Thursday, May 30, 2013

Talking about Diversity

I started typing a long reply in a FaceBook group then realized it would be better placed here.

There are some topics in Librarianship that cycle around and back again. Sometimes they're initiated by a blog post someone read. Here's the article that started this discussion --

I've seen three different discussions today about Diversity in Librarianship. Whenever I hear someone ask "How do we get more diversity in Libraries?", my immediate thought is "Do we need more diversity in libraries?" The question assumes that as a fact to begin with, but it doesn't address it.

Maybe we need to define diversity before we start having this discussion. When you say diversity to someone of my years, I immediately go to school busing and the act of forcing children to attend a school further from their home just to even out the number of minorities in every school. That failed miserably. People want to attend schools in their neighborhood with their neighbors.
(I call it school busing, but the Wikipedia article calls it desegregation busing - )

I don't think we need that type of diversity in libraries or anywhere. I think society diversifies in its own way and in its own time.

I grew up in SE PA in a blue collar neighborhood in a blue collar city. I'm White, but grew up with a Black neighbor and Puerto Rican kid across the street that walked to school with me. I'm not "color-blind". I recognize friends and neighbors that are different races. I honestly don't care. I wasn't brought up to dwell on those differences. I played with all of those kids. The was a kid with Down's Syndrome around the corner. He had limitations, but he'd play some games, some times. Why not?

I still remember an event in High School that was identified by the local newspaper as a "Race Riot". In reality, it was a drug deal gone bad. It just happened the buyer was black and the dealer was white. When the fight broke out, it was all black guys on one side against all white guys on the other. But race had nothing to do with it.

At the end of senior year, there was an award assembly. There was actually a scholarship for the best academically performing Black. The kid that everyone expected to win stood up and some one else's name was read. We all wondered WTF? Matt is as White as they come. No he wasn't. He was interracial and we didn't know the kinky brown hair, tall height, and full lips were from his Black mother. He didn't scale as Black to us.

I had Black roommates in college, but I didn't socialize with them too much. I did socialize with a co-worker that lived a few doors down. He was Black, I'm not. Do you think folks were looking at me driving him to work and wondering what was going on? I doubt it even registered. That was the area we lived in.

 I joined the Navy Reserve while in college and was surprised there were no minorities in my unit. After graduation, I entered active duty in the Air Force. My first duty station was Ft. Hood TX. The Army doesn't have weather forecasters, the Air Force does that at all Army bases with aviation assets. I noticed that the Army was primarily Black and Hispanic and the Air Force was mostly White. But we did have one Black & two Hispanic in a 20 person unit. I think I was seeing self-selection in progress. Army soldiers were mostly urban kids, while Air Force attracted the farmers and rural kids. No one is telling people what service to join. They join because of their family and/or friends. The coastal kids join the Navy. The crazy ones join the Marines.

I still remember the mandatory Sensitivity Training session I had at my first Air Force station. They passed around index cards and we all had to say the first thing that came to mind when we flipped over the cards. My card said "Nigger Lover." My response: How old are these cards?
Trainer: That is a current set. What makes you think that is old?
Me: No one says that anymore??? That's from the 60's.
Trainer: Anyone have a different view?
Some Other Guy: Sure. If you were hanging out on a Saturday night in my hometown you might hear that if a mixed couple showed up.
Me: What??? Who would even notice? Why would you care unless you were jealous that she was with him?
Trainer: Next...

This was >25 years ago, but I remember something else from that session. Someone said something about Indians going off the Reservation. The Trainer noticed a bunch of puzzled looks so he asked for some views from the rest of the room. Plenty of us were WTF??? Wasn't Indians and reservations something out of the 1880's? Those of us East of the Mississippi had no idea there were still reservations out West.

(I was later stationed in Oklahoma City, so I know that Native Americans are a visible minority in the Western US. They are totally invisible in the East.)

My history tells me society is diversified. With my house at the 6 o'clock position on the dial, 12 is Hispanic, 2 is Hispanic, 4 is a rental & I haven't seen the new tenants yet, 8 is Black, & 10 is White.

With all of that history, 50+ years of one man's life, I don't see a problem so I'm not concerned about finding a solution. So I've come full-circle, Why do we need to do anything to Diversify? Isn't society doing that on their own?


  1. Your questions are valid. We shouldn't have to force diversity, but there is a tendency to institutionalize segregation if people in society don't take the initiative to work toward diversity. To say that we are diverse because you can point to your neighbors or your reasons behind riots is reductive of the experience as a person of color.

    I am not a library, but I am married to one and have toyed with becoming one, too. I am brown and I am male. I already have one master's degree and another one wouldn't be that hard to attain. I have been to ALA and I have been asked to show my badge just to enter the conference floor or to talk to vendors. My badge, by the way, was fully paid for and allowed me access to panels and everything else and was always on my chest. I was treated this way because I was a minority of a minority at ALA (a male in a predominantly female profession, and a brown male in a dominantly white profession).

    My experiences helped me decide NOT to become a librarian because I don't want to take up the fight for diversity in a profession that I haven't even started yet.

    1. Christian,

      At Computers in Libraries 2013, there was a security person whose job entailed looking at everyone's badge when they entered the Exhibits/Vendors Hall. I only know this because she asked someone right in front of me to show their badge. The person stopped was a white female, the majority at most Library conferences. The person who was stopped had her badge on, but the guard simply didn't see it, until she turned to them in response.

      I'm not saying they didn't single you out, but I am offering another possible, less nefarious reason for their question.

      I lived in various cities while serving in the Air Force, so I realize there are areas of this country that are more diversified and areas that are less. But I believe they are all more diversified than they were 50 years ago. And I believe that trend will continue without anyone having to push it.

      I'll present some celebrity examples that wouldn't have been possible 50 years ago. Kanye & Kim, Heidi Klum & Seal, Tiger & Elin or Tiger & Lindsey, Angelina & Brad with children of many colors.

      Please don't let one bad experience discourage you from Librarianship. It is a noble profession that has room for many different people.

      Thanks for your reply,

  2. I honestly don't understand your point here. You've known some people of various ethnicities? That's cool.

    1. I'll sum my point with this quote - "My history tells me society is diversified."

      I question any desire to push diversity on people when I see society diversifying on its own.