The Elephant in the Room, by Tabin Crume

I’m speaking for myself (because I’m not the official press secretary for all minorities) and using Disney princesses to describe race relations today. On the surface, every Disney princess is beautiful and smiling, which either means she’s happy or she was harassed enough by men on the street to plaster a perpetual grin on her face. Yet on closer inspection the minority princesses wear the least or plainest clothes, their princes are nothing to write home about, and the black one has a job. I mean, really? We finally have a black princess and her “after” looks like Cinderella’s “before”? Shouldn’t birds be cleaning, not Princess Tiana? Sure, some will say, “It was her dream to open a restaurant.” Let me scroll through my dream index… craftsman home in the country, fountain of smart, intergalactic travel, limo service, mega millions jackpot, private plane…Nope, I searched between “universal health care” and “world peace” yet didn’t find “wake up at 4 a.m. next to broke husband to chop onions” in my dream index.

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But because 1 black president princess is better than 0, it’s progress. Really, our racial relations slogan could be: “Minorities…we acknowledge you exist.”

 

So when something racist happens involving children, instead of saying, “Maybe you’re being too sensitive,” people, including library people, are asking themselves:

 

Am I biased?
Have I treated one group better than another?
Do I merit out unequal punishments?

 

After searching our hearts, many concluded, “I hate everyone equally,” or “I only hate those who park next to me in an empty parking lot. Seriously, there’re 80 spaces yet I have to crawl through the passenger side because my car has a conjoined twin?” And more than likely, you discipline the public equally; if you didn’t, you’d read about it on Yelp. However, there are library discrimination problems that extend beyond individual onsite patron interactions. These include only hiring or acknowledging minority performers and staff members for heritage months; fuzzy guidelines that lead to unequal and/or unfair development and treatment of staff; and library to library treatment of patrons. I’ll break it down for you because some things are fixable.

Juggling while Japanese is not a heritage program.

It’s 5 a.m. on a Sunday in February and I’m on the news. Why?

 

1.      It’s black history month.

2.      I’m black, and…

3.      TOBL (The Other Black Librarian) said no.

 

TOBL did the Black Book Festival this year. So we can either hire ABL (Another Black Librarian) or next year one of us will probably do it…or not. These events are open to all…oh, who are we kidding? TOBL and I are preferred representatives. It’s kind of like how your boss wouldn’t send Steve from accounting to represent your organization for Women’s History Month. Steve could have written Title IX. Doesn’t matter. They will sooner put a woman on the news who thinks Title IX is a Kanye track than send Steve. I get why we’re preferred. At the same time, I’ve hosted so many events that I get evil glares and people asking, “Wait, a Chicago Bear is coming? Didn’t you just have in the Sacramento Kings?”

 

Yes, I did.

 

That said, many minorities’ existences are only remembered when big events pop up: the Black performers who only work in February; the Cuban magician who disappears on October 15th and magically reappears on September 15th; the Mexican-American poet who is only booked May 5th. Systems often promote minority performers for these events as a reminder that they’re available year round. Yet the message doesn’t always get out, or worse, performers are hired not because they’re discussing their heritage, but because their heritage in and of itself is considered enough to make it a heritage program.

 

It’s not. It’s just a Random Act of Ignorance (RAI).

 

Staff also gets hit by RAIs. You’re in a meeting, the boss says, “It’s almost LGBT Awareness Month,” and instead of asking who wants to do a display, all of you look at Mike, a gay librarian.

 

And Mike looks behind himself to see if anyone is standing there.

 

Mike is not asked if he would like to make a display. Bridget didn’t want to be responsible for Black History Month programs. Harold figured anyone could pull books from the 950s because he was going on leave. Creating events and displays should be open to all, yet it’s expected that minorities will handle it.

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Maybe they’re booked. Maybe they wish they were asked to do things all year long instead of for four weeks. Maybe they’re busy with their Amish Vampires in Space book discussion group. Yet many are afraid not to participate, and not simply because they fear displays of urban fiction and books depicting large chopsticks; they’re asking themselves, “If I don’t do this, will I never be asked to do anything else again?”

 

Yes.

 

Same time, next year.

 

Can I get it in writing?

Librarianship is fairly ambiguous work, probably so that when you’re asking your boss, “Since when do I have to re-tar the roof?” they can answer, “’Other duties as required’ was in your job description. Now where are you with those spent nuclear fuel rods? We need them done before we can start processing adoption papers.”

 

Libraries do a lot more than we used to.

 

Little is in writing, which is ironic since we’re book people. Unless it’s on YouTube or Instagram, whatever verbal agreements you have might as well be written on a snow cone. Many of us don’t know what exactly we should be doing or what others are doing, expectations are ever shifting, and you don’t know your boundaries until you step over them. Thing is, your boundaries are different than people’s the boundaries.  It’s like we’re playing football, we know the rules of football, but the tight end shows up with a golf club saying, “Coach said I can defend myself with this.”

 

That’s not going to work.

 

Either we all get golf clubs (and better insurance coverage), or hopefully a referee says, “We should wait until the concussion study is complete in the year 2986 before we do this.” But what ends up happening is he gets to keep his club, we’re all bleeding, and we end up playing a game called “If That Were Me…”

 

The rules: watch an outrageous act or statement by a colleague seemingly go unchecked or even get applauded, and wonder what would happen to you if it were you.

 

Event: A librarian says, “Get your ass to the library.”

ITWM: My supervisor would get a call.

 

Event: Staff members are chronically late.

ITWM: I’d be at home unemployed watching Netflix.

 

Event: Librarians get applauded for crazy examples on handling unruly teens.

ITWM: I’d be sitting next to my union rep on live TV for my hearing.

 

Sometimes something so unfair happens (like your shelver is promoted to deputy library director) that you’re about to explode. I will honestly say there are times I think, “This wouldn’t have happened if I were white.” And I hate thinking this, but without transparency, all of us are left wondering what is going on. I might be thinking it’s about race, yet older white woman might be thinking, “If only I were young. These newbies are taking over.” And a young librarian might think, “If only I were hip. They only seem to like edgy people.” The next person believes, “They’re not interested in developing me as a librarian because of my disability.” This could go on forever. If only I were thin, rich, a man, a woman, older, plain, pretty, straight, gay, married, single, childless, a family person, fill in the blank. We see people being treated differently, we don’t know why, we internalize it in the manner our brain can best digest, because truth is more difficult to handle than straightforward racism, sexism, and most other isms: it’s favoritism and nepotism. Favoritism is like the new girl on a campus. All the boys like the new girl, and you don’t get it because the new girl is just like you, only new! Not improved. Not better. She doesn’t come with a bonus pack of magic erasers or a 30 day trial membership to the shaving club. She’s just new. This creates lots of WTF moments. Nepotism is Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods being hired by her sorority sister, all of whom share the same background, the same outlook on life, and except for the woman who plays Robin Scorpio on General Hospital, look like attack of the clones. But at least Elle was qualified, because sometimes nepotism doesn’t simply mean hiring the people in your cell phone circle, but believing it’s okay for your friends and family to take a year to learn the job skills all other applicants are expected to have starting day one. Favoritism and nepotism are more insidious than other forms of discrimination because they’re not flat out racism or sexism or ageism. It’s more that those aspects are a side effect, like how your hay fever medication gives you itchy eyes and makes you take long walks on the beach. The perpetrator can say, “I’m not (whatever)-ist!” And while this may be true, the results are the same, and all of us know how it makes us feel when rules are applied to us yet not to others.

 

It feels horrible.

 

It’s paralyzing. You’re immobilized because you can’t point out the unfair behavior without sounding like a blamer or a snitch. You learn, “Do your job, stay in line, and we’ll get along fine.” You learn not to speak.

 

You learn not to be all you’re capable of being.

 

Unfair treatment means two similar people doing the same acts receive different responses. One gets verbal reprimands equivalent of farts in the wind. The other has a paper trail started.  One is seen as fun, fresh, and innovative. The other learned to keep the status quo and becomes a work horse, a mule. Who do you think will get promoted, tracked into emerging leader programs or declared a mover and shaker? People can have the same degrees and goals and one receives steady promotion and accolades and the other is singing “Five Green and Speckled Frogs” for three decades.

 

Which brings me to your treatment of your library patrons.

My theory is library patrons face de facto discrimination based on the library they visit, which is most often in or near their neighborhood, which in America, is likely to be segregated. Confused? I’ll give you an example. There are two system libraries, Average Joe Library, and Important People Library. Average Joes is in an average area, possibly even segregated since we’ve reach the point that upper class blacks live in neighborhoods with more poverty than lower class whites. At Average Joe’s, the staff follows the library system rules because they know they weren’t just made up by a bunch of drunk librarians out to ruin people’s lives (at least I don’t remember doing that). Rules are what keep the library organized and prevent someone from filing the House of Pleasures books next to the Harry Potter series. When someone breaks the rules there are consequences such as being asked to leave or pay a fine. While there are complaints, staff holds firm, reminding patrons of the rules and regulations, the patrons each agree they all get equal treatment, and peace rules on earth.

 

Yeah.

 

Now let’s pan over to Important People Library, the library for Important People (IPs). IPs have problems and you are there to help them, especially since they pay your salary with their tax dollars even if all their money is in the Cayman Islands. It seems there have been a few misunderstandings about how they and their children use the library, because they are upstanding citizens and their children would never behave like anything but perfect little angels and I don’t know what you’re talking about and you had better withdraw those statements. IPs aren’t VIPs, people you actually know are important because they’re celebrities or you voted for their political opponent, but they know VIPs, and if you upset them they will write city hall more letters than the women on White Chicks.

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IPs have decided the library rules should, and will, be bent to their liking, and you will do it because the longer you deal with them the greater the chance they will give you an aneurism. Fine. You’ll help them. It might start with waiving fines, yet that creates a paper trail, so maybe you’d be better off backdating the items like you did following that new shelver training incident involving mixed up carts. And the damaged material…the book had checked out a good two times already. It’s easier to weed it than to argue with this IP about charging them. They don’t care for this whole “claims returned” deal, so perhaps it’s easier to turn in the item and mark it missing. Or just delete the record. And move the DVDs to a more secure location? Are you implying just because half the movies are gone that IPs are giving themselves the five finger discount? They should stay right where they are, and you should give my children at least 17 warnings before kicking them out, and if they say sorry, immediately let them back in.

 

Now the reason Important People Library exists is you may have noticed that IPs congregate in select areas. If not, watch HGTV. No one wants to move from their neighborhood. It’s to the point that I think their ex is buried in the backyard and they want to stick around and discourage the new owners not to build a pool. They’re all in their quaint spots, probably in homes worth ten times as much as yours even though yours is larger and doesn’t have black mold. Since they’re all together it’s understood that this is their library, it will be run how they see fit, and if not, they’ll do something about it. Thus on paper Average Joe’s looks like a criminal training center with its loads of fines and incident reports; Important People Library is a shiny gem and Little Sally has apologized for setting the carpet on fire.

 

Does this seem fair to anyone?

 

Okay, You’re Depressing Me

You’re probably thinking, “Gee, this sucks.” But as someone succinctly put it at The Library Games, “It all begins with sucking.” So here are things you can do today @ your library that don’t require an act of Congress, not that Congress does any acting anymore.

 

1. Have a variety of performers throughout the year.

As a bonus, it’s much easier to book them in their off season of the other 11 months. I balance male and female performers, and a man comes in for my storytime breaks so that small children learn that just because a man likes to be around children doesn’t necessarily mean he belongs on Megan’s List.

 

2. No, I’m not TOBL.

When newbies call me by TOBL’s name I don’t mind because there’s a 99.78% chance I have no clue who I’m talking to. But if anyone, black, white, brown, Martian, has passed probation, learn their name or call us “library lady” like our patrons do.

 

3. Offer events and displays to everyone.

When I’m enjoying the view of my private pound from my sprawling country craftsman home, someone else will have to pull 15 multicultural books, and then they’ll need to pull 15 more that aren’t on MLK, Rosa Parks or Caesar Chavez.

 

4. Don’t be that person.

Occasionally (80% of the time) the je nais se quoi that makes you more loved than all others is you work for free and don’t get reimbursed.  Don’t do that. The rest of us like money and have to catch up on OITNB. Sure, I wrote this at home, at lunch and on break, but that goes into the next item on the agenda.

 

5. What are the rules again?

Ask for guidelines, and when I say ask, I mean send an e-mail. Even if your boss’s office is so close you’re practically wearing a red suit and asking them if they were bad or good this year, get it in writing, and use examples such as, “I noticed Buffy takes five hour lunches and does storytime from home and I would also like to do that.” I actually have a list of things I’m asking in the next month.

 

6. Document.

Yes, it’s not fair that Paula counts her visits to Massage Envy as outreach, so write it down, take a picture, but while you’re doing that, document what you’re doing and make an album of event photos. Toot your own horn. (“Hey everyone, I cured Ebola!”) It’s also important that you document exceptions. Exceptions should be made, but when you make them you should make sure they don’t become the rule.

 

While I know one day soon everyone everywhere will be treated fairly under all circumstances (HAHAHAHAHA!!!), until then, here are some tips. And don’t feel bad: if you’re wondering if you have a discrimination problem, awareness is half the battle.

 

(Yo, Joe!)

 

Tabin Crume works at a library in California.
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This is the third post in a series exploring what it means to be an anti-racist library professional. See the first post, “What It means to be an anti-racist children’s librarian,” by Maggie Block, and the second post, “We can do better,” by Angie Manfredi.
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