Equality is Not Pie; Libraries and the Insidiousness of Subtle Racism

It’s funny. I started this blog post over a week ago. The original catalyst for the post was affirmative action, google guy, and personal experiences in my own life. The reason it was taking so long was because I wanted to make sure it had the best mix of personal and professional tone. And primarily, because librarianship is a very white and female field. And a post like this, if not done right, could hurt me professionally in the long run. So, I really wanted to make sure that the information was portrayed in a way most palatable to what would most likely also be the post’s biggest audience — white women.

And then this weekend happened. And now, honestly, I do not care about palatability. This weekend has reinforced what most people of color know to be true—“civil” discourse is only reserved for white people. The differences in response between Charlottesville when the alt-right/Nazis marched and all of the Black Lives Matters protests are telling. The system isn’t broken. The system is doing what it was built for—the suppression and oppression of Black people and other people of color.

But this post isn’t about white male aggression. White male aggression is easily seen and understood. It’s all over Charlottesville (though white women marched as well and have actively supported them). White male aggression manifests as outwardly physical aggression. The goal is to take up as much space as possible whether it be physically (making themselves bigger, crowding your space, etc.) or verbally (the ten page antidiversity screed, the reason “are men talking too much” was created, and why certain library and archive listservs are rendered unusable, etc.).  There are a lot of great articles about how white male aggression is deployed in multiple contexts.

But I’m in librarianship which is a predominantly female field. And so this post is about white female aggression. White female aggression, like its male counterpart, is also born of white resentment. But it manifests in drastically different ways. In fact, while instinctually I knew what it was, it wasn’t until Leslie Mac broke down the exchange with White House Press Secretary Sanders and White House Press Correspondent, April Ryan that it all came together. Similar to my experience with the word microaggression, reading the breakdown suddenly put a name to various experiences I had had in my personal and professional life.

So, what exactly is white female aggression? It is the indirect, and often passive aggressive, ways that white women exert control and establish dominance over people of color, especially Black women. Unlike white male aggression, it is executed in phrasing and tone, and the goal is to damage or destroy one’s social standing. Like other types of relational aggression, it uses psychological manipulation to advance their own interests, while claiming ignorance of its harm to others. A great visual example of this is Kirsten Dunst’s role in Hidden Figures as the head of the computing women’s unit. Throughout the movie she actively builds roadblocks and attempts to stall careers, but maintains that she is not a bad person. Not only does her character maintain that she is not a bad person, but the movie does so as well, by having the scene where she shows a grudging modicum of respect to the Black women, as if the bare minimum is all that is needed to no longer be racist. 

White female aggression often uses the constructed idea of white womanhood (a precious fragile thing that must be protected at all costs) as a weapon and patriarchy as a shield against critique. It’s how we can know that 53% of white women voted for Trump, but still get stuff like this:

picture of prominent white liberal feminist saying that men are better at nazism than women

Many white women will tone police, dominate conversation, and then when challenged follow the following playbook— cry, accuse people of bullying, and/or attempt to excuse their behavior using self-care (check out this thread for numerous examples).

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 3.29.36 PM

If you know me at all, you know I’m all about self care; here I speak to the specific tone policing reaction that occurs when many white women are challenged on their problematic behaviour, and they in turn bow out of the conversation because of their need for self-care.

Like I said in my previous post, “nice white women” will lash out as soon as their allyship no longer maintains their own personal comfort. And this lashing out is often not loud and can be said with a smile as often as a frown. It’s insidiousness lies in its openness to “interpretation.”

And in libraries, many white women will fight together with women of color against the injustices of sexism and male domination in libraries (e.g. the fast-tracking of men to leadership), but are offended when confronted with the many ways they often fulfill their roles as oppressors. The equality white women strive for then, appears to women of color, as not equality but the freedom to oppress, when in fact, equality is not a pie. Uplifting women of color doesn’t mean less equality for white women, just like uplifting women as a whole doesn’t mean less equality for men. (Check out the root word of equality ya’ll, by definition no one is supposed to get more.)

Now that the macro has been covered, here is how white female aggression plays out in the micro. These are a few ways it has impacted me specifically, as well as other people of color I know.

  • The constant undermining of achievements. This is across the board. So it manifests in discussions about:
    • Me winning scholarships and travel grants: (“Well, it was probably one targeted for diversity, right? It’s hard because I’m X, but that isn’t considered diverse.”)
    • Me getting job offers: (“Congrats! Yeah, it must be nice that the field is trying to increase diversity.” This statement is sometimes followed with a “poor so and so” (white person) still hasn’t found a position,” or with a statement of how long it took them to obtain a full-time job with benefits.)
    • Money, negotiating, and salary: Conflation of pay statistics, as if all women are in the 77 cents to a white man’s dollar stat. In reality, Black women make 64 cents and Latinas make even less at 54 cents. Also, the insinuation (or direct accusation) that you are being paid more for adding to the institution’s diversity. It is often suggested, that this is, of course, at a more qualified white person’s expense.
    • Cultural fit. And all of the horror those two words contain.

And finally, vocational awe is most often and most dangerously deployed against POC in libraries. With the loaded history of stereotyping of Black and Latina women as lazy and not team players, as well as the stereotype of Black women as loud and aggressive, many white women use these stereotypes, and their own racist assumptions, to justify the exclusion of women of color from professional fields. And while the exclusion may not be from the field totally, white female aggression created the roadblocks that keep women of color in staff positions and/or those with lower pay. Things POC hear in the workplace time and again:

Statements like these intersect with these racist assumptions about qualifications, and ultimately exclude those who do not fit their standards of success.

Ultimately, white female aggression can be as violent, if not more so, than white male aggression. It operates within the most socially acceptable forms of white supremacy. By using passive aggressive and indirect methods of control and oppression it is hard to parse out, identify, and call out injustice, let alone fight against it. But just like microaggressions, once it is recognized, it can be challenged. Remember, equality is not pie. White women in libraries need not break the glass ceiling on the backs of WOC.



p.s. Many thanks to Elena, partner, and bomb-ass editor of this post.