October 2015 | Volume XXXIII, Issue 5 »

My Turn: Challenging Ourselves to Talk About Race

September 23, 2015
Amita Lonial, Skokie Public Library

Over a year ago most of us had never heard of Ferguson, Missouri.  While police brutality and the systematic

persecution of black bodies is not new, the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland have ignited a national conversation and movement for racial justice that has become impossible to ignore.

In these times it is our instinct as librarians to turn outward and create opportunities to nurture and educate our communities.  I think we all have tremendous respect for how Ferguson Public Library responded in the days, weeks, and months following Brown’s shooting death.  (If you haven’t read any of the interviews with Ferguson director Scott Bonner you should do it now).  I’m also impressed by how libraries and museums across the country have been showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement by creating curricula, reading guides, public forums, and programs.

At Skokie Public Library, we created a six-week series called “Voices of Race” in partnership with our area schools, nonprofits, and community leaders to examine the issues of race and racism locally.  We used a variety of mechanisms to get patrons of all ages engaged.  Public events included book discussions, family storytimes, performances, and lectures.  We also created knapsacks for patrons to take home that included conversation starters and visual tools for patrons of all ages to express their experiences of race and identity.  Designing this series was daunting, exhausting, and exhilarating.  But it was a worthwhile first step to get people in our community talking and thinking about these issues, from their dinner tables to our meeting rooms.

I think the harder work for all of us, individually and institutionally, lies in turning inward.  On an individual level it is difficult and painful to confront ways in which we may be contributing to inequality.  Though seemingly inconsequential, things like asking questions of staff or coworkers such as “where are you really from” or saying “when I look at you, I don’t see color or race” inform a complicated tapestry of privilege that upholds systemic inequality.  It’s challenging because most of us found ourselves in this profession because of our passion for democracy, community, and justice.  It’s also hard because I believe we are all good people doing the best with what we’ve been given.  And talking about race can make us feel like we’re not good people.  But we have to get over that emotional hurdle if we want to proactively create safe and just spaces in our libraries.

I know that our professional associations work hard to encourage diversity among our ranks and leaders.  Despite these efforts we are still an overwhelmingly white profession.  I’d love to see more conversation about white privilege and how that informs our operations.  How does white privilege impact our collection development practices?  Or our behavior management expectations, policies, and practices?  How can we develop anti-racist practices and benchmarks to combat those tendencies?  Are we doing all we can to be transparent and accountable to communities of color?  These are bigger questions I don’t have the answer to, but I’m interested to see what can happen if we start talking about them.

For many,  turning inward feels inaccessible and overwhelming. Many of us believe we don’t have the knowledge or tools to take on these conversations—that we need to hire somebody to teach us.  But we’re librarians!  We do have the tools all around us.  I’d like to challenge all of us to commit to doing one thing to promote an antiracist culture among our staff, volunteers, or board members.  Read and discuss Peggy McIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege:  Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” with members of your department or team.  Or have a staff lunchtime book discussion about the new Ta-Nehisi Coates book, Between the World and Me.  Talk with your community partners and leaders about how we can continue to be better.  These are small steps individually but they are integral as part of a larger commitment to equality and equity so valued by libraries.


Six conversation prompts from Skokie Public Library’s “Voices of Race” series

  • In what ways were you aware of your racial/ethnic background when you were growing up?  How would you describe your background?
  • How has race affected your life?  Can you think of specific, tangible examples?
  • Name three feelings that come up when you hear the word racism.
  • When and how have you challenged racism?
  • When and how have you failed to challenge racism?
  • What can we do as a community to stand up against racism?

Ground rules for keeping the dialogue responsible and safe

  • No single speaker should dominate the conversation.  All participants should have the opportunity to participate.
  • Refrain from making generalizations about groups of people, for example:  “All Latinos….” Instead share personal perspectives and experiences.
  • Listen to the perspectives and experiences of others, and recognize that they are valid, regardless of whether you agree.  All people have a right to their own truth.
  • If you become uncomfortable, ask yourself:  What about a particular statement or idea causes you discomfort?  Challenge yourself to see the idea from a perspective other than your own.

Amita Lonial is the Learning Experiences Manager at Skokie Public Library.  Prior to joining the library world she spent eight years in the nonprofit world fighting for racial and economic justice.  Her other passions/obsessions include karaoke, Craigslist missed connections, and finding awesome diverse picture books for her new baby.


Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates

2015, Spiegel & Grau, 152 pages

This recently published book takes the form of an open letter from the author, a national columnist forThe Atlantic, to his fifteen-year-old son in the wake of recent shootings of young black men at the hands of police.  Some reviews have compared it to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, though New York Times reviewer Michelle Alexander sees it as “written on the opposite side of the same coin.”  She explains that on her first reading, she had difficulty with Coates’ apparently bleak view of the possibility for positive change.  But on re-reading, she finds something else:  “The second time around I could see that maybe, just maybe, this is what is most needed right now—a book that offers no answers but instead challenges us to wrestle with the questions on our own.”

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