Nice White Librarians

Much like neutrality, niceness* is a quality that I believe causes more harm than good, in almost every situation, but especially in workplaces, and especially libraries.

Librarianship is rife with nice white lady librarians. They dominate the profession and thereby the professional culture. And boy, few things are more terrible than a nice white lady when it comes to EDI. You see, nice white ladies like to be comfortable, and to dismantle white supremacy you need to realize you don’t have a right to comfort.

(Now, experiencing discomfort in the name of dismantling white supremacy is much different than experiencing discomfort because of an abusive patron or boss/coworker. I do not suggest that any library worker put up with being gaslit, harasssed, or abused in any way.)

What does giving up your comfort look like? In my opinion and experience, it looks like this:

  • weeding racist books no matter how much you or other white people loved them as kids
  • enduring the calls, letters, and direct confrontations that stem from having an inclusive collection
  • turning down opportunities, especially when your voice is not the one that needs to be heard (ie, no more nice white lady librarians giving diverse book presentations at conferences or workshops. Elevate other names in your place, or if you sense the organization is reluctant, use your whiteness to give POC a platform by collaborating.)
  • recognizing that having no “cultural” programming is often the better choice over having bad cultural programming. My motto has become “Nothing about us without us“, which I most closely associate with the disability rights movement. If you can’t partner with someone who is from that culture, then don’t go it alone, lest you end up with a situation like the one at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. (I also saw a white librarian on YouFace talk about her Juneteenth party snack menu and oh boy)
  • confronting, calling out, and calling in your white colleagues when they need it. Don’t put this work onto Black librarians and librarians of color. You need to use your Karen powers for good and address this stuff when it happens. The librarian mentioned above got pushback on her post, and for good reason.

That last point is incredibly difficult for nice white librarians. The White Supremacy in Organizations guide refers to this as Fear of Open Conflict. Because nice white librarians have such a fear of open conflict (it’s not nice!) they avoid it at all costs, and anyone who is comfortable with conflict is seen as a threat. I’m sure we’ve all seen anecdotes around about how this plays out in almost all workplaces with Black women being seen as “intimidating” or “scary” and the constant tone policing they endure. I also see this happening with library workers who are neurodivergent (myself included). If your brain needs direct, clear, concise communication, then talking to a nice white librarian is not going to go well, since being “nice” often involves dancing around the real issue, padding the relevant content in fluff, and often just avoiding the conversation altogether until it reaches a crisis point.

We can’t dance around the topic of racism. We can’t avoid discussing how trans kids and trans people of all ages are under attack. We can’t just get along with bigots. Nice white librarians upheld Jim Crow laws and denied John Lewis a library card. Our system of organization was created by a man so sexist that the organization he founded kicked him out. We need to acknowledge our past failings and vow to do better going forward.

I know this isn’t easy. We’re all so, so tired, and we aren’t equipped and nor should we be asked to save democracy or the soul of our nation.

But we can do what we do best: seek out quality information, share it with our colleagues, and continue learning and striving.

We can advocate for our collections being full of windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors.

We can continue putting up book displays that matter, and be strong advocates even when criticized. (I guarantee you that enduring this feedback is nowhere near as uncomfortable/dangerous as navigating our world in a body that falls outside of the default of straight white able-bodied male).

You can either be comfortable or you can be an accomplice. You can’t be both.

Now is the time to choose and take action. What choice are you going to make?

Photo by Liza Summer:

*Some qualities that I believe to be better than being “nice”

  • Ethical
  • Honest
  • Vulnerable
  • Accurate
  • Thoughtful
  • Respectful
  • Concerned
  • Equitable
  • Inclusive
  • Engaged
  • Curious
  • Gentle
  • Kind
  • Perceptive
  • Courageous

5 responses to “Nice White Librarians”

  1. Wow, this is great! Thank you


  2. Thanks for posting!


  3. While the point about white librarians is extremely important and needs to be heard, you cannot be those other things you list without being “nice.” While those other things are more actionable, the emotional labor component is the “nice” part, No is absuively kind. It’s just not a thing. This “nice” discourse only serves abusive people looking to exploit other people. Just wait until your white boss or HR rep says, “I’m KIND not NICE” like so many bullies before them.


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