Excerpted from: Shamika D. Dalton, Gail Mathapo, and Endia Sowers-Paige, Navigating Law Librarianship While Black: A Week in the Life of a Black Female Law Librarian, 110 Law Libr. J. 429 (Summer, 2018) (40 Footnotes) (Full Document)
The ideal work environment provides a sense of purpose and validation. Inevitably, however, unconscious or implicit biases permeate the workplace because we all have them. These biases can be based on race, age, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, physical disability, and other characteristics. Implicit bias in the workplace can “stymie diversity, recruiting and retention efforts, and unknowingly shape an organization's culture.” People of color, in particular, experience challenges as a result of racial microaggressions in the workplace.
Racial microaggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” Racial microaggressions may not raise an eyebrow right away, but they are harmful to the work environment. Due to their subtle nature, racial microaggressions can be “difficult to identify, quantify, and rectify.” For this reason, Derald Wing Sue and colleagues identified three forms of racial microaggressions: microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations.
Microassaults are “explicit racial derogation[s] characterized primarily by a verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, or purposeful discriminatory actions.” Microassaults are what one would consider “old-fashioned” racism. Microinsults, more subtle and frequently unknown to the perpetrator, are “communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person's racial heritage or identity.”
For example, when a [W]hite person says to a person of color, “Wow! You're so articulate,” he may intend this to be a compliment. However, the person of color this statement is directed toward may interpret it as a back-handed compliment ... [that] people of my race are stereotyped as unintelligent or inarticulate.
Microinvalidations are “communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of color.” Colorblindness, or “accusing a Black person of being racially hypersensitive instead of acknowledging” that racial biases exist, “denies the experiential reality of people of color who are treated differently because of their race.”
Racial microaggressions are not limited to human interactions; they can also be environmental. “[O]ne's racial identity can be minimized or made insignificant through the sheer exclusion of decorations or literature that represents various racial groups.” It can also be evident in the small representation of people of color in middle- and upper-level management positions in law librarianship. While these numbers have improved recently, the shortage of people of color in leadership positions remains, and for those in entry-level positions with aspirations to move up in the profession, this can be discouraging. It is important that we recognize all forms of racial microaggressions that exist in our organizations and in our profession.
Effects of Racial Microaggressions
Individuals who are confronted with their microaggressive acts often try to explain away their actions or accuse the victim of being overly sensitive. Victims may be told to “let it go,” “get over it,” or not waste their time addressing the acts. Because these acts are done unintentionally, people believe that the harm is minimal. However, overwhelming evidence supports that racial microaggressions have major consequences for people of color. Due to their cumulative nature, microaggressions
have been found to (1) contribute to a hostile and invalidating campus and work climate ... (2) devalue social group identities ... (3) lower work productivity ... (4) create physical health problems ... and (5) assail mental health issues due to stress, low self-esteem, and emotional turmoil.
For women of color, these effects are amplified as they have to endure both racial and gender microaggressions in the workplace.
Racial Microaggressions in Higher Education and Law Librarianship
Most colleges and universities strive to increase and promote racial diversity on their campuses. Despite these institutional efforts, faculty of color experience disturbing occurrences of racial microaggressions on campuses nationwide. Faculty of color, at predominately White institutions, are more likely to (1) experience being “the only one,” which leads to feelings of isolation; (2) lack mentors of color; (3) have their scholarship devalued or considered illegitimate; (4) experience elevated levels of stress; and (5) face a biased tenure and promotion process. The challenges and struggles of faculty of color are well documented in quantitative and qualitative research and personal narratives.
An increasing number of librarians of color are sharing their personal experiences dealing with racial microaggressions in the workplace. Ronald Wheeler was the first law librarian to introduce the concept to law librarianship. We want to “pick up the baton” and share our experiences, feelings, thoughts, and reactions to racial microaggressions as Black female law librarians. We tell our stories vicariously through a fictitious character named Monique Stevenson. While the accounts are based on actual events and interactions, we have altered the details to avoid identifying our colleagues and students. Our goal is not to humiliate or condemn anyone, but to give a glimpse into our unique challenges and provoke change in our profession's culture.
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We hope that sharing Monique's story will give you some insight into the challenges librarians of color encounter, inspire others to share their stories, offer validation for librarians of color who have had similar experiences, and start a dialogue about minimizing implicit bias in your institution. Awareness is an important first step in effectuating change, but it is even more important to move beyond awareness into actions that are specifically aimed at promoting inclusivity. Creating an inclusive work environment requires intentionality, and efforts to promote diversity should not be treated as one-time initiatives. If our law libraries aim to align with AALL's core values, which include a commitment to diversity, then our library culture, practices, and policies must include the strategic and ongoing evaluation of how they support workplace inclusion.
Shamika D. Dalton is Interim Associate Director and Professor of Legal Research, University of Florida Levin College of Law Lawton Chiles Legal Information Center, Gainesville, Florida.
Gail Mathapo is Reference Librarian and Professor of Legal Research, University of Florida Levin College of Law Lawton Chiles Legal Information Center, Gainesville, Florida.
Endia Sowers-Paige is Pre-Law Advisor, University of Georgia (Formerly Outreach and Research Services Librarian, University of Georgia School of Law, Alexander Campbell King Law Library, Athens, Georgia).