Tag Archives: social justice

Thoughts Halfway Through The Semester (#PhDLife)

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I’m in an interdisciplinary social-justice oriented doctoral degree. I’m currently taking the first two of my core classes. Within the first few weeks of the semester, one of my classmates stated that he’s not comfortable talking about race in “divisive” ways. Last week, another one of my classmates complained mentioned the previous cohort (who was majority African American, btw) and how she felt like they brought personal experience into the classroom too much, as opposed to just sticking to talking about theory. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what they said or what she meant. But when foundational theory includes excerpts like this gem, how do you not bring yourself into the classroom dialogue?

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Kroeber, A. L. (2001). What anthropology is about? In P. A. Erickson, and L. D. Murphy (Eds.), Readings for a history of anthropological theory (pp. 141-154). Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

It seems to me that if in the course of learning the theories, one has to be faced with demeaning references to self and others from marginalized communities, yeah, people are probably going to engage critically with the theory in a way that reaffirms their humanity. I get it, we’re supposed to be dry and academic and intellectual. But that’s not realistic. It’s a critical perspectives degree program, people. Like it or not, the influences of those theorists are still present in the discipline, as I noted while listening to a (White) anthropologist talking about her experiences studying village people in Sri Lanka. Too, the point of getting a doctorate, as my professors keep reminding us, is to build the theories and knowledge practices of the future. To shape new knowledge structures, we have to confront the old ones. I discussed this to some extent in my weekly reflection paper:

From its beginning, there seemed to be a heavy focus on the societies anthropologists deemed “primitive” and “savage.” Levi-Strauss (2001) speaks of social anthropology as serving to capture history past in the living incarnation of history present, via the so-called primitive societies. This discipline mission was echoed in Edward B. Tylor’s work, in which he maintained that anthropologists help to connect with the past through “survival” societies, as demonstrated in classical cultural evolutionism thought (Erickson & Murphy, 2001). Kroeber (2001) explained this obsession with non-Western societies as “a desire to understand better all civilizations, irrespective of time and place…or as generalized principles as possible” (p. 144). He goes on to say that sociologists tend to linger on their own societies, as the focus of study, while psychologists have a tendency towards centering their own culture as the norm (Kroebel, 2001). The implication is that anthropologists are broader in their coverage and more inclusive of topic, however the manner in which Kroebel speaks of non-Western cultures, including African American culture, reveals a paternalistic nod towards Eurocentric values and White supremacy…I’m also curious what role anthropology and other social sciences may have played in supporting or subverting colonization and the “civilizing” and assimilation of non-Western societies. What inherent power dynamics are built into the discipline, which might affect how truth is perceived?

Of course, my classmates would likely say they didn’t meant it like that. Sometimes, though, intent is less important than impact. My question is: if you can’t bring personal experience, as a black person, into dialogue with theories in a social justice oriented degree program, when can you?? Also, given that some of the theorists we’ve read have been straight up racist and/or white supremacist in their orientation…is the expectation that we should not engage with that in the classroom? How would one ideally critique racist theorists and theories without bringing up race in uncomfortable and “divisive” ways? I genuinely want to know. I’m trying to wrap my mind around this dynamic of discomfort. Is it that there is fear around Black emotions? Is that what this is? Inquiring minds would like to know.

 

 

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Librarianing Abroad: Two Weeks in South Africa

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I recently returned from South Africa, where I went as a faculty assistant for a short-term study abroad class. Ironically, right after I returned, I saw an article about librarian-led study abroad trips on In The Library With The Lead Pipe. So that’s my next adventure in the works 😉

The sociology course studied the legacy of Apartheid, looking at inequality and resistance from an international perspective. Lasting about two weeks, we split our time between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Our experiences ranged from touring Robben Island where anti-Apartheid political activists were imprisoned to attending lectures at the University of Johannesburg to penguin watching on the Western Cape to visiting Langa township in Cape Town (which I fell in love with and am currently plotting my moving plans) to observing the stark disparities in housing conditions and availability in urban Johannesburg and much, much more. It was a bit of a whirlwind trip and every bit as much of a learning experience for me as I’m sure it was for the students.

Perspective

I visited South Africa last summer, as a tourist, with friends. As such, my exposure was mainly to Cape Town proper and all the beautiful things. I was certainly aware of the troubled history of race relations in South Africa and suspected that there were ongoing challenges, especially given the country’s relatively new democracy and current leadership. Last summer, the driver who took us from the airport to our lodging happened to be black. He told us about how black and brown people largely still live in segregated communities, before dropping us off in what he termed as “rich, white” neighborhood. And it was. Very white, to the extent that we were pretty much the only brown faces aside from wait staff at restaurants. Because that’s what having American dollars does.

So when I returned to Cape Town this summer as part of a study abroad trip, it was to a familiar city, in more ways than one. In some respects, South Africa reminds me of home. There’s de facto segregation. There are white people in denial, complaining about affirmative action. There is white supremacy. There are misguided liberals who want to do and say the right thing, but still don’t ever really interact with the communities they’re speaking on behalf of. There are black and brown people passionately advocating for change, because their lives depend on it. There are apathetic folk. There’s abject poverty that follows the path of redlining in urban and suburban regions. And there was the ever-present clerk or “security guard” to follow me around the store and make sure I’m not stealing anything since, you know, my skin is brown. Therefore, I am a suspect.

But I guess it should remind me of home, since our histories are so intertwined. In fact, the U.S. was one of the countries South Africa studied before implementing Apartheid. Under Apartheid, American leading politicians largely turned a blind eye, while our CIA played a role in training the South African equivalent (as we learned at one museum) and imprisoning those who were against the system. It’s amazing to me how simply desiring to be treated as human can so easily become a crime. And how many people have died, in South Africa, the U.S., and other nations, to try to realize this dream.

Parallels

Race has played a huge role in the development of South African society. Starting with segregated communities following colonization by the Dutch and the British, the emphasis on white and non-white snowballed before culminating in what we know as Apartheid. I found it interesting that there was this alternative history being shared in conversation with South Africans involved in the cultural heritage and tourist industries about how pre-Apartheid everyone lived harmoniously and got along. Me being the skeptic that I am (and having some prior knowledge of South African history), I did some digging around and verified that, yes, segregation was a thing well before Apartheid was formally enacted in 1948. After all, Matahma Ghandi was involved in anti-segregation work in the 1920s…which made me wonder why this story was being told and did the tellers actually believe it? How does creating alternative histories impact the integrity of cultural heritage work? Might cultural heritage and information institutions not be neutral after all? *gasp*

Under Apartheid, race became white (self-explanatory) and black (everyone who wasn’t white. This included black Africans, coloreds, Indians/Asians, and those of Muslim faith). Persons of color residing in communities that were reclaimed or desired for white people were forcibly removed and resettled in segregated townships and homelands under the 1913 Native Land Act. Mind you, white people were the minority in South Africa, but they had political power. Control was maintained in part by limiting access to quality education. Education for non-whites was dismal by comparison, particularly for black Africans. Higher education was primarily conducted in Afrikaans, which very few black Africans were fluent in.

In addition to housing and education, discrimination was seen in criminal justice and employment practices. The racial hierarchy put those of European ancestry at the top. Coloreds (those descending from mixed race individuals) and Indian/Asians (often lumped together) were second tier, while black Africans were regarded as the bottom rung of the social ladder. In the criminal justice system, this hierarchy was enforced, with black prisoners being given worse treatment and facilities than colored and Indian inmates. Black South Africans essentially had their citizenship stripped under Apartheid and were required to carry passbooks at all times. White employers had to sign the books each week in order for them to be allowed in the city, where whites resided. Without  the passbook in hand (or without the signature), blacks could be arrested and beaten. One woman said they got in the habit of saying goodbye to their families each time they left the house, because no one knew if they would return home that evening. Prison was just as much of a likelihood. Sometimes, white employers would force black employees to forego wages in exchange for a signature. Resistance efforts included literate black South Africans forging signatures for themselves or others.

In the workplace, people of color were often relegated to labor positions, such as working the sewer or electric lines. Even in those positions, the racial hierarchy was enforced and they were reminded of their “place.” For example, at one museum, we learned that female, black prison wardresses were required to wear a separate uniform, could not advance in rank, and were required to remain on their feet for an entire shift (which would last twelve hours). White wardresses were afforded chairs to use during their shifts. I’m telling you, the detail put into this system would be impressive if it weren’t so depressing.

The legacy of Apartheid is obvious even today. Quality education for children of color in K-12 remains a struggle; student activism against colonialist higher education structures is present. Housing remains an issue, with Johannesburg and Cape Town being overcrowded and under-resourced. Stereotypes prevail that cast black South Africans as lazy and untrustworthy and colored South Africans as thieves. There aren’t enough jobs to go around; unemployment rates are highest among black young adults aged 18-35. Xenophobia towards immigrants creates tension, as Africans immigrating from other countries are seen as better workers (see stereotypes) and hired over native South Africans. It seems you can’t create an unequal system and expect it to go away in twenty years, when it took hundreds of years to create. The problems continue to exacerbate rather than subside. Sound familiar, America?

In Johannesburg, the city center is predominantly black and brown, because of white flight post-Apartheid. The suburbs encircling the city are white communities. One of the most striking things I encountered in Johannesburg was the way that middle and upper class white people (basically all white people, because Apartheid) lock themselves away. They reside in nice homes in white-only neighborhoods, but remain behind walls with barbed wire on top. They hire security guards to patrol the streets around their homes…I couldn’t help wondering what they are afraid of.

Librarianing

In terms of what I did as a librarian and assistant faculty person pre-trip, I engaged in research to compile a packet on the HIV/AIDS crisis for students who might be interested in exploring this as a final project. This packet was made available via Blackboard, along with a few other topics the leading faculty put together on criminal justice and housing reform.

While in South Africa, I accompanied my colleague, the onsite coordinator(s) and the students on excursions to various lectures, cultural heritage sites, and tourist locations. And I talked, a lot, with my colleague about parallels to the U.S. and other nations that attempted or succeeded in building social systems around race. We brainstormed about what to revisit during debriefing sessions with the students and provided “actually…consider….what about…are you sure?” statements to push them to think more critically about their initial reactions. The students were responsible for writing journals a few times a week, so occasionally we bounced ideas around to restructure journal assignments.

Oh, and I said, “Actually I’m a faculty member” about a hundred times when people mistook me for a student. Interesting bit of trivia: in South Africa, “faculty” are what they call colleges within a university. So instead of being liaison to the College of Education here, I might be liaison to the Faculty of Education there. Another trivia fact: I would be in gross violation of the borrowing privileges at the University of Johannesburg Library, because they have stricter limits. Can you imagine being allowed only six items at a time as an undergrad??

Upon returning to the States, I served as the primary contact for questions about the final assignment (my colleague remained abroad) and to provide any research assistance with developing topics. I also accompanied the students home from South Africa. And they all made it in one piece, although it was a little iffy there for a minute, with last-minute security checks. I learned that when you’re traveling internationally, probably don’t tell students to be at the gate ten to fifteen minutes before boarding, because A) They might show up five minutes before and B) There might be a surprise extra screening that will result in actually getting everyone on board ten minutes before the door closes and this will kinda stress you out.

That was my two weeks in brief. There was a whole lot more to the experience, so I could probably write five more blog posts…

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. 

 

 

 

I.

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“You are you even before you grow into understanding you are not anyone, worthless, not worth you. Even as your own weight insists you are here, fighting off the weight of nonexistence. And still this life parts your lids, you see you seeing your extending hand as a falling wave— I they he she we you turn only to discover the encounter to be alien to this place. Wait. The patience is in the living. Time opens out to you. The opening, between you and you, occupied, zoned for an encounter, given the histories of you and you— And always, who is this you? The start of you, each day, a presence already— Hey you—”
― Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

I’m bad at publishing blog posts in a timely manner, so I started writing this at the beginning of November:

Last weekend, I participated as a staff facilitator in the university’s social justice retreat. It was a beautiful experience. I had the opportunity to work with college students (grads and undergrads) who were passionate and invested in making the world a more inclusive, welcoming place for everyone; regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, citizenship, national origin, language, socioeconomic status, or belief system. I got to hear their life stories and share some of mine. It was intense and mentally exhausting, but also so meaningful.

During that weekend, I re-learned the power of stories and of seeing, really seeing people for the individuals they are. I was humbled by the openness with which these young people came. And they challenged me to try to do better, again. To be recommitted to living out my beliefs. And to strive to stand boldly for what I believe in: human dignity and the right to be seen.

One of the students in my small-group made a comment on Saturday about the reality that America could elect a leader with fascist views. Up to that point, we’d been laughing and being fairly lighthearted in our chatter. When she said that, we all sobered up and the reflections in our minds would be read in our eyes: What would this mean to America? What would this mean for me?

To get to the retreat, we drove through ardent Trump supporter territory. There were signs every other foot. Some big, some small, some hidden by overgrown fields ill-suited to staying in their places. I even saw Trump/Pence signs on the lawn of a church. The irony is that their mission statement (because I looked in up) included a focus on ministry to at-risk populations. I wondered to myself how they defined “at-risk.” 

And then there was the huge Trump sign in a field, with the “T” missing and a notice that it had been vandalized by the intolerant. What defines tolerance and intolerance?

It’s now post-election and Trump has been named president-elect. There have been many newspaper articles, blogs posts, social media rants, and frantic tweets about the ramifications about the election. I’m not going to add to that right now.

What I do want to say is that while attending the social justice retreat I was challenged in ways that I did not expect to be challenged.From that experience, these are the things I learned:

  • “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” ― Isaac Asimov
    • Never assume that you know someone’s life story, the things they wrestle over, or their perspective, just because of how they look or what you perceive to be true from prior experience.
  • “We’re all stories in the end.” – Steven Moffat
    • As the retreat coordinator said, it’s not facts that change lives, it’s stories. The more we take time to engage with others on a genuine level, the better off we all are. It doesn’t mean we’ll all agree on everything (spoiler: we won’t). But it is hard to ignore someone’s humanity while listening. Build relationships and take time to be present. It’s about dialogue, not debate. Debate has it’s time and place.
  • “No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people. Oftentimes, we have no clue. Yet we push just the same.” ― Jay Asher
    • During the retreat, we had little paper bags in which we could leave (positive) comments for other people to recognize the brave, supportive, or noteworthy things they’d done during the weekend. At the end of the retreat, everyone had a chance to retrieve their bags and see what notes others had left for them. Sometimes I forget that other people besides me can see me living.
  • “A life is not important except in the impact is has on other lives.” ― Jackie Robinson
    • Also, on the last day, we did this activity. Maybe it sounds cheesy; maybe it was. But it was also humbling and warm-fuzzy feeling to realize that the things I did, just going throughout my day, meant something to someone else. And vice versa.

I have a quote wall in my apartment with sticky notes of phrases and ideas I want to remember (also perhaps cheesy). Each of these quotes went on my wall and hopefully it will serve as a constant reminder to me to, in the words of Luuvie Ajayi, “Do better!”