I started this post as a follow up on the reading goals I talked about here. But then I ended up, as I often do, writing about something else. Which is not surprising — as I’ve been reading and thinking through these books, they’ve become an important part of how I have been thinking and experiencing lots of things around me. And my normal process in this space is to invite all of you along on that journey, no matter how long it takes me to get to the actual point.
But I’ve been working this year on naming the things I want to talk about, instead of talking around them, particularly when my initial tendency is to very carefully lay all the mental groundwork I’ve done because I feel uncertain, which is likely to happen when I am speaking about issues of oppression or marginalization, and where my own experience and identity comes from a place of privilege and power.
Like many people, I felt a lot of emotions reading April Hathcock’s blog post describing her experience at ALA Council Forum, many people’s reports of the Council meeting that followed the next day, her immediate experience with ALA leadership in the aftermath, and her clear call to action. I was upset – these events are viscerally upsetting. I was also embarrassed, disheartened, and angry, wondering how many times she has to tell these things that we need to hear about the experiences people of color have in our profession. It’s not fair, and it’s not okay. But here’s the thing, I can’t say I was shocked. I wasn’t even surprised. And to be really clear I am not saying that it was inevitable that these events would happen in this exact time and this exact space, but that the possibility — and the dynamics of oppression — are always there. And then there’s how we (a collective we, with a focus on those of us who are white, those who have some forms of power and privilege and safety in this profession) responded. That wasn’t surprising either.
I have seen these dynamics play out too many times in the last several years, in too many situations and in too many (white and mostly-white) spaces. and the responses and reactions I heard and saw —
let’s wait and make sure we know what happened, let’s figure out the details, do we know the backstory? was there backstory? let’s talk about the personalities involved, do those personalities have a backstory? let’s focus all of our energy on the specifics of this one situation, I can’t talk about this situation until we all calm down, let’s talk about how unprofessional or uncivil these discussions are, let’s talk about how unprofessional or uncivil this person is, let’s wait and listen, it’s my job to listen and learn
— were so, so familiar. They keep happening.
On some level, I understand every one of these responses. In some situations, I have felt the feelings that drive them. But now all I really hear when I hear them is an effort, a multi-pronged effort, to talk about racism, white supremacy and injustice without ever talking about real change in the behaviors, expectations, hierarchies, ideologies, systems and structures that perpetuate those oppressions. And this effort doesn’t have to be intentional (sometimes it is); sometimes it is driven by feelings and emotions like fear and guilt and a need to feel safe.
But this is why I have a lot of feelings when people bring up codes of conduct or agreements as solution to racialized aggressions or microaggressions in conference, meeting, workshop, classroom and other spaces. Those of us with some level of power or safety who truly want to dismantle oppressive structures need to be willing to work towards change, change that might threaten both of those things. That is work that will stir up negative, uncomfortable and even scary emotions, and protecting us from those emotions is not what codes of conduct are for. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t used that way; that dynamic is also familiar. Without having the hard conversations, and making a commitment to work through the feelings that come with that hard kind of change, then codes of conduct or dialogue agreements will inevitably be used by people with power to keep themselves centered and keep the status quo firmly in place.
So that’s the thing I want to say. Here’s some more about how I got there.
So, let’s check in on those reading goals. It would probably come as a surprise to no one that my record was mixed.
I made no progress on Common Cause. I’m still committed to finishing that one, but it’s in some ways the most optional so I fall into the trap of prioritizing other things. I made an early push and got beyond the halfway point in Intersectionality, and (probably just as important for me to actually learn and learn to act and actually act from what I learned, got a first draft of some writing sparked by that book out and into the world).
But most of my progress came in the Art of Effective Facilitation, which is probably because 1) I actually had to co-facilitate a dialogue this month and 2) I was (and it’s over but still am) pretty nervous about it. I’m am so grateful that this training — OSU’s Dialogue Facilitation Lab — exists for many reasons, but one of them is that it provides a space to practice things that are both inherently challenging and also pushing me to re-think things I have done before. That opportunity to practice in a supportive and learning environment is incredibly meaningful, especially to someone like me.
But, still, that means if there is a book I can read to feel more prepared, I am most definitely going to read it.
The dialogue my co-facilitator and I decided to practice with dug into the tension between freedom of expression and inquiry — and safety and inclusivity. This is a topic that a lot of people in libraries are struggling with, and that a lot of us in higher ed (where those narratives about free expression and free inquiry and debate and the marketplace of ideas have a really, really, entrenched hold) are struggling with as well. We thought it would be a good topic for a dialogue with the group of colleagues we have been working with in this lab, and we were right.
But I don’t really want to talk about that dialogue in its specifics here. Doing that would cut against the purpose of the lab, a purpose that I am super grateful for myself, and it also isn’t what I really want to say right now.
“But to what extent can we promise the kind of safety our students might expect from us? (135)”
One of the things that I read and re-read preparing for this dialogue was chapter 8 in The Art of Effective Facilitation, “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice” by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens. The authors in this chapter argue that the common practice of establishing ground rules for social justice conversations frequently emphasizes the idea of “safe spaces” to reassure people who are uncertain or afraid to speak about sensitive topics. They analyze a case study to show that this framing can get in the way of the kind of authentic dialogue they want to foster. Specifically, they point out that there are several ways that students who identify with the agent group in conversations about oppression — students who embody some kind of privilege and power — can use these ground rules to shut down conversations that are pushing them to hear things they don’t want to hear.
This is important. We hear derisive take-downs of the idea of “safe spaces” all the time in higher ed (and in the world, but right now I am talking about higher ed). These hot takes generally follow a similar formula, punching down by framing students from historically marginalized communities (and including those who care about those students and about oppression) as too fragile to deal with the rough-and-tumble world of difficult ideas or complicated situations. This essay challenges the frame of safety, but not in this way. It focuses instead on the ways that they will twist structures like ground rules, put in place to protect those who have been marginalized, to protect the status quo instead.
“Further, it is our view that the agent group impulse to classify challenges to one’s power and privilege as actions that detract from a sense of safety is, in itself, a manifestation of dominance. (140)”
Because here’s the thing — this always happens. We create structures, whether they are agreements or codes or rubrics (or standardized tests, or holistic admissions processes, or objective hiring workflows), to make sure that everyone is treated the same, and that everyone has the same access to opportunity, and that everyone is operating under the same set of rules. And if we rely on agreements, or rubrics, or codes, by themselves we will fail. These things assume that the rules that we are all operating under are just fine, that the people working within those structures are acting with intent and awareness and a shared understanding of those rules and expectations, and that if we just hold everyone to the standards that our rules assume — everything will be fine.
But if those structures aren’t fine, if the standards themselves are racist, or sexist, or classist, or ableist — or if we don’t talk about and reveal how different interpretations of them are racist, or sexist, or ableist or classist … then it doesn’t matter that we have those agreements, rubrics and codes. They’ll be interpreted by those with power in ways that keep power in power. Ground rules will be used by white students to keep from hearing things about whiteness that make them feel uncomfortable, because they will interpret “safe” as “free from discomfort.” Codes of conduct will be used to silence those naming racialized aggression because of their “tone”, lack of “civility” or “collegiality.”
It’s important to understand this — Arao and Clemens did not write a chapter arguing that discussion agreements or ground rules are a bad thing. They wrote a chapter arguing that if we adopt those things uncritically — without unpacking their assumptions, without making sure that we share an understanding of what we are agreeing to and why it matters, and without accepting that if these agreements are going to do anything about inequality or oppression we will have to change our behavior, our expectations, our practice and our relationships — then we will continue to reinforce frames that inhibit the real work we want and need to do.