Malikah Hall: Creating a Culture of Inclusivity in Librarianship
Malikah Hall is a junior faculty member at Texas A&M School of Law. Professor Hall joined the School of Law in 2017 after serving in the Cornell University Law Library as a Diversity Fellow, Research Services Librarian, and Lecturer-in-Law. She has taught courses in lawyering, legal research, and legal analysis. Her subject expertise is legal history. Professor Hall earned her Juris Doctor degree from the North Carolina Central University School of Law and her Master of Library Science degree summa cum laude from the North Carolina Central University School of Library and Information Sciences.
In academia, specifically librarianship in PWI organizations, I often feel the isolation of being one of the few and oftentimes the only person of color (POC) in faculty meetings, conferences, workshops, classrooms, symposia, and so forth. My knowledge, work ethic, and education are the reasons that I am in these rooms. However, when I speak on a topic of discussion or ask a question in these spaces, I am often met with microaggressions. For the most part, the microaggressions I experience have been Ascription of Intelligence, Pathologizing Cultural Values/Communication Styles, and Denial of Individual Racism/Sexism/Heterosexism. You know, the usual suspects. Thankfully, in my experience, there are also times where I feel included and embraced.
Ascription of Intelligence - Assigning intelligence to a person of color or a woman based on his/her race/gender. Messages sent by this microaggression include: people of color are generally not as intelligent as Whites; all Asians are intelligent and good in math/science, and it is unusual for a woman to have strong mathematical skills.
POC have all heard “you’re so articulate.” Most applicants for librarian positions have at least a Bachelor’s degree and most have a Master’s degree or above. Of course, we’re intelligent, articulate, and capable. Why be astonished that the POC can handle the job with ease? If an institution hires a person, the institution should trust the hire.
As the inaugural diversity fellow at Cornell Law Library, I was happy to work in a library that was incredibly diverse. The first day after the on-boarding process, I was included in library meetings (added to the rotation of meeting facilitator/notetaker), invited to join university and department committees, and was provided an opportunity to teach in the first-year legal research and writing course. I had standing meetings with my manager to ensure that my time was properly allotted, that I was aware of what opportunities were available to me, and that I felt like part of the organization.
There was no “dumbing down” of position requirements or obligations because the library did not think I was ready or that I would not be able to handle position responsibilities. In standing meetings with my manager, I talked about what I felt I needed from the position and she made suggestions on how that could be achieved. When I had a speaking engagement, the library faculty were my test audience. When I wanted to create a course, they led me to the Center for Teaching Excellence to understand how to effectively communicate in front of the classroom. This position laid the foundation for who I am as a librarian because I felt included.
If an institution is going to create (or improve) a diversity fellowship, there must be a purpose for the position and the person you hired. While I wholeheartedly believe that diversity fellowships, residencies, and directed study opportunities are a way to counterbalance this disparity, the creation of these programs is not enough. In order to move to inclusion, because diversity without inclusion is wasted opportunity, we have to confront these issues head-on. Have an outline or job description and a schedule or timeline of activities you would like to see from the hire. There, of course, has to be room for flexibility, but these positions must have some formality. Institutions have to stop attempting to “dumb down” a position because you think a POC can’t handle the job. Change does not happen through passivity.
Pathologizing Cultural Values/Communication Styles - The notion that the values and communication styles of the dominant/White culture are ideal/”normal”- Messages sent by this microaggression include: assimilate to dominant culture; leave your cultural baggage outside, and there is no room for difference.
During a professional social gathering, I was speaking with a colleague about our shared experience growing up in Chicago. At one point, we laughed a good old Black girl magic laugh. You know, a throw your head back, slap the table laugh. This was not the first, loud, attention-grabbing belly laugh of the day - it was just the blackest. Before we knew it, we looked up and found ourselves surrounded, literally surrounded by white women. These women didn’t engage us in conversation nor did they ask to be let in on the joke. They simply surrounded us. It felt like “how dare you two be Black in front of company”. My new-found friend and I both looked at each other, gave a POC nod, and left.
The truth is, as is the case with most microaggressions, claims of persons of color being louder than others are not based in reality. As I said, ours was not the only loud belly laugh that day. However, microaggressions and systemic racism ensure that our laugh is received as too much or unprofessional. Some librarians voices carry. When we teach, when we moderate events, when we give presentations, we enunciate our speech. So why is it a problem when POC raise our voices as part of the profession? Why does the freedom of that offend?
Managers and colleagues have to ask themselves if they are responding to basic behaviors negatively based on cultural differences. If this behavior was exhibited by a white person, would it be seen as problematic? Be honest about the answer and make changes. Also, a person who speaks loudly and clearly is an asset to the library, not a problem to be overcome. We are your moderators and hosts for your events. We lead tours of the library during orientation. We bring energy to your organization. Embrace it.
Denial of Individual Racism/Sexism/Heterosexism - A statement made when bias is denied - Messages sent by this microaggression include: I could never be racist because I have friends of color; your racial oppression is no different than my gender oppression; I can’t be a racist. I’m like you.; and denying the personal experience of individuals who experience bias
I was at a conference once, and a person came up to me, said nothing, turned my badge lanyard around, and said: “oh you’re from [insert school]”. Not hello, not what school are you from, not may I touch your person, nothing. It was violative of my sense of body agency, personal space, dignity, and respect. And before you ask, yes, the person was caucasian. Would this have happened to a white person? I don’t know, but I do know several POC who have experienced something similar. Did the person think I snuck into the conference? I’m wearing a lanyard for Pete’s sake.
I was incredibly offended and said so. Inexcusably, the offender responded that (they) didn’t mean any harm. Other offending responses I’ve heard from other POC who experienced this type of behavior include “relax” or “you have a chip on your shoulder”. These responses are recognized and documented microaggressions. Allowing “I didn’t mean any harm” to go unchecked protects fragility at the expense of diversity and inclusion.
I do not accept “I didn’t mean any harm” as an excuse to downplay the harm caused by the offender’s words or actions. You may have not meant to harm, but you did. Intent and harm are not mutually exclusive. The offender is not suffering a hardship when asked to treat a person with dignity and respect - the person being robbed of their dignity is the victim here. I know the offender cannot take back what was said or done, but they can acknowledge the harm caused, learn from it, and try to do better next time.
“The function, the very serious function of racism is a distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” Toni Morrison
Institutions have to start building a culture of inclusivity. Creating positions, committees, caucuses, fellowships, residencies, etc. are simply not enough. These microaggressions, implicit biases, and cultural insensitivities must be directly addressed. That includes confronting these issues as they arise and listening to the POC who is brave enough to explain their perspectives on these issues. The vulnerability of putting yourself out there on issues that are deeply personal, affect your work-life balance, and are difficult to even articulate is hard enough without having your feelings downplayed as non-issues. Don’t tell the POC to get over it, be the bigger person, try not to take it so personally and other tropes. It is not as simple as that. These responses diminish the voices of POC. That is how systemic racism, bigotry and patriarchy work.
More directly, stop finding excuses for problematic behavior. Do something about it. Skits and workshops help, but how are you doing the work every day in your institution to ensure your librarians of color feel included? The onus to address these issues has been on POC for years. It’s time for that burden to shift.