--by Angie Manfredi
For an extrovert like me, there is nothing quite like standing in front of a group of your peers and colleagues and presenting information. Ever since I have been in library services, back to when I was a paraprofessional without a college degree, I have loved presenting and sharing information at workshops and conferences. Hard to believe, but I have been presenting for fourteen years. I hope that over that time I have helped others learn and grow. I know that, as a presenter, I am constantly learning and challenging myself. I want to be better. I want to be engaging. I want to be constantly innovating.
A few weeks ago, I traveled up to Wyoming to present at the Mountain Plains Library Association/Wyoming Library Association Conference. (I have a personal goal to present at every state and Cheyenne is only a day’s drive from my home.) One of my presentations was about the We Need Diverse Books Campaign - helping recommend titles for librarians to add to their libraries. But I also wanted to take this presentation to the next level and discuss what I feel is a fundamental duty for librarians and educators: demanding more from the literature we put on our shelves and asking hard questions about it.
I expected a few things out of this presentation. I expected that my audience would be largely White and that turned out to be true. I expected that the conversation would make some people uncomfortable, both in the books I was presenting and the statistics I was sharing. I anticipated this and addressed it directly with my audience. Sure enough, I could see many people averting their eyes from my gaze and shifting in their seats. At times, the discomfort in the room was almost palpable.
And, to be frank, I expected that there would be some people who walked out. That happened all right - but it happened at a rate I didn’t expect. In all my years presenting I have never had as many people walk out as walked out during this presentation. I started with a room of about 30 people and by the time it was over, about half the crowd had walked out. It was a distinctly jarring experience to watch so many people stream out of the room as I talked for two hours. I know that some of the people who walked out were tired of the conference (it was the last session) or just didn’t like my style of presentation. There are always reasons for people to walk out and they always do. But the sheer number of people in a mostly White crowd who walked out combined with the palpable discomfort in the room - what happened in that room was something bigger than the usual walk-outs.
It was the big, White elephant in the room - the unspoken and uncomfortable truth so many of librarians and educators live with. There are more children’s books about elephants than there are children of color. We all know this. How can you not know this if you select children’s materials or if you work with them? Surely you’ve noticed there are more books about teens with terminal illnesses than books about Muslim teens. We know it. We just pretend we don’t. I, personally, am done with pretending.
I have decided that I will start taking accountability for my Whiteness.. And one way I will do that is by using the opportunities I have to speak the truth. If this means that half of the crowds I’m presenting in front of walk out, I can live with that. I will talk about race and racism in our industry, I will call on other White people to do the same and to be accountable for their privileges and their mistakes I will try to connect with and boost the voices of my peers of color and I will let them know that their voices count and they are not alone. As much as anything, this was my goal with my presentation at Mountain Plains Library Association/Wyoming Library Association Conference. It was hard to see people walk out. But it was also incredibly rewarding to have conversations with my peers of color afterwards and to see that I was getting through to some White people in the room, who were writing down my suggestions and nodding in agreement.
And maybe, just maybe, I gave the people who walked out a few things to think about. Maybe they took one thing I said and it’s starting a thought inside them that will be hard to shake the next time they see another elephant book.
I am here to have the hard conversations. Are you?