Anti-Racism Work in Independent Schools

A couple months ago I did a search in Google on anti racism white parents schools just to see what kind of resources are out there. One of the first links that came up was the Antiracism Working Group for White Parents at the K-8 independent school The Gordon School. I was in awe of this magical school that explicitly advertises and prioritizes racial diversity. So many independent schools profess “diversity” without actually describing what diversity means to them. 

As I investigated The Gordon School’s web site, I found a robust selection of programs and resources for all school constituents – students, staff, faculty, administrators, parents, and board members. I emailed Dr. Kim Ridley, their Assistant Head of School, who is responsible for a lot of the work the school had done. She graciously accepted my request to have a phone conversation.

Kim has written a number of articles including two articles for the National Association for Independent School’s journal Independent School – Identity, Affinity, Reality and “Examining Privilege: An Essential Strategy for Digging Deep in Diversity Work.” I was particularly interested in their programs geared towards white community members.

In addition to being the librarian at my school, I facilitate a voluntary group for white faculty and staff to examine our white conditioning and understand how racism operates since so much of race and racism is invisible to us. So I’m always interested in how other schools approach talking about race with white people.

Kim shared so much of her experience with me which was such a gift. One of the most practical things she shared was a series of questions that help white people see just how much race influences their lives that she learned from author and educator Robin DiAngelo.

I had the opportunity to use these questions just a couple weeks later. I co-facilitated a workshop for white parents at my school who were interested in learning more about our white anti-racism group. As the parents worked through the questions with each other, the insidiousness and intentionality of white supremacy was uncovered. Many of the parents left the workshop both unsettled and curious — and eager to continue the conversation. 

I came away from that workshop grateful for the model of white affinity groups. There are so few venues for white people to really have the chance to talk frankly about race and to understand that racism does not just negatively impact people of color, but it impacts white people too. 

Doing anti-racism work in an independent school setting is challenging. One of the reasons independent schools even came into existence was to maintain and ensure race and class privilege. Many independent schools, though, truly want to educate and support a diverse constituency and Dr. Ridley’s work is an inspiring model of the possibilities of an inclusive independent school community.

Appreciations: Thank you to Dr. Kim Ridley for her generosity and for giving me permission to write about her.   

Librarians in Action: Allie Jane Bruce

Allie Jane Bruce is a librarian at Bank Street School for Children in New York City who co-founded the blog Reading While White. Her direct and honest approach to white anti-racist work inspires me! Posts like “On Safety Pins, Advocacy, Whiteness, and our fieldand articles in Children and Libraries and School Library Journal illustrate her dedication to confronting Whiteness in her self, the children she teaches, and the larger library and publishing community. She is also an Education Liaison for We Need Diverse Books

I chatted with Allie in December. Here’s what she said…

You state in your article “On Being White” that you didn’t start describing yourself as white until adulthood. Can you describe the process that led you to realize you were white?

Realizing it and volunteering it are two different things. I was in 10th grade when I first realized it. A teacher was giving a standardized test in math. In the interest of collecting data, he did a messed up thing where everyone who was White had to raise their hands, everyone who was Black had to raise their hands, everyone who was Hispanic (the term used when and where I was) had to raise their hands, and everyone who was “other” had to raise their hands. I didn’t want to be white because I thought it was bad and uncool, so I raised my hand for “other”. Then he came around to all the “other” kids to find out what kind of “other” they were. Most of them were biracial; I said, “I’m Jewish.” The teacher was like, I don’t know if that’s an option. A White friend of mine – who I’m still friends with – just cracked up. He said, “Allie, who do you think you’re fooling? You are White.” Since then, I have stopped trying to deny it.

I didn’t actively describe myself as White until four or five years ago when Anshu Wahi, my friend and colleague, the Diversity Director at my school, sent me to a People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond workshop. After that I started actively describing myself as White. I have done the workshop several times and plan to do another.

What about the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond workshop was so impactful?

It’s two and a half days long. This type of anti-racism work is not something you can do in an hour or two, especially for white people who have been comforted and protected in thinking we are not part of problem. Re-educating us that racism is a White person’s problem takes time, and the experiential piece of sitting with that realization is so important.

The content. Everything presented about the structures of power are very specific and fact-based. We hear from sociologists, historians, experts in the field, and people trained in the history of racism. The trainers have a lot of experience facilitating with an anti-racist lens. They know when someone in the workshop is reinforcing White supremacy, and they name the problematic behavior. In two of the workshops I’ve been to, people have left and not come back. It’s usually an action of White fragility and the trainers are never surprised.

How do you notice Whiteness in the library you work in?

The most obvious example is in the books. Children’s literature is overwhelmingly White. The 2015 numbers were 14% were books about people of color, many of which were written by White people. Being a White person in a predominately White field affords me many advantages. And my White students get the advantage of a having a librarian who shares their race. If a White kid is celebrating a holiday, they know that I will know about that holiday. If White kids return a book late, it won’t reflect on their race. If a White child is struggling with reading, they know I won’t attribute it to their race. White kids have a wide range of books to choose from. It’s the air we breathe.

I go into more specifics in my article “On Being White“. But if I hadn’t written that article, I wouldn’t have been able to come up with examples so quickly. It is easy to forget the specific examples of White privilege. The system is designed to make it difficult for us to remember. But it is a lived reality for so many people of color.

You wrote in a response to a comment on Reading While White: “It’s harder to look inward and say, How am I the problem here? What behaviors do I need to change in order to stop being the problem?” Can you give some examples of behaviors that you’ve changed?

One thing is getting more comfortable naming race and whiteness when I’m doing read alouds.
Anna Hibiscus is one of my favorite books for this. I say, Ok so Anna’s father is Black and her mother is White. It’s always really awkward at first because the kids know you’re not supposed to name this stuff. We have to get better at being ok with awkward – we don’t have to avoid it.

Another thing is when there’s problematic stuff in a read aloud. I read
The Watsons Go to Birmingham to fourth graders. There’s a scene where the dad is trying to be funny and put on a show for the family. He imitates another person who he considers dumb and inferior. In this scene, he describes Flint, Michigan being so cold and full of Chinese people who only eat whales and seals. What do I do? Not read it? No. I have a conversation with the kids and point out what’s problematic – What is the message here? Why is that message not ok? – It’s sometimes hard to do.

For that one, I want to have conversations with kids about how even if you’re imitating someone who says insensitive things that you may not believe – you are still repeating a stereotype that can be hurtful for a Chinese kid. Throwing another culture under the bus even if you’re villainizing an ignorant person is not ok. And what about me as a teacher? – I’m repeating the dad, repeating this. I will ask kids – What should I do in this situation? They always have insightful things to say.

Wow, that sounds complex and such an incredible learning environment for your students. You are awesome!

My gut instinct is to just edit problematic parts out but that’s not a solution. I’m sending kids out in the world where they are going to encounter stereotypes without knowing how to respond to them. I can’t create a stereotype-free world. All I can do is have a conversation with them and leave them with actions. It is hard because every conversation looks different. I can prep a lesson plan but four different classes will have four different conversations. It takes a lot of time and energy, but it’s incredibly rewarding.

What sustains you in doing racial justice work? Do you have a community of people to support you in doing this work? How do you fight burnout?

Not doing it alone. I’ve learned all of this stuff from other people. I didn’t try to start Reading While White by myself. I organized a group of other people who are tremendous. My colleagues on the blog – Nina Lindsay, KT Horning and the whole crew have been doing this work for a lot longer than me. They are the role models whose shoulders I stand on.

I also learned to let go of the need to be perfect. Not everything will be a success and that is truly ok. Opting out of the culture of perfectionism.

Yes! Perfectionism is a white supremacy culture trait.

That mentality is so toxic. When someone – Reading While White or anyone – offers a criticism, we’re not doing it from a perfectionist mentality. We’re not saying you must burn this book because it is culturally insensitive. But often, people respond to us as if we have said that. If imperfections are somebody’s undoing then people who call out imperfections become the scapegoats.

The authors whose work is critiqued see it as an attack on their humanity because of our perfectionist culture. This is especially strong in white people.

Who are your librarian role models in this work?

Debbie Reese
, Edi Campbell, Laura M. Jiménez, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Sarah Park Dahlen, and everyone on the “Kindred Spirits” blogroll on Reading While White. These are all incredible people who have been doing this work for a long time.

You co-founded the Reading While White blog in 2015, an amazing resource created by white librarians to “confront racism in the field of children’s and young adult literature.” What has that experience been like?  

I was surprised at how we were perceived. We got and get a lot of love–heaps of really meaningful support, much more than I think we would if we were people of color examining whiteness.  That’s one side of the coin.  The other side is, by some, we were immediately labeled as undoers, unwarranted criticizers, and my favorite, “a cesspool of negativity”.

People love diversity, but anti-racism…not so much. When you review a book and say, “This is not ok” – as opposed to – “We love everybody and everyone is valid in their views on race”- you get a reaction. That reaction was a factor in our month-long push to review  #ownvoices books in September 2016. We wanted to turn the limelight towards people of color, to use our platform and microphone to take the spotlight off of us, and to help put money and resources into the hands of writers of color. Both critiquing problematic representation and advocating books written by writers of color are two aspects of our advocacy.

How do you see Reading While White in the story of anti-racism in children’s literature?

Honestly I think this is a very small step on the part of White people in the field. White librarians and authors get a lot of love and attention. And we have a lot of power, all of which is disproportionate when you consider how many women people of color and Native women have been doing this work for much longer and haven’t gotten that kind of love from the field.

While the blog does face opposition, we have also been lauded. That’s a piece of the story that doesn’t fit well with me. When you read narratives of racism like To Kill a Mockingbird or Cry, the Beloved Country, the White savior is central to the narrative. There’s something about a White person ending racism that is just a co-option of the racial justice movement. I want to work hard – it’s a tension – to undo the power that we have and the oppression that we enact and participate in everyday. I don’t want to co-opt the narrative and make that story about me and my blog when it’s really not.

That is the difficulty, isn’t it? How can white people work towards racial justice without unwittingly reinforce white supremacy by centering whiteness?  How do we reconcile this?

Living in the tension, being willing to be uncomfortable knowing that the work I do is going to be imperfect. I go back to the foundation of where a lot of white anti-racist work comes from, an excerpt from Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. A White woman asks Malcolm what she can do about racism;he tells her she can’t do anything (292). He later wished he could tell White people to go “out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is…in their own home communities…Let sincere whites go and teach non-violence to white people!… Working separately, the sincere white people and sincere black people actually will be working together” (384).

Appreciations: Thank you to Allie for taking the time to share her experiences.  

Making Institutional Change

Last November, I attended Facing Race, a conference organized every two years by the POC-run Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation.

fr2016logo_blackI was particularly inspired by a workshop called Shifting the Focus for Racial Justice where the facilitators ramesh kathanadhi and Terry Keleher provided a framework for “how to recognize, challenge and disrupt institutional racial inequities.”

They started the workshop by grounding us in the reality that because of white supremacy, race is embedded in our systems. Two examples: our justice system (see Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and The Sentencing Project) and our educational system (see Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Can We Talk about Race?: And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation and research by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights).

In order to change a system to be racially equitable, race must be explicitly named during the decision-making process. Asking questions like – How will this decision impact communities of color? – creates space to investigate how a policy or proposal will either reinforce racial inequity or promote racial equity. Their two-page Racial Equity Impact Assessment guide describes this process in more detail.

During this workshop, I thought about the small independent high school I work at. We are an expensive, majority-white private school in a wealthy city. And like so many liberal educational institutions, we are committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). That commitment, though, does not always translate into action or results. We need a more deliberate approach if we are going to live our values.

I brought what I learned from the workshop to my school’s leadership. And I’m excited to report that they were receptive. Last month, a multi-racial committee met to closely examine our DEI practices and make recommendations. I feel hopeful, but I’m also realistic. Making institutional-level change takes time and energy – to collaborate, to educate, and to plan. We have a lot to do, but I feel energized about the commitment of the committee.

Librarians can be catalysts for systemic change in their institutions. If your library is part of a larger institution, share the things you do in your library to promote equity and disrupt white supremacy with your supervisors. Academic librarian Ray Lockman describes practical ways to integrate microactivism into librarian work. An entire book is devoted to teaching information literacy from a social justice lens. Use your experiences to start conversations with the leaders of your institution.raceforward_logo_web_1200x630

If you have decision-making power in your library or larger institution, you can help create more equitable systems. Consider the impact of your decisions or policies on your patrons of color by using the prompts from the Racial Equity Impact Assessment. Learn about inequitable hiring practices and diversity initiatives from Jennifer Vinopal, April Hathcock, and Angela Galvan and integrate their recommendations. Read what Chris Bourg is doing at MIT.

I am inspired by these librarians who think critically about our profession’s values and are taking action so that our practice aligns with our aspirations.

Appreciations: Thank you to Race Forward, the librarians I linked to in this post, and my husband for proof-reading. 

White Racial Conditioning

White privilege is an evocative phrase that gets a lot of airtime. While it is true that white people in a white supremacist society are granted privileges, a more expansive way to understand the experiences of white people is through the sociological process of conditioning.

I first learned about white racial conditioning in 2009 when I joined a six-month white anti-racism workshop through the UNtraining. The founders Rita Shimmin and Robert Horton describe white conditioning as both the process through which white people learn that we are superior and the actions we take based on that conditioning.

Our culture is immersed in messages of white superiority, both explicitly and implicitly, from the time we enter this world. We learn this from all aspects of our society: our family, our friends, our teachers, and the media – TV, books, the internet, advertisements, news, and movies. This is the “smog” that Beverly Daniel Tatum writes about.

Ricky Sherover-Marcuse, the late influential anti-racist activist emphasizes the unwanted nature of conditioning:

“No young person acquires misinformation by their own free choice. Racist attitudes and beliefs are a mixture of misinformation and ignorance which is imposed upon young people through a painful process of social conditioning. ‘You have to be taught to hate and fear.'” (Towards A Perspective On Eliminating Racism: 12 Working Assumptions)

It doesn’t matter if you were raised in a white liberal family, a conservative Southern family, or if you were surrounded by people of color. White conditioning crosses the political and geographic spectrum; no one is spared.

The UNtraining workshop helped me notice the racist conditioning I had internalized. Instead of ignoring the loud whispers of stereotypes in my head whenever I interacted with a person of color, I began to pay attention. Sometimes I caught them before I acted, sometimes I didn’t. Because much of white conditioning is unconscious, I wouldn’t even know that I acted in ways that were hurtful to people of color.

Around the time I was in the workshop, I was on an airplane and a young black woman with a baby sat next to me. We started chatting and she told me she was in pharmacy school. I asked if she was training to become a pharmacy technician. She kindly said, “no, a pharmacist.”

My body instantly tightened, my face flushed, and I recognized that sickening feeling of shame just flood my body. We spent the next few hours chatting and playing with her baby but I had a sick stomach the entire flight. As I thought about that interaction over the next few days, I was truly shocked that I so quickly assumed that she was training to become a pharmacy technician, a lower paying job that requires much less schooling.

That was the first experience I had that made the insidiousness of unconscious white conditioning real for me. And it was painful. The process of white conditioning on white people is devastating to our souls. Political activist Jona Olsson describes the process:

“Our conditioning filled us with fear, suspicion and stereotypes that substituted for true knowing of people of color. We internalized our beliefs about people of color, ourselves, other white people and about being white. Those internalized attitudes became actualized into racist behavior.” (Detour-Spotting for White Anti-Racists)

If you think you might be immune to conditioning and want to be humbled, take Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald’s free online Implicit Association Test. These social psychologists describe hidden bias, an aspect of unconscious conditioning, as:

“…bits of knowledge about social groups…that are storied in our brains because we encounter them so frequently in our cultural environments. Once lodged in our minds, hidden biases can influence our behavior toward members of particular social groups, but we remain oblivious to their influence…[M]ost people find it unbelievable that their behavior can be guided by mental content of which they are unaware.” (Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, xii)

The first step to changing conditioned behavior is to recognize your conditioned thoughts. Uncovering your conditioning requires you to face the internalized white supremacy that you may have been previously unaware of. Ricky Sherover-Marcuse titled her workshops Unlearning Racism (similarly to the UNtraining White Liberal Racism workshop) because what is learned can be unlearned. Once conditioned thoughts are in your conscious awareness, you can change your behavior.

This unlearning process, though, must be done with love and compassion for yourself. A central practice of the UNtraining is what Rita Shimmin calls multidimensionality – “the capacity and ability to hold more than one reality simultaneously.” Yes, I am conditioned to enact white supremacy AND I am worthy of love. Holding these dual realities is easier said than done. The shame of our conditioning can block any feelings of love or agency.

Love, though, is what will change things. James Baldwin in 1962 wrote,

“White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this – which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never – the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.” (Letters From a Region in My Mind)

Examining privilege through the lens of conditioning provides a more expansive way to understand your experience as a white person in a white supremacist society. “Accepting that we have all been indoctrinated into white supremacist thinking allows us to let go of a shallow politics of blame” (bell hooks, Writing Beyond Racep. 147). You are then free to focus on changing your behavior, loving yourself, and courageously disrupting the systems that reinforce white supremacy.

Appreciations: Thank you to all of the people I linked to in this post. To my husband for his support and editing suggestions. To Robin DiAngelo for her comprehensive handbook What Does It Mean to Be White: Developing White Racial Literacy. To bell hooks and Barbara Smith for their scholarship. 

White Supremacy as the Status Quo

Before I learned I was white, I was often confused by the reactions of people of color to various events in the news. I was in college in an African American History class when someone who had been watching TV elsewhere (the internet was just a baby) burst into the class to report that O.J. had been acquitted. The energy in the room became charged with the white students upset and the black students cheering. I have no recollection of the ensuing discussion, likely because I  blocked it out.

Fast forward to 2008. I loved the high school I worked at and I loved the students. I could not remain confused when a beloved student, one of just several black students at the school, told me that a white student asked her if she lived in the ghetto and another white student asked her if she owned a TV.

I was tempted to ‘lone wolf’ those white students: Their parents must have taught them to be racist. They were just being obnoxious teenagers. But when another black student told me that her white U.S. History teacher asked her if he was getting the history of slavery right, I thought: Ok, WAIT there’s something bigger going on here.

Hearing about those painful interactions was the catalyst that fueled my curiosity. I needed to know how racism really works because racism in a white liberal independent school was the last place I thought it would appear.

My naivete was short lived. I quickly learned that white supremacy, the ideological and philosophical root of racism, is embedded in all of our systems and has been since the founding of our country. White supremacy is literally everywhere and my naivete is a perfect example of how insidious it is. I did not know about white supremacy because the system is designed for me to be oblivious to it.

The thing about systems of oppression is that if you aren’t actively working against them, you are working for them. Cecily Walker in her recent keynote “Dismantling Whiteness and Oppression in LIS through Community-Led Collaboration” at the Library Information Technology Association’s Forum asked white librarians: “How are you upholding white supremacy?” She went on to state that, “Silence looks like a ringing endorsement for the status quo. Any time you are supporting the status quo, you are reinforcing whiteness in your library.”

Has Donald Trump’s election activated your curiosity about white supremacy and racism like hearing my students’ experiences did mine? Do you want to push against the status quo of whiteness in your library?

Get inspired by the many librarians who do this work and generously share their processes either explicitly or by example: Cecily Walker, April HathcockDebbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature, Allie Jane Bruce and her colleagues at Reading While White, the critical librarianship librarians who post on #critlib on Twitter, the librarians who write for In the Library with a Lead Pipe, the Progressive Librarians Guild, and the librarians who publish at Library Juice Press.

Appreciations: bell hooks, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Loretta Ross, Tim Wise, and Tema Okun for continuing to help me wrap my brain around white supremacy through their writings. My husband for editing this blog post. The UNtraining for introducing me to the concept of appreciation as a practice to disrupt white supremacy. Cecily Walker in her LITA keynote for reminding me to appreciate.

Racism and Readers’ Advisory


About ten years ago, one of my 11th grade students asked me for a book recommendation. I had gotten to know her a bit through our chats in the library during her free block or after school. I learned that she loved music – indie rock, classic rock and soul, and hip hop. The Italian mafia intrigued her and homemade Italian food made her very happy.

She wasn’t a big reader, but she had recently purchased a copy of Anthony Kiedis’s memoir Scar Tissue. She loved reading all the juicy details of The Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman’s early experiences with sex and drugs and rock’n’roll.

I knew all of these things about her yet the book I suggested to her was for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange.

Did she like poetry? No.
Was she interested in exploring the intersection of sexism and racism? No
Why did I suggest that book to her? Because she was black.

My well-trained librarian brain malfunctioned. I didn’t ask her questions like: What books have you read before that you’ve liked? What kind of book are you in the mood to read? I even knew about her interests from our previous conversations! Yet, at that moment, her blackness was all I could see.

She politely declined my recommendation and we moved on to other things.

I could easily deny the racial implications in this interaction and defend myself: the book, when performed, was put to music…and…and…and…she liked music! But I know what was happening in my head. She was the first black student who had ever asked me for a book recommendation. I thought black student equals “black” book.

At that point in my life, my experiential knowledge of people who identified as black was limited:

My hometown – .8% black
My college – 3.5% black
My first job – >1% black

Segregation is an essential tenet of white supremacy that keeps racist stereotypes and assumptions intact. I grew up in the suburbs of Southern California where there were likely city ordinances banning black people from renting or owning homes for decades before I was born.

When a white person can’t build meaningful relationships with people of color and native people*, they are less likely to question the stereotypes they have learned in school, the media, and the surrounding culture. Hence my unconscious assumption that black people are only interested in “black” things like sports, hip hop, and books by black authors.

I now try to question any assumptions I make about people of color and native people. I do this not only because it is the right thing to do but because it is soul crushing to dehumanize the majority of the world’s population. I seek out the perspectives of people of color and native people through books, blogs, articles, documentaries, and films. I still make mistakes but it’s the ongoing process of questioning and learning that is the most important.

So what can a white librarian do to counter racism in Readers’ Advisory? Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1. Remember that we librarians are an inherently helpful people.
    • We chose this profession because we enjoy helping people (ok…and we love books!)
    • If we are acting out of unconscious racism, we are not upholding the ethical commitments of our profession.
  2. Learn the real story of American history.
  3. Acknowledge that you hold racist assumptions and stereotypes.
    • White supremacy is a system – no one individual is immune.
    • “Think about these stereotypes, these omissions, these distortions as a kind of environment that surrounds us, like smog in the air. We don’t breathe it because we like it. We don’t breathe it because we think it’s good for us. We breathe it because it’s the only air that’s available.” – Beverly Daniel Tatum
  4. Question all racist assumptions and stereotypes.
    • Learn about and from people of color and native people through relationships and study.
    • “Everyone….who remains committed to challenging and changing white supremacy is guided by critical thinking.” – bell hooks, Writing Beyond Race (147) .
  5. Practice.
  6. Repeat Steps 1-5 for all non-dominant groups.
    • What assumptions and stereotypes do you hold about gender, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, the working class, Muslims?
    • Michael M. Widdersheim and Melissa A. McCleary critiqued children’s readers’ advisory services related to gender identity and sexuality.

*Thank you to Debbie Reese blogging at American Indians in Children’s Literature for bringing Elizabeth Cook Lynn’s distinction that native people are tribal citizens, not “people of color.”

New to Whiteness?

When I decided* to dig deeper into the whole idea of whiteness, I gingerly searched on “white privilege” in Google. The first page of search results had a few reputable links mixed with links decrying white privilege as a myth perpetuated by bleeding heart liberals for self-flagellation purposes.

Uh-oh, I thought, I’m a bleeding heart liberal. I could hear my Rush Limbaugh-loving, Yes on California Proposition 187 dad (whom I loved very much!) whispering in my ear: Don’t be a sucker. White privilege is made up to make liberals feel guilty. 

Ever rebellious, I ignored his voice. But I still got confused by the opposing voices from all those web sites.

What do you think I did next, dear reader? Yes! I found some books!

Here are a few accessible (not too academic) books that helped me BEGIN to wrap my brain around race, racism, white supremacy, and privilege:

It is worth noting that two of these three books are written by white cisgender men. When I chose these books to read, I was unconsciously drawn to read about race and racism from a white perspective. This is an example of white supremacy: only white voices are valid. This doesn’t take away from the value of these books, but it is important to notice. 

*The luxury of “deciding” to learn about race is an excellent example of white privilege. 

My White Poetry Collection

In 2004, I had the opportunity to start a high school library from scratch. This was my first full-time librarian position since getting my M.L.I.S. in 2001 – I was pumped. Everything I learned from David Loertscher’s Collection Development class came back to me as I stocked the library with award winners, classics, and well-reviewed books.

School Library Journal and VOYA became my best friends; H.W. Wilson’s Senior High School Core Collection my seasoned mentor; and YALSA’s book awards my hip little sister. I balanced those sources with patron need, curricular support, and mission supportive books.

A diverse collection with authors and content containing a broad range of races, genders, sexual orientations, classes, and abilities was not an explicit goal. But being a good liberal at a liberal school in a liberal city, I prioritized non-fiction about social issues and bought all of Toni Morrison’s novels.

Five years into building this new library, I began the humbling and life-long process of both learning about racism and unlearning my own racism in 2008.

Earlier this year I took a deeper look at the collection looking for whose voices and perspectives are missing. Since I was the only person that had ever added books to this collection, I was curious what kinds of unconscious biases might have crept into my collection.

My first stop: American poetry

I downloaded a list of the 122 poets from 811.54 & 811.6 and researched their race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and ability using GoogleWikipedia, Poetry Foundation, and

By following what sociologist Allan G. Johnson calls the “path of least resistance”, I chose a poetry collection that was 68% white and 63% male. The result of following the best practices of collection development.

This makes sense. We live in a white supremacist society created by white people, for white people. White male poets have historically had access to resources to attend elite universities (and make strategic connections), secure a literary agent, get reviewed, and win awards. They are the bestsellers, the award winners, the classics, the canon.

Not only were most of the poets white and male but also Christian, middle/upper class, able-bodied, and heterosexual.

Luckily, I’m a ruthless weeder.

I weeded twenty white male poets and two white female poets. I examined circulation statistics, their similarity to other poets, and their life experience. I cross referenced their name in the American poetry anthologies in the collection – almost all of them were anthologized – which actually made me feel a little better about weeding them (ok, so I’m not as ruthless as I thought).

At times, this type of weeding felt clinical and reductive. Why does one socially-constructed aspect of a person’s identity have to sum up their entire existence? Precise attention to race though is the only way to ensure my collection is not majority-white even if the process is clunky and uncomfortable.

Other times I noticed myself despising these ubiquitous white male poets. Oh, of course, there’s another WASP poet. I frequently paused to remind myself that WASP poets are human beings with lives and loves and tragedies and triumphs. Rachel!  Your San Francisco library collection would be at a deficit without the Beat poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg; your students need the accessible playfulness of Billy Collins and the unconventional charm of E.E. Cummings. Getting on my “good white person” high horse only makes me feel separate from people, a painful symptom of white supremacy. Those reminders helped me stay connected to my humanity.

After weeding came purchasing. Every librarian’s favorite part! I added fifty-five poets, many of them in the 811.6s including Ryka Aoki, Latasha N. Nevada Diggs, Natalie Diaz, and Laurie Ann Guerrero.

I searched Google for “latino poets“; I browsed Wikipedia’s helpful categories like “Native American Poets”; I followed the bread trail provided by the “Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed” feature on Amazon;  I also considered the poet’s accessibility to teenagers and relation to our curriculum.

After all that weeding and purchasing, the American poetry collection is now 37% white and 56% female.*

Publishers employ a staggering number of white people, particularly white women. All the way down the line from executives to editors to marketers to book reviewers, white people are the decision makers, the arbiters of what should exist in print.

When we blindly follow the path of least resistance, we end up with a mostly white collection. It can be clunky but we can make sure our collections have a variety of voices and perspectives. That will only happen if the white librarians who have agency over their collections put diversity and inclusion on the front burner.

Next steps in my quest for a more inclusive collection:

  • fiction
  • art (709.2), American painters (759.13), and photographers (779.092)
  • history: How many history books are authored by historians from that country?

*I focus on race in this post, but I also purchased books written by poets from other non-dominant groups.

Whiteness, Librarianship, and Me

I learned that being white meant something in 2008. I had been a librarian for eight years and built the library at the small private high school I work at from scratch. That spring, a few of our students of color shared their experience of racial microaggressions (a term coined by Chester M. Pierce) from white teachers and students. Since our well-meaning liberal school was only five years old, I naively assumed that we were inoculated from racial prejudice. How could I experience our cozy little school so differently from my students of color?

That lily white bubble burst and well, you can’t unburst a bubble.

Since that momentous spring, I strive to understand how white supremacy operates in my mind, my personal and professional relationships, my parenting, my neighborhood, my school, and my library. I gravitate towards books, blogs, scholarly articles, TV shows, documentaries, and conversations about race and whiteness.

Librarians of color, native librarians, and white librarians have been investigating whiteness in the library profession in academic circles for at least a couple of decades. Recent articles in the journal In the Library with the Lead Pipe and other online offerings deepen the scholarship of whiteness in librarianship:

I appreciate the precise scholarly approach of these insightful librarians. Their writing helps me name the racial dynamics I encounter in my library work and gives me plenty to think about.

Chris Bourg, a white librarian who blogs as The Feral Librarian, in her post “whiteness, social justice and the future of libraries” declares that the future of libraries requires that we that we “deal with our whiteness problem”. Yes! Yes! Yes!

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of societal systems of oppression in the library profession: librarians are mostly white! book publishers are mostly white! book reviewers are mostly white! Ahhh!!

Sometimes I think: What can I – a solo librarian in a library serving several hundred patrons – do about systemic racism? And then I remember: spheres of influence!

African American psychologist, professor, and author Beverly Daniel Tatum asked her students, after teaching them about systemic racism, to “create an action plan that translated what they learned into interventions in their spheres of influence – their classrooms, schools…” as a way of countering “the discouragement people naturally feel when they look at a really big problem like racism in our society.”

I created this blog to share thoughts, practical ideas, and resources for disrupting white supremacy* in the library. I want to connect with my fellow librarians already doing this work or want to be doing this work.

What are you doing in your spheres of influence to fight against the unbearable whiteness of librarianship?

*Loretta Ross defines white supremacy as a “many-headed Hydra” of which racism is one head. Other heads include patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, and classism. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw theory of intersectionality is also essential to understanding societal oppression