Eyes Wide Shut: Welcoming Repressive Tolerance into Libraries

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.

3 thoughts on “Eyes Wide Shut: Welcoming Repressive Tolerance into Libraries

  1. I find your post very relevant in today’s political climate. Tolerance is often equated with acceptance. If I tolerate your behavior, while I might not condone the behavior, I accept it. For me, when I hear the word tolerance I immediately think “turn the other cheek” “look the other way”. A person who is tolerant accepts what is happening around them, to them and to others. They “accept” things as being the way they are.
    Could tolerance also be viewed as indifferent? I think they are similar in the way they both can be seen as non-action words. Your quote “There is no action in tolerance but silence” mirrors my same thoughts. When you are indifferent or tolerant you do nothing, there is no resistance. There is no movement to change what is happening. It is when a person decides to no longer tolerate injustice is when true change begins. One should not accept injustices. And yes this is where the library can play a critical role, by not tolerating or accepting the deep injustices to people and marginalized communities.


  2. This post really helped put into words something I have felt about libraries for a long time. The desire to make libraries a neutral space is noble on the surface, but it fails to address real systemic problems in the field. Neutrality is a societal construct that shifts constantly, changing with the political and social conventions of the time. To build your entire profession on a concept that can change at any moment is inviting conflict when the rules of neutrality change. The same is true of tolerance. While being a tolerant person is an expectation society places on us as individuals, it is not an equitable concept for society as a whole. The begrudging acceptance of others based on tangible elements of race, creed, or background is not tolerance; it is part of the system of internalized racism, sexism, and classism that allows these beliefs to flourish in the long term. Tolerance, like neutrality, cannot function as a base to build a profession on. As librarians, we need to to be radically disposed to helping our communities, and we cannot help our communities by propping up historical systems of oppression. In order to make libraries a truly equitable space, we need to be truly equitable to our communities. That includes creating an environment where our histories and backgrounds are celebrated, rather than tolerated.


  3. I loved this so much. Understanding the connotations of words and seeing how they’re used in practice is really needed so we can make sure we are using the correct words and not letting something like what you have described to happen. In order for us to make these spaces of equality we are going to need to take action, not just sit by passively–which is exactly what tolerance is doing. Tolerance is a passive stance taken by people and they throw the word around trying to make themselves look progressive when the reality is the opposite of that. We need to take action, not sit in silent tolerance.


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