Note to non-archivist/librarian readers: this blog post is largely professional insider discussion and, while it may be interesting to some of you it will likely be tl;dr for many others. You have been warned!
a radical feminist cabal (via)
In the three weeks since I published my post about professionalism, privilege, and power, discussing the Archives & Archivists listserv, I’ve had further interesting adventures — both inspiring and dispiriting — around what I wrote, how I wrote it, and the manner in which it was shared. Having (mostly) weathered that storm, I offer a few further thoughts about what went down, and how, and the manner in which I’ve chosen to participate in this conversation moving forward.
My last substantive listserv email on this subject went out to the listserv on June 5th and can be read here. The two listserv threads to which that message refer can be read in their entirety here and here. What I would like to share in this post are two items of gratitude, four items of critical reflection, and finally an invitation.
please see my sounding of interest.
1) I am grateful to connect with so many likewise-minded and open-minded librarians and archivists since writing my initial post.
A huge big thank you to every individual who linked to, retweeted, liked, commented, emailed, and otherwise expressed support and understanding for my arguments around these issues. I tried to thank as many of you as I could directly and personally. As I remarked to one man who spoke up in support, I may not “need” defenders but it is awfully nice not to feel alone in my perceptions or isolated in speaking up. Those who could not speak in public spaces, but did so in private, also counted in this way.
The outpouring of thanks I received from people (a majority women, but also men) who have experienced or witnessed professional bullying and marginalization in our field confirms my own perceptions that this is not an isolated “bad apple” situation. Instead, it is a community-wide, cultural problem that requires a collective response. I have been thinking about ways to continue the conversation with all of you (more below), hopefully calibrated to give particular support to those with the fewest emotional or professional “spoons” to give.
2) I am grateful for my co-workers and supervisors who value my attitude, approach, and contributions.
I want to particularly thank the individuals at my workplace, including people to whom I report as an employee, who have supported me and affirmed my right to speak up. It was a sweet victory, I’ll admit, to be explicitly thanked for the professional manner in which I conducted myself. Some of my detractors have suggested my employer should be ashamed of my behavior; instead, I am proud to work at an institution where challenging my profession to do a better job at being inclusive and social justice oriented is valued. As a supervisor, I have tried to foster a workplace culture of engaged professionalism and passionate advocacy. I also demand that all of my staff, regardless of their age or professional status, be treated with respect as human beings and archivists/librarians. I thank my mentors for modeling and making this possible.
3) “Benign neglect” is not benign. It’s just neglect.
Moving on to more critical points, I’m going to begin by reiterating that abdication of responsibility for a situation is, in fact, an active decision for which a person or group bears responsibility. When individuals are being bullied, harassed, condescended to, discounted, or otherwise marginalized, “benign neglect” is not benign. It’s just neglect.
In this situation, we had a group of people, the Dissenter(s) and Supporters, explaining that situation Q wasn’t working for them — for a variety of intertwined reasons. Then we had a group of people whose response could be summed up as “I like things the way they are,” or “The way things are works for me.” There is nothing wrong with that experience; it is yours. Yet it does nothing to address the issue, which is that the status quo isn’t working for other people. Yes, your experience is part of the picture. But it’s not the only, most important, or truest perspective on the situation. Even if situation Q is the most ideal world you can imagine for yourself, I believe the fact that it is not working for someone, perhaps actively injuring them, should be of concern. To you.
But it became clear over the course of the situation that the majority of those speaking up within the listserv forum do not feel that way. I hope (suspect) this is not true of the over six thousand subscribers, the majority of whom are lurkers.
IMPORTANT: If you’re one of those concerned individuals, please take the time to comment on the SAA draft Code of Conduct before comments close on June 22nd. This Code of Conduct is a formal statement that SAA does not condone, among other things, “abusive verbal comments,” “deliberate intimidation,” and “sustained disruption of talks or other events.” While not sufficient on its own, a Code of Conduct gives Dissenters and Supporters a framework for seeking redress. Even if you are not a dues-paying SAA member, you can email your comments and support for the CoC to firstname.lastname@example.org.
4) As I predicted in my original post, the dynamic of bullying and exclusion did repeat itself again … the following week, and again … the following week.
Following my post, which was eventually circulated to the listserv by X himself, we had an “on list” discussion that basically replicated the original discussion. Only with a few extra juicy contributions from “professionals” accusing me of gross impropriety and paranoid delusion. This time, I was cast in the role of Dissenter (with some excellent Supporters). Once again we had Fixers, Defenders, Concern Trolls, Drama Queens, and Shamers all piping up in the more or less predictable pattern.
As I prep this post to go live, I’m watching the cycle unfold all over again.
My central takeaway from the experience is therefore that I learned nothing new that I hadn’t learned from last time; the “discussion” only served to further reinforce my judgments regarding the collective will to change that I had made earlier. As I wrote on Twitter:
This dynamic also reinforces my point (perhaps not as clear as it should have been in the original post) that the individual I called X is not personally the core problem here. I have some issues with his attitude and actions, but his behavior causes problems not primarily because of how he behaves but because of how the community incorporates — dare I say centers — him and others with a similar M.O. Again, this is not a “bad apple” situation, but a community culture issue.
5) It is not my job to educate the (obviously reluctant) list community on the dynamics of social inequality.
I’ve had some people encourage me to approach SAA about collaborating on a fix to this situation. I gotta say, my feels at this point are that I’m not feelin’ it.
On the one hand, I’m an inveterate Meddler. As my wife can tell you, someone punches down and she glances at her watch to start counting down the seconds until I can no longer help myself. That’s how this whole kerfluffle started, after all. Last year, I subscribed to A&A after years of just skimming the archive because someone was being a bully and I couldn’t let that sort of nonsense stand. I waded in this time around because of more or less the same dynamic. And I know I’ll be wading in again (and again, and again) in future.
But ultimately, the suggestions that I “reach out” to SAA or otherwise labor in a more formal capacity to change the situation leave me pretty skeptical. There are people who do this sort of training for a living; I am not one of them. And, as the Code of Conduct demonstrates, we’re not reinventing the wheel here. I refuse to fall into the trap of what might be called “teaching up,” or buying into a framework that requires the oppressed to educate the oppressor before those in power consider the need for change. I shouldn’t have to ask, or offer my labor, in order for education and change to happen. It should be (and hopefully is) happening from within.
6) Which brings me to the point that all of this is, in fact, emotional/mental/physical labor. Professional labor.
I’m aware that throughout this debate I’ve chosen (and it’s been a conscious choice) to play according to the rules of a politics of respectability. There’s a reason my boss got praise for my professionalism from others in the field, and that’s because I exerted a powerful lot of will over my desire to compose emails that were more along the lines of “I can’t even with this effing entitlement,” or “You, sir, are a paranoid dipshit.” This was exhausting. It cost me several sleepless nights (and the subsequent price of excessive coffee). I sat at my computer shaking with adrenaline, poured over every obsessively-crafted email and comment before hitting “post” or “send,” and had to keep going back after my words went live to re-read them and reassure myself I had said what I meant to say, the way I meant to say it.
Taking a page from Melissa McEwan’s recent playbook, I’m acknowledging (and will continue to acknowledge) this labor, and its unequal distribution along a number of vectors including gender. I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate that I spent more time considering how to discuss my detractors’ (and in some cases accusers’) arguments than at least two of the more vocal individuals spent thinking about me as a human being and as a colleague. I am extremely lucky (see #1-2 above) to have allies, among them supervisors, whose trust in my professionalism I have earned. If I were someone more vulnerable, the accusations that were leveled against me within this professional community could have had real consequences for my career.
I don’t get the sense the individuals who clicked “send” on those emails or “post” on those comments actually thought about that — except perhaps in the hopeful “she ought to be put in her place!” sense.
This highlights the dynamics (gendered and otherwise) at play here that I outlined in my original post. I — the younger, early-career librarian, queer female blogger — understand that my (professional) reputation is contingent on those with more power in (my professional) world “allowing” me to speak. I write, I revise, I document, I supply evidence, I qualify. While at least one of the men who disliked what I had to say wrote emails calling me a “radical feminist” (intended to be insulting but, um, it’s kinda right there in the name?), demonstrated poor reading comprehension and research skills, and suggested to a forum of six thousand individuals in my field that I had leveled baseless accusations of “moral impropriety” against X — a (deliberate?) distortion of my argument.
Emails to which he signed his own name, job title, and place of work.
My point is that while I was up sleepless at 2am wondering if my carefully worded emails or carefully personal blog posts were going to upset someone, somewhere, whose opinion I care about — or whose opinion may have professional consequences for me — or who might decide to take out his anger against me in more personal ways — this individual felt comfortable writing a troll-worthy rant about my “Soviet” politics and sending it tied to his real-world identity to a listserv at least nominally administered by his national professional organization. With (apparently) little or no fear of the consequences.
If that isn’t evidence of structural, socialized entitlement I’m frankly not sure what is.
7) The Amiable Archivists’ Salon
Which brings me to the seventh and final thought I would like to share with you. And that is something most of you reading this post already know. Working for a more just, kind, inclusive, world (or profession) is work. It’s emotional work, it’s political work, it’s physical work.It takes spoons. Sometimes we have ‘em, sometimes we don’t. And it’s important to know how and when to use the spoons you have to give. So I’ve been thinking about how I want to use the spoons I have for this particular situation.
After reflection and discussion, I’ve decided I would like to establish an Amiable Archivists’ Salon*, a discussion and support group for those experiencing marginalization within the profession. The listserv lurkers who’ve contacted me more often than not express feelings of intimidation and isolation — not just on the list, but in their chosen feel more broadly. I would like to do what I can to address that, building ties among us that can hopefully lead to more effective profession-wide intervention and cultural change. I’m a meddler (see #5) and I know I’ll keep wading into this situation and trying to make it better, but I’d really rather not do it alone — or fearful of being “the only one.”
If you are interested in participating in these discussions, please fill out this brief ten-question survey to let me know who you are, what issues you want to see addressed, and what your goals for the group would be. If I receive six or more responses by July 1st I will contact the potential participants by email and together we can decide next steps.
*h/t to my wife, Hanna, for what I feel is a suitably “tea time & teach-ins” nom de groupe.