I live in the best small town in America.
We have a high median income, a very-well educated public who supports cultural enrichment, and great public schools. It’s a great small town to work as a librarian in. Who wouldn’t want to live here?
But there’s more to my town that than. Part of my town is the community of students who attend our schools but don’t live in our community. By and large, these kids live in a place very different from our town. Many of them live in Rio Arriba county, our neighbor. THIS county, our next door neighbor, wrestles with serious heroin problems and had the highest drug overdose death rate between 2007-2011. While my town is a rainbow of immigrants and first generation Americans who work at our National Lab, a whole amazingly diverse group of people from around the world, this group of kids are by and large Hispanic. But though they don’t live in our county or our town, because these students attend our schools, they are members of our community and, yes, they are patrons at my library.
They are especially patrons at our library during after-school hours while their parents work in our town until 5:00. Some of the students go to our Teen Center, some hang out in our skate park, some participate in after-school activities, some take the bus off the hill and go home. But many come to the library. They get on the computers, they hang out, they check out material, and yeah – they often break the library’s Code of Conduct.
I never thought twice about the way we enforced the Code of Conduct. It’s straight forward, after all, as is our system of warnings. It’s all laid out and clearly posted and cleared through levels of our administration.
I never thought twice about it until the day I was escorting out a group of kids – frequent offenders, mind you – who had broken the Code of Conduct. I was explaining how they had violated the Code and would be asked to leave for the day. One of them rolled his eyes at me and snapped, “You’re only throwing us out because we’re brown. You’re biased against brown kids.”
And that, I thought, was just ridiculous. I mean, IF YOU KNOW ME you know that I am the least racist person in the world – that I have spent my life dedicated to progressive causes, through my donations, my volunteer work, my protesting and campaigning. I’m not a racist. OBVIOUSLY.
When I took a minute to step outside my own personal feelings (because who likes being called a racist?) I realized that – if I were willing to just listen – there were a few important lessons to take from this moment. They have helped me grow as a person and as a librarian who deeply believes it is my duty to advocate for the children and teens in my community and, more, in our shared society. I hope that YOU can take a minute to step outside of YOUR personal feelings, of the things you “know” about YOURSELF, and think about these lessons too.
1. Watch “How To Tell Someone They Sound Racist” by Jay Smooth, AKA Ill Doctrine. This is an amazing think piece from Jay Smooth and it lays things out in a constructive, useful way. I use it often when trying to get people to think about how to approach conversations about problematic speech. It’s a great way to get people to consider issues larger than “But I know I am not a racist! Inside my heart!” I was stuck in that place and I had to get out. As Jay says: “I don’t care what you are. I care about what you did.”
2. Acknowledge your privilege. I work on this every single day. I am not a racist. But I cannot escape the fact I benefit from the fact we live in a society that privileges me as a white, upper-middle class, cisgendered, well-educated, able-bodied heterosexual woman. I benefit from this system and I have my whole life. Acknowledging that makes me self-aware, it doesn’t make me complicit in it – JUST LIVING does that.
3. But what then? I’ve lived my life checking my privilege and working as hard as I can to be an ally. And that is constant work I don’t ever want to slack on. But it’s not enough and I don’t deserve applause for it. I must work to listen to and, more importantly, magnify other voices and experiences. Trudy, who writes at Gradient Lair, has an an amazing piece about this: Allies Are Still Privileged; Don’t Forget It.
But how did any of those things relate to those kids I threw out of the library? I had already known all that other stuff. It was in making the leap to connecting them and it was in accepting that I had to trust someone else’s lived experience.
Namely: the lived experience of those kids.
I would never tell a woman who has been sexually assaulted, “Well, I’ve walked down PLENTY of streets by myself at night just fine, so I don’t think anything really happened to you.” I would never tell a gay man, “Well, I’ve never heard someone say FAGGOT as a real insult, so I don’t think people really do that with malice any more.” And I would never tell a POC, “Well, I never get followed in stores, so I don’t think YOU do either.”
And I would be outraged beyond measure if a thin person ever told me, “Oh, no one really cares about weight anymore anyway – it’s not like you get harassed about it.”
Why? Because those people cannot presume to know what my life as a fat person is like. Because they would be denying my lived experience … as surely as I was writing off the lived experience of those teenagers. Why was I so quick to write off these teenagers? Because I was refusing to take myself out of the situation and try to hear their lived experience. But when I stopped for a minute and actually listened, it was impossible to ignore.
What have I done since then? I’ve taken real steps to address this problem. I worked with my administration to establish an area within the library that lends itself more to hanging out – a place where we don’t have to enforce the elements of the Code of Conduct that involve noise. I hope to expand this area through the course of this school year – adding music stations and maybe one of our gaming systems. This step alone has helped de-escalate incidents in the library and I hope created an area that feels welcoming to ALL library users. And I’m making sure that my staff knows that we enforce the Code of Conduct evenly across the board – we don’t let the kids we “know don’t mean any harm” slide. I want to try to learn more names and actually engage with these patrons at times when I am not discipling them. But I also want ALL our patrons to know that discipline will and does happen at the library – that’s important to me too.
We haven’t solved all of our problems. And I know we’ll face more Code of Conduct problems, some we can’t predict. But I don’t want any of them to be centered around one group feeling like their worst lived experiences are happening and being echoed at the library. *I* have the ability to do better than that. No – I have the RESPONSIBILITY to do better than that. We all do.
You know those basic lessons we try to teach to our littlest patrons? The ones we hope will foster empathy, growth, thoughtfulness in them? The ones we hope will make them better people as they grow? They can – and should – apply to us too. It can be a much easier first step if you’ll just think of it along those lines.
Stop. Consider. Listen. BELIEVE. Change.
Angie Manfredi works at a library in New Mexico. Find her on Twitter @misskubelik and at her blog Fat Girl Reading. ~*~ This is the second essay in a series this week exploring what it means, and what it requires, to be an anti-racist library professional. See Maggie Block’s essay, which started off the series.