Intersections | On Allyship

Intersections Blog

JohnBy John Amundsen ( | When we launched Intersections back in October, Jody (Director of ODLOS and my boss) said that she wanted us all to write a post reflecting on our individual perspectives on the issues we work with our members to address. As the blog’s ‘editor,’ I figured it would be good if I would step up to write one of the first staff-authored posts.

To say that this post was difficult for me to write is an understatement. My role is to facilitate and highlight the work that our members do: the uncompensated, hard, often emotionally taxing, but necessary work that is often done in their spare time, in addition to their full-time jobs. It is my job – in concert with my amazing colleagues – to bring together the circumstances in which that work happens, and to tell the story of that work. To share a common refrain of many of my fellow public relations practitioners, I am not the story.

Being a white guy from the Chicago suburbs, it’s awkward for me at times to tell people what I do. I am a communicator for the diversity office of a national professional association. I remember being at an airport bar waiting for a flight when the person next to me struck up a conversation. The person was a librarian, and while our chat was quite pleasant, she did say she was a bit taken aback that I – a white man – had the job that I have. In her words, “it’s kind of f****d up, no?”

Thinking on it, it is kind of “f****d up” – as a communicator, I am supposed to tell the stories of libraries’ and librarians’ work towards promoting and instilling equity, diversity, and inclusion in their everyday work. As a white guy who grew up in an affluent suburb with mostly other affluent white people, I know I do not have the perspective of being discriminated against and actively disadvantaged in the economic, political, and social spheres. Indeed, I am a beneficiary of the centuries-old systems in place that privilege my needs and desires at the expense of others. Yet, here I am.

My work has been incredibly rewarding. ODLOS has a wide remit, and works on a large and varied portfolio, from library services to people experiencing poverty and homelessness, adult new and non-readers, English language learners, GLBTQ people, and diversity in the LIS field. During my tenure, I have been continually challenged and confronted with my own privilege – a good thing. While working with these dedicated people in the field doing the everyday work, I became inspired to join their ranks, earning my MLIS from Dominican University in May, 2015. Through my career, I have considered myself to be an ally, and have been fighting the good fight, so to speak.

A major and essential challenge for white people as allies of people of color (POCs) is to use their privilege towards effecting change. In Spring 2016, ODLOS staff went to Philadelphia to attend the White Privilege Conference, where we connected with academics, non-profit workers, educators, students, and activists to confront and address the norms that sow intolerance and discrimination. While at the Conference, I attended a workshop titled “White on White: Communicating about Race and White Privilege with Critical Humility” that focuses on the habit of otherwise well-intentioned white people who become judgmental of other whites who “don’t get it” – where frustration and arrogance can get in the way of white allies of POCs effectively interrupting and confronting racism in institutions and people, often sabotaging our intentions to confront the behavior and creating a situation where the individual closes up or retreats from a situation where meaningful dialogue can happen.

The organization that held the workshop, the European-American Collaborative Challenging Whiteness (ECCW) defines critical humility as “the practice of remaining open to the fact that our knowledge is partial and evolving while at the same time being committed to speaking up and taking action in the world based on our current knowledge, however imperfect.” Rather than get up on our high horses, we should stop, listen, and find a means to connect and interrupt racism in a constructive manner. Critical humility is the acceptance that as we speak up and take action in the world, our knowledge is not comprehensive and continues to grow. When confronted by a fellow white person articulating a racist sentiment or position, respectfully ask questions that get at how a person may arrive at a particular conclusion, all the while being vulnerable and willing to learn from any situation. According to the ECCW, “when we believe we already know how to be good white allies, we are less open to new learning.”

A particularly glaring example of white privilege I encountered came in the aftermath of the 2016 election. The morning after, I noticed a common refrain from (white) friends and family on social media: “hang in there, we’ll survive.” For the moment, that cold comfort seemed to at least partially assuage my apprehension regarding the incoming administration.

Very soon thereafter came the reply from many of my friends, varied only in wording: “No it won’t be okay, stop saying that it will.”

Indeed, many of the people who our office serves – those who have been marginalized since this country’s inception – may very well find themselves in real danger. Danger of being deported. Danger of losing hard-fought civil rights protections. Danger of disenfranchisement. Economic danger.

And there I was, for a moment, nodding at the sentiment that it would be okay – that we will live to see another day, we’ve survived worse, and so forth – that is, of course, before my friends and colleagues disabused me of this notion. When confronted with the “everything will be all right” refrain by my white friends, I respectfully listen and then ask questions and inform using the critical humility toolset – find the root of such rationale and share truthful information that counters the urge to normalize.

How do we respond to these circumstances? Library staff are demonstrating the way through action. Every day, they serve their communities through sharing vital resources, and proactively confronting the specter of fake news, false information, and the apparent renewal of legitimized bigotry.

My role in ALA as a communicator is to facilitate our members’ work, and to provide them a forum to tell their stories. As a great many of ODLOS’ members are from groups that have experienced oppression, discrimination, and violence, I have grown beyond the role of communicator into that of a white ally – something that will be a lifelong, evolving process with many vulnerable, challenging moments for which I will be a better person. Reflecting on my conversation in the airport, I would say that these experiences in the intervening years have helped to make me feel more confident in my position, but my role in the office will always have some complexity. There are complex conversations happening about diversity, and there is the question of whether only those who experience marginalization can or should be involved in this work. My role here as a white man will understandably always have some complication, something that I wholeheartedly accept.

Ultimately, my main wish as a member of the ODLOS staff is to do good by our members and facilitate the amazing everyday work our members do to foster equity, diversity, and inclusion in our profession. I look forward to the many exciting things that we are doing to make libraries, librarianship, and our Association truly inclusive and welcoming places for all.

Recommended Reading/Additional Resources

White on White: Communicating about Race and White Privilege with Critical Humility (Via WPC) by Carole Barlas, Elizabeth Kasl, Alec MacLeod, Doug Paxton, Penny Rosenwasser, and Linda Sartor.

The White Privilege Conference

John Amundsen is Program Officer, Outreach and Communications for the ALA Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services