Sitting and thinking: Some post #libtechgender panel thoughts

Born, Julius. [Portrait of Baby Sitting in Chair],  University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History; crediting River Valley Pioneer Museum, Canadian, Texas.

Born, Julius. [Portrait of Baby Sitting in Chair], University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, crediting River Valley Pioneer Museum, Canadian, Texas.

I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts in the aftermath of the #libtechgender panel at ALA Midwinter, and I’m still not sure if it is time for me to write yet. Part of me wonders if maybe I need to “sit and sit and sit and think” a bit more. Privilege and marginalization are complicated things. Trying to be a decent ally, for me at least, means never being quite sure if/when I should speak up and when I should shut up. All I can do is hope that when I speak and I should have shut up, or when I’m silent and I should have spoken up, someone will call me on it and I’ll have the humility and decency to listen and to try to make it right. So here goes …

On the one hand, I’m thrilled that there was talk of structural oppression, of white privilege, of the dangers of essentializing womanhood, and of not just gender and technology but of the gendered and racist nature of technology itself. My co-panelists Myrna Morales and Cecily Walker spoke with eloquence and passion about the kinds of substantive issues that we have to grapple with if we hope to make any headway on inequalities of and in technology and librarianship. And Myrna reminded us all that there are people and organizations (like the Community Change, Inc. and the South End Press) that have been doing movement work for a while now and that we need to learn from. Like I said in my remarks, I will never fully understand how much courage and commitment it took to be the only people of color on that panel. My love and respect and gratitude for Myrna and Cecily is endless.

On the other hand, it sucks that the threads about intersectionality and structural oppression kept just floating out there and dying, and the conversation kept veering back to personal stories and simple solutions about how individuals can behave in less sexist, racist, homophobic ways. Of course it is good for people to learn how to be less personally sexist, racist, and homophobic (oh — and also to be less freaking clueless about non normative gender presentations); but we have to move beyond that. We have to. If we don’t figure out how to tackle the structural issues that create and sustain white supremacy and heteronormative patriarchy, we will never see any real progress.

And on that whole issue of storytelling …

Like I said at the panel, and like others have said, storytelling has its place and can be a tool for healing and teaching. But enough is enough. The marginalized folks on that panel, and on twitter afterwards, made impassioned pleas for us to please move beyond the storytelling in sessions like these. And here’s what I don’t get – most of the well-meaning straight white ciswomen I know actually do want women of color, trans women, queer women, and other marginalized people to participate in these discussions and feel welcome. So I cannot fathom why when the marginalized people in the conversation say “let’s move beyond storytelling”, those same well-meaning straight white ciswomen would respond with “but I like storytelling. Please let me keep the storytelling.” Fuck that.* That right there was your chance to “sit and sit and sit and think”. And I know that smacks of silencing – but it is a different kind of thing when my silence is sometimes what is needed to try to reduce the harm done to those without the privileges I enjoy. Being silent so my sisters of color, my trans sisters, my disabled sisters, can have a voice is damn sure OK with me. In fact, I know it is something I need to practice more often.

And finally there is the whole issue of how respectfully the panelists were when we disagreed with each other. Yes, we were respectful. And for some of us, that came at a pretty high cost. I know I’m personally wondering whether I’m willing to bite my tongue so often next time. Sitting silently while others talk about gender in ways that exclude me and my sisters of color and my trans sisters is a soul-sucking experience. My hesitancy to call anyone out personally and publicly lest I look like a bully (angry dyke or mean AUL, picking on junior librarians), bumps right up against my intolerance for heteronormative, racist crap being promulgated as feminism.

To try to end on a nicer note (gender socialization is strong), I want to say how much I appreciate those straight white cisgendered women and men who are “sitting and sitting and sitting and thinking”. I’m not going to name names, because I know I’ll leave someone out by accident. I hope you know who you are. Your willingness to be humble and vulnerable, and to do your own homework, is cool; and helps me remember to do the same.

* Sorry about the language. I really am trying, but I just haven’t come up with a good clean substitute for “Fuck that” yet. I’m open to suggestions.


13 Responses to “Sitting and thinking: Some post #libtechgender panel thoughts”

  1. 1 J Skoric February 7, 2014 at 9:11 am

    “You can never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” — R. Buckminster Fuller


  2. 2 fM February 7, 2014 at 2:13 am

    This is the problem with identity politics. It’s all about the stories.

    p.s. Never stop saying “fuck that”. It’ll help keep you sane.


  3. 3 Sophie Brookover (@sophiebiblio) January 29, 2014 at 11:00 am

    To be clear, I don’t think reversion to storytelling was purposeful or malicious at ALL. And I can see how it would happen, especially in a panel discussion, which is always going to be looser than a one- or two-person presentation. But I also understand why Chris felt some kinda way about it.


  4. 6 meridith January 28, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    Thank you for this post. I couldn’t be there and I really appreciate the way you’ve shared your thoughts leading up to and after the panel.


  5. 7 Meredith Farkas January 28, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    I wasn’t at ALAMW and missed the Twitter kerfuffle, so this may be obvious to anyone who was there, but what should people be doing instead of sharing stories? What’s the next step? What would that look like? Silence can also sound like indifference, so how can one make it clear that they’re being silent to let others have a voice?

    I think a lot of people are in the same boat as you, “never being quite sure if/when I should speak up and when I should shut up,” so I wonder what being a good ally looks like in the situation you’re describing.


    • 8 Sophie Brookover (@sophiebiblio) January 29, 2014 at 8:42 am

      Some scattered & likely flawed thoughts, which I hope others will build on/tweak:

      First, those of us who are in the majority in terms of sexuality, gender presentation, race & other factors can & should cede space to our colleagues who are so often missing from these conversations, making it easier for them the lead the conversation and have their backs in the event they encounter racist/classist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic or other trolling & nastiness in response to their contributions.

      I imagine colleagues with more experience in social justice work — both within & outside of librarianship, as Chris noted above — have valuable suggestions and strategies that could work for librarianship. It would be good to invite them into the conversation/consult them.

      We can also seek examples of specific libraries and other organizations that are addressing these complex issues successfully and learn from them. Cecily Walker suggested Vancouver PL’s Community-Led Libraries Toolkit as one source: (I think this addresses libraries as community spaces more than as workplaces, but I imagine many of the principles will apply.)

      I think storytelling has its place, but it can and does feel really derailing when the most commonly othered people on a panel say clearly, “let’s move beyond this” and the conversation instead turns right back to storytelling.


      • 9 Meredith Farkas January 29, 2014 at 9:20 am

        That makes sense to me Sophie! It’s a shame the panel went that way. I think storytelling can be a good way to start a conversation, but it has to go beyond that when you’re looking for constructive solutions to the problems. I like what you have to say about giving others the opportunity to speak and having their back, which is much more active than just shutting up.


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