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Coming out as Black: Negotiating identity in professional settings

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“If every time we felt unwelcome in a space we decided not to stay, then that space would, indeed, be no longer for us. In taking ourselves out of a place, we designate that place as not our own.”

~ Rori Picker Neiss

As a professional of color, I have a lot of experience being in spaces that seem to not be for me. When I say it wasn’t for me, I don’t mean that as a reflection on my ability. I say that as a reflection of the structures, expectations, and allowances of professionalism within those environments.

Last week, I attended ACRL. Frankly, I came into the conference feeling tired and not much like being there. I was coming out of a couple of emotionally intense weeks, because of stuff going on in my personal life. The last thing I felt like doing was going to sit with a bunch of strange people and talk about the same ol’ conference things. But before I got to ACRL, I attended the #critlib unconference that preceded it. There was a session at the end of unconference that ended up being mostly LIS practitioners of color talking about self-care. One of the things that came up over and over again was this feeling of isolation as an Only, along with all the accompanying issues that come with being an Only: the lack of community, the lack of understanding from administration and colleagues about social issues related to cultural identities, the lack of recognition of work and professional accomplishments, the need to work two or three times as hard in order to prove your existence was/is not a mistake. The microaggressions.

I attended #critlib with one of my good friends, which was cathartic in and of itself. The circle-talk on self-care was good, but I still wasn’t really feeling ACRL. On the second day, though, I ran into one of the women from the #critlib circle and we talked. And then I connected with other librarians of color and we talked. I ended up with a group of conference buddies who redeemed my conference experience. And it was nice to know that my frustrations with the conference and the profession were not all in my head. It also touched something deep inside that I didn’t realize needed touching.

The conversations I had with my professional peers of color at ACRL reminded me of one I had during my intergroup dialogue (IGD) facilitator training this past summer, in which one of my IGD peers of color and I talked about the idea of coming out as Black in the workplace. And what it means to work in a predominantly white workplace versus one with a high percentage of people of color. I volunteered at an African American cultural heritage institution before I started my residency and I remember telling my IGD colleague about how amazing it was to be in environment with so many African American professionals and to not have to feel on guard all the time or to feel like I had to constantly explain myself, my culture, or my existence. Being there felt like home. And that’s not a feeling I often get to have in a professional setting.

One might argue that your workplace shouldn’t feel like home. And I agree to a certain extent. I mean, I’m at work to do my job, get my paycheck, and go home. But when, like in one of my past workplaces, you overhear your white colleagues publicly joking about African American death as a good thing, because then there are less of them around…it does something to your psyche. How likely is advancement, professional support, or even exposure to the right information or opportunities, if the death of people who look like you is fodder for lunchtime jokes? It contributes to a hostile workplace.

I wasn’t always conscious of or vocal about these things, though.

I started my professional career in early childhood education. I worked as a literacy educator with a nonprofit that partnered with the local school system. My first year, I was one of few people of color on the team. The second year with that organization, I transitioned to a different role. For one part of my job, I worked solo in multiple elementary schools. The other part of my job was collaborative in a different school. My colleagues were all women of color. The leadership in our organization were mostly white. Most of the teachers in the schools I worked at were white. Most of the students and their parents were African American.

As an educator, I was trained to teach, but not make waves. I was supposed to be respectable, above reproach. Care for the children, yes. Advocate for them, yes. But also, stay in your lane. And don’t be visibly Black. I had private conversations with African American teachers about how frustrating it was for them to work in predominantly white environments. How they watched their colleagues of color get forced out. The pressures they dealt with. I would talk to white colleagues and hear about how so-and-so was such a horrible teacher, had attitude issues, etc. And then I’d talk to my Black colleagues and get a completely different story from their perspective. And one of my personal miffs: in most school systems, teachers aren’t allowed to wear anything on their heads unless it’s for religious reasons. I used to wear headwraps a lot, before I graduated undergrad. So I was particularly salty about that detail. I got over it, though. But you know who wears headwraps, right? Mostly Black and brown people.

Additionally, becoming a professional in predominantly white spaces meant learning whole new schemas about how to conduct oneself; the language, the ways you interacted with those in seniority. For example, I grew up in a pretty traditional African American community. There, elders were highly respected. You don’t talk to adults any old kind of way and you don’t call them by their first name without a title (Aunt, Uncle, Ms., Mr., Brother, Sister). And there are reasons for this that go back to historical oppression outside the community. It was really hard for me to transition to calling those older than me and those in authority by their first names. Likewise, becoming comfortable with challenging authority and speaking out when I saw something wrong. It took time to get to that point. To make it more difficult, when I encountered older Black adults in my work, if I accidentally step outside the bounds of what I knew to be culturally acceptable, I would be scolded. Because I should know better. I had to know both worlds and when to apply which rules with which people.

My first LIS job was a private university, which had a predominantly white student body. I was the only person of color on my team and maybe department (there may have been one other, but I don’t know how she self-identified). There were a handful of us on the entire library staff, but it was a very siloed institution. It was here that I first “came out as Black.” Growing up and training to be a teacher, there was a strong emphasis put on looking professional. For this reason, I typically wore my thick, natural hair in braids or twists, I wore small earrings, etc. But while at that institution, a few things happened:

  1. I was deep in the middle of genealogy research. Something about learning who I was and where I came from gave me confidence. You know they don’t teach African American history…anywhere. It’s a niche subject. But as I realized my family has been here a long time and played a major role in building this country; even after being disrespected, mistreated, and forgotten, we’re still here. So you can’t tell me what to do.
  2. Wearing natural hair became more en vogue. I’ve always been natural, but I used to think natural hair worn “out” was not professional. Seeing other people rocking their tresses made me curious to try it.
  3. I began studying African American studies and gender studies as a discipline (self-taught knowledge is still knowledge). The library had a decent collections budget and I voraciously read anything that came in in my interest areas and mulled over things a lot.
  4. I found my voice. The school was a very liberal institution, meaning that people considered themselves open minded (whether they were or not). It was a great environment to start pushing the envelope and having dialogues with colleagues and students about critical issues. The more I raised my voice, the less I was inclined to stay quiet. And there were always things to bring up.
  5. The dress code was very casual. Like, t-shirt and jeans casual. I still tried to be semi-professional, because as an Only…well, you know.
  6. I met other Black women in academia. Let me tell you, Black women in academia are a special breed. Black women in general are some of the most supportive, giving, fierce, amazing people that ever were. Then add the fire and tenacity it takes to deal with academia nonsense on a daily basis and you get the picture. They opened their arms to me.

The end result was that one day I said, To hell with all this. And one day, I came to work with my hair out and hoop earrings. And that was my coming out day. Granted, I think my speaking against stereotypes of Southeast DC, objecting to generalizations about Black folk and microaggressions, and staging a mini temper tantrum over being ignored in staff meetings had already outed me. But it was now complete. And there was no going back. I had some of my best hair experiment days while at that job. My signature earrings made their way into my professional wardrobe during that time. And you know what? I was still regarded as a quality employee. You know what they say about positive-negative reinforcement.

When I came into my current job, I toned it down a bit. At least initially, until I got the feel of the environment. Though I did inquire prior to my first day, whether purple hair would be okay, as I was on a purple braids kick at the time. I ended up showing up with red braids instead. And proceeded to go through purple, red, and blue braids for my first several months. People commented on my frequent dye jobs. I forget that a lot of white people don’t know many Black people and don’t know about extensions. 🙂

It’s also a more conservative professional vibe, when it comes to dress and attire. (I miss my jeans.) Over time, I’ve tested the waters by rocking my fro. Which at times, feels uncomfortable, because I am, once again, one of a handful of people of color. I’ve found that no one has said anything, at least not to me directly, but that some of the white faculty I work with are endlessly fascinated by my hair and the rapid transitions I undertake in styling. I’ve gotten used to the comments about my earrings and take it in stride. I get that I am different. Every day is another lesson in code-switching and identity balancing.

On the weekends, you might find me in a headwrap with sunglasses and wide-legged pants, being all the way Black. Or you might find me in sweats and braids, curled up under a blanket, being all the way introvert and Black.

 

 

Disclaimer: I was talking to a friend some time ago about code switching and the process of “becoming professional,” both within and outside of academia. She encouraged me to write about my experiences. This is my attempt to do so. In so doing, I make no claims of speaking from the black experience, the black female experience, or the black information professional’s experience. Though there may be some similarity to the experiences of others,  I speak from my experience alone. 

 

 

 

#NDLC2016: Reflections on the Opening Keynote

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I’m at the National Diversity in Libraries Conference 2016 this week, which is hosted at UCLA. This morning, the opening keynote speaker, Lakota Harden, left her notes on the podium and decided to speak from the heart. She shared a bit of her experiences growing up on a reservation, being the descendant of individuals who have endured horrible things as a result of federally sanctioned genocide. She spoke about attending boarding school and losing her language, because they were not permitted to use the words they’d been born into. She spoke about sitting at her great-grandmothers’ knees and regaining a little bit what she’d been torn away from, what her ancestors had been torn away from. She spoke of remembering and honoring the pain, of acknowledging the truth. And she spoke to the tearing away that many have descended from in the name of colonization. She also spoke of the existing wounds that her people, the Lakotas, bear and the deep wounds of American Indians across the nation. The poverty and broken families. The alcoholism and drug use. The homelessness and imprisonment. The atrocities that continue. And the people who come to reservations in search of the dead, expecting the living to perform a nativeness that is contrived. People who will open hands, wanting, needing to get rather than to give and just be present. She spoke of the borrowing…stealing of cultural values and practices by majority cultures that don’t take the time to know the humanity behind them. As she spoke, it resonated with me. Not just because I appreciated her sharing and was moved by her honesty, but because, as she said, we all have backgrounds filled with woundings that we’ve had to live through, cope with, and survive. And for many of us, we’re still trying to find our survival.

As a librarian of color, and more specifically, as an African American woman in the United States, I’ve had to come to terms with the heaviness that is my cultural heritage. Like Lakota, I have found the beauty amidst the sorrow, but it comes from acknowledging that past. Often, like her, I hear people say things like, “Well, slavery was hundreds of years ago, don’t you think it’s time you guys moved on?” or “Why don’t you guys [black people] stop protesting and just get a job? or “Why don’t parents in urban communities care about their children?” No one is really interested in talking about the past, because it’s messy and it’s painful. But the things we witness today are deeply rooted in a continual cycle of loss and trauma. To break that cycle, we have to talk about it. And we have to acknowledge that it is, and will continue to be, the legacy that some communities have to deal with.

Trauma brings about injury and unless those injuries are directly addressed, it’s impossible to move on. When talking about issues of poverty and lack of education in urban communities of color, it makes me sad that the conclusion too often drawn is that parents don’t care about their kids. Sure, there are always the exceptions, but I think deep-down, the vast majority of parents care about their kids. But how does one cope with challenge after challenge without relief? For individuals in impoverished communities (and poverty doesn’t always look like slum towns), I believe there is a great deal of depression and mental health issues that have gone unnoticed and unaddressed for generations. Wounds that go unaddressed continue to fester and these generational symptoms of brokenness continue to plague my community as well as hers.

Lakota spoke of being inspired by the strength of her ancestors and invoked the strength of the ancestors of any people group who has ever suffered loss and trauma, whether the separation was chosen or not. When I first came into librarianship, it was through genealogy. I discovered the archives while investigating my own family history. Through uncovering details about my grandparents and great-grandparents, and gg-grandparents, I learned more about the nuances of American history and the role that individuals and communities play in shaping futures.

In America, racism has played a huge role in the shaping of futures, both for people of color and those who are not. For the black community, racism didn’t just mean slavery. It continued well beyond that. It meant laws and a legal system that was designed and upheld to keep blacks in a subhuman status. It meant not having access to certain types of employment. It meant not having funding for quality education resources. It meant not being able to travel through certain towns after dark or being able to use the same restroom or water fountain. It meant having to step off the sidewalk if a white person walked towards you, or having to avert your eyes for fear of being regarded as disrespectful. With the consequences being great. It meant being called out of your name and being reminded at every instance that you are less than. It meant being made to walk to school, while the white kids rode the bus and having your change slapped on the counter while someone else got to have theirs in their hand. It meant being told that the closer you were to white, the better you were. It meant being denied love and marriage to the person you cared about, just because of the way your skin looked. It meant being you could be a crime. It meant being you could be worthy of death. And the law would look the other way, because sometimes the person under that hood or behind that gun, was the law. It meant you didn’t know who you could trust and so you had to build your own communities and economic infrastructure. But then it meant losing all of that, sometimes over and over again, at the whim of a people who didn’t want you to succeed.

And this wasn’t 1865. It wasn’t 1967. For some, this type of legal ostracizing ended as late as the 1980s or 1990s. For many, it continues today under different labels and ways of being.

It causes scars.

Trauma is life changing and when your people experience trauma after trauma for generations, it has an impact.

As people, as a profession, the core of what the communities we serve are asking for is to be recognized as human. To find a place where they are not made to be othered in a way that shadows the trauma they’ve already felt for so much of their existence and the existence of all the blood that runs through their DNA.

Acknowledging truth isn’t about shaming or blaming, but it is about giving voice to those who have been silenced for so long. For any people group who has known trauma and injustice, there will be parallel stories. When we talk about making the LIS profession a space that is welcoming and inclusive, we need to start by acknowledging and then sitting in that. Sometimes in silence, if we need to. It also means owning our collective pasts and the roles our pasts have played in affecting the pasts of others.

It’s a lot. I know it’s a lot, but since our profession exists for the building and edification of people and the preservation and sharing of information, we don’t really have the luxury of picking and choosing which groups get included, whether explicitly or implicitly.

 

The Collective: from improv to instruction (and everything in between)

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Last month, I attended The Collective 2016, an innovative library conference centered on library practice. (It only took me over thirty days to write a summary!) The conference was highly interactive and aimed at fostering collaborative idea development and networking through hands-on, workshop-style sessions. It was great!

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Table games, anyone? Me, upper left. (Image courtesy of @Anitalifedotcom)

The conference started with an icebreaker session. You know, one of those activities that starts with “get up and move to a table of people you don’t know.” (I didn’t, by the way…) But instead of just making small talk or even having to talk about anything specific at all, we played board games. Who doesn’t like board games? My table played jumbo Jenga. Our tower was very tall and it never fell! Yay us!

Improv as professional practice

The first session I attended was about using improv as a tool for professional practice, both in the classroom and out. My wonderful colleague, Christina, introduced me to improv a few years ago, at an in-house library event, so I was familiar with the concept. I’d also taken an improv workshop, due to the influence of said wonderful colleague. I was interested, though, in seeing how it could be used as a professional tool.

We started by doing an exercise on “Yes, and” in which the main speaker provided a statement and the participants replied enthusiastically with, “Yes, and?!” Jill Markgraf, the session presenter, made the correlation to providing front-facing library services and being mindful of approaches to the research facilitation process. Recognizing students’ place in the research process, rather than looking down on or criticizing them for either getting a false start or not knowing where to start is important. Even seeking help is worth affirming, because we’re all learners and have to start somewhere. So the “yes” is affirming and the “and” builds on that by offering suggestions, guidance, or redirection.

The other activity that stood out to me was Good, Bad, and Ugly. It is a role-play scenario in which three individuals take on the parts of experts in field and provide feedback on, well, the good, the bad, and the ugly. A statement or situation is provided by the facilitator. The “good” persona talks about all the positive elements; the “bad” persona talks about negatives; and the “ugly” persona gives extreme worst case examples of everything. This being a library conference, somehow everything kept coming back to alcohol. I felt kinda sorry for the good persona when someone in the room asked about diversity in librarianship and she couldn’t think of anything to say off the top of her head. Being that I’ve always got my nose in some article or book on the topic, I was mentally squirming in my seat, thinking, “Oooh! Pick me! Pick me!”

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Librarians improvising. (Image from Library Improv)

Jill suggested using this activity as an ice breaker for departmental meetings. Librarians, in my experience, can be people of strong opinions. Get a bunch of people in one room to discuss changing things and it could take a while, so I could see how it could be a useful way to acknowledge feelings and worst case scenarios while keeping things light.

After the session, I went to Jill’s Library Improv website and found the Keyword Taboo activity, which I used later in a class. It went swimmingly, so I will keep her site in mind for future instruction brainstorming.

 

Instructional design and teaching strategies

I went to a lot of sessions that dealt with designing and improving instruction. Because I am currently teaching a three-credit, semester length course, I felt I could use some help with brainstorming for effective teaching, particularly because, at the time, I was still working on shaping the final project. Sessions I attended covered problem-based learning, creative planning and problem solving, instructional design, and designing one-shot instruction with an eye towards the framework. Like I said, it was a lot of instruction stuff.

The instruction process in academic librarianship involves a lot of complicated pieces. Being faculty, there is that expectation of instruction and research, but most librarians don’t teach semester length courses. Instructional support often happens in conjunction with teaching faculty in various departments, most often the ones affiliated with liaison areas. One of the sessions I attended involved planning one-shot instruction sessions under different circumstances. Such as, you talked to the teaching faculty, made all your plans, and then arrived at the classroom to find you only have twenty minutes to talk. Or, a professor asks you to come speak to their class, but the instruction isn’t tied to any project or assignment. There were also optimal scenarios, such as, you have a three session series in which to cover basic IL concepts related to X discipline and your students are freshmen.

One of the things I appreciated most about the conference was the opportunity to gain hands-on practice in instructional and curricular design. Too, the reason it was valuable was because of the opportunity for collaborative planning and feedback from the session facilitators. Chatting with one of the facilitators during the  “Make it Beautiful, Make it Usable: Improving Instructional Materials for Today’s Learners” session gave me ideas for developing the final project(s) for my adjunct course. Also, seeing how different libraries in different academic communities have developed and used lessons to address student learning outcomes.

Most of the assessment programming I attended was focused on a programmic level. I’m also interested in assessing student learning in single-shot, series, and semester length courses. What does assessment look like on an informal vs. formal basis? How are these measures used to improve student learning, instruction, and match (curriculum mapping)?

As a side note, one of the sessions I attended was facilitated by a librarian and a professor from my alma mater. I couldn’t resist going up to them later and saying, Hey! I used to be a student here, but now I’m a librarian too! I think I was more tickled about that than they were.

More Info

If you’re interested in learning more about the programming, you can view community notes, handouts, and PPT slides via Sched. You can also find archived live tweeting of the conference here or via #libcol16.

Tl;dr – I’m very excited

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Too late for second-guessing
Too late to go back to sleep
It’s time to trust my instincts
Close my eyes and leap!

It’s time to try
Defying gravity
I think I’ll try
Defying gravity
And you can’t pull me down!

Defying Gravity | Wicked

I figured I would give a nod to my love of performing arts there. Nice touch, right? A few updates on my residency experience Read the rest of this entry

Musings for the week

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Image from memes.doublie.com

If Monday is the day you are rudely awakened from weekend “chillin,” then Tuesday is when it really sinks in that sitting around wearing fuzzy socks, reading poetry and drinking chai tea, while listening to Yo-Yo Ma’s newest album is, while lovely, not a thing you get to do for another three days. So instead, I’m sitting in my cubical, drinking chai tea, and listening to Yo-Yo Ma’s newest album while working on a project. That works, I guess. Read the rest of this entry

Going into 2016

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2015 was a good year. I finished grad school, landed a new job and made

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MLIS graduate! Class of 2015. Boom.

some strides in my personal life. As I reflect on the past year and exercise gratefulness, I can’t help but look forward to what this year will bring.

I believe in goals Read the rest of this entry