Decolonizing Libraries Within White Communities

To accurately discuss the topic of systemic racism without bias towards any specific ethnic demographic within a gatekeeper community such as libraries, it should be noted that I am writing from a place of privilege as a white American female working in the field of library science. I recognize my privilege and offer this post as a means of discussion to gain a better understanding about systemic racism, an individual’s part within that systemic racism, and how we can move forward in a progressive way when dealing with decolonization.

Decolonization is formulated around the idea that we as librarians should be more inclusive to “othered” voices, going above the average selection process to purposefully incorporate more authors and books either written by or containing marginalized demographics such as people of color and indigenous populations. Nicole A. Cooke writes an enlightening article called What It Means to Decolonize the Library. But what is decolonization?

Decolonizing is not meant to exclude. When we talk about decolonizing a syllabus, or our libraries, publishing houses, or our professions, what we are talking about is decentering whiteness, and being more inclusive to voices of color and to voices that represent diverse perspectives.

– Nicole A. Cooke, What It Means to Decolonize the Library

However, how do you decenter whiteness in a community that is predominantly white?

The duty of every librarian is to serve their community and construct their collection based off of the needs and demands of their patrons. Would it make sense to fill a library with proportionately more marginalized works when the community demand specifically asks for more of their own demographic representation, or worse, vocally objects to diverse books and authors of color? The end result of such a drastic decenterization would be a library that sees a drop in use.

As a librarian who has a part in choosing the books and materials that are available in a library which serves a largely white community, I can say that it is a struggle. Of course I try to select materials that are diverse and inclusive to everyone. The struggle comes about when patrons outwardly confront you for the selections you make, questioning selections of marginalized works and demanding that those books and materials be removed. It is incredibly frustrating when confronted with such vehement prejudice.

Thankfully, this is the exception, and not the standard. Being confronted with such hatred and racism is scary and uncomfortable. And that is why librarians need to continue to stand up and defend our diverse communities and authors of color. If we as white librarians feel fearful of the patrons who actively confront and call us out for providing access to marginalized voices, how do you think the marginalized communities feel?

I think the real question is not only about incorporating authors and literary characters of color into a collection, but also about finding voices and issues that can meet the white community where they are. Although there are those who are open and willing to discuss these difficult issues, a great majority of white Americans still feel uncomfortable talking about racism and their part in perpetuating micro-aggressions because of their white privilege.

Books such as White Fragility, Caste, and How to be an Anti-Racist are all great stones in the bridge that will eventually unite patrons in understanding their part in colonization, but how do you get the conservative population to read and understand literature on these sensitive topics? You can’t force someone to read a book, no matter how many authors of color you make available for them to read. Along with decolonizing libraries by incorporating more authors of color and indigenous populations, we also need to be developing a rhetoric about how we can begin changing the minds of those who refuse to listen.

Let’s start by hiring more librarians of color and indigenous populations. Let’s start by defending people of color when we as white people see an act of micro-aggression occur in the workplace or out in public. Let’s start by discussing works featuring the struggles of racism and works written by people of color and indigenous populations as white Americans, because we have the privilege to be heard when many people of color and indigenous populations can’t or won’t be heard. And let’s continue to increase our efforts to give people of color a platform to voice these concerns and suggestions for ways to progressively move forward. We are listening. We hear you.

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