“The deleterious effects of racial microaggressions…are cloaked within an invisible White veil. In this manner, perpetrators are allowed to enjoy the benefits that accrue to them because of their skin color. They resist the realization that Whiteness, White supremacy, and White privilege are three interlocking forces that disguise covert forms of racism. It allows many Whites to continue their oppressive and harmful ways while maintaining their collective advantage and individual innocence.” (Microaggressions in Everyday Life , Dr. Derald Wing Sue).
Why talk about race?
The short answer to why we need to be able to have meaningful discussions about race is that America has a long history of racial discrimination and it continues to impact all realms of society, including universities and law libraries, both as places of learning and as places of employment.
After arriving in Tennessee and noticing the state of race relations, I found myself in a position where I was alone in a new city with no tools to deal with the racial climate. I could no longer ignore the reality of contemporary overt acts of racism after being personally targeted by vandals. This lone hate-filled act triggered my awareness of racism and implicit bias and drove me to intensely research the history of racism in the South and the social science theories related to racism in elite institutions in America.
These academic articles gave me a vocabulary to describe the everyday racism that I was experiencing. You could say that I became black, the scholarly term for this is nigrescence and people usually undergo this transformational experience in their teen years. I was well overdue.
I grew up in the majority in my home country of Trinidad and Tobago. As a creole person, I had privilege in that society. Before moving here from California I had not really developed any kind of identity specifically tied to my African heritage. Culturally, we Trinidadians believe (although we sometimes fall short of this in practice) that it is morally wrong to segregate based on race or to hang ones identity on a racial identity tied to countries that we have never seen. We are Trinis not African Trinidadians or Indian Trinidadians, although we have no problem celebrating our race related traditions, like Divali, Eid-ul-Fitr and Shouter Baptist Day. These are celebrations of our diversity, not a dehumanization of the other based on race.
No one in my mixed creole family had ever made a big deal about the fact that we had some African ancestors. We were culturally Trinidadian and focusing on any specific nationality from our heritage seemed forced and artificial. I never spent much time thinking about it until I moved to Nashville even though most of the American communities that I participated in were predominantly white, because I had never felt viewed as “a black” (as opposed to being viewed as a black person). That is to say, I had never before felt dehumanized because of any of my physical features that might reflect African phenotypic traits. So being black in America is new for me and now I spend a lot of time thinking about it.
Initially, my emotional response to the overt act of racism was fear, anxiety, depression and nigh uncontrollable anger. I also became extremely sensitive to racial microaggressions stemming from “unconscious racial bias against blacks”, also referred to as implicit bias. Moreover, because of the plausible deniability factor, and because of my lack of a support system of people who knew me and also knew what it is like to be black in the South, I started to think that I was going crazy, because I would notice and point out problematic microaggressions and many of my well-meaning white peers just did not get it. Meanwhile, my awareness of racial microaggressions in my daily life began to have the paradigmatic impact on me. My health was deteriorating rapidly and significantly and I began to notice the poor health of other women of color on campus.
I needed a way to convert the emotional pain and that I was experiencing in response to the implicit bias that has been proven to cause race-based traumatic stress (also called racial battle fatigue) into something positive. Not knowing how else to cope, I continued to research racial microaggressions in the legal industry and in the university environment in the U.S.. Before Hidden Dores, I encountered I too am Harvard, Presumed Incompetent and myriad articles on racism in the law school environment and in the legal system and at least one about overt racism in libraries. Drawing on my extensive academic background in cultural anthropology, I processed everything that I read through the lens of a tired and heart-broken social scientist. That is to say, I was not entirely objective, but I was trying. The immediate emotional anguish continued and drove me to seek opportunities for social justice activism. I hoped that anti-racist activism would heal trauma from racism and I pursued it with the zeal of the newly converted.
On the 50th anniversary of The March on Washington, I attended a commemoration event at the Benton Chapel on Vanderbilt campus. The Chapel was almost empty, but at this event, I met some like minded people and I began participating in diversity programming, including three panel discussions and two Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Days (2014 & 2015). Throughout all of this, I was still repressing my own rage which, in spite of my measured tones and carefully curated anti-racist rhetoric, continued to undermine the effectiveness of the message that I was trying to deliver. Friends and mentors (including job search guru Leslie Ayres), had been encouraging me to develop a mindful meditation practice to help me cope with the stress of everyday racism. When I began exploring this practice, using the works of Pema Chodron and Byron Katie, things began to improve.
I realized that if this was a problem for me, it was probably a problem for others. Given the outreach that librarians routinely do and that I personally do on campus, I was poised to be an informal minority outreach librarian. I wanted to provide support to minority students who were being routinely subjected to racial microaggressions. I could be the law school representative who would not minimize or invalidate their experiences. But, since the responsibilities of a diversity outreach librarian were not part of my formal job description, I was, and continue to be, haunted by fears that this would backfire on me since this leaves me open to the reverse racism claims that are more likely in the South. Still, in spite of my concerns and lack of protection (as an at-will staff employee), students come to me, telling me about bias incidents that they were reluctant or unwilling to share with the administration, and I continue to look for ways to have productive workplace conversations about race and racism.
Even now, I still struggle, and the racial microaggressions perpetrated by library patrons require me to be a spiritual warrior. Think of that pro se patron who walks in at 4:55 and is rude and dismissive to you while also asking you for help. It’s like that only these incidents do not occur in a social vacuum. It’s not just the bad attitude that you deal with, but also with the very real racial emotions that people of color experience when operating within a racist social hierarchy.
What that means in practice is that even when I point out these problems, they may be minimized and my experience may be invalidated, so I need to respond with patience. This is a very touchy subject and if people (even nice, well-intentioned people) can find a way to explain it as an individual incident unrelated to racist attitudes then they will.
This is all the more reason why we in the library need to talk about how racial microaggressions can create a climate that is not welcoming to our growing population of students and patrons of color. We need to start thinking as a unit within the University (or law firm), how are we contributing to the institutional commitment to diversity? What can we do to minimize the impact of environmental microaggressions? One example of an environmental microaggression is, “when women in the workplace enter a conference room where portraits of all the past male CEOs or board of directors are honorifically displayed, the message given is that women are less competent and that a glass ceiling exists in the company.” Does this sound like your library, law school or law firm? What if you replaced the word women with students of color and the phrase “past male CEOs” with past white male professors, what message does that send?
For those who are interested, there are many informal articles cropping up on the Internet that can teach you how to be more mindful about the things that you say and do such that you reduce the likelihood of being unintentionally offensive by perpetrating racial microaggressions. Some right wing conservatives believe that racial microaggressions are merely liberals trying to control language and thought. In anticipation of the increasing population of patrons of color who will be gracing our libraries, I posit that it might be time to prepare ourselves as librarians with a little cultural competency and emotional intelligence, because “our unconscious biases negatively impact other people” and because microaggressions do happen in libraries. Moreover as educators, academic law librarians have a responsibility to create an environment in which all of our patrons are treated respectfully and where all librarians can expect to be respected and to get support from the administration when they are subjected to repeated microaggressions that can cause race-based traumatic stress. In fact, all types of libraries may be opening themselves up to potential law suits if they do not address the racial microaggressions in the workplace.
If you are interested in talking about race in your library, check out my next blog post, on How to talk about race in the library. Here's a preview: the short answer is with great kindness.