Racism as Malinformation

I am sorry for the long absence. Going back to in person work and then starting the semester with mostly in person classes, helping a lot of people who haven’t been on campus before, adjusting to a number of changes on campus in leadership, staff, etc. has been a time. I am seeing some glimpses now, not of “a new normal” — I don’t think I believe in normal anymore — but of a less frenetic pace.

So in the last day or so I was able to revisit an article I read in August in the relative calm just before the pre-semester rush on campus: “Tell Me Sweet Little Lies: Racism as a Form of Persistent Malinformation” by Nicole A. Cooke, a librarian whose work I very much admire. Cooke’s article is part of the Project Information Literacy Provocation series. You may recall I shared in earlier posts Barbara Fister’s essay on information literacy in a time of QAnon, and Alison J. Head’s essay on critical reading in college. I can’t say enough good things about the series and how it’s influenced my own work this year. In fact, an English professor colleague and I are working closely with one of her classes this fall on critical reading as a result of these essays so far.

Cooke reminds readers that approaching information critically is not enough; she came to see that the racial malinformation our culture is steeped in, “the phenomenon of how we are conditioned, socialized, and repeatedly bombarded with racist and negative images and stereotypes,” requires a different kind of literacy that considers not only what is untrue, but how. She says it so brilliantly, I will quote her:

“Critical information and media literacies address relational structures and power dynamics, which is crucial, but that wasn’t enough. Even more context and a holistic lens was needed in order to truly understand the convergences that create racial malinformation. We need to understand history, politics, design, emotional intelligence, cultural competence, and racial dynamics. We need critical cultural literacy.”

Cooke gives examples of this kind of literacy in her essay. I’ve been trying to practice it more intentionally — emphasis on practice. Here is a very recent example of this practice: reports of the protests outside the Met gala a few nights ago in New York City. First, I hadn’t heard about the protests until my daughter mentioned them this evening. I get my news primarily from headlines from the local paper my college library subscribes to (I rarely have time at work to go beyond the headlines), and the New York Times app on my phone, and had not noticed this story ineither place.

When I searched online, I initially only found reports on the protest and arrests from Fox News, email providers (MSN, Yahoo, AOL) whose stories came from various news services that relied heavily on social media accounts, and British papers. Digging deeper, I found the New York Times‘ mention — buried in an article that focuses on other details about the gala — and then an article on The Advocate‘s website by Mikelle Street, and another on The Root by Maiysha Kai. If you aren’t familiar with these, the first is an LGBTQ magazine and the second is a media website whose tagline is “The Blacker the Content the Sweeter the Truth.”

Quick aside: Kai’s story is also the only place I saw Jeremy Pope’s ensemble, and two of us in this house stayed up way too late on the 13th dissecting the gala ensembles — mainly on Vogue‘s website. Pope is black, and his”all-white ensemble was a tribute to the legacy of enslaved and exploited African Americans and the ever-lucrative cultivation of cotton on the country’s soil—the foundation of the same fashion industry being celebrated on Monday night,” writes Kai, who also notes Pope’s ensemble was “largely overlooked” in reporting. Sit with that understatement. Even the fashion press did not note what was clearly a very aesthetically interesting and thematically spot-on outfit, worn by a black man, that included a cotton picking sack that looked a little like a train.

Back to the protest coverage. In reading these accounts here is what critical cultural literacy tells me: only Fox and the British papers ran stories entirely about the protest and arrests, while other sources mentioned the protests within articles about the gala. Both The Advocate and The Root commented on the injustice of the protests. The others either reported what the police said the protestors did wrong (disorderly conduct, according to the Fox story — which by the looks of the eyewitness videos, is an apt description of the police themselves, who tackled people), or what bystanders posted on social media. So most major news outlets did not really cover the protests as a news story. They covered the wealthy attending the gala. And as noted by Kai’s article in The Root, only the wealthy who did not remind them too blatantly of America’s slaveholding past.

That’s what I noticed about the press coverage. As for the event itself: one report noted this was a peaceful protest, that protestors were speaking out about police brutality and promoting abolitionist views such as using what protest fliers claimed is an $11 billion New York police budget to care for people who need housing and other basic needs. I live in a white town, and a few years ago, when I worked close to the state capitol, I attended some rallies and protests to support an end to homelessness, a more just budget, etc. Never was a single (almost all white — I live in NH) peaceful protester arrested let alone wrestled to the ground. Also, as Cooke herself notes in the beginning of “Tell Me Sweet Little Lies,” about the summer 2020 protests, “Despite the fact that 93% of these Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests were peaceful, they were labeled as violent, destructive, unnecessary, and unproductive.”

I see this reproduced in both the assertion that the Met gala protestors were “disorderly” and the lack of attention that most of the media gave the protest or its causes. This was according to many reports on social media (mentioned in the news reports) a large crowd outside an event that was widely covered, and the protest was aimed at drawing attention to that eye-popping police budget in a city where the police have a long track record of discrimination, abuse, and murder. The same city where police used violent tactics to disperse protests in summer 2020 after George Floyd’s murder. Why? Because in America’s dominant culture, Black lives don’t matter as much as money. The major media companies’ context is that dominant culture, and they told the story of the gala, from that context.

So what do I do with this information? Talk about it with the same people I talked about the gala fashion with, seek what’s missing from stories I see in the future, try to understand whose stories aren’t being told (arguably harder than skimming headlines), find alternative sources of news that do tell those stories. Remember, as I learned in my science communication studies, that all information is mediated through various lenses, and in many cases, it’s the dominant (or hegemonic, to use the more academic term) culture’s lens. And, heed Cooke’s very wise conclusion:

“CCL requires critical self-reflection and the desire for equitable information and non-racist perceptions of others. We have to reexamine and reimagine everything we’ve been taught and ask ourselves “What perspectives and voices are missing from what I think I know? How can I do better and learn more?” When we examine our own identities, privileges, and disadvantages, we are better positioned to have empathy for others and do the work of dismantling racist malinformation with CCL. Part of this work involves pushing back against the media, publishing, and other entities that produce racist malinformation and are chronically resistant to change (because change typically involves a loss of revenue and power). But if we are diligent and take the time to explode siloed echo chambers of racist malinformation, we can slow and maybe even reverse this crisis.”

I will end on that hopeful note, and Cooke’s words. Go read the rest here.

Civil rights in libraries

This Fourth of July holiday weekend I’ve been thinking about our country. Specifically I have been examining how little I really know about racism and other types of bias (directed at women, transgender people, native American people, muslims, immigrants) in America. Not that I don’t know it exists, but I’m a glass half-full kind of person and until the most recent national elections, I bought into the “it gets better” narrative. Look at the progress we’ve made, I thought. A black president! Better protections for women, transgender kids in school. Support for refugees. It was easy for me, a privileged white professional, to assume that the rash of police shootings of unarmed black people was a blight on progress, not a sign that the progress I felt proud to support was really like a shiny coat of paint on a rotting porch — it covered up what had never been fixed underneath.

For me, that’s been the most eye-opening realization these past several months — not that our government has changed direction, but that institutions and systems of all kinds — political, commercial, social — and also communities of all kinds are hobbled by implicit bias. And that seems overwhelming, especially when I’ve seen myself as part of the solution, not just because I tried to raise my kids to do better, because I vote, pay attention, write letters, and sometimes protest, but also because I am a librarian.

What does that have to do with anything? If you’ve read Nocturnal Librarian over the years you know that I was a public librarian before I moved back into academia, and I have frequently championed the role of libraries as places of radical hospitality, the last public institutions truly open to all. Our professional organization, the American Library Association, actively works for the freedom to use libraries without fear of government intrusion — ALA and its members has for over a decade spoken up about immigrant and refugee rights, resisted the Patriot Act, spoke up about hate crimes, and more recently, opposed both the rolling back of protections for transgender students, and the Dakota Access Pipeline. Librarians are the good guys! Right?

In the most recent ALA magazine, American Libraries, there is an article about the Tougaloo Nine, and several other protests during the civil rights era where black people, often students, tried to use white only public and academic libraries. I knew in a I-learned-it-in-school kind of way that libraries were segregated like everywhere else, but these articles really grabbed me. These were librarians who told black students they had to go and couldn’t use the library or read library books. I cannot imagine ever denying anyone a book. Through this little thought experiment, picturing myself in that situation, I realized I have never really truly learned about the civil rights era struggles. I’ve read about that time, sure, I have shaken my head and wondered how on earth the South (because I always think of it as the South where institutionalized racism was born and where the vestiges of that infect society, another false perceptions I am trying to correct) could have been like that. I’ve felt ashamed that people were so terribly mistreated in my country.

But I’ve never placed myself in the stories. I’ve never tried to imagine wanting a book and ending up being beaten my police. I’ve never tried imagining denying someone that book. Not that imagining is experiencing, I don’t mean that at all, but imagining is stronger than just learning. I hope that making the mental leap to put myself right into someone else’s perspective will help me break down the implicit bias I, like all Americans, carry. I hope it makes me a better librarian, better able to truly serve every person who comes through our doors. I’m grateful that my professional association walks that walk, provides members with information about challenges to freedom, and expects that standing for “liberty and justice for all” is a part of what we do.

Responding to violence

Last year when I worked at a public library, I suggested we do more displays on current topics in society — racism, refugees, gender issues, etc. This was met with resistance as the city I worked in didn’t want the library to appear to be taking stands on issues (more on that later) but I was permitted to do a display on drug addiction. New Hampshire is one of the states dealing with rampant opioid addiction, and has one of the highest rates of prescription painkiller use in the nation. It was very popular, by which I mean people took books from the display and we had to restock it. That to me was a strong indicator that people want to learn more about what’s happening in the world.

Friday (when the news of the Dallas shootings was fresh) at the academic library where I now work, I discussed with a co-worker how shell shocked I felt from the week’s news — it was awful to wake up to news of one violent act after another. I told her it seemed like a good time to make a display about nonviolence and racism, something for people who also felt overwhelmed by the news. She agreed that would be a good service to the community and that she’d like to work on it.

I went back to my office. A short time later one of our coworkers called me from the front desk to say the two of them had imagined a problem: wouldn’t people come in and ask why now that it was police who were victims were we putting up a display, and where were we when innocent black men were killed earlier in the week and when mostly hispanic and gay victims died in Orlando? I said that wasn’t the intent at all, it was the groundswell of violence that had caused me to feel we needed to offer a display. Heck the bad news wasn’t even limited to America. There were innocent victims of violence and racial, religious,or cultural intolerance in Dhaka, Baghdad, Syria, Istanbul, Europe, Britain.

We agreed tentatively that they would also put out books on homophobia, extremism, Islamophobia, etc. But the conversation unsettled me — was I unconsciously reacting because cops were killed, even though I don’t like or agree with media coverage that seems to favor the lives of cops or members of the military over civilians?  (I say that as the wife of a former Marine who hates that implication.) Trying to take a detached look at it I decided my initial sense was that we needed to offer resources on nonviolence and a historical perspective on how America has reached this point. I was inspired by something the Bishop of New Hampshire shared on Facebook: an article I read just before work, on how to be a peacemaker.  I wanted to make a display that would help people understand each other and the world.

No, I didn’t value police lives over other lives. Why now? Because news of gun violence, as well as racism, was incessant this week. Should we try to retroactively respond to all the other violence that has been in the news this summer? I guessed that was an OK compromise, but it made me feel as if my instinct was selfish, and also made me wish I hadn’t suggested the damn display in the first place. Still, my feelings weren’t what mattered, being inclusive seemed like a good thing, so I just hung up and got on with my work.

But later the first colleague came back to me and said we needed to stick to the initial scope of the display: nonviolence and racial injustice in America. She felt it would just look like we were covering all the bases to include other issues, and that she’d rather have a substantive conversation with anyone who asked “Why this display, now?” She got why someone might ask us about it, but was comfortable articulating that whether we should have a display every time something bad happens or on every issue isn’t the point, the point is that yesterday, we just wanted to help people who feel pained by the events of the past week. Like we did. She thought we should honor that, rather than cheapen it by trying to be all inclusive.

Her sensible offer to have conversations about the display is just what should happen when people have questions about tough issues or positions. That’s the only way forward — to calmly discuss things. I’m grateful for her perspective and a little ashamed that my own reaction (“fine, include everything and everyone”) was to cheapen the horror, even if I was diluting it with other, equally horrific things. I came by that in part because of my experience in the public sector, where taking a stand was considered taking a side, which was discouraged or even forbidden.

Should libraries, public or academic, create displays that present information about controversial or divisive issues? I think they should. People are hungry for something more than news bites, and books can provide more in-depth analysis. Libraries also, as part of our mission, collect resources that present varying viewpoints as long as they meet the standards set for our collections (well written, well researched, well reviewed, for example), and therefore we’re in a position to challenge people to read points of view that differ from their own. If we’re taking a side it’s the side of creating an informed citizenry. Will anyone question our motives? Possibly. But I have a good answer — I’m trying to learn how best to respond to this, and thought others might want to learn too.