I’ve a policy on this blog to note linking to or citing sources that aren’t freely available.)2

One of the biggest issues that I have with this focus on the most privileged librarians in the field (those with tenure) is that it is so narrow that it will give a massively unbalanced account of what it means to be an academic librarian of colour.

It means we will not hear from people (like me) who are in precarious, part-time, adjunct, contract (or any combination thereof) positions, despite the fact that it is more than probable that, like other academic units, libraries are reaching a point where there are more professionals working in positions like this than in full-time, tenured and/or tenure track ones.

We will also not hear from the librarians working at institutions that do not even have tenure.

We will not hear from the librarians of colour who’ve had to leave the field because academic library jobs are no more prevalent or available than any other type of academic position.

Worse yet, we won’t hear from the librarians who because of the systemic and institutional barriers that exist to make becoming an academic librarian significantly more difficult for any person of colour, have been forced to leave the profession or, at the least, abandon their dreams of working in an academic environment.

This volume, if it does not actively seek to address these gaps (and others that I’ve missed) will be a rather…. narrow and, frankly, uninteresting view of the challenges facing librarians of colours within academia.

  1. Omg. I just took a peek at my own institutions levels, and I’m actually at a place below adjunct librarians who, yes are contract but some appear to be full-time. Whereas, I’m in a part-time, non-union contract position that offers zero benefits and zero guarantees that it’ll ever be anything but this. 

  2. Hey! I just noticed that I had this article open in one of my browser tabs, where it basically says that, in Canada, only about 1% of the respondents were Aboriginal and 11% as visible minorities (to use the kinda icky language of the Canadian government).