that SLJ cover

On the second day of Black History Month, School Library Journal posted a photo and a headline article highlighting white people, and edging into blackface territory. I archived the tweet, because to be honest, I’m not sure if they’ll continue to leave it up. It’s a bad take, but it’s so much more: a whole spiral into the ways in which white supremacy pervades the library profession.

Black History Month is a really bad time to focus a magazine article on why white people need diverse books. I mean, yeah, absolutely, we ALL need to read books that more accurately represent our world, which is not, and never has been, entirely white or able-bodied or middle class or whatever. Black History Month, which is generally only twenty-eight days, is categorically NOT the moment to launch into the importance of white kids reading about people of color.

Libraries and librarianship have this huge, giant, glaring race issue: the field is overwhelmingly white. Back in 2017, academic librarians were 71% white. Librarians overall are, according to a 2017 ALA study, about 87% white, while 2020 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics put us at 82% white. Ours is a field far whiter (and far more female) than our country, and it’s a problem. Fobazi Ettarah, in her excellent piece for In the Library With the Lead Pipe, discusses the ways in which white womanhood and librarianship have interacted with, and reinforced, coloniality, and the ways in which it still happens—which, I think, we can kinda see at play on that SLJ cover centering whiteness during Black History Month.

I’m going to hazard a guess that the SLJ cover came out of a place of pervasive white supremacist thought, the same thought that has given us hate-filled subject headings and collections that do not adequately represent our world. As an academic librarian, I affix something of a trigger warning on subject headings, telling my students that they need to be aware that the language used is often outdated, and painful, and may be dehumanizing. I’ve also been loosely part of coalitions fighting to change that language, but change comes painfully slow, and for now, I must still warn my students to prepare themselves.

Look, I’m a white woman, and no expert. I knew before this cover went live that white supremacy was our biggest single challenge, so I can’t say that this really changed anything for me there. Black History Month is a time for us to step back, to center someone other than ourselves and something other than our whiteness. Decentering ourselves and our racial and ethnic identities can be hard—antiracism IS hard. But it’s essential work, and it’s a never-ending process.

School Library Journal should know better, by now. We should all know better than this. And we—and our patrons—deserve better than this, too.

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