By: Kiera Vargas, Owner, ePIFhany
Every year my son ages, I become more anxiety-ridden. Whether he drives to the store to pick up an item I forget or whether he goes thrifting with his friend, periodically I check his location. His dad and I brainstormed phrases to put on bumper stickers for his car, I have left my sorority tag on his car, and I purchased his dad's fraternity tag to also place on his car. I want him to be marked because unfortunately, he is a target. I remind him daily that although “your dad is a police officer and your mom holds a Juris Doctorate; we cannot protect you because society deems you as a threat.” We remind him of how to carry himself. We remind him of the first thing he must announce if he is ever pulled over by police; I am a Type 1 Diabetic and I have an insulin pump on my waist.
To address implicit bias and racism, I share a bit of myself with my staff. As one of my colleagues, Reese Bailey mentions, “Most of us do not realize that we are racist” and “Sometimes whites seem to think that black faculty, staff, students, and minority community patrons’ being different (with black skin) means that they are somehow deficient or even dangerous, and are a threat to the white staff.” This is problematic and to prevent racially threatening situations in the library because of the mandatory masks and even because of an assumed increase of Black Lives Matter paraphernalia that libraries might see, I opened up this discussion using two photos of my 6’2 black son. I also shared the sentiments above with my staff.
In one photo he has an “urban” outfit on and is standing on a corner of a Chicago street. In another photo, he has our three-year-old poodle-pug Spike in his lap. Without knowing that both photos are of the same teenager, I shared both photos and asked a rhetorical question, “what are your thoughts about these young men?” I then shared that both photos were of the same young man. I also shared that this young man has visited 16 counties, speaks intermediate German, prefers soccer over basketball, and is my teenage son. I hope it resonates.
Following this, I went into a story I love to share about how I passed a law school class. I used to have a date with a man who had an unfortunate incident which caused him to prefer living as a nomad. We met outside of Dunkin Donuts. Mark and I met at least twice a week, we would drink coffee together and he studied with me. He was a dark-skinned older man who sat on a bench in his sleeping bag and he is still one of the most intellectual people I have ever met. While such truths alone can never be the sole solution to discussing racism, unfortunately, this is the way that I have found that breaks the wall down.
Just as Reese also mentions that he “ witnesses[ed] numerous such incidents where black faculty, staff, students, and minority community patrons are treated differently and much worse by white library staff members, than black faculty, staff, students, and minority community patrons,” I too have witnessed the same within educational institutions.
As a Black woman who continues to be one of the few in my profession, there is not a foolproof solution to address what continues to be the elephant in the room. I recall a previous way that I addressed it by showing Childish Gambino’s video, “This is America.” While many BIPOCs have experienced much of what this video portrays, we also have to care about how we are perceived, and most importantly the feelings of the majority when addressing issues that resonate with us daily. This video made a room of my white colleagues uncomfortable. Although they enjoyed my presentation, this “horrified them and made them so uncomfortable” read one of the evaluations.
As one of the few Black Librarian-Directors, it is my goal to change the narrative within this profession so that all can feel comfortable within this supposed safe space. Reese shares that “over the past 20-year of my employment in a library, and my many years of visiting libraries all over the world, I had never seen a Black librarian in any library in the U.S. or abroad.” This is true for many and one of the reasons I yearned to become a librarian. I am focused on making much-needed changes within this system that still perpetuates microaggressions and implicit biases.
As I continue to grow within this field and advocate for change, I will continue to find new approaches to help willing librarians understand the need for systematic changes within this profession so that we can progress!