libraries

On Privilege, Intersectionality, and the Librarian Image

Thanks to some conversations I’ve had with Lisa Rabey, Andromeda Yelton, and the members of #libtechwomen, I’ve been thinking about intersectionality in librarianship a lot lately. A blog post by Andy Woodworth provided just the jumping off point I needed to publish some of these thoughts.

While airing grievances, Andy touched on the idea of professionalism in librarianship, and how, in his mind, it is tied to a person’s appearance. He wrote:

(H)ow you look and act around the community you serve matters. How you dress is up to you, but if you step outside of the people’s expectations as to how [insert your kind of librarian] should look it’s going to take work to show them that you are a competent professional. It’s not up to them to expand their definitions, it’s up to you to do the work that will prove those definitions are wrong.

I take issue with this perspective, because I think it perpetuates inequality in librarianship, and it privileges a specific group. I’ll try to explain why.

The demographics of this profession fall largely along white, cisgender female lines. So much so, that if you search for images of librarians, white cisgender women will make up the vast majority of your search results.

Anyone who falls outside the white cisgender female model defies expectations of what it means to be a librarian by simply existing. Even male librarians represent an expansion of the definition.

In my case, you see evidence of this expectation when patrons approach a white colleague at the reference desk instead of coming to me for help because I don’t fit their model of what a librarian looks like. I’ve been told this also happens to male librarians.

Regardless of what I wear or how I act around some members of the community I serve, my race will always place me outside of the norm. When we place the burden of of being the exception on those who fall outside of the norm, we are furthering an agenda that supports the idea that whiteness is the highest standard, indeed, the only standard that should be used to measure suitability.

Rather, I think the responsibility lies with the community as a whole to demonstrate that differences (race, gender, sexual orientation, able-bodied, etc.) aren’t just deviations, but are representative of much stronger, deeply entrenched power relations that must be challenged and dismantled if this profession hopes to diversify.

We can have conversations about purple hair and tattoos and whether they don’t represent a professional image, but we shouldn’t have them without drawing parallels between these superficial differences and the (in some cases) immutable differences that we are born with, or that are central to our identity.

This is what intersectionality means. The intersection between and within these differences presents us with an opportunity to work toward a more beneficial and productive dismantling of the structures that work to keep us apart and distrustful of each other.

I am a woman who works in library technology (to an extent), so I am very interested in discussions, conferences, and panels on gender in library technology. However, by focusing the discussion only on gender, it’s as if I’m being asked to disassociate the other parts of my identity (i.e., race) because it isn’t viewed as a universally shared experience. It reinforces the privilege of white cisgender women, and when we support this privilege, we fail to appreciate how these implications for my professional success and standing intersect and interact.

But I don’t want to give the impression that discussions about intersectionality are only about the ways we continue to fail each other. As The Angry Black Woman writes, intersectionality is “also about taking in on yourself to learn, to form better bonds, to understand, to change yourself the way you’ve asked others to change.”

That’s what I’m hoping to do with this post, to create a space where we can discuss these concepts inside (and outside) of professional contexts with an eye toward dismantling those structures that work to keep our profession from diversifying.

(h/t to Chris Bourg for letting me ride her coattails.)

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35 thoughts on “On Privilege, Intersectionality, and the Librarian Image

  1. Andrea Wright says:

    Thanks for this post! I value intersectionality, but I hadn’t taken time out to think about how being the “default” in my profession affected our experiences at the reference desk.

  2. I can’t relate to you situation more! I’m a white female librarian, however, I’m an early career/next-gen/young librarian (whatever term the world wants to label me as). I’ve experienced discrimination at the reference desk on so much, that it’s maddening. There have been countless situations where senior faculty approach our middle-aged staff–especially the gray-haired cardigan-wearing part time paraprofessional–and overlook me completely. I also can’t count how many times I’ve been mistaken for a student assistant. Ageism is a huge problem in the library field and I just don’t know how to remedy it. I dress work-appropriate but still feel I have to prove something to these senior faculty to earn their respect and prove I’m a competent professional; a colleague not an assistant who is only capable of only copying articles for them.

    • Kristen says:

      Does that really qualify as relating to the situation, though? Your situation is very temporary.

      • Cecily Walker says:

        I agree that it’s temporary, but I think it relates to the situation. But I also think that while we’re talking about the challenges we face, we should be careful that we’re not denigrating others.

        There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a gray haired cardigan wearing part time paraprofessional. That statement comes across as condescending and oppositional, because it doesn’t tell me anything about that person except that her appearance (and classification) are direct contrasts to scarylibrary. When we set up contrasts like this, it makes it really difficult to find the common ground and to build the coalitions that will dismantle the very structures that keep everybody down.

      • I want to apologize if my response came off as condescending or disparaging. I wanted to sympathize with the overall tone of the article by expounding on the idea of image in the library workplace. No, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a gray-haired cardigan-wearing paraprofessional, but automatically assuming that the librarian is always going to conform to this description is discouraging. I work in an academic medical library and it’s a constant struggle for librarians in general to be viewed as colleagues by other medical faculty (who are minimally at the Ph.D. Level and usually MDs). Being a twenty-something (while temporary, yes) is still another added hurdle to overcome at my workplace. I’d hate to think that my career accomplishments are inconsequential until I’m at the age where I “look the part.”

      • Cecily Walker says:

        I can relate to how much it hurts to be devalued this way at work. I entered librarianship well into my 30s, but in my youth, I worked for a large government agency, and met with many of the same attitudes you described in your comment.

        I really hope that there is an opportunity for all of you (who are probably treated shoddy by the PhDs and MDs in various ways) to find a way to support each other through this.

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  5. Mary Jo says:

    Cecily, I really appreciate the care with which you use language. We all have biases based on our very particular life paths, experiences, and environmental exposure, and we often do not realize those biases until someone points them out. Not only do we have biases, we have ignorance about the experiences of others.

    I work in a small public library in a primarily white, affluent area near Austin. At the library, we pride ourselves in customer service, and sometime we are perhaps overzealous in our customer service. A black woman came to see me last year after encountering our customer service to tell me she felt unwelcome in our library – that as she was trying to be helped, so much attention was directed at her that she felt singled out.

    I will always be grateful to her, because she said to me that she did not want to hear about how nice our staff was or how there must be a misunderstanding or whatever it was I was going to say. She point blank told me that she wanted me to just listen. So I did.

    I found myself trying to imagine being in her shoes, looking around and realizing I am the only black person there, having several people focusing on me trying to address my concern. Then I tried to imagine being the only white person in a library and having the reverse experience, and I got a little closer to understanding. And then I tried to imagine having this experience over and over and over for my whole life. Well, imagining only gets you a fraction of the way there, but it was eye-opening.

    I shared the story with the rest of staff. It was a lesson in the fact that we may have biases that we are not aware of. It was a lesson in the fact that everyone who comes into the library is working from a set of experiences we know nothing about. It was a lesson in being aware of how our primarily white library feels to people who are not white, and in particular how it feels to black people, since they are least represented in our community. It was a lesson in the importance of listening.

    It led me to read Inequality in the Technopolis, which is the story of Austin’s racial history – how some areas came to be black, some Hispanic, and others white. While the people currently living in these areas may be transplants and not directly responsible for the history, that history affects us all, giving favoritism and benefits to whites. Alas, the book offered no prescriptions other than increased tech training and access for nonwhites so they can compete better economically.

    If you are ever in Austin, maybe you would like to give a talk?

    • Cecily Walker says:

      Mary Jo, thank you for sharing this story. It’s an excellent example of how everyone, no matter who they are, comes to us with experiences that we may not be aware of, and how our own expectations, like around customer service, for example, can potentially create barriers.

      I haven’t been to Austin in about five years, but if I’m headed down, I’ll be sure to let you know.

  6. Thank you Cecily. In a lot of conversations about intersectionality in libraries (or elsewhere) it is very difficult to talk about perspectives as opposed to conclusions. Your words here are clear and incisive pointing out that some of the biggest barriers to direct communication come in how we talk, not necessarily in what we say.

    I really want to listen to more people talking about intersectionality in library spaces, I think this is insightful and clear. So, thanks.

  7. This is a very elegant post. I’ve been studying librarianship in the context of LGBT leadership, which is an interesting space because LGBT status is a “concealable difference” (at least in theory). People who elect to conform do so for many reasons, but one reason is to present one’s self as the de facto standard — which proves the power issues you’re discussing.

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  9. I wonder, then, if the expansion from #libtechwomen to #libtechgender — while going in the right direction — should probably get another bump, to something like #libtechinclusion or #libtechdiversity. (I realize you aren’t just talking about library technology, but about our entire, not incredibly diverse, profession. I only mention that tag, because we’ve already got a discussion started, there, and it’s a community you and I already share–and one that I’m confident would be open to being more obviously intersectional/inclusive.)

    I struggle with how to talk about gender issues in a way that’s inclusive of intersections I don’t have. My disability and orientation are invisible, so mine are often (but not always) the same issues any white, cis-, straight, able-bodied woman would face. I’m aware of other intersections, but I don’t live them.

    The local diversity-in-tech organization I’m helping to found is supposed to be inclusive of all tech minorities’ issues, and when I was discussing harassment with another board member (male, of Alaska Native descent), I realized his experience with and feelings about being harassed were very different than mine.

    It’s not my place to tell his story, but I struggle with how to tell my story in a way that leaves him the right openings to tell his.

    I guess my point is “Intersectionality is hard, but really important.”

    • Cecily Walker says:

      If I had a choice, I’d probably stick with #libtechgender or #libtechinclusion. The word ‘diversity’, while well intentioned, always rings a little hollow and meaningless to me. Others probably feel differently about it, but when I see the word it always feels like someone is saying “We have one [variant person] on staff, therefore we’re committed to diversity.”

      And to your point about intersectionality being hard but important, you’re right on.

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  13. This is a great post and although “diversity” is a topic of discussion in LIS discourse, intersectionality tends to get overlooked. Even new stereotypes that superficially pretend to fix our image, like the hipster librarian stereotype, tend to reinforce gender, racial, socioeconomic, and other norms. This is an important conversation we need to continue to have in order to figure out how to most effectively re-represent ourselves. Thanks for writing this.

  14. Thank you for this post, Cecily. Part of our mission of Librarian Wardrobe (I am an admin with Nicole Pagowsky, Ingrid Abrams, and Annie Pho) is to document the variety in librarianship — not only do different types of libraries have different expectations of “professional dress” — but we, as individuals, make decisions to “stand out” or blend in in very interesting ways. If you haven’t, and you’re comfortable, I invite you to submit!

    http://www.librarianwardrobe.com

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  16. I’ve been thinking a lot about libraries’ capacity to challenge neoliberal & other hegemonic forces in society by virtue of the fact that we’re dedicated to the idea of expanding what is thinkable (in contradistinction to “default” thinking resulting from the aforementioned forces). Public libraries do this by simply existing (and I tend to think most other libraries fundamentally embrace the idea). This is a great conversation to have, because it sheds light on this role. The more people in our profession who are explicitly aware of this the better we can fill our role in nurturing the public sphere.

    (Disclaimer: I just had a whole bunch of coffee)

    • Cecily Walker says:

      “The more people in our profession who are explicitly aware of this the better we can fill our role in nurturing the public sphere.” – I couldn’t agree more, Steve.

  17. Thanks for this great, thoughtful post and important reminder. In addition to kudos, I’m also sending support for the inevitable backlash of hostility and mocking.

    • Cecily Walker says:

      Thanks, Jenna. Surprisingly there hasn’t been any hostility or mocking that I’m aware of.

  18. Thank you so much for sharing this. Although you realize this is not as uncommon as some may believe it to be, It is still refreshing to see the example. As a young(ish) Black, male librarian, I see so much of my own experience in your post, and in the comments.

    Please read a post I wrote almost a year ago to date along the same lines.: http://wp.me/p36JCq-D

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  22. I have to take exception with what Steve said regarding “libraries’ capacity to challenge neoliberal & other hegemonic forces in society by virtue of the fact that we’re dedicated to the idea of expanding what is thinkable” and that “Public libraries do this by simply existing.” If only this were the case! Being a passive repository of stuff changes very little and many public libraries are merely collections of popular materials. One might be hard pressed to find alternative materials much less challenge the norms of appearance embodied by white, middle class women who have long dominated the profession. It is essential that a new generation of librarians actively prove their commitment to not only bolstering the diversity of the profession, but the role of the (whatever race, gender, etc.) librarian as educator of all community members. For the public librarian, that means moving beyond folks’ stereotypes and other limitations and finding ways to serve the most disadvantaged as well as current library patrons, not just merely existing and having the building remain open.

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    • Cecily Walker says:

      Thanks for reminding me of this piece, Kate. I read it a few weeks ago. It reminded me of a quote from Essex Hemphill – I’m paraphrasing – where he said being asked whether he was black or gay was like asking him if he preferred his left testicle or his right.

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