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White Screen/White Noise: Racism on the Internet

By intern - Posted on 14 February 2013

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By Rebecca Martin

When you consider the issue of racism online you likely think of individuals leaving ignorant, hurtful comments in discussion forums or on news stories that begin with “I’m not racist, but….” However, much like we experience racism on personal, interpersonal, cultural and institutional levels in our day-to-day lives we also experience racism on all those same levels in our online (inter-)actions. 

At the Joint Conference of Librarians of Color (JCLC) in September, I had the honor of presenting with a group of colleagues on the panel, “White Screen/White Noise: Racism on the Internet.” The panel analyzed how racism manifests itself online and what role librarians can play in acknowledging and counteracting experiences of systemic racism in that context. Our discussion explored the following areas of inquiry:

 History and context of racial identity development, color
consciousness and racism in popular online media, news and social networks

 Legal frameworks and legislation that enables hate speech to spread racism and racial misinformation online in the US 

 Cultural values, bias and power dynamics we see embodied in the design of technology and technological tools and how anti-oppression tactics can be incorporated into the development of software and networks 

 Limits and possibilities of grassroots anti-racism organizing in online spaces and whether the nature of that work is web-scalable 

 Role of literacy instruction and cultural competencies in
patron service and in LIS graduate and continuing education JCLC APALA

For this article, I am going to share the panel’s analysis of the last area of inquiry: how librarians, library workers and library students can approach the issue of racism online (and off-line) among our patron base, but also among our own professional community.

For many members of the profession, the answer lies primarily in increasing racial diversity and celebrating multiculturalism. The Spectrum Scholarship Program, ARL Initiative to Recruit a Diverse Workforce, Minnesota Institute, JCLC and other major programming from the ALA headquarters support the idea of having a more balanced representation of students and library workers to serve increasingly culturally diverse patrons, but also of empowering and retaining librarians and library workers of color in the field.

However, from the panelists’ perspective discussion and action need to move beyond diversity and multiculturalism to also consider racism and racial privilege. In considering the existing racial demographics of our workforce, where is the explicit discussion of racism? In 2005, Todd Honma wrote “Trippin' over the color line: the invisibility of race in LIS studies” in UCLA’s InterActions. His article centers on the question: “Why is it that scholars and students do not talk openly and honestly about issues of race and racism, and instead limit the discourse by using words such as ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’? Why is the field so glaringly white yet no one wants to talk about whiteness and white privilege?” Honma suggests that the field as a whole chooses to substitute discussion of racism with the less controversial discourses of diversity and multiculturalism--
discourses that inadequately illustrate the racial discrepancies in our field.

In 2011, a study came out of Wayne State University and Syracuse University iSchools, entitled “Are we there yet? Results of a gap analysis to measure LIS students’ prior knowledge and actual learning of cultural competence concepts.” In the study, Renee Franklin Hill and Kafi Kumasi surveyed LIS students asking them to rate the amount of knowledge they had before and after courses began to evaluate the impact
and inclusion of cultural competency concepts in LIS education. Several knowledge gaps appeared, including a lack of understanding about the cognitive and sociocultural perspectives on literacy and recognition of how individuals from various cultures access information. As a result, Hill and Kumasi suggest that LIS administrators develop core cultural competency concepts and an outcomes document that tracks inclusion of cultural competence skills and learning outcomes in LIS curricula.

Along the same vein, the White Screen/White Noise panelists conducted an environmental scan of ALA accredited library schools course catalogs and syllabi and found that APALA Newsletter ⁞⁞ Winter 2013 11nearly all were lacking in classes that explicitly addressed race and oppression in available class descriptions and course materials. There were a few noted exceptions, such as the University of Arizona’s Knowledge River program and select colloquia, but taking into account the racial demographic of our profession and the fact that librarians of color may already have critical racial analysis, we did not observe discussion of whiteness and racism happening on a cultural or institutional level in LIS graduate and continuing education. Our panel also looked toward library practice to see if programs, services and special projects were addressing race and racism: in an environmental scan of the LibGuides of 372 US colleges and universities, we found a similar omission of racism. We see that in an attempt to provide “balance” and remain neutral, librarians are unwittingly, or perhaps wittingly, providing more power and credibility to those views that are harmful – and in the case of our panel – racist and further supporting racism and systems of oppressions.

In our panel, we also shared some examples of best practices in digital library programming and services. A significant case of empowering communities we raised comes from the South Asian American Digital Archive. The project provides
access to the incredible diversity of the South Asian American experience, one that is often overlooked. It not only collects primary historical materials, but ensures that metadata schemas, languages and images help preserve the community’s experiences in words, phrases and approaches that reflect that community’s own approach to information gathering, use and dissemination.

Ultimately, our panel recognized the need for critical race consciousness in developing tools and services ranging from mobile applications to finding aids and in presenting information with an eye not only toward celebrating interculturalism, but supporting anti-racism. Some of the panel’s additional examples and resources are available on these two resource lists, which are in constant development: Anti-Racism Resources for the Library Community and Libraries & Anti-Racist Action. The panelists are also continually researching this topic, including furthering our environmental scans and creating suggestions for LIS curricula, with hopes to disseminate this topic and its importance more widely.

Rebecca Martin is Library Coordinator at the Yvonne Pappenheim Library on Racism at Community Change, Inc. and the Assistant Circulation Supervisor & Faculty Liaison at Boston University Pappas Law Library

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Community Change was born out of the Civil Rights Movement and in response to the Kerner Commission which named racism as "a white problem." CCI has done what few organizations are willing to do: shine a spotlight on the roots of racism in white culture with the intention of dealing with racism at its source, as well as with its impact on communities of color.

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