Colorblindness, Microaggressions, and Racism: The Internal Effects Ignorance has on the Social Justice Movement in Libraries by Janette Ruiz

When examining the role of social justice in library science, a librarian must understand the social responsibility that is bestowed upon his or her role. Often, librarians and library workers with social privilege mistakenly act as though social justice only applies to community patrons. Unfortunately, social justice issues are not exclusively limited to the society that library science aims to educate. Librarians are often considered advocates for less privileged individuals, yet librarians forget to remain vigilant for one other cause closer to home: the obstacles endured by librarians of color within the field. These obstacles can come in the form of microaggressions from coworkers and/or patrons, added difficulty in achieving tenure, or simply a sense of loneliness resulting in lack of mentorship. As the new generation of library professionals enters into the field, it is our responsibility to recognize the signs of social injustice towards our peers and patrons, and to act against those injustices. Only with the support of all librarians can we move to secure a progressive path forward.

The first step in fighting for social injustice is for a librarian to first acknowledge their own privilege. The majority of the library science field are white women, and the abundance of privilege (unrealized or unsympathetic) can cause a general discomfort and awkwardness around the social justice topic. As Collins and Jun (2017) address in White out: Understanding white privilege and dominance in the modern age, white privilege is equal to a virus. “Whitefluenza” is as dangerous as explicit acts of racism in that the carrier is often unaware of the virus they are spread. Collins notes the “weaker strands of the virus are a key defender in maintaining White dominance. Inability to see the virus supports its survival and prevents inoculation in the form of recognition and consciousness” (p. 34).

Failure to recognize one’s privilege (whether accidental or deliberate) not only aids “explicit racism,” but also help to keep institutional racism in the library science field. Damasco and Hodges noted in “Tenure and promotion experiences of academic librarians of color,” a 2012 survey study, that 66.7% of minority academic librarians did not feel fairly evaluated by superiors and less than half indicated their opinions were openly valued in regards to decisions about their libraries (p. 296). Other minority librarians in this survey expressed discouragement from colleagues when presenting research projects focusing on social justice, leading Damasco and Hodges to conclude that librarians of color “might not have safe venues to share their opinions” (p. 300). The reluctance from other librarians to address racial issue may be found in the notion of “colorblindness” or “neutrality.” Cooke and Minarik’s “Linking LIS graduate study and social identity as a social justice issue: Preparing students for critically conscious practice” (2016) notes that some may choose to completely ignore race, or be colorblind, with the hope that racism will disappear if race is ignored (p. 185). Jensen’s “The Myth of the Neutral Professional” (2008) echoes the words of Horton and Tutu in stating the neutrality does not relieve one’s accountability for the hateful actions of others (p. 91). Regrettably, invoking claims to colorblindness or neutrality in situations when assistance is needed simply piles on the number of microaggressions against a person of color rather than providing relief to the racial issue.

A separate survey conducted in “Racial microaggressions in academic libraries: Results of a survey of minority and non-minority librarians,” Alabi (2015) surveyed 185 librarians, both minority and non-minority, about microaggressions and racism in the libraries. The survey not only recorded the number of racial grievances librarians of color experience, but also the response and observations of their non-minority counterparts. In addition to confirming that non-minority employees hold a larger amount of leadership positions, Alabi found that non-minority librarians observed or reported a significantly lower amount of microaggressions towards minority colleagues (p. 50). Additionally, Alabi observed:

Minority academic librarians are also more likely to perceived racial microaggressions directed toward colleagues. However, non-minority librarians are unlikely to report observing racial microaggressions. This suggests that the disconnect between perceptions of minority and non-minority librarians . . . persists. (p. 52)

An important question raised by Damasco, Hodges, and Alabi’s findings is whether a field that is predominately white and unsympathetic towards workers in the field can cater service to the diverse needs of a community?

As Morales, Knowles, and Bourg (2014) indicate in “Diversity, social justice, and the future of libraries,” librarians will refer back to the ALA Core Values for guidance. As librarians, our social responsibility is to uphold diversity, therefore “[s]ocial responsibility is likewise one of the core values of librarianship” (Morales et al., p. 439). Though the ALA is clear on their stance on diversity and a librarian’s position of social responsibility can be assumed from the ALA core values, a disconnect remains between a non-minority librarian’s support for the rights of minority patrons, but not for fellow librarians. According to Gustina and Guinnee’s “Why social justice in the library?” (2017), librarians around the country are becoming more vocal about social justice issues and the “radical inclusivity movement” noting, “privilege or lack thereof can directly impact [an individual’s] ability to access the services a library provides if the library doesn’t take purposeful action to design services” (pp. 52-53). Yet as Morales stresses, inclusivity in libraries must first begin with the employees:

“[L]ibrary leaders must also acknowledge the ways in which library practices frequently contribute to inequity, marginalization, and injustices; and commit to transforming our practices and standards in ways that leverage the power, expertise, and responsibility of academic librarians and libraries as forces for social justice” (Morales et al., 2014, p. 448).

Our task as the new generation of library professionals is to consider the topics that can often seem uncomfortable and act as a champion for social justice. In doing so, librarians of color and privileged librarians must work together to raise awareness and conversation about current our racial issues.


Alabi, J. (2015). Racial microaggressions in academic libraries: Results of a survey of minority and non-minority librarians. The Journal of academic librarianship, 41(1), 47-53. doi:10.1016/j.acalib.2014.10.008

Collins, C. S., & Jun, A. (2017). White out: Understanding white privilege and dominance in the modern age. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing Inc. New York.

Cooke, N. A., & Minarik, J. D. (2016). Linking LIS graduate study and social identity as a social justice issue: Preparing students for critically conscious practice. In B. Mehra & K. Rioux (Eds.), Progressive community action: critical theory and social justice in library and information science (pp. 181-214). Sacramento, CA: Library Juice Press.

Damasco, I. T., & Hodges, D. (2012). Tenure and promotion experiences of academic librarians of color. College & research libraries, 73(3), 279-301. doi:10.5860/crl-244

Gustina, M., & Guinnee, E. (2017). Why social justice in the library? Library Journal, 142(10), 52-55. Retrieved September 29, 2017.

Jensen, R. (2008). The Myth of the neutral professional. In A. Lewis (Ed.), Questioning library neutrality (pp. 89-96). Duluth, MN: Library juice press.

Morales, M., Knowles, E. C., & Bourg, C. (2014). Diversity, social justice, and the future of libraries. Libraries and the academy, 14(3), 439-451. Retrieved September 29, 2017.

The Inherent Value of Diversity in Librarianship by Rachel E. Brackenridge

“Diversity, in race, ethnicity, sexuality, age, social background, and more, will bring power to the libraries where balanced views and all kinds of possibilities are inevitable for successful research and teaching. Diversity is not a problem, but an asset for the institution.”

  • Azusa Tanaka, Why Diversity Matters: A Roundtable Discussion on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Librarianship. July 29, 2015.

The necessity for diversity within the field of librarianship is commonly attributed to the increasingly diverse user population it aims to serve. According to Downing, et al. (2007), “It would be wise for librarianship as a profession to focus on creating a next generation of leaders that reflect the population demographics it serves (p. 36).”

Indeed, users may feel more easily understood by library staff who speak the same languages, or are perceived to share the same cultural attributes. This connection between employee diversity and the attraction and retention of customers is well-established in the for-profit world (Kline, 2010), and is commonly referred to as the business case for diversity (Bendick, Egan, & Lanier, 2010).

As described by Bendick et al. (2010), the business case for diversity posits that, “Diverse employees bring differing life experiences, cultural backgrounds, and ways of thinking that will assist their employer in relating to, understanding, and meeting the needs of an increasingly broad range of customers” (p. 471). This, in turn, is thought to increase profitability, and in fact, there is evidence that diversity is positively associated with profitability (Herring, 2009).

Unfortunately, the business case for diversity treats the attraction of a diverse workforce as simply a means to an end. Managers who view employee diversity through this lens often assume what Bendick et al. (2010) describe as, “an automatic match between the average characteristics of customers in a market segment and the characteristics of an individual job candidate or employee based on a single demographic characteristic, such as race, that the individual shares with the segment” (p. 471). It is easy to imagine that minority employees may be tokenized under such a rationale. They may even be passed over for promotions if their value to the organization is so inextricably linked to their minority status and the perceived advantage that status offers within a given customer or user segment (Bendick et al., 2010).

The business case for diversity might be leaned upon so ubiquitously in historically homogenous industries and companies because it is more psychologically palatable for those in majority groups. According to Thomas, Plaut, and Tran (2014), “[it] may very well be a psychologically ‘safe’ rationale for Whites because the business case for diversity emphasizes benefits to profit and not issues of justice, fairness, or privilege” (p. 82). As suggested by this assertion, there are alternative motivations for increasing diversity which are more ethical and treat minorities more fairly (Van Dijk, Van Engen, & Paauwe, 2012), and it behooves librarians to pause in their quests to meet diversity-related benchmarks and consider the lessons that the private- sector is currently learning in this area.

If the business case for diversity is misguided, it is nevertheless a progression from diversity ideologies that fail to recognize cultural or ethnic variation altogether. Colorblind ideology stipulates that one is morally obliged to overlook differences between ethnicities, including skin color, because to acknowledge difference makes one prejudiced (Thomas et al., 2014). Unfortunately, this ideology effectively minimizes white privilege, and by refusing to recognize real differences between cultures, it stigmatizes those differences and establishes white or majority culture as the norm (Thomas et al., 2014).

On the other end of the ideology spectrum is multiculturalism (Thomas et al., 2014). A multicultural ideology embraces diversity and sees its value as inherent, rather than simply business- savvy or profitable. “Organizations applying the multicultural diversity ideology seek to capitalize on [diversity] and provide an environment where their employees have a stronger possibility of maximizing their potential and impacting the organization’s performance” (Thomas et al., 2014, p. 84).

In considering this, it should be clear that, in order to embrace a multicultural ideology in LIS, we must separate the motivation to increase diversity in the field from the commonly held assumption that doing so will attract users or improve staff interactions with users at the point of service. The assumption that minorities can speak on behalf of all of those who share some of their ethnic attributes does not account for intersectionality (Werbner et al., 2013), and maybe more importantly, excuses members of the majority from developing intercultural competence (Ritchie & Walker, 2007).

Increasing diversity will no doubt benefit the field of LIS and our ability to serve our communities in countless ways (Downing, et al., 2007), but gaining insight into users’ interests and needs should not be our main motivation for doing so, as this threatens to pigeonhole minority librarians and fails to acknowledge their abilities to contribute more generally in the workplace (Thomas et al., 2014).


Bendick, M., Lou Egan, M., & Lanier, L. (2010). The business case for diversity and the perverse practice of matching employees to customers. Personnel Review, 39(4), 468-486.

Downing, Alire, Cawthorne, Hall, Offord, Pitchford, . . . Jordan, Prof. Karen, Dr Camila, Jon, Tracie, Jerome, Veronda, Prof. Alexandra, Alysse A. E. D. J. (2007). Library leadership development: Institutional commitment, increasing underrepresented populations and impacting the information profession. 20-39.

Herring, C. (2009). Does diversity pay?: Race, gender, and the business case for diversity. American Sociological Review, 74(2), 208-224.

Kline, A. (2010). The business case for diversity. U.S. Banker, 120(5), 10-11.

Ritchie, A., & Walker, C. (2007). Continuing professional development: Pathways to leadership in the library and information world. (IFLA Publications).

Thomas, K., Plaut, V., & Tran, N. (2014). Diversity ideologies in organizations. (Series in applied psychology).

Van Dijk, H., Van Engen, M., & Paauwe, J. (2012). Reframing the Business Case for Diversity: A Values and Virtues Perspective. Journal of Business Ethics,111(1), 73-84.

Why Diversity Matters: A Roundtable Discussion on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Librarianship. (n.d.). Retrieved September 30, 2017, from

This article contains excerpts from: Brackenridge, R. E. (2017). Diversity in Library and Information Science: A Critical Review of the Literature. University of Denver. Unpublished.

How White Neutrality Affects the Library and Information Science Profession and What We Can Do to Change It by Karna Southall



A concept that problematizes white people as a racial category. It challenges the tendency of white people to view themselves as non-racial or race-neutral, identifies the privilege attached to whiteness, and sees it as a specific standpoint from which white people regard themselves and others.

-From the Oxford Dictionary of Social Work and Social Care

In the library profession, the commitment to intellectual freedom is undoubtable. We’re taught in our master’s program that one cannot be a librarian without the firm belief that you and everyone you know can seek out information, whatever that information might be. We discuss the right to read about homosexual relationships in children’s books, the appropriate way to assist patrons when they want to learn to draw nudes, and how to navigate around the CIA when they come knocking on your door asking for patron records. All of this is taught with the soaring rhetoric of eagles, education, and the commitment to non-bias access.

All of this is taught in the basis of whiteness.

The concept of free speech comes from the Enlightenment period, where upper-class educated white men philosophized that education and freedom would promote the wellbeing of all men. Our founding doctrines as stated in the American constitution are influenced from these musings. It is only in our modern day interpretation of these ideals to include people who are not white and not male. It cannot be denied that these principals are based on the idea of white neutrality (and because of this, white hierarchy) and not from the idealistic view of democratic freedom.  When viewing Robert Rauschenberg’s White Painting [3 Panel], 1951, we see this idea in the visual arts. Rauschenberg was originally responding to Clement Greenberg’s philosophy that the one difference in painting compared to other art mediums is the flatness of canvas. Rauschenberg then painted a canvas completely white to be neutral and flat, almost mocking the Greenberg’s critique. His painting became a sounding board for what was around the painting, reflecting the gallery’s lighting and attendee’s shadows. If we view this painting through the lens of whiteness, the idea that this painting can be neutral is problematic and physically impossible.

To develop a more just and solidarity seeking society, we must confront the notion that free speech and intellectual freedom are not without bias. Let’s examine this with an example. A current issue of the moment is free speech on college campuses. It is argued that all viewpoints, however we feel about them, should be represented on college campuses because college is the place to be challenged. These challenging situations are thought to expand the student’s mind and “the real harm is caused when students are not challenged” (Cohen, 2017). In our profession, when should we allow free speech policy to psychologically harm students? Is it within the right of information professionals to speak in defense of censorship? I argue that pursuing the principal of intellectual freedom without questioning the assumption of white neutrality is harmful to all students on campus. In our fight for intellectual freedom, we must remember the Black Caucus’s distinction between the First Amendment’s principals and practices: “The First Amendment pledges to protect freedom of expression but not to supply an audience.” Considering the harmful quality of these ‘Freedom of Speech’ advocates, it is within our professions best interest to act against neutrality and promote education that pursues the dismantling of these ideals. Hikido and Murray (2016) wrote “a crucial tenet of critical multiculturalism is making whiteness visible and accountable.”  As information professionals, it is a necessity to understand this distinction. From the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, it is stated that access to information should be unbiased. The focus of a library, and the librarians who run it, is to simply provide information without discriminating against the provider. Below are the six principals of the Bill of Rights:

  1. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
  2. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
  3. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
  4. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.
  5. A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.
  6. Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.

As the Bill of Rights for the United States is lofty in rhetoric and stance, so is the American Library’s Association Bill of Library Rights. We strive for the pursuit of information for all, for the enlightenment of all people, and for access to the masses. In practice, we fail at these ideals because of our engrained assumption of intellectual freedom. Jessica Charbeneau from the University of Michigan Department of Sociology writes “such privilege/oppression may not be the fault of specific white individuals, but that does not mean they are not responsible for it.” (2013). The failure within this Bill of Rights is the acknowledgement that no information provided can be neutral or that that provider is simply a guardian of truth. We can learn from other educational scholarship about the teaching practice of transforming whiteness from unspoken normality to challenged discourse.  To be an information professional should be to understand one’s implicit bias, the bias of the institution, and the bias of the society. In the recognition of these failures, we can find our strength as a profession to own our history and seek a progressive initiative to change these white neutralities. We must acknowledge that the idea of neutrality is impossible and change the policy to reflect this.


Charbeneau, J. (2013). White faculty transforming whiteness in the classroom through pedagogical practice. Race Ethnicity and Education, , 1-20. doi:10.1080/13613324.2013.831823

Cohen, A. (2017). Psychological Harm and Free Speech on Campus. Society, 54(4), 320-325. doi:10.1007/s12115-017-0145-6

Harris, J., & White, V. (2013). whiteness (1 ed. ed.) Oxford University Press.

Hikido, A., & Murray, S. B. (2016). Whitened Rainbows: How White College Students Protect Whiteness through Diversity Discourses. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 19(2), 389-411. doi:10.1080/13613324.2015.1025736

“Library Bill of Rights”, American Library Association, June 30, 2006. (Accessed September 29, 2017)