Last week, August 3rd – 7th, I participated in the Racial Justice Challenge (RJC). Perhaps you did too. I appreciate the Fogler Library folks at the University of Maine for designing, curating, and facilitating the RJC. It is not too late to participate in this work. The RJC links are live and will be accessible into the future.
Each day, for five days, I received an email with several tasks designed to “learn, listen, share, and take action regarding race, racism, and antiracism.” Along with other participants, I explored how to be antiracist (versus “not racist”), examined issues of race in the media, and designed a personalized racial justice plan. (See the Welcome page.) Some of the resources shared were new to me. I revisited others or used them as springboards to read/view other resources I had in my queue.
As a White middle-class cisgender female and a retired K-20 educator, I participated with a preK-12 educator lens and with an eye for how school librarians can be especially instrumental in antiracist activism. I am currently editing a professional book centered on core values in librarianship, including equity, diversity, and inclusion. The RJC helped me think more deeply about our work and our book.
There is no way to fully share my experience but this is a start.
Note: I am reading Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi and appreciate his decision to capitalize both Black and White in his writing. I am adopting that convention here.
I have long been an avid supporter/follower/reader/user of Teaching Tolerance resources. The RJC kicked off with an article by Cory Collins (2018) “What is White Privilege Really? Recognizing white privilege begins with truly understanding the term itself.”
(Thank you to the facilitators for this article because this gave me confidence from the first day this work would build on what I already knew from my work in K-12 and university-level teaching and research.)
In defining White privilege, Collins cites Francis E. Kendall author of Diversity in the Classroom and Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race (2006): “having greater access to power and resources than people of color [in the same situation] do.” The fact that I have been privileged with the “power of normal” and the “power of the benefit of the doubt” were important reminders to me. These powers ensure systemic racism.
This concept connected for me with Dr. Kendi’s idea regarding the origins of racism in the U.S.: “racial discrimination led to racist ideas led to racist ideas led to ignorance/hate” (2016, 9).
White privilege also endows me as a White woman with the power to remain silent in the face of racial inequity. By definition, my privilege gives me the option to avoid the discomfort of confronting racism because I am “safe.”
In the NPR video: “Me and White Supremacy Helps You Do the Work of Dismantling Racism.” I was introduced to the work of Layla Saad, author of Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor (2020). Ms. Saad is an East African, Arab, British, Black, Muslim woman living in Qatar. She developed a 28-day process that she calls a “personal anti-racism tool” designed to teach those with White privilege how systemic racism works and how they can stop contributing to White supremacy in the world. I appreciate her message: Systems are made by people and can be changed by people. As with changing cultures and school cultures, in particular, there is power and greater opportunities for success in doing this work with a group of colleagues.
From the very first day of RJC, the comment board where participants shared their responses to the resources shared was, for me, one of the most informative aspects of Day 1 and every day thereafter. I appreciate how people anonymously shared their feelings, experiences, and thoughts with the group. Other people’s posts made me think harder about what I was reading.
Day Two began with viewing Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s June 17, 2020 TED Talk: “The difference between being “not racist” and antiracist” (51 minutes). I had previously viewed this video and the one in which he is interviewed by Dr. Brené Brown. My take-aways again were reminders of definitions I believe are central to this work:
Racist = a fixed category – central to who someone is – evil/KKK/White supremacist
Not-racist = racist (denial)
Antiracist = acknowledgment of racial inequities and taking action to eliminate them – cannot be neutral, must admit privilege, be self-critical, and view racism as the problem
Again, the comment board posts were very powerful.
I glanced at the “100 Things White People Can Do to Fight Racism” article written by Corrine Shutack. While I agree with all of these actions, many of them related to political activism, there was part of me that wished these things were framed as what ALL people can and should do. Similar to advocacy in the world of librarianship, it often starts and must be sustained by “insiders” as well as the advocates we enlist to support change.
I have shared and discussed the “single story” perspective in my university-level teaching. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s message in “The Danger of a Single Story” is supported today by #OwnVoices and #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Identifying and promoting the diversity of life experiences raises questions in my courses and in my life as an author, which are too numerous to explain here. Bottom line: I always benefit from hearing other people’s responses to this work (see the comment board).
I appreciate the menu of choices the facilitators curated for Day 3. For me, the most useful was the link to “The Best Latinx Books According to Latinx Writers.”
Where I live in Arizona, Latinx and American Indian peoples are the majority minority groups. I am always searching for ways to further educate myself about their cultures and concerns as well as their literature. From the list, I have several books in queue on my nightstand, including In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (2019) and My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education by Jennine Capó Crucet (2019). I look forward to reading these and other suggestions from the list.
One question asked of participants this day was when were we first aware of our race. Again, as a White child born in 1950, I had a common experience: my world was White.
In 1999, I created a VoiceThread example for a children’s literature course I was teaching to answer “Where I’m From.” As is plain to see, I am from working class Whiteness. It wasn’t until I was around eight when we got our first TV that Black “characters” introduced me to a view of Blackness and delivered harmful stereotypes into our home. It wasn’t until I was fourteen when my nuclear family moved from St. Louis to Detroit that I became aware of the real life lived experiences of Black people.
After reading and reflecting on the news stories and how images and print shape perceptions, I viewed “Indigenous People React to Indigenous Representation in Film and TV (Pocahontas, the Lone Ranger)” published October 14, 2019 (Indigenous Peoples’ Day). This video made it clear to me that the interviewees’ responses to various media portrayals of American Indians varied. They did not speak with a single voice and reinforced to me Louise Rosenblatt’s reader response theory that honors the experiences and background knowledge that readers/viewers bring to a text. Some of the differences I noted seemed to be generational. I was delighted to learn the video producer Lauren is of Tohono O’odham and Apache heritage. Few people across the U.S. know about the Tohono O’odham whose southeast Arizona reservation borders Tucson and extends into Mexico.
This video also prompted me to find out which U.S. states have replaced Columbus Day or adopted Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This is the list: Alaska, Hawaii (Discoverers’ Day), Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada (Aug 9), New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, Wisconsin, and dozens of cities, including Tucson. Although I already knew my state is not among them, I’m grateful to the K-20 educators who discuss this holiday in Arizona classrooms and libraries.
The Morgan Freeman meme was offensive to me. The fact that people can take someone else’s image, good name, and work and reframe them to meet their own agenda stinks. Considering the work Freeman is doing on social media, I certainly hope Freeman’s reading of Representative John Lewis’s farewell message of activism and love gets more attention.
In terms of interacting with the resources provided, I took a bit of a detour on Day 4 to watch the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA) video: “Translation of Service: How Does My School Library Program Look Now?” This video prompted me to once again confront the fact that our profession is predominantly White and that the publicizing the work of our colleagues of color is instrumental in attracting more POC to the library and education professions.
I also read “So You’ve Messed Up: Recognising Failures In Your Anti-Racism & What To Do Next” by Orla Pentelow. My goal is to be a non-optical ally. Since I have the fear of making mistakes and can respond to criticism with defensiveness, these strategies are important for me to practice.
On this day, I decided to pick up where I left off reading Kendi’s book for my free choice independent reading.
Some participants revealed who they were on the comment board with their final reflections. One person’s post led me to her blog where I learned her school librarian position had been cut and she was, I hope temporarily, stepping away from school librarianship. (She and I have been in touch.) This was particularly disturbing news in light of the BCALA video I viewed the previous day.
I started my Racial Justice Action Plan and found it challenging to complete. I will make the commitment to continue to work on it. As a retired educator (and elderly person according to the CDC), my sphere of influence at this point in time is greatly reduced. I am not currently teaching K-12 students or preservice school librarians. My antiracist acts will mostly involve my continued efforts toward self-education and my interactions with friends and family members, in the letters to the editor and op-eds I write for the Arizona Daily Star, and in my communication with my elected representatives in Phoenix and Washington, DC.
I am, however, editing and contributing to a professional book for school librarians focused on core values in our profession: equity, diversity, inclusion, and intellectual freedom. The resources, reflection, and questions that remain from this week with the RJC will influence my thinking as I complete my introduction and chapter for the book and provide feedback to the other contributors.
Thank you to Jen Bonnet and the Challenge Team at the UMaine Fogler Library for organizing and promoting this learning experience.
Kendi, Ibram X. 2016. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. New York: Nation Books.
Life Matters. Pexels.com. https://www.pexels.com/photo/crowd-of-protesters-holding-signs-4614165/