Archives, Diversity and Leonardo DiCaprio

A few things crossed my twitter timeline recently that struck me in some way.  Struck me because they relate to my experiences as a non-white (Indigenous) archivist in a largely white profession.  And then when thinking about the ways they struck me, it struck me how little I’m expecting from our profession – how little it takes to get me excited.

Background

The archives profession is pretty darn white; see the response to question 23 in the 2015 Society of American Archivists (SAA) employment survey, for example (86.08% of respondents identified as white or Caucasian).  Other info-related professions are similar; see this analysis of the of the library profession, based on the American Library Association’s (ALA) Diversity Counts data, by Chris Bourg: The unbearable whiteness of librarianship.

I do wonder how effectively surveys capture the number of non-white people working with archives, libraries, museums, etc.; see this report from the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums (ATALM), Sustaining Indigenous Culture: The Structure, Activities, and Needs of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums, which had 176 respondents say that they currently operated a tribal archive, library, museum, or multi-function  organization.  I think I can safely say Indigenous people care about recordkeeping.

However, I also think that surveys like the SAA and ALA ones do reflect that people joining professional associations, going to and presenting at conferences, writing papers, teaching and researching, getting credentials, theorizing and developing policies and practices, and working in loads of recordkeeping institutions, programs and roles are mainly white.

So, with that in mind, let’s move on to three of the things twitter alerted me to that made an impression on me in the past week, particularly as they relate to lack of diversity in information professions:

Reading 1

One of the things I read recently was T-Kay Sangwand’s “You can’t be neutral on a moving train” and other reflections on the DLF Forum.  Among other things, she notes that the Digital Library Federation (DFL) made a couple of “powerful” decisions and set an example for other organizations by a) “prioritiz[ing] the intellectual and professional contributions of gender non-conforming folks and people of color through its selection of keynote speakers,” and b) inviting a Musqueam elder, Larry Grant, to open the conference (the conference was being held on Musqueam territory).  She writes that the “embodied presence and active and valued participation of members of marginalized groups are critical to fostering conference spaces in which other members of such communities may also want to actively contribute.”  I know I’ve been more excited than I really should be to be on a panel at an archives conference where 3 of the 4 panelists were not white (especially when the majority of presenters and conference attendees were), and I was ridiculously excited that two – two (!) – of the presenters at the same conference were Indigenous.

Reading 2

The second thing I read was Annemarie Perez’s article about her experiences as a Chicana scholar in the Digital Humanities: Lowriding Through the Digital Humanities.  Go read the whole thing right now! She writes about attending a conference that was essentially a white space (an unremarked upon white space), and how this was unnerving and led to a fear of participating.  These are a couple of passages that, in particular, jumped out at me:

“For people of color most of us know, it’s just as hard to be the lonely only.  That’s how I felt. Alone and painfully self-conscious.  When I’m one of the onlys, however kind and welcoming the environment, I experience stress.  There’s a fear of asking questions lest I be seen as speaking for my race/culture and somehow reinforcing biases.”

and

“As a scholar of color, there are few things as rare and wonderful as getting to be in a room with a multitude of scholars of color.  For me, there’s a feeling of intellectual safety, of being able to take risks without risking being found intellectually naive, or worse still, reflecting badly on all Chicana/os.  I feel I can be wrong, that we can build theoretical castles in the air, find their flaws, send them crashing down.”

The ability to ask questions, the opportunity test things out and make mistakes – and to be able to do so without a massive amount of fear – these should not be luxuries.

Reading 3

The third thing I read was Mario Ramirez’s article, Being Assumed Not to Be: A Critique of Whiteness as an Archival Imperative, in the most recent American Archivist (sorry, it’s paywalled).  In it, he tackles a number of inter-related topics, among them the whiteness of the archival profession, the privileging of whiteness and lack of self-reflection this can lead to, and the implications this has for social justice.  This article made me uncomfortable, because (despite diversity being a topic of this post) talking about race makes me uncomfortable.  And pushing back against and questioning a largely white profession when I’m just a little archivist makes me uncomfortable.  I don’t know about you, but I pretty much only learned about European, North American (and some Australian) archival history and practice while doing my degree.

In undergrad, I had a First Nations Studies professor, Heather Harris, who articulated some of the reason why I feel uncomfortable even identifying as non-white.  She spoke about how when she was dressed in her regalia, she would have people come up to her and say how lucky she was to have this culture and how cool it was – with the underlying assumption being “you [Indigenous or other non-white person] have culture, we [white people] have reality.”  How do you begin to respond to that?  How can this claim on reality, or neutrality, be addressed?  Or as Ramirez writes, “How do we remind archivists that being and archivist does not somehow absolve them of also being a product of a society and therefore subject to its prejudices and assumptions?” (p. 351)

And finally, Leonardo DiCaprio

I wasn’t watching the Golden Globes – I don’t even have a tv – but I found out pretty quickly that Leonardo DiCaprio mentioned Indigenous people in his acceptance speech because suddenly that was the only thing in my timeline.  And while there were lots of tweets praising him and what he said, others were more tempered, like this one from Ariel Smith:

My information profession journey has been bumpy.  It has been challenging for a number of reasons.  I’m also still here (i.e., in the profession) for a number of reasons. Perhaps more on that, particularly as it relates to recruitment and retention, another time.  As a result, I can be prone to cynicism and low expectations.

But I don’t want to set the bar low when I think about the archival profession – or the library, records management, museum, etc., professions, either.  I don’t want to be so excited to see someone who looks like me (or at least doesn’t look like everyone else).  Or excited to have a conference opened by an Indigenous elder when it’s that nation’s territory we’re conducting business on anyway.  Or excited to have the opportunity to ask questions without feeling like I’m risking letting down an entire race/culture.  Those things should be the absolute minimum I expect from this field (below minimum, even), rather than something to throw a parade about.  What I do want to do is be excited – not scared or uncomfortable – to talk about our profession, and its issues, and how it can develop, and where it can go.

*edited for spelling

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