Trippin’ Over the Color Line: The Invisibility of Race in Library and Information Studies

by Elizabeth Lieutenant

Honma, T. (2005). Trippin’ over the color line: The invisibility of race in library and information studies. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 34(3), Article 2.

Through this seminal piece, Honma centers the discussion of race and racism in LIS. Honma begins this article with a critical analysis of the historical role of libraries as institutions of racial assimilation and exclusion. This follows with a critique of “diversity” and “multiculturalism” movements, their neoliberal roots, and their expression within LIS associations, noting that diversity and multiculturalism silence race-based dialog and action. In proposing a method for LIS to overcome its racist roots, Honma promotes an intersectional approach that draws on traditionally marginalized theories and voices, including gender and ethnic studies. Honma concludes by advocating for the centering of racial critique in LIS as a method to overcome its long-standing support of white supremacy.


 

Honma’s discussion of ALA’s focus multiculturalism and diversity as a methods to whitewash (in more ways than one) structural racism and systematic oppression both with the LIS field and the United States gave me a fair amount to reflect upon. A review of the revisions to the ALA’s Standards for Accreditation can serve as an illustration of some of the issues Honma raises. The 1992 Standards¹ define diversity as multicultural, multiethnic, and multilingual:

The “multicultural, multiethnic, and multilingual” nature of society is referenced throughout the Standards because of the desire to recognize diversity when framing goals and objectives, designing curricula, and selecting and retaining faculty and students.

By comparison, the 2008 Standards² include the following definition, or lack thereof, of diversity:

The American Library Association’s policy 60.5, “Library Education to Meet the Needs of a Diverse Society,” encourages graduate library and information science programs to ensure that their student bodies, faculties, and curricula reflect the diverse histories and information needs of all people that are served. These standards should be interpreted in the spirit of that policy.

The nature of a demonstrably diverse society is referenced throughout the Standards because of the desire to recognize diversity, defined in the broadest terms, when framing goals and objectives, designing curricula, and selecting and retaining faculty and students.

This expansive definition of diversity can be interpreted as recognition of the many dimensions of diversity and their intersections, including race and ethnicity, cultural identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, ableness, and class, to name but a few. It can also be interpreted as an erasure of marginalizing traits and attempt to ignore structural discrimination and oppression. Prescriptive measures are, for the most part, avoided within these document, so one cannot expect specific quantifiable counts of “diversity,” whatever the term may mean. Regardless, mere counts of bodies or courses are ineffective at combating already oppressive social conditions, as evidenced within Honma’s piece.

So what can be done to combat the erasure of race. Measures like ALA’s Task Force on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (TFEDI) certainly seem like a step in the right direction. The TFEDI arose in response to a statement issued by the Black Caucus of ALA (BCALA) protesting the 2016 Annual Conference’s locating in Florida after George Zimmerman was aquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin within that same state. The TFEDI serves as a collaborative effort and includes representatives from various ALA bodies including, amongst others, the Ethnic Caucuses, Diversity Committee and Council, GLBT and Social Responsibilities round tables, respectively. Collective action on the part of ALA is desireable, as it facilitates social change by drawing strength from a large and diverse membership base. Yet I can’t help but notice that the genesis of this task force, which arose as in response to the murderer of a young black boy being allowed to go free, has been erased from the official communications of the TFEDI that I’ve reviewed.

Is the TFEDI’s inclusive response a usurpation of the BCALA’s attempt to raise critical consciousness within LIS to the systematic murder of black men? As I’m not privy to the discussions, I cannot say; nor can I, as a white person, ever fully understand the individualized hardships of those within and without the profession who fear for the lives merely because of the amount of melanin within their skin. What I can do is listen, learn, create safe spaces for others to speak, speak when no one else will, and act in solidarity. I hope that, at the very least, ALA and the TFEDI will do the same.


 

1. American Library Association’s 1992 Standards for Accreditation of Master’s Programs in Library and Information Studies.
2. American Library Association’s 2008 Standards for Accreditation of Master’s Programs in Library and Information Studies.

Advertisements