Twice, within the span of a week, I heard the clarion call of diversity and a diverse workforce within archives and libraries. I wanted to add my two cents on my blog to articulate my thoughts. I’m willingly taking time out of my precious Saturday to perform some emotional labor right now. For context, I am addressing racial diversity. In this writing, I’m speaking to two groups: white people and people in positions of authority. Within these two fields, more often than not these two groups are one in the same but I will acknowledge those who may be “of color” with power. Simply my call to these groups is this: retention is key. In order to retain a diverse staff y’all have to understand what your white colleagues do to people of color on a daily basis.
As a black woman and, more broadly, a person of color, I have spent a significant portion of my career as “the only.” The only spot of color in an otherwise sea of white. To be in archives and a person of color is to walk a lonely road for much of it. To be a woman of color on top of that is to feel as if you stay fighting. Fighting to be heard. Fighting to be respected. Fighting to have a seat at the table especially when what is being decided directly impacts you. Fighting to be included.
White people, y’all are some cliche-y people. The conversation that quiets when you enter the room. The unfinished greeting where you ask how I am but one foot is already out there door before the response forms in my mouth. It is present in the way you talk to me, the inflection, the propensity to use slang, or, even in jest, mimic my Southern twang. It is to be hypervisible and yet rendered invisible. To see those furtive glances cast my way prior to a meeting or a work-related event but you do not engage with me on any level. It is how you talk to me versus how you talk to everyone else, especially other white people. How you tell me to do something versus asking me. How you see me struggling to lift a box off a shelf or wheel a cart of records through a door but you don’t help. At all. But then rush to help another (white) colleague.
The tiny, nuanced everyday reminders that I am different.
There are times that difference are live and in technicolor. I am shut down and out. I’m assumed guilty before I even knew I was on trial as you watch me scramble to find the evidence to prove my innocence. And if I am found not guilty, there is no apology. Just a shrug and you move on but I have been rattled. Shaken to my spirit.
And yet my difference is what you need. What you like to put on display when that class of black and brown students come in. You see the power that my skin has on other black and brown people. How their tense shoulders drop, a smile appears, and that flash of relaxation on their face. You weaponize it. Use it to lure them in so you can add to your stats or take your staged photos for promotional purposes. You want the image of diversity without doing the work.
But, you do not welcome them to stay. You tolerate them but then centuries of ingrained white supremacy shows up because that train is never late. Suddenly, they are too annoying, too loud, too incompetent to do whatever it is you want them to do. And woe to them if they don’t listen to you and react how you want them too. Because, surprise, they are people with their own thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
When the myriad of daily cuts begin to scar my beautiful black skin,
When my mind is too tired to deal with the shit of being treated different,
When the anger has become too much to bear,
When the thought of the disrespect keeps me up at night,
When the realization that my presence won’t change you,
When I remember my worth and say fuck it,
My absence and work ethic will be missed but you won’t learn from it. You won’t do a post-mortem or exit interview to determine why I’m leaving. Nine times out of ten, you’ll hire someone white who feels like a better fit even if you….can’t put your finger on why that is. (side eye) If you’re really lucky, you’ll hire another one of us. But if that potential applicant comes to me, seeking to know what I know, I will tell them the truth. Because what you fail to realize in all of this is that we see your institution (its policies and some of its racist staff) for what it is and we’ll sound the alarm like a canary in a mine shaft to other people of color. To paraphrase Beyonce, I will "ring the alarm. I been through this too long and I'll be damned" if I let you do that shit to another person of color.
You can improve getting us in the door but there is much work still to be done to get us to stay.