A Message to White Librarians about the BCALA Statement on the 2016 ALA Conference Venue

Called Out

Today, the BCALA (Black Caucus of the American Library Association) protested the ALA’s decision not to move our annual conference from the already scheduled and booked venue in Orlando to a place where laws don’t protect white people who shoot black people for no greater reason than they are afraid of them. I’m trying to avoid sensationalism, but the legally sanctioned murders of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis deserve the attention they are getting.

The text of the BCALA statement was posted to the ALA ThinkTank’s facebook group. The BCALA site was down when I wrote this. I’ve also clipped the BCALA statement to my Evernote, in case a reader wants to read it but doesn’t want to use Facebook.

There are a lot of conversations that need to take place. I don’t think anyone has had a chance to formulate an appropriate response to this. However, as a white librarian, I do have some things that I really want my fellow privileged colleagues to say and there are some things that I really hope we don’t say. I want to lay out my hopes and fears for the future conversation here.

How I hope we (white librarians) respond to the BCALA statement

  1. Listen. First off, I really hope that we see and acknowledge that our colleagues in the Black Caucus have directly called us out on the ALA’s commitment to diversity and racial tolerance. This is a big deal. Our colleagues are doing us the favor of directly telling us that this is a very important issue to them and so far, our behavior has caused them to question our solidarity. I think we (white librarians) need to acknowledge this and listen very carefully to what we are being told. In this case, I think the specific details of the statement are less important than the fact that the Black Caucus of the ALA is telling us that we are failing in one of our primary values. Full stop. As an organization,  this deserves our full and undivided attention.
  2. Include. Second, I really hope the ALA leadership invites the BCALA to participate in finding a solution to the problem. I don’t know enough of the details or have enough experience to suggest which solution we pursue, but if we are truly listening, it’s appropriate to find a solution to this together. This goes double or triple if there isn’t a clear or easy option that will satisfy everyone. If the ALA is forced by circumstances beyond our control to continue to deny the BCALA’s request for a venue change, then I think it really is our responsibility to seek the best possible solution together.
  3. Accept. Third, I very much hope that the ALA membership will accept this strong rebuke. The BCALA has taken the time to send us a direct communication that says: “This is not right.” In a perfect world, the ALA’s membership will respond with some form of: “You are right, it is beyond unacceptable that some of our membership, or anyone for that matter, is put in the position of fearing for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. We were acting against our core values when we chose not to take action before, and we’ll do whatever is in our power to amend our poor decisions.”

How I fear we (white librarians) will screw up in responding to the BCALA statement

  1. Ignore. I’m afraid that ALA membership won’t listen to this complaint or at least I’m really hoping that we don’t make this mistake. There is a lot in the BCALA’s statement beyond the request to move the 2016 annual conference. I’m worried that the general response will be to see that request, conclude that moving the conference is impractical or impossible, and move on from the situation. If we do ignore the message we’ve been sent, then the BCALA will be right to question our commitment to our values. Not only should we not ignore the statement, but we should read it with an eye for what is unsaid. The statement includes what could be a suggestion of a compromise. The statement mentions the My Brother’s Keeper initiative from the White House. This appears to be a starting place for a compromise solution. We should read carefully and consider what is being offered here.
  2. ‘Splain. I’m legitimately worried that ALA members will attempt to ‘splain away the concerns listed in the BCALA statement. We should work very hard to avoid dismissing the concerns listed and explaining how moving the conference is impractical and questioning our commitment to values is mistaken or insulting. Note: I am not saying that we are not allowed to disagree with BCALA or that we must obey some unwritten code here. There is room for a diversity of opinion. I am saying that in this case white librarians need to be on our best behavior. Any scenario that involves white librarians explaining to our Black Caucus colleagues that we understand how to address racism better than they do should be rethought.
  3. Deny. The BCALA’s statement contains some politely worded, but very troubling content. It questions the ALA’s commitment to things we say are our core values. In not-so-many words it says we give diversity and tolerance lip-service and then take whichever action is most convenient for the white majority. Responses that take offense to these accusations, strike a defensive tone, or act as though speaking the truth about white supremacy laws is an insult to “good” white librarians are only going to make the matter worse. We live in a nation that gives tangible advantages to white people. We live in a nation that allows white people to literally get away with the murder of black people. If we deny these things, or worse, if we act as though these things aren’t problems that are worth taking a stand on, we’ve failed.

So these are my hopes and fears. I really hope that we listen, engage, and accept our responsibility. I really hope we can avoid ignoring, ‘splaning, and denying our privilege. I also hope that we, as an association, can see this moment as an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to the values we claim.

[Edit: Originally I listed the name of Jordan Davis’ murderer by mistake. I apologize for that mistake.]

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