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.]

11 thoughts on “A Message to White Librarians about the BCALA Statement on the 2016 ALA Conference Venue”

  1. thanks for this! i really appreciate your thoughtfulness in engaging in issues and discussions around racism and institutional privilege. these issues seem increasingly important to our profession thinking about our own community of librarians and those that we’re serving.

    unfortunately, i’ve seen a lot of issue responses in the library community that do dismiss, deny, and ‘splain relating to this statement, so i’m afraid that i’m not confident about the response of the organization.

    i do, however, think that action is important. i have seen some ‘splaining already about the financial costs of moving the conference. i cannot imagine that BCALA made this call lightly; i’m sure they have some sense of the magnitude of moving this event.

    at some point we have to put values above dollars, and no matter which way things move going forward, i hope that the organization will look at paths that provide the flexibility to put our stated values ahead of financial concerns.

  2. Thank you for pointing out the very real problem with privilege in our society. The ability to choose and do nothing. The BCALA’s reaction to ALA’s decision to move forward with the conference in Orlando raises several other questions as well. Who was involved in the decision-making for ALA’s conference venue changes? Who raised this issue of the conference soon after the verdicts (Zimmerman, Dunn) were handed down? Did ALA leaders hold meetings to discuss changing the venue once other individuals and organizations began publicly pulling their support for Florida concerts and events? ALA’s Office for Diversity is currently without a director (as other other ALA offices). Would a director of Diversity have been the appropriate office to feel the pulse of members on the topic of moving the venue? In the end it is our regard for Human Life, more than the free exchange of information, that should dictate and drive our choices in whether or not to hold our conference where American children are being killed discriminately and where their killers walk freely.

  3. I’ve also seen a lot of derailing, which I suppose falls in to the ‘splain catagory: meaning, “Well it’s unsafe for LGBTQ people in many places!” or “We’re alienating those people who live near Florida and will have to pay for a more expensive ticket!”
    As Director-at-Large of the GLBTRT, I’m no stranger to LGBTQ issues. But BCALA made *specific* concerns about a *specific* place. You can’t take there concerns and make it into a “Well, what about *me*?”
    And I hope that others don’t compare more expensive plane tickets to the safety and comfort of a human being.
    Well done on this post.

  4. I think there are some valid concerns raised by the BCALA. That said, I also feel the need to address some of the things I’ve read on ALATT and other places from BCALA members.

    First and foremost, if there is anyone who legitimately fears for their life when visiting the state of Florida then I truly feel sorry for them, because that is a completely irrational fear. I travel to Florida regularly – almost always with African-American friends/family/colleagues – and there has never been an issue. In my city, there has recently been a string of unsolved assaults on white college students by young black males – but that doesn’t mean as a white person I should “fear” going into a certain part of the city. A handful of unfortunate incidents (and in the case of Florida, two) is not a fair representation of what is truly going on in an area. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the bungling by the prosecution in the George Zimmerman case that ultimately cost them (in my opinion) a conviction.

    One particularly outspoken BCALA member has repeatedly referred to the United States as a “white supremacist” society, which to me is an almost automatic disqualification when it comes to credibility on any topic. His viewpoints, to which he is entitled, are certainly extremist and offensive to many (not even mentioning the profanity he includes regularly in his statements). Even if they aren’t offensive, they most certainly don’t fall within the ALA guidelines of being inclusive and racially tolerant. It’s every bit as racist and illogical to assume that white Floridians are looking to kill blacks “for no reason” as it is to say all welfare queens are black.

    But back to the root of the issue: is the ALA not focusing on the core ideal of being inclusive? It’s important to talk about, but I think ultimately the answers boil down to three things. One is, for better or worse, the financial factor. Moving a giant conference, even two years in advance, is a monumental undertaking. Secondly, and again whether this is “right” or not is certainly debatable, but it would be impossible to accommodate the needs of every special interest group when choosing a location for a conference. You pick Florida, the anti-Stand Your Ground contingent will be unhappy. You pick a state that makes gay marriage illegal, it is offensive to the GLBT community. You pick a state that has tougher marijuana laws, and it is a problem to the legalization folks. Last but not least, getting back to my first thought – it’s absurd to fear for your life in the state of Florida if you are black. Whether you are for or against the Stand Your Ground law is irrelevant to the fact: black people are not getting murdered on a regular basis in Florida by whites for no reason at all. It’s a simple truth.

    What I would like to see from BCALA is a feasible solution or alternative. It’s one thing to ask for change, but what about making a proposal of action steps or solutions?

    1. I appreciate your taking the time to respond.

      I’m afraid that I find perfect examples of ignoring, ‘splaining, and denying here and no examples of listening, including, or accepting. This is exactly the kind of response that I think poisons the conversation. I say this not because dissent is not allowed, but because it insists that the discussion can only be framed from a “neutral” perspective and that this “neutral” perspective is the only one that can be defined as rational. That approach is both dismissive and paternalistic.

      There may be room to disagree on how certain facts are interpreted, but there is no denying the facts that white men have killed black men with the state’s tacit approval. There is no room to deny that these murders have made the BCALA fear for their member’s safety. There is no room to deny that the ALA core values state that we are committed to diversity and racial tolerance. Thus, the suggestion that if the ALA ignores the BCALA’s concerns here, there is room to question our commitment to those values.

      In the end, I don’t think this is about money. I don’t think it is about minutia of Florida case law. This is about listening to the concerns of the ALA membership.

      If the response of white librarians is: “We understand racism better than the BCALA, so the BCALA’s argument is invalid.” then we would have no grounds to claim we value either diversity or tolerance. If our response is: “We can’t afford to care about the fears of black librarians.” then we have no grounds to claim we value either diversity or tolerance. Our job here is to listen. If we listen, we’ll hear the extended potential feasible solution that they clearly included in the statement.

      There are other things that I take STRONG opposition to in your post, but primarily, the suggestion that other people (white people) get to decide what the BCALA may rationally be afraid of stinks of racism. In my view, the only response that conforms to our values is to listen to the concerns of the BCALA and engage with them in building a way forward that conforms to our values.

    2. “if there is anyone who legitimately fears for their life when visiting the state of Florida then I truly feel sorry for them, because that is a completely irrational fear. I travel to Florida regularly – almost always with African-American friends/family/colleagues – and there has never been an issue.”

      It is not irrational. Time and time again, news proves that in fact shooting unarmed black people for NO reason is entirely regular and conventional an occurrence (far more than the two you claim). The proposed boycott or moving of the conference is not just about individuals feeling safe or unsafe – it’s about giving money and support and prestige to a state that repeatedly sanctions racism and says that the lives of people of color are neither valuable nor valued. It’s about giving business to organizations, businesses, and individuals who contribute to the continued offenses that endanger the lives of many people. This is about an organization that claims to value diversity and inclusiveness choosing to support a system that does exactly the opposite, and that system also happens to do so in a dangerous and palpable way.

      Furthermore, you do not get to tell people what to fear, nor do you get to assume you know how your friends and colleagues feel. They are not required to tell you how they feel. You are also not in a position to define or determine what constitutes racism or a feeling of safety, because that’s not something you have to be worried about, neither as a man (assuming from your name), nor as a white person. Of course you don’t feel unsafe as a white person, no matter how many crimes might be committed against white people. That’s called white privilege (and male privilege), and it also has to do with the fact that the system (remember, racism is not an attitude, it’s a SYSTEM) still supports your rights and your safety and your wellbeing, not those of people of color.

  5. What troubles me also about the ALA decision is that if enough of the ALA leadership had been people of color, the conference might never have been slated to be held in Florida to begin with.

    1. I certainly agree that with broader representation and less concentration of power that we’d make better decisions. I also share the troubled sense that our decisions as an organization reflect our lack of diversity. On the other hand, I believe the Orlando 2016 conference was scheduled before George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn got away with state-sanctioned murder. I don’t think this undermines the point, but I’m not sure that the reasons listed in the BCALA’s statement existed at the time the decision was made.

  6. I’m confused. Was Trayvon Martin not murdered by a man of Latin descent?

    Are we trying to have a progressive conversation, or are we doing that thing where we reduce race to nothing more than phenotype before making the palest among us apologize for everything that’s wrong with the world?

    I’m of African and Chinese descent. Florida is my home. [insert 'splainin here]

    1. That point of view is certainly welcome. I don’t share it, but I’m glad to hear it voiced. From my perspective, I’d think that I’d want this to be a conversation inside the BCALA membership. Once that group as a whole has issued a public statement, I feel it’s my responsibility to listen to the statement and take the group’s concern seriously. This is not the same thing as saying the official statement is the only possible view, just that ALA members have an obligation to listen seriously and engage w/ our colleagues in the BCALA.

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