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How White Neutrality Affects the Library and Information Sciences Profession, and What We Can Do to Change It

By Karna Southall

 Whiteness:   n.  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 well being 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.

III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.

  1. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.
  2. A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.
  3. 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.
http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill (Accessed September 29, 2017)