libraries. social justice. critical race theory.
WRITTEN BY SOFIA
APRIL 15, 2019
WHITENESS AS COLLECTIONS
… One of the mind-blowing things she shared was this idea of how our library collections, because they are written mostly by straight white men, are a physical manifestation of white men ideas taking up all the space in our library stacks. Pause here and think about this.
If you don’t already know, “whiteness as property,” is a seminal Critical Race Theory (CRT) concept first introduced by Cheryl I. Harris in her 1993 Harvard Law Review article by the same name. She writes, “slavery as a system of property facilitated the merger of white identity and property” (p. 1721) and the formation of whiteness as property required the erasure of Native peoples. Basically, white people want to stay being white because of the privilege and protection whiteness affords under the law that they created. Harris also makes this really good point, “whiteness and property share a common premise — a conceptual nucleus — of a right to exclude” (1714). Bam! That really hits it on the head.
As I’m collaborating on this book about CRT in Library and Information Studies (LIS), I’ve been having lots of discussions on these topics with some really smart folx.
… Listening to her talk about her ideas connected some dots for me and I made the final jump to whiteness as property as collections.
Let me now try to connect all these dots in a coherent way. As others have written (Fobazi Ettarh, Todd Honma, Gina Schlessman-Tarango, etc.), libraries and librarians have a long history of keeping People of Color out. They continue to do so, which you can read more about here and from the others I mentioned above. Legal and societal standards revolve around whiteness and libraries are no different.
If you look at any United States library’s collection, especially those in higher education institutions, most of the collections (books, journals, archival papers, other media, etc.) are written by white dudes writing about white ideas, white things, or ideas, people, and things they stole from POC and then claimed as white property with all of the “rights to use and enjoyment of” that Harris describes in her article. When most of our collections filled with this so-called “knowledge,” it continues to validate only white voices and perspectives and erases the voices of people of color. Collections are representations of what librarians (or faculty) deem to be authoritative knowledge and as we know, this field and educational institutions, historically, and currently, have been sites of whiteness.
Library collections continue to promote and proliferate whiteness with their very existence and the fact that they are physically taking up space in our libraries. They are paid for using money that was usually ill-gotten and at the cost of black and brown lives. …
I still have some thinking to do around this topic, but curious to hear what others think. I’m less interested in hearing that you don’t buy it, so don’t bother with those types of comments.