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Monday, March 8, 2021

Cancel Culture and "Classics": EDI and RA Implications

I wanted to take some time to add to the discussion about the Dr Seuss hoopla for a few reasons. First, I wanted to let my anger and sadness about the way our profession was responding to subside a bit so I could allow a clear message of anti-racist reasoning to come through in my post. As much as my readers enjoy my "rants." this topic needed my clearer head to prevail. Speaking of clearer heads, here is the coverage from PW and Book Riot last week in case you somehow missed it [?].

And second, as this issue surfaced its ugly, racist head, I was already knee deep in a huge revamp of the type of EDI programming and going to be offering [see my first 2021 Resolution]. And knee deep may be an understatement. A colleague and I are working on a huge change to how we approach this subject beginning in April with multiple programs already booked. More on that soon, but the entire issue of "cancel culture and classics" was already in that new training program, because this is not a new issue, just a new example. How people respond when faced with the fact that something we hold as "Classic" doesn't stand up to today's standards is embarrassing and upsetting.

So first, I want to address the concept of "Classics" as being untouchable, then I want to address the inherent problem with how white librarianship is NOT meeting the anti-racist threshold, and finally, I will end with some words a colleague posted on a list serv here in IL which she gave me permission to share here with a wider audience. I apologize in advance for the length of today's post, but it is important.

"Classics" are simply the books that we as a society deem to be an exemplary standard. They are not implicitly better just by their existence. "Classic" is a term applied by the majority of decision makers at a specific time. It can just as easily be removed as it was applied as decision makers and cultural standards evolve and change. The text itself is only placed on a pedestal by popular opinion. And with the "decision makers" being overwhelmingly white, heterosexual, and male throughout time, you can see how things change as more voices are allowed to enter the "decision makers" sphere. 

Also in this Dr Seuss example, these titles are not "Classic," the author is, and even his family is embarrassed by these titles and wants them removed from his legacy. But the above point holds true for any "Classic" from Little House on the Prairie to Gone with the Wind. We act like something that has been given the designation of "Classic" can never be stripped of it. Of course that is not true. What is classic morphs and changes over time to reflect the society at large. It is a designation that can be removed as easily as it is made. 

Let's remove race and insert a gendered example that went the other way. Pride and Prejudice was decidedly NOT seen as "Classic" in it's time. It was seen as a woman's novel, a silly Romance. And yet, today, it is universally considered a "Classic." Time change and with them so should this designation fo a variety and range of reasons. And it has and does, over and over, throughout time.

Now let's move the the white librarianship response to the "Classics" dilemma. First, the local public library is NOT a repository library. Our collections are not responsible for holding books that do not meet the standards of our collection development policies. We weed books for being out of touch and/or incorrect all of the time. Do not tell me libraries are neutral. The act of developing a collection is never neutral. People are making choices about what titles to own and what to remove every single day. I did collection development for a community of 60,000 people for 15 years. I understood what I was doing as I added titles. I was crafting the collection I felt would best serve my community as citizens of the world.

Let's again consider a similar situation but remove the racial frame because all you all get too worked up when race is involved, but somehow are able to see clearly if I  remove it. [Please note my sarcasm, I am not stupid.]

Very early in my tenure at the library, as a baby librarian in my mid-twenties I was put face to face with this don't weed the "Classics" argument. My library had every single year of the "Best American Short Stories" collection on the shelf. It was close to 100 years of titles. That's almost 100 books. I set about to weed all but the last 5 years within my first month at that library. A staff member saw the books set out to be removed from the catalog and "reported" me to the Director. I was asked to answer for myself for removing these "essential Classics" from our collection. I answered by saying, "Last time I checked, we are not the the Library of Congress. We are not responsible for being a depository library. I was hired to craft a browsing collection for today's readers. These volumes are taking up space that can be held by newer titles. If people want a very old, award winning story, I  can still get it for them through interlibrary loan. Not to mention the fact that many of these stories are already in the public domain." 

I am happy to report, my Director not only agreed with me, she told me later that this response was exactly why I was hired. 

I bring this up because this Dr Seuss issue is exposing a problem my experience also exposed. Many librarians are saying, "Okay, these books are racist and I am not racist, so I will remove them from circulation and make keep them in the catalog for "in library use only," so we have them if people ask." Their argument for this troubling behavior is that they don't want to be accused of censorship for removing them. And here we see the problem between being not racist and being anti-racist.

As I said above, you, the average local public library worker are NOT working at a depository library. You  are under no obligation to keep every book. And you already don't. You weed books for all sorts of reasons. On top of this, many of your Libraries have invoked anti-racist pledges and statements, and yet you are worried about keeping access to books that even the author's family has said are harmful in regards to their racist depictions. WHY?!?!?  How is that anti-racist. It's not. The number of libraries who are keeping the books but removing them from circulation is pretty much the majority, and it is sickening.

The majority of this profession is upholding racism in fear of being charged with censorship. STOP. You  have the power to craft your collections with additions and deletions however you see fit. You have been given that power in your job. You already exercise it daily. Stop making excuses and start living up to the anti-racist ideal you claim you want to support-- because right now, most of you are not.

You want to help dismantle 400 years of systemic racism in this country, right? Most of you tell me you do. Well, dismantling a wall that tall and strong not only takes time, it will ruffle feathers, it will be hard work, it could be dangerous, it will upset some, and it will not be easy. But being wishy washy and not taking a stand will not even move a pebble. We have heavy lifting to do and until the white, cis ladies who make up the majority of our profession start doing the real work, we are not going anywhere. It is our job to speak out for the marginalized and stop forcing them to do all of the work.

As I was working through all of these thoughts and taking pages of notes on how I was going to respond [the succinct version of which you see above], I was also following my library system's EDI list serv conversation on the topic and my blood pressure was rising. Everyone was being very wishy washy about pulling these books. I was also getting emails from colleagues who were sending me their libraries' equally as troubling public statements. Heck, I even got one that was more concerned about the books being stolen to be sold than the racism issue.

I was paralyzed with anger, which if you now me is a very big deal. And then Heather McCammond-Watts, Head of Youth Services at the Deerfield [IL] Public Library had two separate posts on the list serv. Posts which I publicly applauded, posts which shook me out of my angry stouper and spurred me to refocus because Heather was able to get all of my anger into a succinct message. I should note, Deerfield is a wealthy, majority white Chicago suburb. Below are her posts reprinted with her permission:

Honestly, those particular titles weren't even that tough of a decision for me to weed because they are so obscure and obviously going out of print. They clearly don't adhere to our diversity audit's standards. Now is the time to stand up for our EDI values. Before this controversy, they had very low circs too. If one of our patrons asked us to purchase those titles fresh today, we'd all say no, right? I understand that people are afraid of political blowback and wish to avoid controversy by letting the books die a slow, quiet death. My own perspective is, why do we do diversity audits in the first place if we're not willing to make some of these tough decisions and be proud of what we are doing and explain why to our public? Today's kids deserve much more than to be confronted by hurtful racist imagery in their books, and seeing us stand up for them as a library is empowering. Those racist illustrations turned my stomach, and I can't imagine how a BIPOC child might feel when encountering them for the first time.  "What you permit, you promote." --Embracerace.org. I like the idea that librarians can be like doctors with a foundational value of "First, do no harm," especially when it comes to youth services. The Anti-racist Educational Institute says, "In our classrooms, the words we speak, the books we read, the pictures we hang on the walls, all tell our students if it is okay to love themselves or not." Pretty powerful stuff. I know each library needs to make their own decision on this, but I would encourage all of us to be brave and bold and recognize that our EDI actions speak louder than our words.

And then the next day, Heather posted this. Please note the bolded text is my emphasis. 

This issue had me tossing and turning all night. How do we right this wrong? Nobody debates that these 6 books are glaringly racist. Why are we defending them? This is our confederate statue moment. Do we continue to prop up and support past injustices against marginalized people or not? We need to create a world/library where today's children are not fed fear, hate, and injustice. We don't allow bullying in our libraries, and I don't understand why we allow these books to continue to perpetuate harm against 4 year olds who might encounter them. What is the best way to repair a historical injustice? The Seuss foundation made the decision to stop printing these books as their answer to that question. They are taking accountability, and trying to repair a past wrong. We have a past wrong to correct too. Past librarians purposely selected these titles knowing full well that the images inside were racist (yes, even when they were first written they knew about the stereotyped illustrations but justified it away because, well Seuss.) Just because racist imagery was more "normalized" in the past, doesn't erase its continuing impact. Here's a recent review of If I Ran the Zoo from Common Sense media: 
Pretty Racist
"Hey so my kid got this book from the library and it has racist depictions of Asian people and Middle Eastern people. So maybe skip this one, it hasn't aged well."
That's what we're continuing to promote by keeping these titles on our shelves. Is this a good look for us in our communities? Would we recommend these books, use them in a storytime, put them on a display, add them to a booklist, share them happily with a child? Then why are they taking up valuable space on our shelves waiting for unsuspecting families? 

Heck, I weeded out all the Caillou books once he went off the air. These titles are "off the air" too, and don't justify their place of honor on our limited shelving. Am I canceling Dr. Seuss? Absolutely not. In fact, this will enhance his legacy because it cleans it up considerably, and rest assured the other non-racist titles will do just fine. Am I canceling racism in my library for today's kids? Yes. Yes I am. 

Heather has many excellent points, but it is that bolded area which takes the conversation away from the book world which I want you to ponder. Heather is ABSOLUTELY correct to call this our Confederate Statue moment. That is NOT an exaggeration. Let that comment below sink in everyone. Not a single one of you thinks we should keep up those statues. And yet, you go to bat for racist books that even Dr. Seuss' family wants removed from his legacy. Please take a step back and check yourselves.  

And the final section I bolded also bears repeating. She is cancelling racism at her library, not an author. I am going to use that in my talks from now on [with a citation to Heather and this post]. Classics and their authors are not being cancelled. The artificial, human applied designation is being removed. It wasn't there when the volumes were conceived or published. It was applied after and informed by the era in which it was applied. That is all. What we are actually cancelling is racism

If we don't address the racism, homophobia, etc in older books, especially those we hold up as "better," we allow systemic oppression to continue. We don't grow as a society. There was a time, not that long ago, when people of two different races were not allowed to be legally married in this country. We are allowed to grow and learn and evolve. 

This is only the beginning on my full onslaught on this issue. I also understand that many of you agree with me while your library is doing some of the things I am condemning. In fact, I know this as a few of you have said you are waiting for this post to pass on to your superiors so you can do what needs to be done. I talked this responsibility seriously and I have more planned.

Later this week I will have a revision of my EDI mission statement, one I planned to debut next month with my new program but clearly it cannot wait. But don't expect me to take any of your excuses. Not that I did before, but I am so done. Not racist is passive but anti-racist requires doing. I will be doing, and not alone. I am working VERY hard behind the scenes to start a national conversation on this issue with a fellow expert. We are specifically framing our program around all of your excuses, the ones we have heard for the last 2 years as we  have given these programs. And we have been taking notes. It is not longer about convincing all of you WHY you need to be anti-racist, rather the focus is now on HOW you will do it.


wife2abadge said...

YES. One million times YES.

Jessica Lamarre said...

That was everything I had been feeling and thinking! Thank you!