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.)