Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Good White People and Ghosts

Amy Cheney is currently the District Library Manager of Oakland Unified School District after working for many years on the behalf of incarcerated children. All views expressed are her own, and do not reflect those of her employer.

With the horrors of Amerikkkan White entitlement showing more of itself in Charlottesville this past August, I received this email from Center for Popular Action, which I quote in part:

 “White supremacy (...) is a reflection of centuries-long oppressive structures that permeate every aspect of our government, financial systems, cultural norms, and society at large. It’s a system in which Black and Brown bodies are continually devalued, marginalized, and criminalized, and those that perpetrate violence on people of color are protected, promoted, and honored.”

This paragraph gave me pause. When I read “those that perpetuate violence on people of color are protected, promoted and honored” I immediately thought of a recent experience I had that illustrates this--and NOT by the Alt-Right plowing cars into people, or Sheriff Arpaio, but by well-intentioned White librarians and a venerated graphic novelist.

I attended an event about Diversity in Graphic novels in May. Jack Baur and Amanda Jacobs Foust, whom I highly respect, gave a great presentation about a history of comics that illuminated muchThi Bui  and Mariko Tamaki were on the panel representing their beautiful books. You can see the presentation here and find more useful information on this site. [updated 10/11/17]

However, I wondered why Raina Telgemeier, a White writer, whose book Ghosts has been shown to be inaccurate and an act of cultural misappropriation was on this panel about diversity.

Let’s be clear:  by being on the panel, this White person was being promoted and honored.

I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that this was not going to go well.

And, it did not.

As a White person, I have had many experiences of my privilege in the realm of showing up to a public forum without adequate preparation because I am used to being believed, listened to, honored, promoted and protected. Donald Trump exhibits an extreme version of this where he believes everything he says is important and true and he can say it just because of who he is. I have talked on and on about something I actually knew nothing about, all the while thinking I was making a valuable point.  White people don’t have to prepare or analyze, or take time to understand people’s point of view because what we think fits into cultural norms, and…..truly, underneath it all, we’ve bought into the belief that we know what we are talking about, that our conversation and voice is important because we are good, we mean well, we are a part of the solution, and... we aren’t racist. 

The analysis that follows is both personal and not personal to Raina Telgemeier (RT) and the moderators (JB and AJF). They are good people, fantastic librarians and a terrific author/illustrator.  It is personal only in that they have a responsibility, as all of us White people do, to uncover, unearth and deal with the legacy we have been born into.

Here is a video of the panel. Beginning at 41.07, you can see exactly how it went down.

At 41.07 in the video, a question is asked to RT.

From 41.35 onward RT deflects, devalues and marginalizes what people of color and First/Native Nations have been saying to her about her book while displaying all the classic signs of White fragility. AJF and JB support and protect her.

What is absolutely horrifying to me about this interchange is:

1. RT did not and was not able to provide a clear summary and context of the criticisms leveled against her book and break down her responsibility in perpetuating the devaluation and marginalization of people of color and First/Native Nations. She actually turned to the person of color who asked the question to provide the context.

2. RT devolved into her “right” to write a book because “some of my best friends are _______.”  She focuses on her validity to write a book about Mexican Americans, in part because she married into a Latin American family.  "I didn't think I was borrowing, I thought I was experiencing something on a personal level and sharing stories"  (43.01). RT does not show a clear understanding of what people of color and First/Native Nations have been saying about cultural appropriation.  She says that she has been thinking deeply about this, but whatever thinking she has done was not apparent or shared in any meaningful way. Here’s just one article (the basic 101 version) that outlines some issues about cultural appropriation. 

3. RT’s comments devolved into personal issues that deflected from the very real issue of the genocide her book glosses over and normalizes. At 43.14 there is a clear example of White fragility and deflecting from the issues raised by people of color and First/Native Nations: “I’m not allowed to talk about going through a divorce right now, but it’s really difficult,” she says with tears. Somehow RT is now the victim - “not allowed to talk”  and has extenuating circumstances - difficult divorce - that explains away/detracts from addressing the question. This is what often happens when White people are confronted about racism and it’s what people of color have brought up time and again. This was a complete deflection from the racism in the book Ghosts,  the question at hand and what the panel was supposed to be about.

4. At 43.28 the moderators AJF and JB jump in to “take care” of and protect RT from her personal issues that she is using to distract from addressing the real issues of the problems of her book.

5. At 43.33 elaborate and nonsensical arguments are used to protect RT.  AJF uses the bizarre argument that why we need more diversity overall is because “when there are these unique stories presented they are highly criticized because there are no other voices telling these stories” and that “it’s really easy when there is one example of it to be picked apart because it can’t be everything to everyone.” I know AJF  didn’t mean that we need more diversity so that White people don’t get criticized, but that is actually what she said!

6. Accurate context is not provided by the moderators thereby perpetuating White point of view as normal. At 44.15, AJF says the book deals “a lot with California Missions”  and “the things that we are taught about California Missions and the things that we are not taught about California Missions is huge.” The moderators should have been prepared--i.e. thought through carefully why they included RT on a panel about diversity, be prepared to provide a context of the feedback given by people of color and First/Native Nations and to unequivocally denounce what was written/illustrated in Ghosts that glosses over and thus perpetuates genocide and violence.

For example, they could have credited Debbie Reese, who has already been so kind to inform those that didn’t already know that California Missions were the sites of massive genocide of First/Native Nations peoples.  See her analysis here to understand how Ghosts whitewashes the brutal history of the missions. The moderators and the author could have highlighted and distilled what Debbie Reese and others say in order to educate the audience as to the issues, thus honoring, promoting and valuing the voices of people of color and First/Native Nations.

7. White supremacy is used as an excuse for non-accountability. It seems that AJF’s point was that due to White supremacy we can’t be held accountable to the ways in which we have bought in, been misinformed, etc. If that’s the case, how have people of color and First/Native Nations been informed? Yes, due to White supremacy we are taught a whitewashed version of history but that doesn’t excuse us for perpetuating what we have been taught, for being so vague in our answers and not taking the platform that is given to educate, unequivocally, those in the audience that still may be unaware. Instead these three White people did not take the platform they had to do this. 

The book was not criticized “because there were ghosts at the Missions” as AJF  says, but 1. because the Missions setting was portrayed in a benign and thus false way and 2. as  Yuyi Morales points out (in the comments section): Day of the Dead is not about ghosts but about the souls of the departed. These things could have been clearly articulated by any of the White people.

8. White supremacy is blamed and also used as an excuse for not taking personal responsibility. At 45.00 RT sorta takes ownership: “It (What is It? This needs to be clearly said!) was an oversight and I have to take responsibility for that.” However, within 7 seconds, at 45.07  she clearly does not take responsibility by saying “but it was not something flagged by a single reader, and I had several of them.” This comment highlights privilege (“I had readers”) as an excuse to justify personal innocence. She seems to be saying that not ALL these White people and other readers could be wrong! Uh, yeah. They could be and are.

9. White supremacy is blamed for victimizing us all. Non-acknowledgement of inherent bias/racism is used to justify not doing adequate research.   At 50:50 RT says she did a ton of research and wishes that books and information would have been available to her. This is an example of a mistaken, passive and dangerous belief that we are all victims of White supremacy. Let’s be clear: RT is benefiting from, not victimized by, White supremacy throughout this entire debacle.

At 44:39 AJF says that “I don’t know of an editor that would have that kind of experience to question what we were taught.” First of all, this is a completely arrogant statement, second of all, it’s not true, and third of all, that’s not an excuse, reason or explanation: all of us need to learn how to question what we were taught and how we perpetuate the myth of White supremacy. In addition, it’s NOT up to people of color and First/Native Nations to do this work, but it IS up to us White people.

A simple Google search of “california missions racism” pulls up all one needed to know. On my browser this is included in the second entry: “Missions were little more than concentration camps where California's Indians were beaten, whipped, maimed, burned, tortured and virtually exterminated by the friars.”  Elias Castillo.

As to the possibility that the Scholastic editorial team did not question, fact check, google or utilize their resources to either hire a person of color or First/Native Nations to write this book or fact check a book by a White author about people of color -- that is also their responsibility that doesn’t diminish RT’s responsibility.

This “oversight” might have occurred because it might not have occurred to any of these White people that they could be unqualified or racist and that it’s their responsibility to question the status quo.

10. 46.42 Continued elaborate justifications by the moderators take more time and deflect from the purpose of the panel. Both AJF and JB appear to hold the book in such high esteem for the fact that it is taking on “this topic” (meaning Day of the Dead? Missions? Biracial kids?). All of these topics have been shown to be problematic! Why is this not acknowledged and instead explained away? JB’s perspective that “this could be the ONLY book that kids in Kansas read about this topic” means that somehow this justifies the writing of it and completely undermines, devalues, and Whitesplains away what people of color and First/Native Nations have been saying about the book.

Just to be clear - the criticism isn’t that RT is White and therefore shouldn’t have written the story. No, the problem is that she used (culturally appropriated) Latinx characters and culture that she didn’t accurately represent, and she erased a genocide. Please see Nic Stone’s terrific article about the dangers of “helping” marginalized people be more visible.

11. The people of color on the panel had just a few moments to introduce some good points and places of exploration. These were not picked up by the moderators and built upon, instead the conversation was ended. For examples:  at 49.34 Mariko Tamaki clearly acknowledges her process of understanding how she might be inadvertently racist and outlines a very simple way to make an apology.  This is not heard or followed up on. At 51.35 more from Mariko that’s not expanded upon. At 53.57 Thi Bui gets a few moments at the very end, when she speaks about telling stories from marginalized perspectives and listening to feedback. This is where JB ends the discussion. There were many opportunities on the panel (and before!) for RT, AJF and JB to hear what people of color and First/Native Nations were saying. Instead, the attention and time was used to support and protect RT’s personal defended stance.

12. This entire exchange took from 41:01 - 54:51--almost 15 minutes of time. This panel was supposed to be about Diversity in Graphic Novels and was derailed by a bunch of White BS.

Dare I say that all of this individual lack of ownership of the problem by White people adds up to collective systemic oppression? What I’m shining a light on here is a perfect example of a group of good, well-intentioned White people -- publishers, author, “readers”, editors, moderators, etc--acting together to assert their point of view, meanwhile devaluing and marginalizing the point of view of people of color and First Native/Nations.

Let’s be clear: promoting, honoring and protecting White people who have been educated but haven't owned their inadvertent racist mistakes = violence against people of color and First/Native Nations. It’s not complicated. It’s plain and simple.

The solidification of “White is right” violence continues with what looks like the all White judging panel for the Eisner Awards selecting Ghosts to win Best Publication for Kids (ages 9-12).

It is our responsibility as White people to:
      Assume, own and understand that we, as White people, by definition and experience, are racist, regardless of whether we are consciously bigoted.
      Realize it’s a lifelong process to understand all the ways that we are positioned in power, and consciously or unconsciously perpetuate this racist system.
      Take the time to analyze cultural norms and prepare so as to be aware and inclusive
      Question the status quo
      Expose, attend to, and acknowledge--when appropriate--all the ways that we are racist, inadvertent or not 
      Be VERY clear how we benefit from and perpetuate White supremacy
      Provide clear examples and information to other White people about how we benefit and perpetuate racism and White supremacy.
      Take action to point out and dismantle the system that we are benefiting and profiting from
      Listen to, find the validity of and reach a deep understanding of people of color’s and First Native/Nation feedback--especially those we don’t understand or seem contrary to our views
      Move through our shame and excuses (didn’t know, didn’t mean to, but  - blah, blah, blah)
      Come to a clear acknowledgement of feedback
      Incorporate this information into our conversation
      Take action to rectify the problem, especially at personal expense. This means taking action that is not easy, convenient or lucrative, but is doing the right thing to make amends and reparations.
      Not expect people of color and First/Native Nations to shoulder the burden of analysis, feedback, context of how we have bought into and perpetuate White supremacy.
      Google “racism” + keywords

If indeed, if RT, AJF and JB want to take responsibility, the response could have been/can be any number of things such as:

      Use the platform of the panel on Graphic Novel diversity and Eisner award to inform about the many problems of the book
      Acknowledge the people of color and First Native/Nations that brought the racism to light
      Not accept the award or the position on the panel but refer a person of color or First/Native Nations to participate and highlight
      Have a forum to extend deeper the racism brought to light
      Give back all proceeds of the book to small presses that are highlighting  people of color and native people such as Blood Orange Press, or one of the presses listed here.
      Stop the press run of Ghosts and refuse to make money by perpetuating ignorance and inaccuracies that ultimately harm us all and that are off of the backs of people of color and First/Native Nations.
      Issue an apology
      Keep the video that is linked in this piece up on the web. In this way other White  people who want to see what covert yet solidified racism looks like can.

Unconsciousness or good intentions doesn’t excuse behavior or make it less racist and violent. Illuminating and eradicating racism takes vigilant work that can only come about if it’s understood that we are inadvertently and covertly racist and that we will inevitably expose this. We then need to learn to own this racism, learn from our mistakes, speak out, refuse to participate with the status quo and take positive action for a more equitable and just world. Only when personal responsibility is taken can oppressive systems be dismantled.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Selecting While White: Breaking Out of the Vendor Box

Chelsea Couillard-Smith is a Senior Librarian in Collection Services at Hennepin County Library in Minnesota, and has selected materials for libraries big and small for nearly 10 years. All views expressed are her own, and do not reflect those of her employer.

As a materials selection librarian, I’m keenly aware of the privilege and responsibility that come with the job. Collection development is gatekeeping - when librarians make decisions about what to include, and what not to include, we have to be aware of the effect on our communities. Libraries certainly aren’t the only avenue for the public to discover and obtain books, but we are a critical point of access for many of our patrons.

I don’t need to reiterate for readers of this blog that there is a lack of diversity in the traditional publishing world. At the same time, independent and self publishing have exploded. Many diverse authors are now able to share their stories through non-traditional routes, and are even getting a decent amount of publicity and exposure through social media.

In general, this is fabulous news for our collections. But are libraries actually able to find and to purchase these books? As almost any librarian will tell you, it’s not always as simple as just going out and buying a book for your library the way an individual might go online and make a purchase.

The vast majority of libraries depend heavily on one or two major book vendors to obtain materials for their collections. Whether or not a title is readily available to most libraries can be as simple as whether or not the book is carried by Baker & Taylor or Ingram. Furthermore, public and school libraries are often restricted in whether, how, and how often they can make purchases - many aren’t able to just go online with a credit card and buy what they want.

Staff time is another hurdle in selecting for a diverse collection. In many libraries, selection is done by librarians who are also expected to plan and lead programs, create outreach partnerships in the community, and staff the circulation desk, among many other responsibilities. Materials selection is squeezed into small, stolen chunks of time between other tasks.

I understand that many libraries feel pressured to purchase problematic titles. Regardless of what critics say and what red flags a librarian may recognize in a book, if it’s a well-known author or it’s getting a lot of publicity, a library may purchase it anyway because of patron interest. Libraries that already have large collections, dedicated selection staff, and deep pockets are best positioned to balance the problematic titles in their collections with a diverse array of books from small and independent presses.

Meanwhile, with smaller budgets and less staff time, underfunded or smaller libraries can find it difficult to buy outside of the box. Many still rely heavily on mainstream review journals or blogs and collection development tools from large library vendors to create their collections, and these resources still tend to prioritize the output of the Big 5 publishers. So they may be purchasing titles that marginalize diverse voices, but face challenges in finding and obtaining the independent titles they need to balance their collections and introduce voices that counter problematic narratives. Even if they have staff members who are plugged into alternative review sources, libraries still may not be able to obtain self-published or small press titles, or they may not feel that they have space in their budgets for titles that are more difficult and more expensive to purchase.

In this way, it’s an oddly self-perpetuating cycle whereby the libraries with more staff, more funds, and more flexibility are best able to create broadly diverse collections, while those with smaller budgets, less staff time, and more barriers to purchasing are perhaps as likely to be buying the problematic, high-visibility titles coming from traditional publishers, but are less able to identify and obtain independent titles from diverse authors.

How do we break out of this cycle of dependency on traditional sources and methods of collection development?

There are small things that any library can do to open up their ability to create a diverse collection. Some ideas:
  • Something as seemingly innocuous as whether or not your library can buy from a local bookseller, Amazon, or other online sources can be framed as a barrier to diversity and inclusion. Ask decision-makers what it would take to increase buying options and flexibility. Provide examples of the high-quality titles that can only be purchased from the book’s creator, and help those in charge of these decisions understand the context around self-publishing. Many authors have chosen to retain control over their works rather than have them diluted by the standards of traditional publishing, while others have never been given a chance to share their stories.
  • Advocate for diverse books, even if your budget is tight. Look at selection lists and other collection development tools with a critical eye - whose voices are missing? Advocate for your own regularly scheduled and dedicated time to spend on selection so you can truly dig into alternative resources for identifying and evaluating traditionally marginalized voices. It might feel like an odd way to get some additional off-desk time to buy materials, but your ability to do some research may be affecting the diversity of your collection.
  • Give self-published authors and small presses a chance to be flexible. If you have to use a purchase order, instead of assuming they will only take a credit card, get in touch. See if you can come to an arrangement that will work for both of you. Most of them will be thrilled at the chance to have their book in a library.
  • Ask more of your vendors! You may not feel that your voice means much to a large vendor, but the more they hear from all of us about small, independent presses, the more likely they are to start making materials available. I’ve found that even large vendors are interested in developing new distribution relationships if it means selling more materials. Establish a collection development contact at your vendor, and when you discover titles that are not in their database, make a habit of sending them an email. Understandably, not every self-published author or independent press will want to work with a large vendor, but some may be happy to gain additional exposure and increase the availability of their titles.
Collection development is a powerful way to challenge some of the equity problems that exist in children’s literature. Breaking out from the confines of traditional sources of materials and reviews can be challenging and time-consuming, but as long as mainstream publishing remains relatively homogenous, it’s critical work that we need to do to diversify our collections. Whether it’s advocating for our own time to spend on this work, asking questions of our vendors, or opening up new avenues of purchasing, there are small things we can do that make a big difference in our ability to bring marginalized voices into our collections. What are some other practical ideas for librarians with purchasing power? Leave your thoughts in the comments!