Thursday, November 7, 2019

When White Feelings Dominate

In an October 28 article titled “Yes, But… One Librarian’s Thoughts About Doing It Right” in OLA Quarterly (a special issue devoted to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion), librarian Heather McNeil shares her thoughts and feelings about a variety of subjects related to racism. Her piece is divided into four sections, titled as follows: “Collection Development”, “Dr. Seuss”, “Debbie Reese”, and “Reading While White.”

It is impossible for me to respond to this piece without appearing, to some at least, to be operating from a place of defensiveness; any assertion to the contrary will be met with some incredulity. Nevertheless, regardless of whether we’re believed, I can honestly say that this piece is not the result of, or meant to be a response to, the criticisms McNeil directs at Reading While White. If you want to read what she says about us, you’re welcome to check out her article, and to agree or disagree with her at your discretion.

I am, however, deeply troubled by the blatant disrespect Ms. McNeil directs towards our colleague Dr. Debbie Reese. McNeil’s language, and the content of her attack on Dr. Reese, are part of a larger pattern of White dismissal of Dr. Reese’s work; I’ve heard many White people disparage Dr. Reese using similar tactics.

Before you continue reading the rest of this post, please read Dr. Reese’s response here if you haven’t already.

Now, here are my own reactions.

1 - Never does McNeil refer to Dr. Reese as “Dr.” She calls her “Debbie Reese” and “Ms. Reese”, ignoring and erasing the scholarship and qualifications that Dr. Reese brings to her work. She also neglects to name that Dr. Reese is Native (she is tribally enrolled, NambĂ© Pueblo), thereby dismissing the lens of expertise Dr. Reese brings to her work through her lived experiences as a Native person.

2 - McNeil titles the paragraph “Debbie Reese”. She does not title it “American Indians In Children’s Literature” (the title of Dr. Reese’s blog) or “An Indigenous Critique of Whiteness In Children’s Literature” (the title of Dr. Reese’s Arbuthnot lecture, which McNeil criticizes). In titling the section “Debbie Reese”, McNeil levels an attack on Dr. Reese as a person, rather than criticizing Dr. Reese’s ideas, words, or actions.

I’m speaking to my fellow White people now. If you retain only one thing from this response piece, please let it be this: When you name your BIPOC colleagues without their permission, you are potentially putting them in danger. The words that seem innocuous to you can become lightning rods for some (like Neo-Nazis and the alt-right) who seek to do real harm to BIPOC people. I am so grateful to the BIPOC people who have educated me about this.

3 - McNeil begins the passage about Dr. Reese thusly:

“Hoo boy. Opening a can of worms here.”

This is, in written form, what many of us have heard countless times in conversations in professional spaces. Someone says “Debbie Reese” (almost always omitting the “Dr.”) and follows it with a sigh, a chuckle, a groan, or some equivalent of “Hoo boy. Opening a can of worms here.”

This is racism in action. This is the moment when we White people enter into the unspoken agreement that Dr. Reese, as a person, constitutes a Problem--and we agree to unite to contain and constrict this Problem.

4 - McNeil then goes on to say:

“Believe me, I admire her work.”

This is another key component of the unspoken White agreement. This is the part where we White people cover our bases. We are “the good ones”, so we say something meaningless about how much we support Dr. Reese in theory, before going on to dismiss her in actuality.

And therein lies the crux of the issue. Many of us White people like the idea of supporting Dr. Reese in her work, but balk and withdraw when Dr. Reese doesn’t prioritize our comfort in how she conducts her work.

And when the lived reality of fighting racism doesn’t live up to our White expectations and imaginations, that’s when we write articles about our White feelings, and because we’re White, get them published in peer-reviewed, academic journals.

-Allie Jane Bruce

Postscript: Yes, I’m aware that Ms. McNeil can, if she should so choose, point to this post and say “See? Reading While White DOES want me to feel bad.” There’s really no way to counter this self-fulfilling White fragility, so I won’t try, especially since according to her, the damage is already done; we already made her feel bad. Ms. McNeil is free to read this post or not, to feel however she may, and to process those feelings however she may wish. My only suggestion is that she process these feelings in private and with other White people, so as to not task BIPOC people with still more White-feelings-oriented labor. Ms McNeil: We are ready and happy to have a conversation if you wish to talk; just email us.

Ed. 12/11/19 1:45pm: With apologies for the lack of timeliness, I want to highlight this piece by Max Macias. Thank you, Max, for providing the link in the comments below, and thank you for your activism.

Ed. 2/3/19 12:20pm: Please also see the American Indian Library Association's Fall 2019 Newsletter, available here, which contains a formal rebuttal of McNeil's article.