Nope, not the 1999 Kubrick drama-mystery, but a metaphor for something glaring that’s happening in libraries right now; something no one wants to talk about.
Citation: Depression, Ryan Melaugh. Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/120632374@N07/13974181800
Let’s start with this.
Through a series of discussions and observations, a distaste for the popular buzz-word tolerance rose up in my throat. I felt my own guttural rejection of the term and its ideology when I listened to colleagues and friends throw the word around as a haven for radical ideas and social justice. Bearing witness to proposed solutions such as: “With more tolerance we could…” and “We need to create spaces tolerant of…” my brain tried to rationalize why I wasn’t in agreeance. Then I made one association I’ll never forget.
We (human beings) are told we must tolerate pain—must learn to tolerate an unjust legal system—to tolerate the results of a government election. We are socialized to associate tolerance with our own silent acceptance of dissatisfaction. Why, then, are we pasting this word on the facades of our libraries?
The LIS profession is well-practiced at being self-aware. Many professionals have contributed their thoughts to the fields’ inherent inability to be a service that is apolitical and neutral. It seems to be a consensus that every decision executed within libraries is a deliberate choice that has come from a living, breathing, in-some-way-biased human being. In a wildly popular post from the online platform BookRoit, Kelly Jensen writes “it’s impossible to be a neutral space with the goal of reaching a community” (2017). Therefore, as a way of mitigating our position in society while also honoring our own code of ethics, libraries have been and have begun to establish advocacy programs and platforms for unheard marginalized populations. Libraries have sacrificed their reputations with stakeholders to foster exhibits on resistance, pigeonholed cultures, and confront failing education systems and fake news.
It is obvious: the work libraries are doing is important and it is work that the library should be doing. The mistake of progress originates in the use of the complacent ideology of tolerance. Kelly Jensen continues in her article: “by inviting all in a community to be in a shared space, libraries embrace the idea of encouraging education, encouraging acceptance and tolerance” (2017).
Kelly’s only speaking what libraries in large are thinking, too: that there is an unprecedented level of hatred and racism and tension in this current socio-political environment and we believe that the library can do something about it. But it isn’t tolerance we should be advocating for.
Attitudes of tolerance create spaces that foster micro-aggressions, continued support of systemic oppression, and spot-light or feel-good diversity and multiculturalism. Tolerance is active silence and passive participation in standing up and speaking out against historic social issues.
In the same year that Kelly Jensen wrote her article praising the work of social justice librarians, April Hathcock and Fobazi Ettarh responded to their recent experience at ALA Chicago with an opposing perspective: that libraries weren’t achieving their progressive agenda as well as they were all claiming.
April Hathcock took to her wordpress (2017) to illuminate for her colleagues that the LIS profession is infiltrated with historic racism and no one wants to talk about it. Several days at the convention exhausted April, beyond the usual busy-ness and excitement, but on a deep and personal level that April best describes as race fatigue. In short, it was exhausting for April to be herself in this field and her experience is not an isolated incident. Fobazi Ettarh took to her wordpress (2017) to express her frustrations with ALA Chicago and the library environment that fosters racial micro-aggressions. Fobazi writes “I cannot love a vocation that does not love me. I cannot love a profession where I cannot thrive due to facets of my identity. And I do not want to…I will not put my whole self into a field that does not accept all of me. All of my blackness. All of my radicalness and attempts at decolonization” (2017).
That’s tolerance: when an institution makes the active choice to allow the presence of a population without uplifting, encouraging, or supporting them; that institution is merely allowing that population to co-exist separately, but not equally. An open door does not erase historic oppression. Tolerance of populations breed the systemic hierarchy into being. Tolerance is a scapegoat for diversity, multiculturalism, and inclusion. There is no action in tolerance but silence.
If the experiences of April Hathcock and Fobazi Ettarh aren’t proof that tolerance in the LIS profession is an egregious error, let’s take a look at the concept of repressive tolerance. Oxford Reference cites repressive tolerance as two key concepts. The first being “the unthinking acceptance of entrenched attitudes and ideas, even when these are obviously damaging to other people, or indeed the environment”. Think about the long road to women’s suffrage, for example. The second being “the vocal endorsement of actions that are manifestly aggressive towards other people (the popular support in the US and the UK in the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7 for the respective government’s attempts to override or limit habeas corpus is a clear example of this)”. Remember: libraries were tolerant of the social-political environment when we segregated our stacks. We were tolerant—silent—wrong.
The idea of tolerance in libraries is inherently good-natured, but having looked past the feel-good façade of the idea, I can see now that tolerance has no place in the library. We need to replace tolerance with education, empathy, and understanding.
By Kimberlee Roberts
Black people aren’t making things up: The science behind “racial battle fatigue”. (2015). Retrieved October 1, 2018, from https://thinkprogress.org/black-people-arent-making-things-up-the-science-behind-racial-battle-fatigue-9726fcebc938/
Ettarh, F. (2017). Post-ALA Fatigue and “Nice White Ladies”. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from https://fobaziettarh.wordpress.com/2017/07/03/post-ala-fatigue-and-nice-white-ladies/
Hathcock, A. (2017). Post-ALA Race Fatigue. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from https://aprilhathcock.wordpress.com/2017/06/27/post-ala-race-fatigue/
Jensen, K. (2017). Libraries Resist: A Round-Up of Tolerance, Social Justice, & Resistance in US Libraries. Retrieved from https://bookriot.com/2017/02/10/libraries-resist-round-tolerance-social-justice-resistance-us-libraries/
Repressive Tolerance. Oxford Reference. Ed. Retrieved 1 Oct. 2018, from http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100414515.