Last month at the YALSA Symposium in Pittsburgh, I caught myself in a disturbing thought. The conference featured discussion and idea sharing about all kinds of diversity, especially racial diversity. There was advice about building inclusive collections, providing vital services to underserved populations, and making the library a safe space for people of all races to express themselves and feel valued. On the last day of the Symposium, sitting in one of many sessions that touched on this topic, I thought, “This is so great. I wish I worked in a community where I could do this stuff.”
It didn’t take me long to realize that this thought was very, very wrong.
I work in an upper-middle class, mostly white, mostly Christian suburban community. Being near a large city, we have access to a lot of diversity around us, but our community itself is commonly referred to as a “bubble.”
Libraries are here to pop those bubbles.
Since the Symposium, I’ve been brainstorming ways to promote diversity in my mostly homogenous community. The sessions there had so much excellent advice about serving minorities, but there wasn’t much talk about how to serve the majority in the interest of promoting diversity, inclusiveness, and acceptance. The way we serve white people is just as important in promoting racial justice. This country, and this world, belong to all of us. White people need to take responsibility for their mistakes and do the work necessary to be better if we are to see a more inclusive future.
I am still thinking hard about ways to help white members of my community hear and understand the ideas and experiences of people of other races. Some are things I can do immediately (or have been doing, but am doing more conscientiously now that I’m thinking about the issue). Others will take more time and work to implement.
Having a Black History Month or Cinco de Mayo display is great, but it’s not enough. When diverse literature is reserved for special occasions or spotlight moments, we promote the idea that non-white is a peculiarity. Every single display that is not spotlighting a particular minority race or culture should have books featuring characters from diverse backgrounds. Romance books? Those are diverse. Books with blue covers? Also diverse. Books with big faces on the front where you can stick moustaches? Moustaches know no discrimination.
Colorblindness is not the answer; we must acknowledge and respect the many wonderful cultures and traditions our world has to offer. But the majority of experiences we read about in our literature are relevant to people of all kinds. Universal experiences should be presented as universal in our libraries.
I have heard library staff in some communities say that, regretfully, books with African-American people on the cover do not circulate well. What are we going to do about this? Purchasing less books with African-American protagonists may seem like an easy way to boost circulation numbers, but at what cost? If we do this, we are perpetuating the problem. Introducing readers to amazing books they might not otherwise pick up is our job, and we are good at it. Put your booktalking, marketing, and salesperson skills to good use. Buy those diverse books, then tell your patrons why they should read them. On the whole, young people are adaptable and accepting by nature. Some may need a little nudge to try something different from their norm, though. If you make diverse books a priority, you will not have trouble finding readers to love them.
Talk About What’s Going on Outside the Bubble
If you spend much time around teens, you probably end up in conversations that involve racial justice and diversity. Whether you should express your personal opinions on issues that could be seen a political is a topic of debate. We should all agree, however, that our job is to help teens gather information, expand their worldviews, and think critically. Teens in your community might be far removed from issues such as Black Lives Matter and undocumented immigration. As such, their knowledge of these topics may be one-sided. As library staff, we should be informed about these issues. We should be able to present facts and arguments from minority communities to patrons who may not hear these viewpoints elsewhere. At the same time, we must foster in teens the empathy and critical thinking skills they need to understand how to world looks to people whose experiences differ from theirs.
Celebrate the Diversity You See
Few communities are entirely homogenous, so chances are you have at least some teens of minority backgrounds. When they talk about their experiences as a member of a minority community, make sure to truly listen. Ask questions and express your admiration for different traditions. This will help you learn, but more importantly, it will show the patrons that their experience is valuable and something to be proud of. (Just make sure you are not the one brining up a patron’s race or ethnicity, because they may feel singled out. If they bring it up, actively listen and let them lead the conversation.)
The things I have mentioned so far are great steps, but personally, I feel I need to do more, and I am trying to figure out how. Izabel Gronski, Teen Librarian at Oak Lawn public Library in Illinois, spoke at the YALSA Symposium about her Intercultural Meetup program, in which the library had local students from an international exchange program share their experiences with the library district’s residents. This could be a valuable program in communities such as my own. I have also considered hosting speakers or storytellers from minority communities in nearby towns to share their experiences with us, or perhaps teach us some lessons in cultural competence.
Hosting such events may require a certain amount of courage. How do we deal with the concept of neutrality, and with those who may argue that we are pushing a political agenda? What if our administrations think we are angering the taxpayers and tell us to stop? What if there is low attendance because there’s not enough buy-in from the community? How do we make sure we are being respectful to all viewpoints when discussing hot-button issues?
There are no easy answers to these questions, and each community will have to go about it differently. Have you hosted a racial justice event in a mostly-white community? Do you have ideas for ways to promote diversity in homogeneous communities? Please share in the comments!