Reflections on Race and Racism

ALA affiliate and division leaders speak out

June 5, 2020

Reflections on Race and Racism

After an earth-shifting week that has brought into stark relief the experiences of racism and racial violence that many of us and our communities navigate every day as people of color, it is even more clear that the work of dismantling racism is overdue. It is overdue in our society, in library and information services, and at the American Library Association (ALA), which exists to ensure that libraries, learning, and information access are available to all.

Tracie D. Hall
Tracie D. Hall

Because the presence of racism, bias, and bigotry in any of our LIS institutions limits our reach and the possibility of realizing the full promise and potential of an equitably informed public, we must go beyond hashtags, statements, and committees and do the hands-on work needed to systemically uproot racism. This requires that we be willing to confront racism in our communities and in our own homes. We must get our own houses in order. At ALA that means our internal operations and decision making, as well as our external structure and engagement with membership, must bear out the goal of true racial equity and inclusion. To that end, I invited several ALA staffers and member leaders to reflect on this moment. You’ll find their responses below.

The future of libraries rests on the ability to stem racism and the divides it creates and exacerbates. ALA’s future, then, rests on its ability to guide the field in the building of institutions and policies that promote racial equity, confront racism, and fully recognize that the future of our nation rests in the fundamental truth that Black Lives Matter. Only then can we truly honor and atone the memory of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery—and the far too many names that follow theirs.

—Tracie D. Hall, executive director of the American Library Association

From Richard E. Ashby Jr., president of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA):

Richard E. Ashby Jr.
Richard E. Ashby Jr.

As a Black librarian, I know I have a calling and that I am not just a librarian. I realize my professional title has meaning. It means that I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors and have crossed barriers that many believed could never be crossed. I serve as a leader to the community at large, and especially to children. I am a proud African American and culture keeper. I realize society looks to me and to my colleagues for information and guidance to empower their lives. We stand together as professional librarians and children of the diaspora.

Today, I stand alongside fellow librarians from all over the world addressing the injustices plaguing our society. We have been held down by systemic racism far too long. We are sacrificed and assassinated daily. The senseless murders of countless Black men and women, with the most recent being George Floyd, will not be tolerated. We need unity now more than ever before. Mental, physical, and spiritual acumen is needed to address the aftermath of disease, violence, and rioting, as we prepare to open our libraries.

The time has come to galvanize our profession and our organizations for the betterment of our communities. The time has come for us to unify in accordance with the dreams and hopes of pioneers and contemporaries of this calling. I am a product of soldiers of equality: Dr. E. J. Josey was a soldier, Pura Belpré was a soldier, Loida Garcia-Febo is a soldier, Wanda Kay Brown is a soldier, Dr. Carla Hayden is a soldier, Kenneth Yamashita is a soldier, Julius C. Jefferson Jr. is a soldier, Dora Ho is a soldier, I am a soldier! We are all soldiers. We are fighting the good fight to ensure America stays true to its pledge, “With liberty and justice for all.”

From ALA President Wanda Kay Brown:

Wanda Kay Brown
Wanda Kay Brown

Representation matters. That’s what I keep coming back to as I grieve with the nation and mourn the deaths of George Floyd and countless other Black Americans. Would they still be alive if Black people were better represented in positions of power? If there was diversity in our legislatures and statehouses? If more Black voices were lifted up in publishing? If Black history—before enslavement and beyond the civil rights movement—was really taught in our schools? If the ranks of librarianship were more representative of our nation?

As a librarian, I always come back to the idea that library users need to see themselves reflected in the people who work there. What would be the impact if there were more Black faces in the libraries? In library leadership positions? As a Black woman, and someone who has benefited from the mentorship of other Black librarians, I believe redoubling our efforts to diversify our profession is necessary and urgent. Representation matters—on police forces, in hospitals, in government, in libraries. By supporting school persistence and engaging young people after and outside of school, I believe libraries can also play a role in stopping the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately impacts Black youth. We must employ the right folks and pay them equitably for the work they do—work that is instrumental to a community’s ability to thrive and advance together. Our communities benefit greatly when our health care, education, and police professionals are people who have love and genuine care for the people of the community first and, secondly but equally, love for the work they do.

Having librarians committed to social justice who come from the communities they serve would be a big step forward. It won’t bring back any of those who we’ve tragically lost, but it might begin the process of healing and move us toward justice.

From Tammy Dillard-Steels, executive director of the Young Adult Library Services Association:

Tammy Dillard-Steels
Tammy Dillard-Steels

I want to say that I am shocked by the live broadcast of the killing of George Floyd, and all of the events that have led to civil unrest, but I am not.

I am frustrated. I am frustrated by the plague of racism in the US, which leads to injustice. I am frustrated with the actions of the police toward African Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as well as countless others in America. I am frustrated as a Black woman, who is three times as likely to contract and die from COVID-19. All I can think is, “Wow, even this virus is targeting African Americans.” I am frustrated with racism and the white supremacy that has been infectiously spreading for hundreds of years. Yet when we encounter or fight against racism, we are counteracted faster than any response to a viral disease that has killed more than 100,000 Americans in less than four months.

I am frustrated that I have to have a campaign, Black Lives Matter, to convince the world that I am just as human as the next person. I am frustrated that the young people who want to make a difference have no clear leadership to help them navigate and make sustainable change.

As the executive director of the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), I want to contribute to the lives of young adults by infusing equity, diversity, and inclusion into all of our programs, products, and services. I stand with the young adults fighting for their rights for true freedom and equality. They need resources and support, and I want to contribute to the changes they are bringing to their communities.

YALSA is making a short-term strategic plan to serve our members, so that they are stronger together during this time of unrest. YALSA wants to empower our youth by offering virtual opportunities that create partnerships with communities to advocate for youth services. This will happen as we foster better communication with our members and learn their needs, so that they are successful in their endeavors and the next generation is not as frustrated as I am.

From Kenny Garcia, president of Reforma: the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking:

Kenny Garcia
Kenny Garcia

As we live through another day of protests and rebellions, I’m having trouble reflecting on how we can act against racism and what work we need to do within a library association and profession. As we say their names—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Jamel Floyd—it will not bring these people back, it will not stop police brutality, it will not stop state violence, it will not stop them from being murdered, it will not stop white supremacy. We need to move beyond statements and do the work to be actively antiracist at a personal level, build with one another to be accomplices in our day-to-day lives, and work collectively to transform policies and procedures at our workplaces and library associations.

This work does not end after the protests end. This work does not end with initial reforms. This work must continue until it transforms the current missions and visions held by our communities, our profession, and our associations into missions and visions that center, promote, and value our community members and library professionals who are black, indigenous, and other people of color.

This work also needs to be done within Latinx communities, regarding how we are discussing and dealing with antiblackness as well as the ways in which blackness intersects with gender, class, sexuality, and religiosity. I believe it is something we can accomplish, and I’m heartened by the changes that have already taken shape since the protests and rebellions started. We need to keep pushing to ensure that we address racism at the systemic level and continue to hope that we can all work together to make sure this happens.

From George Gottschalk, president of the American Indian Library Association (AILA):

George Gottschalk
George Gottschalk

In the wake of the senseless and tragic death of George Floyd, perhaps it is time to be more selfish.

Why would this be a time for selfishness? Morality should make a compelling case to end racism and discrimination. Respect for the fundamental dignity for any life should be to end racism and discrimination.

So far, these have not been enough. Maybe what we need is more selfishness.

If we were all more selfish, we would want the economic benefits of a society that empowers every life and every voice. If we were all more selfish, we would want the increased advancements that empowered people and communities can achieve.

There is something different about the death of George Floyd. What is it? What is different is that those of us who embrace the dignity of every life understand that we have failed thus far.

We have failed to explain that no person, no community should be asked to justify their very existence. We have failed to explain the dignity of each and every life.

So, let’s try being selfish. Whether you want more money, more power, more safety—whatever you want more of, a society that does not burn resources on division will give you more.

Let us find out how much more of everything we will all have if we spend more time being selfish and less time trying to marginalize those whom we have chosen to “other.” Let’s find out how much more selfishness-directed creation can achieve than other-directed destruction.

Let’s try being selfish enough together that we manage to create a better society as an unanticipated benefit.

Thank you for your sacrifice and blessings, George Floyd. Thank you and all others who have had to die so we can all know that Black Lives Matter.

From Amber Hayes, outreach and communications program officer in the Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services:

Amber Hayes
Amber Hayes

The idea of racism has always been coupled with extreme violence, which we have deemed Very Bad. But even then, the idea persists that a Black person must have done something to receive that sort of treatment. A young Black boy walking in a gated community wearing a hoodie was most likely up to no good—that’s why he was targeted. Black people are always responsible for proving their humanity and worth to a white society.

Even on a smaller scale, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) experience racism daily. From patrons specifically requesting to have the white library worker assist them, to security targeting Black students at a campus library, Black people are always expected to prove why they deserve to exist in a space.

As an association, we can influence the profession and ensure that BIPOC voices are heard. This is a time for ALA to reaffirm its commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion; make space for BIPOC library workers at the table; and critically examine why so many leave the profession or report low morale. We must all work collectively on identifying, challenging, and changing the values, structures, and behaviors that perpetuate systemic racism.

We can provide more leadership opportunities for BIPOC, and more opportunities for BIPOC to become librarians, so that their patrons can see someone who looks like them. We can take a stand to aggressively combat racism through both actions and words. We can educate white library workers so that the emotional burden does not fall on their BIPOC colleagues. We can examine the ways in which library policies and actions contribute to systemic racism. We can hold each other accountable, and we can move this association to a place where all library workers feel that they belong, they have a voice, and they are a part of an association that reflects the profession they want to see.

From Mary Keeling, president of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL):

Mary Keeling
Mary Keeling

I am the same age as Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to attend an all-white school in the South. When I entered 1st grade in my own neighborhood school, I knew that I belonged. I did not need an escort of four federal marshals to protect me.

Much has changed. Yet challenges remain.

How do school librarians lead equity, diversity, and inclusion? We read and provide access to the stories of all people, create welcoming spaces that validate all learners and their cultures, and use instructional strategies to engage all learners in academic conversation. To do this effectively we must recognize that systemic racism is a real barrier experienced by many of our colleagues, neighbors, and students, and we must strive to become culturally competent.

One of the Shared Foundations of the AASL National School Library Standards, “Include,” describes our commitment to inclusiveness and respect for diversity. This shared foundation calls us to develop our own cultural competence so we can engage in difficult conversations and recognize and oppose oppression. Through cultivating the ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures, we can lead learners to value diversity, engage in informed debate, and embrace friendships with peers from other backgrounds. Each of us must strive to stretch beyond our own personal comfort zones to create a future free of racial oppression.

From Bill Ladewski, executive director of the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA):

Bill Ladewski
Bill Ladewski

Racist actions and influence in our civilian police forces must be addressed. Police brutality against any person that is not addressed and punished is a reflection of us and is our failure. Black and brown people have disproportionately suffered from these abuses of authority. Correcting this will require that we acknowledge the problem: that unacceptable and unchecked policing exists and we must fight to change it.

I have been asked recently when things will get back to “normal.” Normal for who? This discomfort and uncertainty should stay with us until we are motivated to act. Those unwilling or unable to acknowledge the sin of racism in this country and its influence on our institutions will likely find normal soon. The rest of us must make it our life’s work to ensure equity and fairness for all is established and maintained, so that the hateful forces within our society do not ultimately destroy us.

From Alanna Aiko Moore, president of the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA):

Alanna Aiko Moore
Alanna Aiko Moore

Another Black death hits the news and non-Black folk express outrage at the overt violence of the police. Seeing disbelief and anger on social media, what is often missing is a commitment to take action. To pledge to do painful self-reflection, learn history, and to work for justice for the long haul—not just for this moment in time.

As members of the Asian and Asian Pacific American community we have a responsibility to address anti-Blackness in our own communities, which may mean having difficult and uncomfortable conversations with our family members. White supremacy has historically pitted Asian communities against Black communities as a way to maintain control and power. We need to follow the example of Asian activists who organized with and supported Black activists. We must unequivocally support the right to protest without fear of a violent police response. We must listen to Black voices, donate to Black causes, and follow Black-led organizations and leaders.

White supremacy is insidious and multifaceted. While Black people are dying at the hands of police, migrant children are housed in cages, anti-Asian scapegoating and harassment are on the rise, trans folks of color are being murdered, and indigenous peoples fight for their land and resources.

Within our library organizations, we must interrupt the silent and pervasive culture of white supremacy. We must acknowledge the white, segregationist history of libraries; the culture of exclusion; and the persistent racial inequality and commit to doing better. We must confront our discomfort with talking about race and we must take action.

I stand with Black people everywhere demanding justice. I believe more than ever in the power of building bridges, in the capacity for a broad cross-racial movement based on true solidarity, in an intersectional analysis, and in centering the voices and demands of those suffering the most oppression. As a queer, cisgender, mixed-race Asian American woman, I pledge to fight the systemic, institutionalized racism and unchecked violence that’s led to the countless murders of Black people in our country. I commit to addressing anti-Blackness both inside and outside of my community and to support and love our Black and Blasian siblings. I promise to use my skills, power, and privilege to dismantle oppressive systems in our library institutions and the wider community.

Don’t let your outrage fade with the next news cycle.  What will you do to actively work for racial justice and to support Black people?

From Ninah Moore, training and events coordinator of the Association of Specialized, Government, and Cooperative Library Agencies (ASGCLA):

Ninah Moore
Ninah Moore

As I reflect on the civic unrest that has encompassed my country, state, city, and community, I find myself filled with worry and concern for the America my two black grandsons will grow up in.

I recall that in 1995, when my dad and brothers drove to Washington, D.C., to participate in the Million Man March, they were stopped and questioned by police. I think of my husband as a black man working in law enforcement, and the fine line he must walk. I think of my son who had just graduated from the University of Missouri before the 2015 protests on race relations came to campus and was living near Ferguson during the protests after the killing of Michael Brown in 2014.

Today I also think of how my dad and mother marched in the 1960s with Dr. King for racial equality and fair education and housing for black and brown people. They marched against police brutality and for those disenfranchised by systemic and institutionalized racism, and 50-plus years later we are still marching and fighting against these same societal ills.

I think of how, as the daughter, wife, sister, mother, and grandmother of black males, I fear for the target that is on their backs. While a lot of these battles need to be fought on a national level, we have the power to effect change in our communities by getting or staying involved. As a member of the board for the South Deering Manor (Ill.) Community Association, I remain committed to doing “something simple that will have a positive impact on my block,” in the words of Jahmal Cole, founder of My Block, My Hood, My City.

From Jeannette Smithee, interim executive director of ASGCLA:

Jeannette Smithee
Jeannette Smithee

Though I do not experience the isolation of racism firsthand, I cannot ignore the inequalities, injustice, and constant pressure of societal racism that is a daily reality for people of color. I try to understand the reasons behind images, including the horrific video of George Floyd’s death, that appear daily in the media. Awareness of racism has not always been part of my world. I came up in a different time and place—the segregated South. Awareness has come gradually with years of conscious learning, observing, listening, and yes, reading. And still the awareness of the sting of discrimination and the devaluation of fellow human beings is a sadness I process in my mind rather than my heart.

As a protected white person, I have not experienced the hurt and anger that is carried (and often buried) in colleagues and neighbors of color. Even as we communicate on professional or neutral topics, there is a layer of protective reticence. I know there is more to say and feel, but I have not yet earned the trust to share these feelings from the heart. At this stage of my life, the next steps to break down racism are probably small and personal, beginning with truly listening and trusting what colleagues and neighbors have to say.

These words are not meant as an apology or an excuse. Rather they are an admission of my shortcomings, my journey, and my hope to make a difference one person at a time.

From Shuntai Sykes, membership and programs specialist for RUSA and ASGCLA:

Shuntai Sykes
Shuntai Sykes


Three words that are painful to hear, see, and feel. As a black woman with a black son and a black grandson, hearing George Floyd say those words was horrific. When he asked for his mother, it was gut-wrenching. I cried because at that moment George Floyd was my son. He was killed by the hands of another human being who felt his life did not matter—a human being who displayed such painful hate.

I have seen and known all too well what racism looks like. Whether it is institutional, systemic, or blatant, it exists. We can no longer sit and pretend that it does not.

We are living in a time of serious political, civil, and social unrest. We are existing in a socioeconomic panic. We are even still coping with a pandemic. My heart is heavy, but unfortunately we are left with no other recourse. I never support criminal acts to make a statement, but I understand there is anger and built-up self-hatred from more than 400 years of oppression. WE ARE ANGRY, UPSET, BROKEN AND JUST TIRED!

Black people have a knee on our necks and haven’t been able to breathe for 400 years. But this is just one battle. We won’t solve 400 years of oppression in a day, but it is my prayer that individually and collectively we can work to establish equal and equitable peace. SO WE ALL CAN BREATHE!

From Kenneth A. Yamashita, president of the board of directors of the Joint Council of Librarians of Color:

Kenneth A. Yamashita
Kenneth A. Yamashita

As one of the last babies born in the Topaz, Utah, concentration camp on September 11, 1945, I stand in solidarity with BCALA in condemning increased violence and racism toward Black Americans and people of color.

My parents and 18-month-old baby sister were forcibly removed from their Berkeley, California, home, detained in a horse stall at a racetrack, and incarcerated in a concentration camp in the Utah desert from April 1942 to October 1945. This was the result of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, but was due in large measure to the historic anti-Asian racism that prevailed predominantly on the West Coast of the US, which was heightened to hysteria after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

My family—parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—all suffered extreme racism, such as detention and incarceration without due process, solely based on our Japanese ethnicity and Asian race. Even the two-thirds of American-born citizens of Japanese ancestry out of the 120,000 people who were incarcerated were stripped of their Constitutional civil rights.

This experience has informed my career as a librarian in providing library services to communities of color, specifically unserved and underserved communities in general. It has also made me more attuned to racist, discriminatory, and microaggressive speech, acts, and incidents, and to call them out whenever needed.

On behalf of the board of directors of the Joint Council of Librarians of Color, I would like to suggest ways to address racism in our profession, institutions, and at ALA:

  1. Interact with member and nonmember librarians of color and ALA/institutional staff of color.
  2. Actively listen to librarians and staff of color about their experiences and concerns.
  3. Hear, read, learn, understand, and appreciate the history of systemic racism, bigotry, and discrimination against Black Americans, Indigenous Peoples, and people/communities of color.
  4. Provide training in identifying racist, discriminatory, and microaggressive speech, actions, and incidents and calling them out for all ALA members and staff.
  5. Fill out Jane Elliott’s Commitment to Combat Racism questionnaire. Self-reflect and discuss responses.
  6. Provide training in cultural competency for all ALA members and staff.

From Hong Yao, president-elect of the Chinese American Librarians Association (CALA):

Hong Yao
Hong Yao

During a pandemic that forced the closure of our communities, our cities, and our country, we all suffered a great deal as more than 100,000 lives were lost, millions of jobs disappeared, and people’s financial hardship deepened. Even though the virus attacks people indiscriminately, minority communities were hit hardest because of chronic poverty, lack of access to health care and education, and other factors that are ultimately byproducts of pervasive racism in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. And then the brutal and senseless killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis last week enraged us and created an outcry to end racial injustice in any way, shape, or form!

As the president-elect of CALA, I am writing on behalf of our organization in condemning violence and racism toward Black people and all People of Color. It is time for us to unite behind one voice to end racial discrimination, which is toxic in our society and sickens and kills in a more devastating way than any virus on earth. It is time for us to call out racist behavior so that it doesn’t have the oxygen to grow. It is time for us to demand equal rights and equal access for everyone, especially those who have been marginalized in this society for too long.

As information professionals with Chinese backgrounds, we understand the feelings of despair many of our African-American colleagues are experiencing. We stand with you all! We will use what we are most familiar with—information—to arm ourselves in any form of activism we engage in. We will take any opportunity to educate our members, colleagues, public, and families and friends on equity, diversity, and inclusion. We will challenge our fellow Chinese not to stay silent when any racist behaviors are displayed, whether toward Black, Brown, or any other People of Color.

I am hopeful that when we all stand united, we will see progress toward the end of racism.

The Association for Library Service to Children opted to share the comments of its board of directors.


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ALA Executive Board Stands with BCALA

Statement condemns violence and racism toward black people and all people of color