Speaking up within the work environment about issues around diversity and inclusivity is not something I’m comfortable doing. I don’t often speak at work about my experiences as a woman of colour. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that in my professional life I have more often than not avoided speaking about these issues, mostly because of a number negative experiences within different workplaces after which I decided that for my own mental wellbeing I did not want to encounter the often ignorant and sometimes downright racist remarks and behaviours I’ve come across.
In the past year, I’ve noticed an increase in the talks surrounding diversity and inclusivity within the library profession. But what’s often missing from these discussions is the voices of those who are actually affected by these issues. I’ve heard too many people talking about finding solutions but let me ask you this: how can you solve these issues if you don’t fully understand what the issues are in the first place? Before we can even start thinking about solutions, it’s important to recognise what the problem is. And that starts with listening. Listening to those who are affected and listening to the issues they’ve faced. This means letting them a have platform, a safe space within which they can honestly recount their experiences. These conversations can’t take place if there aren’t inclusionary environments within the profession for them.
I’ve worked in a number of places, both in and out of the library sector where I’ve had to put up with colleagues display behaviours that perpetuate the structural racism that is embedded so deeply across society. I’ve worked in places where all my white colleagues have referred to me in the third person on multiple occasions while I’ve been sat right next to them. To sit in professional meetings and be spoken about but not spoken with is not only rude but also isolating, demeaning and exclusionary. I’ve worked in an office where colleagues openly questioned and belittled the fact that another colleague of colour was having to take time off due to mental health issues related to work. These were members of staff who were in senior positions to me. A few years ago, I worked with a colleague (who again was in a senior position to me) with whom I made the mistake of mentioning that I was raised vegetarian because of my parent’s religious beliefs. After this she constantly asked if she could talk about beef and pork in front of me despite me continuously repeating that it didn’t bother me. This same colleague was amazed that my diet consisted mainly of Indian food and again she never failed to vocalise this whenever given the opportunity. When trying to explain to colleagues how frustrating this was, I was told I was “making too much of a thing of it”.
These are just some of the exclusionary behaviours I’ve experienced within the workplace. And the most frustrating thing about this is that these types of behaviour are often perceived as minor actions by people who don’t experience them. To the point where they don’t even notice this type of behaviour when it’s happening right in front of them. These are not environments within which you can safely share your experiences as a professional of colour. People trivialise it and even say that I’m being too sensitive. But when you’ve had people shout racist abuse at you in the street, telling you to go back to your country, calling you vile names and telling you be grateful for colonisation, the yes, race does become a sensitive issue!
When I’ve tried to highlight or even call out such behaviour, people get extremely uncomfortable and defensive. It seems like some people are happy to advocate for diversity until confronted with real situations that are arising right in front of them. There is still a huge amount of denial within the profession as to what constitutes as exclusionary practices and behaviours and about the subtleties of racist behaviour within the professional context.
We keep talking about how we want to make the workplace and profession more inclusive but how can we do this without understanding what excludes people in the first place? I’ve sat at various events and workshops where I’ve been talked over and ignored by white colleagues and peers. White colleagues and peers have literally turned their backs to me as they’ve shouted out about all the wonderful things they are doing for diversity. I’m tired of listening to white people talk at me about race issues and then expecting me to pat them on the back for speaking up on my behalf. Right now it feels like I’m sat on the fringes of the tables where these discussions are happening and in order to get a place at the table, I’m going to have to find a way to physically force myself a space. Often with these discussions, it feels as though only the loudest and most confident speakers stand a chance of being listened to. But if you’re only listening to the loudest voices, then that’s not inclusive.
Diversity and inclusivity are big issue within the profession. And I don’t have the answers as to how we can go about resolving these. But I do know that positive action starts with listening to those affected in order to begin understanding the problem before anything else.
Heena Karavadra: Academic Librarian at the University of Leicester.