7/15/2015 1:28:59 PM
It’s Not A Scratch, It’s Scratches: How To Respond To Racial Microaggressions In The Library
Straight Talk About Race
In the wake of my series of articles on why and how to talk about race in the library, which admittedly is also applicable to everywhere else, I’ve been asked how to talk to staff about specific issues related to racist statements, or
racial microaggressions. The short answer is, I don’t know. I can’t give you a recipe to follow. What I can do is two things. First, I can shed some light on why diversity training and anti-racism/sexism training are not silver bullets and in fact can sometimes cause more problems than they fix. Second, I can share with you something that helps me to be empowered while operating within systems rife with structural racism.
The Problem is Systemic
A close friend of mine has a horse. She saw a wound on the horse’s front leg where the hoof meets the leg. She thought it was a scratch. She cleaned the wound every day for a week and some days the wound got better, but some days it got worse. Finally she called the vet and she found out that what she thought was a cut was actually a condition called scratches. It was both a bacterial and a fungal infection that was so severe that it needed to be treated with oral antibiotics.
Similarly, the racial tensions that some of us notice at work and the specific acts that we perceive as problematic are like the wound that my friend thought was a scratch. If we treat it with an anti-racism training seminar or a diversity awareness training, this is akin to treating a severe case of scratches with a topical antibiotic. The racial problems at work may appear to get better for a moment, but the underlying problem is still there.
This is because the problems that occur at work that we attribute to racism and sexism cannot be remedied by first making people wrong, trying to get them to identify as racist and sexist (a tactic that I see a lot in news articles) and then trying to get people to stop doing specific, known, identifiable racist and sexist acts. The problem is not individual racists and sexists, it is structural racism and sexism which cannot be changed by pointing out individual “wrong” behaviors one by one, and having people stop doing those individual behaviors, it has to occur at the level of society and it has to be a society-wide transformation. This will take time because the institutions that developed to invisibly support White privilege in this country grew out of a long history of exploiting people of color and dismantling this invisible system is a task that the generations to come will need to take on and work towards.
But all is not lost, because what I want to share with you today is that for the purpose of personal empowerment in your present moment, you yourself can transform the entire society. Here’s how you do it. Close your eyes. Imagine the whole world. Now imagine that the whole world is not racist or sexist. There, you have done it. The next time you see something that you think is evidence that the world is racist and sexist, resist the thought and instead interpret the evidence in a different way. Interpret it in a way that does not make others wrong. Find a way to take responsibility for what happened because in taking responsibility, you empower yourself. Yes, it is a delusion, but so is love (and possibly God) and many other things that we believe in for the purpose of making our lives better.
Separating out the story from what actually happened and taking responsibility for your actions and reactions and acting as if there is no such thing as racism is how you take your medicine, your oral antibiotics, to cure the societal -isms.
It's About Personal Power Not Truth
I know that sounds crazy so let me give you an example and a tool. Here is a specific thing that happened to me. Those of you who have been following my posts will know that someone came into my office and changed the word “Juriglobe” that I wrote on my whiteboard to the word “Jigabo” [sic] (yeah this individual wasn’t a great speller either, if you are going to insult me, at least get the spelling right).
When I moved to Nashville, I had reservations. I had an opinion about the South. My opinion was that the South is a racist place. All it took was for one person to change 7 letters on my whiteboard for me to give myself permission to act in accordance with my belief that Nashville is a racist place.
What if these same events had taken place in San Francisco or New York, or Los Angeles? My opinion about those places is that they are progressive, liberal and people there are open minded. I might have dismissed that as the act of one sad and confused person. I might have erased my board and then forgotten about it by the end of that week. Instead, by giving that incident meaning, through language, I ruined my first year and a half at the job of my dreams. The meaning I gave that incident is that Nashville is a racist place. I told myself a whole story about what happened, that some racist jerk came into my office and did this terrible thing. I looked for evidence that my story was true and then I got everyone who would listen to me to buy into the story that I was the victim of a racial microaggression (sometimes I called it a hate crime).
For months, I gave myself permission to fly into a rage every time my suspicion that Nashville was a racist place was confirmed by evidence and I saw evidence everywhere. I saw it in rude service at restaurants, I saw it in people repeating stories that they had heard on Fox news. I saw it in the Black men around me who cut the grass, drive the book delivery van and clean the toilets. I saw it in the lack of Black librarians. Everywhere I looked I could find evidence to support my belief that Nashville is a racist place.
My self-righteous rage allowed me to abdicate responsibility for making my life work. If I was late, it was because I could not focus because I was traumatized by the racist incident in my office. If I was rude or withdrawn, it was because I was rightfully irritated by a racist comment made by someone. I gained weight, I was anxious and depressed and my stress induced spastic colon came back. I created my own Hell.
Create Your World With Your Word
Today, I make an effort every day to create my experience of Nashville in a different way. I use my language to describe Nashville not as a racist or an un-racist place, but just as a place. When I catch myself trying to use my encounters with Nashville residents as evidence that Nashville is racist, I stop and look more closely at what actually happened. For instance, a waitress approached me. I thought she was going to ask me if I would like a glass of water and a menu. Instead she asked me “What are you?” This is a question that is commonly perceived as a racial microaggression. I could get all of my friends to validate me and my angry reaction to that question by placing myself in the role of the victim of a racial microaggression and for a long time that was the story that I told.
That is a story that disempowers me and reinforces all of my friend’s beliefs that Nashville is a racist place. It also makes the concept of racism more real. Like there is an object out in the world called racism that is a real thing. It makes me right and the waitress wrong. It makes my White friends feel bad for being part of a group that benefits from structural racism. It makes my Black friends feel self-righteous anger towards this waitress and the clueless White racists who she represents in my story. It drives the societal story about racism and about us and them that divides people along racial lines. All because a woman could not tell what race I am and asked me a question to which she certainly was not entitled to an answer.
Why Diversity Training Does Not Work
The problem with anti-racism training is that instead of eliminating racism as a lens through which people view the world, it makes racism more real. It reinforces the concepts of White people as perpetrators of and beneficiaries of racism and People of Color as victims. This is not to say that people’s biases do not cause them to commit terrible acts because there is no getting around this truth. All I am saying is that anti-racism training on the order of being given a laundry list of offensive things not to say and do is counterproductive if what you are doing is trying to end racism and create a safe space at work where clear communication can happen and people can feel connected and supported.
What we need is personal transformation so that we can see the blind spots that cause us to act in ways that perpetuate racism in the workplace. It is not enough to want to be not racist or even to be committed to not being racist (don’t believe me, I want to and I am committed to losing 20 pounds and yet I am still wearing the same size jeans that I have been wearing for the last 2 years). It is also not enough to want to be immune to racism. We cannot conquer racism from inside of the paradigm of racism. We can only conquer it when we are willing to give up racism as a construct and to give up self-righteous anger in reaction to racism (or in reaction to people “playing the race card”).
A Call To Action
So I invite you the library management team, the next time you have a racist incident at work that you need to clear up to coach your employees to stick to the facts of the situation instead of turning it into a racist incident through the stories that they tell about it.
If you identify as White and you are supervising an employee who is a person of color (POC), I invite you to accept their evaluation of the state of racism in your institution, because you simply do not have the tools to make this evaluation yourself by dint of being in a group that is not capable of experiencing it first-hand. But after validating the experience of your POC staff member, you can also empower them by sharing with them that there is nothing you can do about the state of racism, but by focusing on the facts of what happened, perhaps you can help to resolve the specific incident.
I invite you to encourage both sides to take responsibility for their actions and reactions in order to empower them to heal and transform themselves. I invite you not to allow yourself to make either party wrong and not to empathize with one party over the other, not to get sucked into one person’s story just because it aligns with your personal beliefs about the world. A little tough love now will save them so much pain later and will give them an opportunity for a permanent transformation. If you don’t feel up to the task of coaching your staff in this way, find someone who is and put the library staff involved in the misunderstanding in their capable hands.
We aren’t surgeons or civil engineers, when we have problems at work, no one dies, what we have are stressful situations, and opportunities for enlightenment and transformation. So let’s take those opportunities and grow together as a profession.
Please consider taking this anonymous survey on race issues in the law librarian profession. I will use the responses to write more specific blog posts on race issues in our libraries. I'll be hosting a Coffee Talk on Talking About Race at the AALL Annual Meeting next week.
Monday, July 20th, 2015 7:45am - 8:30am
Please feel free to stop by and share with me in person.
Posted By 7/15/2015 1:28:59 PM
, diversity training
, racial microaggressions
, talking about race
, racial tension
, structural racism
, systemic racism
7/14/2015 1:58:39 PM
Enjoying the new view
As promised in my blog post of May 15, 2015, “Up,Up and Away,” I’m writing to tell you how my new seating arrangement is
working out. For those of you who missed
the earlier installment, I’ve moved from my office in the library to an office
on an attorney floor. The library is on
the 2nd floor of our building; I’m now on the 8th floor.
I’ve been here about a month now, and I think it’s working
out pretty well. I’ve settled into my
new office (knickknacks are on the shelves and pictures and diploma are on the
walls) and people are no longer surprised to see me in the hallways. I made a point of ingratiating myself by
baking a batch of cookies for my new neighbors, and that seems to have gone
I stop by the library when I first get to the office to
take care of any check-in or shelving that needs to be done, and on Wednesdays,
when my filer (the totally fabulous Ira Hayes) comes in to update my loose-leaf
materials, I work on projects like weeding that require me to be in the
library. I just put a note on my office
door, so that if someone needs something, they know where I am.
There have been a couple of occasions when I needed to pull
books from the shelves, and it was inconvenient to have to travel down six
floors to get them, but that’s not a huge issue. I also talked to an attorney last week about
a book that she wanted to use. She
wondered if we had a copy, and although I was able to assure that we did own
one, (thank you, online catalog) I told her I had no more idea than she if it
was on the shelf. In the grand scheme of
things, a minor irritation.
What I have noticed as a big change is the traffic in my
general area. There are no attorney
offices on the 2nd floor, so I could go hours without seeing anyone (literally,
this is not exaggeration for comic effect).
Now, it feels like I’m sitting in Grand Central Station: people walk by
all the time, they hold meetings in the conference room next door to my office
and they have conversations in the hallway.
I have daily interactions with people I used to see almost never, and I
think that’s a good thing. Those little
exchanges can make people feel more comfortable coming to ask research questions
(not that I want to imply I’m working with a group of timid lawyers - perish the thought!), and
I feel more a part of the office team.
Another big difference is the view out my window. When my office was in the library, I looked
out at this:
Yes, I was looking at a stone wall. I’m not complaining, mind you. I’ve spent too many years in interior offices
or cubicles or big open areas with no privacy to offer up a word against any
view, no matter how uninteresting.
Now, however, my view looks like this:
I can see if it’s raining out or not!
When I announced that I was moving to my library colleagues
in the other Seyfarth offices, one of them wrote back to me, “Now you’ll be
sitting with your fans.” And that’s
what’s most important: getting to know my attorneys better, so I can help them
©Susan Ryan, 2015, Librarian, Seyfarth Shaw, LLP, Washington, DC
Posted By 7/14/2015 1:58:39 PM