The Freedom to Be Totally Ignorant

“I’m not afraid anymore so go for it.” — Jane Elliot

The Oprah episode above aired in 1992. Jane Elliott first did her blue eyes/brown eyes experiment the day after MLK was assassinated. (Note, that transcript contains offensive racial terms.)

(If you’re not familiar, in brief, Jane did a lesson in prejudice with her class of white children by dividing them by eye color. One day the blue eyed children were regarded as inferior, and the next the brown eyed children. The superior children got seconds at lunch, more recess time, more praise. The inferior group was belittled, mocked, denied extra food and extra time at recess. Jane saw that it took alarmingly little to get one group to be prejudiced against the other. It was incredibly easy to get them to believe lies about the other group–that their eye color made them lazy, unable to learn, angry, hostile. Then decades later Oprah recreated it with a bunch of adults and boy it doesn’t take long for things to fall apart there, either.)

I have to think that some people in the audience were knowledgeable enough to know what was happening. But I am also completely unsurprised at the number of white people who seemed to have no idea who Jane was or what was happening. As Jane once said herself, “White people’s number one freedom, in the United States of America, is the freedom to be totally ignorant of those who are other than white. We don’t have to learn about those who are other than white. And our number two freedom is the freedom to deny that we’re ignorant.” (emphasis added)

Our constitution protects five freedoms: speech, religion, press, assembly, and the right to petition the government. Which of those five covers the freedom to be ignorant? (Don’t worry, it’s a rhetorical question.)

The Declaration of Independence begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (Emphasis added.) Is ignorance covered by the pursuit of happiness? I guess it’s easier to be happy when you’re oblivious to the suffering of your fellow human beings. (But again, rhetorical.)

You might be asking, “What does this have to do with libraries?” To which I say: What DOESN’T it have to do with libraries?

Libraries are a monument to the human desire for knowledge, learning, and experience–the opposite of ignorance. (Warning: the next quote has a term that is considered a slur in the disabled community, but I am still quoting it here because it illustrates an important point.) Zappa once said, “Stupidity has a certain charm – ignorance does not.”

While the word “stupidity” has often been used as a disparaging term against people with intellectual disabilities, and should not be used in any context these days, I believe Zappa’s main point stands: people who do not know something because it is unavailable to them (either because of lack of access to the information or because the information has not been presented in a way they can understand) are preferable to those who could have (and make use of) the knowledge but instead actively choose to avoid learning something that could upset their worldview.

Frank Zappa hated formal education, rebelled against music theory’s insistence that all chords needed to resolve, dropped out of junior college after one semester, and was a big advocate of libraries as a way to gain knowledge outside of the formal school system, saying: “Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system. Forget about the Senior Prom and go to the library and educate yourself if you’ve got any guts. Some of you like Pep rallies and plastic robots who tell you what to read.” (An aside: before he died, Zappa was considering a run for president. Can you imagine that? What about a Zappa/Carlin ticket?)

“We learn to be racist, therefore we can learn not to be racist. Racism is not genetical. It has everything to do with power.” — Jane Elliot

Zappa chafed against formal schooling because it was rigid, unimaginative, and limiting. I don’t know if ever spoke about how the education system reinforces white supremacy, but he had at least some awareness of how racism and white supremacy functioned in society (see his song “You Are What You Is”, which explores these themes).

Jane was a teacher, and clearly one who taught in innovative, impactful ways by utilizing methods like her sociology experiment (I like to think she and Zappa would have gotten along). She also clearly understood that, sadly, our education system is structurally built to reinforce white supremacy and create compliant citizens who don’t have the time or ability to think creatively or critically about information and the world around them.

(This isn’t to say all teachers are compliant in this structure–rather, seeing what teachers are currently going through and how many of them are abandoning being driven out of the profession speaks to how much so many teachers want to dismantle the structure and, GASP, do what is best for kids instead of what is best for a society that demands division, compliance, and a steady churn of workers who kill themselves for the slimmest chance of living out the American Dream.)

Jane once said, “[…] If you graduated from high school in the United States of America and you didn’t learn how to be a racist you need to take the whole program over again, because that’s what the program is: how to be a good American.” 

This is so important, because she, a white woman, is saying very plainly what very few (white) people are willing to admit: that being a “good” American is inextricably linked with whiteness, and that the supremacy of whiteness must be upheld at any cost, including the very expensive privilege of remaining ignorant to the needless suffering and systematic oppression of a huge portion of our society.

Jane has never stopped sharing these harsh truths, and thanks to social media (look her up on TikTok; there are so many videos) more people are hearing her message than ever before. In my opinion, she plays a unique role in the ecosystem of dismantling white supremacy, using her white privilege to gain access to platforms and people she might not be able to reach otherwise. She is willing to be ostracized and be threatened because she believes in a greater good. Because, as she said, “To sit back and do nothing is to cooperate with the oppressor.” She is an ally, and perhaps even an accomplice.

Again, what does this have to do with librarianship?

Well. Libraries, for the most part, are cooperating with the oppressors, sometimes by sitting back and sometimes more actively. For every “Black Lives Matter” statement on a library website and press release about “everyone’s right to read”, there are a thousand different ways libraries are complicit with and uphold white supremacy.

Think about your favorite book from childhood. For me, one of my favorites was Island of the Blue Dolphins. I loved survival stories (maybe because it seemed easier to survive alone on an island than in my abusive household but that’s another story). I also loved Julie of the Wolves, because it was a survival story and the main character had my name.

Over time, people have grown more vocal in their criticism of both of those books, and slowly the nice white librarians of the world are starting to hear the message. Both of those books have proven to be very problematic and harmful to the Indigenous people who are depicted. These two books, that brought me great comfort and enjoyment as a child (indeed, millions of children have loved/love these books), in turn have harmed and wounded other children. So what do I do? What should libraries do?

(Well. I really need to say that libraries don’t do anything. Libraries are buildings. It’s the people who work in those buildings who make the choices about what books are bought or not bought, weeded or kept, promoted or ignored. People choose what books they display face-out and which books they shove behind other books on the shelves. People know whether or not “those kinds” of children live in their community, and what books they deserve to get.)

There is no easy answer for library workers. There is no one choice to make on what to do with books like this. (In my case, I still love those books, and treasure what they meant to me, but I recognize they have done harm, and I will never, ever suggest these titles to a contemporary child reader.) But in every case, with every book, the first thing that nice white librarians need to do is feel the discomfort that comes with loving something that is hurtful, and reckon with it.

Many librarians don’t want to acknowledge or deal with the icky feelings that arise when they’re told something they love has hurt someone else. They ignore the ick and instead say, “These books are classics. These books are award winners. These books are still in demand and I’m not getting rid of them just because some people don’t like them.” They turn their discomfort into rage, and hold up intellectual freedom as a reason to hold onto these books and other books like them. They don’t want to have to deal with people confronting them about why the books are harmful.

(An aside: who decides what makes a book a classic? Who decides which books win awards? Who creates databases of “essential” literature for children? Usually the answer has historically been NICE WHITE LIBRARIANS. Do you see what I’m getting at?)

But you know what? We don’t have a right to comfort. We don’t have a right to walk away from something that upsets us. We don’t have the right to remain IGNORANT about the impact these books are having on people. We don’t have the right to ignore the conversations around these books, or the conflict that can arise. Because people will probably be mad either way, whether you keep the books or don’t. Whether you promote them or not.

And when I say “people”, I mean adults, primarily. Most young people don’t have the ability or agency to tell any of the adults in their life when they’ve been hurt by something. Besides, no one listens to kids. Which is why it is all the more important for librarians who work with youth to speak up for them, because we have agency and power that they do not.

GIF of Helen Lovejoy sobbing “Won’t somebody please think of the children?”

So shouldn’t we be concerned about what these books can do, have done, to children? If we adhere to the core competencies of our profession, then hell yes we should be concerned about this. The first category is Commitment to Client Group, and the first point is, “Demonstrates respect for diversity and inclusion of cultural values, and continually develops cultural awareness and works to address implicit bias in order to provide inclusive and equitable service to diverse populations.”

Most librarians believe in the transformational power of books and reading. But then these same librarians will insist that books with racist stereotypes and ignorant misrepresentations “Aren’t that bad.”

To that attitude I offer this, excerpted from The Struggle for Tolerance : Race and Censorship in Huckleberry Finn by Peaches Henry (published 1992):

“In a letter to the New York Times, Allan B. Ballard recalls his reaction to having Huck Finn read aloud ‘in a predominantly white junior high school in Philadelphia some 30 years ago.’

I can still recall the anger I felt as my white classmates read aloud the word “n—–r.” In fact, as I write this letter I am getting angry all over again. I wanted to sink into my seat. Some of the whites snickered, others giggled. I can recall nothing of the literary merits of this work that you term “the greatest of all American novels.” I only recall the sense of relief I felt when I would flip ahead a few pages and see that the word “n—-r” would not be read that hour. (15)

Moreover, the presentation of the novel as an “American classic” serves as an official endorsement of a term uttered by the most prejudiced racial bigots to an age group eager to experiment with any language of shock value. One reporter has likened the teaching of the novel to eighth­ grade kids to “pulling the pin of a hand grenade and tossing it into the all too common American classroom.” (16)

That sounds like some transformational power to me, and not in a good way. So when you refuse to even engage with the idea that these books are doing great harm, you’re showing the kids in your community and every other kid just how much you really don’t give a shit about them.

And it’s ironic! How many times have you heard library managers huff, “I hate it when people applying for jobs tell me they love BOOKS. We work with PEOPLE. You need to enjoy working with people, not just books!” But when it comes to their books….the ones they love….suddenly people don’t matter anymore. Allan B. Ballard certainly didn’t matter to the teacher who made him sit there and listen to all 214 utterances of the N word in class, said repeatedly by his own classmates. They would rather hold onto these books, these comfort objects that soothe them, and ignore the pain of Black, queer, and Indigenous children who have been repeatedly harmed by misrepresentation in literature that is meant to entertain, educate, and uplift them.

Briefly: another issue cropping up is people attempting to “ban” books that have LGBTQ+ content or address in any way the fact that we live in a racist society, with people saying that those topics aren’t appropriate, that children cannot understand those topics in any real way.

After her experiment, a formerly supportive colleague of Elliott’s said went on to say, “I think third grade was too young for what she did. Junior high, maybe. Little children don’t like uproar in the classroom. And what she did caused an uproar. Everyone’s tired of her. I’m tired of hearing about her and her experiment and how everyone here is a racist. That’s not true. Let’s just move on.” (Sounds like someone is both jealous of Jane being recognized for her work and unwilling to deal with her own discomfort when it comes to racism.)

But you know what? Junior High is too late. Hell, research has shown that THIRD GRADE is too late: “[…R]esearch has shown that 3-month-old babies prefer faces from certain racial groups, 9-month-olds use race to categorize faces, and 3-year-old children in the U.S. associate some racial groups with negative traits. By age 4, children in the U.S. associate whites with wealth and higher status, and race-based discrimination is already widespread when children start elementary school.” This is why using inclusive books in storytime matters so much.

Sadly, problematic “classics” in the children’s department and the attempt to eradicate books for young people about important topics are just two of the bricks in the wall of white supremacy that surrounds libraries. But they’re bricks I am determined to pull out, and I’m not going to stop until the wall has been destroyed.

So we come to the reason I’ve written this essay: it is both a call and a challenge.

In 2020, after her work again resurfaced to inflame a new generation, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Jane relayed this story and challenge in an interview:

When Killer Mike, who previously invited her to visit his Atlanta barbershop and to watch him perform at Coachella, shared her name on national TV, Elliott grew a little worried about being targeted by white supremacists. But she won’t be deterred.  

“Mike don’t say that,” she said, laughing. “You know, that’s asking for trouble. So now I lock my doors tightly every night and I check my windows because I know. There’s not a doubt in my mind, but somebody is gonna try to take me out.

“And I say publicly, go ahead. My husband died almost seven years ago, and my oldest son died two years ago. You think you can hurt me? You think you can scare me? You think death is the worst thing that can happen to me? No, you living a useless life is the worst thing that can happen to you. And I will not stop what I’m doing because I’m afraid. I’m not afraid anymore so go for it.”
gif of Howard Beale in the movie Network screaming “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore”

I’m no Jane Elliott, but I am also going to say “Go ahead” to the entire field of librarianship. Because we know better, or we should. We are capable of doing better. But we never will unless we acknowledge our bleak, fucked up history reckon with our faux-neutral present to clear a path forward. We love to pat ourselves on the back, talk about how great we are, how noble and important, when we are the profession that denied John Lewis a library card, that said hate speech matters more than trans lives, where library boards make the baffling decision to offer a job to a scandal tinged white man instead of the eminently qualified Black woman who is already doing the job. Our record isn’t so hot, y’all. And I’m done with not talking about it because I am afraid of retribution. Of being talked about. Of being ostracized.

And you, constant reader, are invited to join me.

I don’t claim to be perfect. I will get things wrong. Hell, I’ve probably made several mistakes even in this blog post. But I’ve been learning and I want to continue to learn. I want to use my privilege to uplift marginalized voices. I want to push the profession to grapple with its failures. I want to reject the freedom to remain blissfully ignorant. If you’re ready to move forward, I’m here to walk with you.

My challenge is this: if this essay makes you mad; or makes you feel bad; or you really didn’t like my post about Nice White Librarians, I want you to ask yourself “Why?” And answer honestly. Because we’re never going to get ANYWHERE without being honest with ourselves.

White supremacy and bigotry hurts all of us. And the sooner we admit that, the sooner we can get to work dismantling it.

I hope to see you soon, ready to wreck some stuff and get into some good trouble. Do it for John, for Jane, for Allan Ballard, for every Black kid who has been made to feel less than, for every queer kid who has felt threatened and alone–hell, just do it because it’s the right thing to do. There is no time left to be neutral.

I’ve chosen my side in this fight.

What will you choose?

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