Thursday 17 October 2019


It was a question that Joey Chung recalled during their presentation at the New Librarians' Symposium in Adelaide, when observing that they were often one of only a few Asian librarians at libraries conference events... where, at one such event, Joey's colleague asked:

Joey, do you think that it is a bit funny that you're the only Asian in here?

Joey's response: Ah yeah, so what? I'm so used to it by now.

You don't need to have prepared a workforce diversity trend report to be aware that the Australian library and information sector has a diversity issue when it comes to people of colour and, unfortunately, this is seemingly even more the case when it comes to delegates that are sent to professional conferences.

However, in a strange twist of fate, I was fortunate enough to be sent as a delegate to attend the biennial conference of the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia (FECCA), held in Hobart last week.
Hello Hobart!
For me, this was a unique conference event, for two reasons:

1. Other than my colleague, there were no other delegates (to my knowledge) from the library / cultural sector; and

2. The overwhelming majority of delegates were people of colour.

And I have to say, it was a breath of fresh air - and that's not just the Tasmanian climate!

There were a number of recurring themes - things that we really should be talking about in libraries - and yes, some of us do, but they are usually far from the top of the priority list:

Working with First Nations people. The vast majority of us are migrants in somebody else's country. We need to acknowledge traditional owners, and seek welcome to country. We need to work toward reconciliation for the past deeds of Australia's colonisers - deeds that we all benefit from, to the detriment of First Nations people. But also, importantly, we need to support new migrants to Australia to connect with First Nations people, exchange knowledge, find common understanding, and collaborate to build community together.

The opening night reception began with a welcome to country, and the official launch of FECCA's Reconciliation Action Plan. The next morning, one of the keynote speakers was a Palawa Elder, and over the two days, there were quite a number of presentations of case studies where multicultural communities were actively engaging with Indigenous Elders to deliver intercultural exchanges - particularly in facilitating resettlement programs for refugees and asylum seekers. The underlying message here was that we need to stop looking at immigration through a colonialist perspective, and connect better with First Nations values when living in somebody else's land. And when we think about multiculturalism and inclusion of minorities, we must remember that our First Nations people are minorities in their own country.

Lobbying and advocacy. As keynote speaker Hana Assafiri began her presentation - we live in a polarised world. We need to be vigilant against discrimination. We need to understand that bigotry is hate speech and not free speech. We need to be honest about what is happening, and be truth-tellers.

Shen Narayanasamy from Colour Code talked about the moment of realising that 24% of Australian residents were from non-European backgrounds - twice that of the black American population. Furthermore, in 49 seats across Australian, 1 in 5 residents are from non-English speaking backgrounds, and despite common perceptions, many migrants, multicultural and First Nations people in Australia are swinging voters. That's a huge source of political power. And so, people of colour in Australia need to stop begging for acceptance, and instead mobilise and work together.

There are so many important often-unheard voices in Australia that need to be heard, and their messages brought to the forefront of our cultural institutions.

Defining and measuring multiculturalism. Australia does a good job of collecting data on first generation migrants, but for subsequent generations - not so much. Official data only looks at country of birth and/or language spoken at home, so if you're Australian-born and speak English, you don't count as being from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) background. This is a set of criteria and definition which came out of a context of exclusion from the White Australia policy. It leads to misleading statistical base data - where the population diversity statistics are out by approximately 1.4 million people - and there is no right for people to self-identify as being from a culturally diverse background.

This, of course, needs to also be considered by libraries (and *cough* library associations *cough*) when considering the statistics on diversity, and using them as the basis for the services that they provide to their communities.

Cultural competency in the workplace. I learnt of a number of initiatives in this area - the Bureau of Meteorology have a Multicultural Access and Equity Action Plan, which outlines their actions for engaging with culturally and linguistically diverse communities. The Department of Human Services have, over the past three years, rolled out a multicultural awareness program to a total of over 22,000 staff, and are collaborating with staff who deliver their Indigenous cultural competency training to provide further anti-discrimination training. HealthWest in Melbourne have gone further, and developed Standard for Workforce Mutuality - the idea that the diversity of the workforce should represent the diversity of their client base. Furthermore, this is an intersectional measurement of diversity, assessing cultural identity along with gender, sexuality, disability, and so on.

Communicating with multicultural populations. Non English-speaking people in Australia need information too - perhaps moreso than anybody else - if we want to be facilitators of social cohesion in our community. We saw a number of presentations showcasing multilingual services - particularly online communication. One such example, ASIC, highlighted the importance of this, as one in three small businesses in Australia are run by migrants - and in most cases, it's their first business. So, it's important that they have access to clear guidance for managing a business well - and legally!

Again, for cultural institutions, we can no longer get away with being monolingual in our communications, especially if we want to engage with multicultural communities and include them in our cultural collections.

So, after spending two days exploring these topics with a bunch of (mostly) non-white non-librarians, I wonder: how hard would it be to have a library conference that was dominated by these kinds of themes? Is that too much to ask?

As an aside, the headline speaker at the Thursday night dinner was Australian comedian Nazeem Hussain - and at one point, he posed the question:

How awesome is it to be at an event in Australia where white people are the minority?

Obviously, a rhetorical question.

Monday 30 September 2019

Secret Asian Man: the privileges and pitfalls of "passing".

One of my best friends in high school was quite open about the fact that he hated all Asians.

Not that I thought he was necessarily going to go out and commit hate-crimes. The early 90s were a simpler time: casual racism was still socially acceptable, Con the Fruiterer was hilarious, and One Nation was but a twinkle in Pauline Hanson's eye. To be honest, I think he mostly just had a problem with the rich international students from Hong Kong and Singapore who seemed to be too cool for everybody else.

It's only really in hindsight that I think it was odd that he'd express his hatred of Asians if one of his good mates was one. I can only assume that (a) he didn't know I was Asian, (b) he thought of me as more "Aussie" than "Asian", or (c) he was trying to drop a hint, and I just wasn't catching on.

I was initially raised in a bilingual household, until my parents were worried that my English was getting too muddled-up. Even still, through much of my primary school years, I went to Chinese language schools on Saturday morning - which I absolutely hated. I was skilled with using chopsticks from a young age, and my mum would do most of the cooking in the family, which meant that more often than not, meals would consist of some variant of rice or noodles with veggies and some meat. Still, we kids loved it when it was dad's turn to cook, as it mostly involved pies or sausages.

It's only been in recent years where I've really come to accept my identity as an Asian-Australian. Before then, it was always something that was used against me, whether it was hilarious teenage jokes about being the product of the sex trade, or random drunken strangers who'd shout "Ohhh kon-ni-chi-wa!" or the highly-original "Ching-chong! Ching-chong!". That is, they weren't telling me to go back to my own country, or threatening to bash me.

When recalling these experiences, my white friends were always outraged and indignant on my behalf - but also a little surprised. After all, I "didn't even look that Asian" (so they'd tell me). Like being a "halfie" wasn't even worth it.

And in spite of my experiences, I also accept that, for much of my life, I've had the privilege of "passing" as, well, ambiguous. Certainly, on paper, I have a Western name, excellent English language skills, a nice predominantly-white middle-class profession as a librarian, and was born and bred in Australia. And without any reason to indicate otherwise, people assume that I'm white - and I don't give them any reason to think otherwise. I figure that they can work it out later on, once they've had a chance to get to know me as a person first.

Of course, that ambiguity can also lead to its fair share of awkwardness. Even when people have the best intentions and, purely out of curiosity, find themselves asking me that classic, "So, where are your parents from?" Like I need to provide my detailed family lineage, so that they can understand my, skin tone, facial bone structure, curly hair and ability to actively reverse the effects of ageing. They're often surprised (as am I) when they reveal that they thought that I was either Greek, Polynesian, or Jewish.

In recent years, I've noticed a trend at presentations given by professionals from First Nations backgrounds. They introduce themselves, not only by their name, but also their cultural group - and sometimes they even do this in their language. Whilst this may be an important statement of authority or sovereignty over the topic that they are going to speak on, another thing always intrigues me: the speaker is often from a mixed-race background, and if they hadn't explicitly stated their cultural identity, I would have no idea whether they were from a First Nations background or not.

I've spoken to other professionals from mixed backgrounds about their experiences, and whilst they are privileges to not being "obviously" Black, Brown or Asian, there are pitfalls too. We share experiences of discrimination, and a passion for promoting diverse voices in our professional fields. However, at times when we put ourselves out there, we can find ourselves challenged from "both sides". My white colleagues have often felt awkward or uncomfortable when I bring up topics such as (for example) white colonial narratives dominating cultural institutions, but at the same time, I experience a reluctance amongst my colleagues who are people of colour to engage in such discussions, and I can't help but feel like it's partially because I'm "not Asian enough" to be part of such a movement, especially when I've had all the privileges of "passing". Indeed, when I was elected into the IFLA Standing Committee for the Library Services to Multicultural Populations Section, one response from a colleague was, "Oh, that's interesting. What's your connection with multicultural populations, then?" It definitely felt like a challenge - for me to justify putting myself forward for such a role when there might be more suitable candidates. And maybe I should - even now, I experience my share of imposter syndrome, and suspect that I'm just being a dramatic leftie playing the race card when others have it so much worse.

I'm not saying that I'm entitled to be the spokesperson for Australian-Chinese communities - nor would I necessarily want to. But I do feel that librarians of colour should stand together, to ensure that we are all represented as a part of our society when it comes to our cultural institutions, and that we provide services and collections that connect with all communities in our society. We should all be proud of who we are, and be counted.

And I am not half a person.

Tuesday 25 June 2019

Where are the radical librarians of colour in Australia?

This month's glamblogclub theme is "radical" - and I'm not going to dwell too much on defining this term, other than to say that, depending on the context, it can be positive or negative, but is almost always focused on an extreme form of change and disruption - whether it be technological change, a shift in paradigm, or overhaul of power structures.
So, what does it mean to be "radical" in the context of libraries? For me, as a person of colour floating in a sea of whiteness - colleagues, collections and clients - I have many strong opinions on the topic of libraries and cultural diversity.

When I look to forums such as Twitter, and conference events, particularly in the USA and Canada, I see a strong contingent of radical librarians of colour, sharing their experiences, challenging whiteness in their collections, services and teams, and generally banding together to support one another.

And I wonder - why doesn't this happen in Australia? I see a growing trend in pursuing critical librarianship as a form of radical action amongst librarians, but amongst those who are particularly active, there is most notably a lack of cultural diversity. Of course, there are a couple of exceptions, but they are exactly that - exceptions.

Of course, this is Australia - a country where the White Australia policy is still in living memory for most of the older generations of this nation. As a child, I grew up in a culture where to be a real "Aussie" was to be white, and the best that the rest of us could do is try to fit in, and live in "harmony". To challenge that would just be to draw attention to one's own difference, and fuel the opinion that perhaps, if I don't like it, I should go back to "my own country".

Part of me wants to think that times have changed since then, but then I just have to look to any Australian person of colour who has voiced a radical opinion in the media, and then watch the torrent of abuse unfold.

So, there's often, at best, an uncomfortable reluctance to speak out on matters of cultural diversity, even when surrounded by well-meaning white folks. At worst? Well, ask me some time when we've both had a couple of drinks.

In a professional context, there's still so much risk involved in challenging the status quo from a cultural perspective. It's an uncomfortable conversation for everybody to have, particularly if you're in the vast minority. If you don't see that changing any time soon, there's nothing to be gained, and plenty to lose. I feel uncomfortable even writing this blog, as I fear reprisals of one form or another.

Of course, that discomfort isn't necessarily a bad thing - it's important to acknowledge. I don't feel comfortable talking about the lack of cultural diversity in libraries, when I'm surrounded by white folks - even when they're being supportive allies. It just makes me feel even more isolated and different. Alone, I'm just not ready to be radical.

So, instead, here's my modestly-radical proposal - and a call-out to all other Australian librarians of colour out there who have been silent for too long. Find each other. Make the time to meet in a safe environment and have these important conversations, critiquing and interrogating the systemic whiteness in your libraries. Mobilise, collaborate and be active. Find your collective voice. Write to professional publications - or create your own. Put together conference panels. Whatever it takes to build our own professional community to ensure that, in these conversations, there is nothing about us without us.

(And if you don't know anybody else that you can connect with, you can email me - I'm happy to get things in motion.)