Book Review Contributing Editor

Book Review: Pushing the Margins: Women of Color and Intersectionality in LIS

Lorin Jackson's response to an earlier College & Research Libraries book review.

Chou, Rose L. & Pho, Annie. (Ed.). (2018). Pushing the Margins: Women of Color and Intersectionality in LIS. Sacramento, CA: Library Juice Press.


TL/DR Summary

Equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) is undeniably sexy right now. In other words, EDI is having a moment. Even though this is true, as a general movement, it may not actually be contributing to lasting change as it purports to do. In many circumstances, EDI may just be providing lip service and unfortunately, empty, short-lived promises that are not changing the library and information science field for the better. In LIS, we still have ongoing problems with the process of opening the field to different perspectives, identities, and lives.

As Fobazi Ettarh offers in the foreword to Pushing the Margins: Women of Color and Intersectionality in LIS the same issues (racism, misogyny, heterosexism, etc.) that exist in larger society are hegemonically condensed into the issues we see in the library and information science field. The problems in LIS are not so different from the media representation of women of color or queer people, for example. The same issues are recurring, though they may be reflected in different ways in different circumstances.

One of the strengths of Pushing…is in the volume’s ability to portray a wide range of issues facing women of color in LIS, while showing different ways in which these issues may manifest for different women of color. Chou and Pho acknowledge in their introduction their hesitancy with grouping together women of color’s experiences as risking the creation of some kind of monolith. Simultaneously, though, they note a desire to acknowledge the power of community, or solidarity. This a central, revisited theme throughout the volume.

An awe-inspiring advantage of this particular volume are the lists of resources contained therein. In addition to thought-provoking and clear writing from its authors, resources by way of bibliographies provide a heavy curriculum of the topics contained within this anthology. As many librarians know and practice, visiting these sections throughout the book are a wonderful resource for completing more research about WOC in LIS.

Book Review

Introduction

We have to acknowledge our biases, our perspectives, our viewpoints. This is how we understand and analyze the world. I know that my perspective is formed out of my identity and this is not true for me alone…it’s true for everyone.

No one’s singular viewpoint can be objective. Many have said that to believe objectivity exists is an ideology formed out of a white supremacist framework. It’s like how European history is often taught as standard curriculum (objective) and “ethnic studies” are taught as an elective or not taught at all (subjective). All of our ideas form from our own experiences, and this, in turn, makes every single one of us inevitably susceptible to subjectivity.

Before I read Pushing the Margins: Women of Color and Intersectionality in LIS, I read a review posted to the College and Research Libraries blog that has since been redacted. This review was controversial for many reasons. The perspective and feedback reflected in that review were from someone who does not live on the margins. Positionality is a major theme throughout Pushing… In fact, the anthology opens with explaining the perspective of the editors and many of the contributors, throughout the foreword by Ettarh, as well as the introduction offered by Chou and Pho. 

Another theme of this collection of essays is community. One thing about marginalization is that stories that reflect your experience and allow you to feel seen and heard support your growth and ability to stay in the field. LIS favors middle class white women as the majority of the profession. So, often within LIS, women of color (WOC) as well as people of color (POC) struggle with recruitment, as well as retention. Seeing your experience reflected in the stories and shared frustrations in this book is supportive to people who feel marginalized in this profession, and perhaps outside of the profession, and in their lives.

Authenticity and Professionalism

Since this anthology covers material and concepts centered on the experiences of WOC in LIS, we thought it prudent for the purposes of this review to focus on one chapter by librarians Jennifer Brown and Sofia Leung: “Authenticity vs. Professionalism: Being True to Ourselves at Work.” I selected this chapter because I think it succinctly covers several of the major themes presented throughout the anthology – authenticity, freedom, emotional labor, performance, Ettarh’s notion of vocational awe, April Hathcock’s definition of whiteness and invisibility v. hypervisibility, as they explain toward the end of the chapter:

“If you’re aware that marginalized librarians already carry the emotional burden of conforming to whiteness and shouldering the brunt of the institution’s diversity work, then you should know that dictating when and where they perform their identity (as they’re tasked with solving all your institution’s problems) actually devalues their work. By doing so, you essentially bind them to identity expression on your terms, positioned right alongside epicenters of power, privilege, and whiteness that your institution operates from. If you’re really about encouraging communities of voices, ensure such questions are asked of everyone, right on up to chancellors, provosts, and university presidents”

Chou & Pho, pg. 341-342

Essentially, in this chapter (as in every chapter throughout the book) the authors provide background and context clearly for what they are about to analyze. They bring honesty and gravity to the issues of being a WOC and being yourself in the LIS workplace. The most salient points in the chapter by Brown and Leung may be their discussion of Sara Ahmed’s notion of performance with the “acting” involved within diversity work through flowery language, committees or diversity position appointments:

“…’Diversity’ can also be a code word for equity, social justice, or antiracism, but is often used instead of those terms to allow for white fragility. The very nature of diversity work also begets the idea of ‘performance…’ Sara Ahmed weaves a narrative linking institutional documentation and diversity work to ‘performance culture,’ stating that ‘Institutional performance involves an increasing self-consciousness about how to perform well in these systems, by generating the right kinds of procedures, methods, and materials, where rightness is determined as the fulfillment of the requirements of a system’”

Chou & Pho, pg. 331-332

The focus in many LIS departments is not on accountability, follow-through, or a department-wide/campus-wide commitment to the same values. What this creates is the context for the same problems of not having a diverse LIS workforce to continue festering, unchecked, spinning out of control, in service of perpetual sameness or the status quo, which maintains a lack of diversity.

Brown and Leung end the chapter with recommendations for making the field more inclusive. I’m glad they ended their chapter this way because often, we explicate the issues without recommendations or adding clear next steps for those who read and engage. I believe this is a missed opportunity to continue to elaborate on problems without offering any solutions. What they suggest is to pay attention to hiring structures (and I would argue that issues regarding cultural “fit” for an institution are another subtle subdivision of hiring that should be paid particularly close attention to), offering support programs, enacting a culture, as well as the establishment of consistent practices in accountability.

Final Thoughts

What I hope is that this book is not only, of course, for the intentional community that feels a connection with the essays provided therein on the basis of their WOC identity, but that it also serves as a provocative read for those who may not live on the margins. Or those people who do not identify as women of color, do not have to think about intersectionality or how privilege benefits them in their everyday lives, but have powerful positions in their respective libraries. I imagine that the candor, directness, and grace by which this book is written may not be appealing to someone who does not identify with marginalization. I think this book complicates things for someone in that camp. Feelings of uncomfortability, uncertainty, and guilt could surface. 

While unfair, I do think it may have served Chou and Pho early on to expand on ways this book could be used to speak about how different audience members who may read this book could use it. There is an excellent outline in the introduction about what this book is, but providing more of a map, or discussion questions or journal reflections throughout may have provided a structure to help a wayward reader not become inundated with lots of important information to risk being simply overwhelmed, uninspired, and confused. To someone who knows the lay of the land already, the text does not impact them in the same way. They can identify with the wise gems that can be found throughout the book.

This is a necessary volume that establishes plainly and clearly that we have a huge problem in LIS. While it may be fun to entertain diversity as a “nice thing to have,” the authors here offer substantial evidence that we must make a change to the field of LIS and that it is going to take everyone to make that change happen.

“”I feel hesitant that in my own feedback about what could be stronger about this book, that even more labor is placed upon WOC to educate what we should do next. Whose responsibility is it really, to figure all of this out and to explain next steps? Shouldn’t the onus be on the people who created this oppressive system in the first place?”

When the opportunity came for someone at LibParlor to comment on the controversial review and talk about this book, I jumped at the chance. I have to say, though, that with time to reflect as an early-career, bisexual, gender non-conforming, disabled WOC in LIS, I am disappointed that the labor had to be shouldered by WOC to educate about our issues to a larger audience. I’m discouraged by the fact that I should be the one to respond professionally to the negative insinuations and mischaracterizations of much of the work by the C&RL author who constructed the other response from the center of LIS, and not from the margins. I feel hesitant that in my own feedback about what could be stronger about this book, that even more labor is placed upon WOC to educate what we should do next. Whose responsibility is it really, to figure all of this out and to explain next steps? Shouldn’t the onus be on the people who created this oppressive system in the first place? 

Brown and Leung acknowledge toward the end of their chapter that WOC continue to fight the fight and do the work, because if they don’t, who will? Perhaps we need to take a deeper dive into our assumptions and confront why we feel this way and what may happen if we try a different way with each other into the future of LIS. What if everyone shouldered more of the labor and it was everyone’s responsibility to grow to understand each other in making this field stronger? What if we could grow into possibilities of equity and reduce the unequal burdens faced by WOC in LIS? What could happen then? We may not be able to ask these questions if we did not have such a lucid landmark text as Pushing available to us. 


Featured image by Mahendra Kumar, via Unsplash


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The expressions of the writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own

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