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.”

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