Have you ever taken way too long to realize that something was up, and you should have asked a pointed question when you had the chance?
I spoke on a panel about diversity in libraries recently, and in the months leading up to it, I was so busy feeling nervous and honored that I didn’t realize that I was going to be tokenized and put in a position where I had to come up with a way to speak with the voice of both an oppressed minority and a privileged ally, on the spot, in front of a big, mostly-white audience. This is the first time anyone’s ever asked me to be a speaker for anything, and it was a pretty big thing; it was a big event at a big conference. I knew when I agreed to do it that it’d be at least a little bullshitty – diversity talks at big events kinda tend to be because the talks are either too big and abstract, or else they wind through too many situational anecdotes to make any sense. But I didn’t realize that it was going to be worse, that I was going to be called on to be “the race person,” and asked to speak personally about a situation that I’ve barely even learned to be a good ally in.
In retrospect, I should have figured it out a lot sooner; I knew the other members of the panel were a Muslim librarian and a leader of the LGBT roundtable. I also knew that there was a section of the talk about Islamophobia, another about transphobia, and another about race. I went in thinking that we were all going to present thoughts in each section. But what actually happened was that everyone else understood without explanation that a particular section was their primary responsibility. And when we got to the last one, and I finally realized that I was supposed to be the one to direct people in the room to talk about whether and how to support black activism in library use policies (seriously, me – I only just woke up a few years ago), in that half-second, my heart broke and I wanted to cry. Right there in front of a full room of people who had been led to believe that I’m a “thought leader.”
I gibbered something, and it was next to useless. Something about using ethical-dilemma situations to test whether your community’s needs, your library mission, and your library policy align, and not just blindly following policy or twisting policy to whatever situation is at hand. I probably should have pointed out that, as much as it may seem like anathema to rewrite your library policy or mission, it’s been done. And while I was up there, I also should have clarified that YES, it is vital to support black activism in libraries, and YES, you can find a way to strike down the naysayers because reverse racism is absolutely not a real thing.
But, y’know, I forgot to say those parts because I was mentally deafened by the roaring consciousness that they shouldn’t have asked a privileged Asian American academic librarian to talk about supporting black activism in public libraries, and I shouldn’t have consented to do it.
But I guess I already know from watching other people that that’s kind of how “diversity work” in broad libraryland goes. It’s great that people are talking about diversity in libraries more, but it’s also so, so worrisome to see how problematically it’s being done a lot of the time. It breaks your heart, even as it gives you hope. Sometimes, you have to try to come up with something impossibly insightful and diplomatic on-the-spot, and accept that you won’t do it as well as it should be done. And sometimes, you have to be big enough to recognize that somebody else’s voice would be more valuable than yours in a given conversation, and you have to step away from the speaking opportunity, no matter how much you want it. And I hope I never fail to see that again.