Blogger Jamie Campbell Naidoo

Words Matter: Owning and Learning from Our Mistakes

By Jamie Campbell Naidoo, 2018-2019 ALSC President with Elisa Gall, ALSC Board Member

The ALSC Institute this past weekend was filled with excitement, passion, and lots of energy generated by just over 400 children’s librarians, youth services educators, children’s book creators, children’s literature researchers, and other professionals working to promote children’s literacy. The new ALSC logo was also unveiled at the Institute; check it out on the ALSC Facebook page.The conference materials for the Institute described the meeting as an intensive learning experience for attendees. With the theme of All Aboard!: Embracing Advocacy & Inclusion, many of the Big Ideas sessions, keynotes, and individual breakouts addressed equity, diversity, and inclusion work that is ongoing and needed in the field and within ALSC. Check out the ALSC Blog for #ALSC18 entries that highlight some of this exciting work.

Speakers also prompted attendees to think critically about ways that they can become advocates for children representing all types of culture backgrounds. Sometimes the process of learning and growing involves us making mistakes that cause pain to others. While a mistake is often an unintentional misstep as a result of a hurtful action/inaction or comment, we must own the impact our behaviors have on others and commit to doing better.  As an association dedicated to creating an inclusive space for all our members from backgrounds underrepresented in youth library service, ALSC is continually in the process of learning and growing. Our leadership and members will invariably make mistakes, but it is up to us to be prepared to listen to feedback and strive to improve.

Words Matter: Learning from Mistakes

My most recent mistake was during the opening Big Ideas session “A is for Advocacy” where I was part of a panel sharing a framework for transforming how we go about doing advocacy work when working with children in schools and libraries. My part of the panel was about thinking about the words you use when interacting with patrons as well as the lens that you use while developing services and programs for diverse populations. While sharing about the importance of centering booktalks to help make diverse books more inclusive, I used the word “pimping” to reference marketing your collection. This word, which might seem harmless to some, is rooted in misogyny and perpetuates rape culture. After our presentation was finished, an ALSC member asked me not to use that word because of the harm that it can cause. Immediately, I recalled my visit to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center the evening before for the opening reception of the Institute. In addition to having an amazing, interactive exhibition on slavery in the past, the Center also had a eye-opening exhibition on current slavery which includes sex-trafficking. By making light of the word “pimping,” I was making light of the plight of victims of modern day slavery and participating in everyday sexism – something that I would never want to do! I should not have used that word, and I am deeply sorry. I will strive to do better in the future when it comes to my words.

We bring our lived experiences and personal lens to the words we use. Sometimes we might use a word and not realize that it is loaded, perpetuates stereotypes, and supports systems of oppression. For instance, about a year ago, I read an article that listed “feisty” as a word that is applied disproportionately more towards women than men (as in almost always), as a way to describe someone getting out of line. “Feisty” is a word that I hadn’t thought about as having negative or gendered connotations. I have thought of it as meaning someone who is a proactive, driven person. Yet it is a term used only in reference to people or creatures that are considered inherently less powerful, and so its use to refer almost exclusively to women perpetuates harmful stereotypes about gender, power, and agency. Similarly, I distinctly remember in my senior year of high school when I was the only person in my class who didn’t think “macho” was an insult. I had heard it in the song Macho Man by the Village People and seen “macho men” in movies as a teen. For me, a skinny, small guy, a “macho” man was something I wanted to be – muscular, strong, etc. I was buying into the social trope of what a “man” looks like.  I wasn’t thinking of associated misogynistic stereotypes (disproportionately applied to Latinx males) of men full of machismo mistreating women.

We often don’t think about the harm a word or phrase can cause if we are not from a particular cultural group. As a member of the LGBTQAI+ community, I often hear well-meaning librarians and educators talk about the importance of fostering “tolerance” for people like me through inclusive programs and books. LGBTQAI+ individuals don’t want to be tolerated – they want to be included and accepted. Please don’t tell your lesbian tween or Rainbow Family that you tolerate them. Using the term “tolerate” means you don’t like something but are willing to “put up with” it.  You might “tolerate” eating your veggies because you know they’ll make you feel better. You may tolerate an early morning work commute to a fulfilling job. A person should not be “tolerated.” The word “tolerance” in its various forms has the potential to construct a wall between librarians and the populations they serve.

A Conversation about Diminishing Words

While most of us are very cognizant to not use words that are slurs aimed at a particular cultural group, we still may end up unintentionally doing so. What other words should you learn more about and consider avoiding? I asked ALSC Board Member Elisa Gall to join me in a brief conversation to explore a few offensive and problematic words heard in our profession.

Elisa Gall (EG): When you said “pimping” in that auditorium, that hurt was public. I am grateful for the ALSC member who spoke up, and that the feedback was public too (and now this conversation). How did it feel getting that input so directly?

Jamie Campbell Naidoo (JCN): I am appreciative to the ALSC member for calling me out. That took considerable courage – particularly in a public space. I was worried too that I had created a space that started the Institute off in an uncomfortable place for some people. I wanted to apologize but also didn’t want to take time and attention away from the important conversation about advocacy that the panel had just started. I felt it wasn’t fair to my colleagues on the panel. That is why I wanted to have the conversation here and make my apology in writing so it stands as a lasting record of saying I did something hurtful, I’m owning it, I’m sorry, and I will do better next time.  I was fortunate enough to meet up with the ALSC member later during the Institute and talk with her. I also had the chance to personally thank her for calling it to my attention, so I won’t continue to perpetuate the hurt in the future by using the word. It is so important to speak up! However speaking up has inherently different implications for persons within and outside the dominant group. There is little risk of a White, cisgender, heterosexual, non-disabled librarian speaking up at a conference as they are already in a position of power in the status quo of the profession. However, non-dominant librarians take a huge risk of being dismissed or having retaliation directed at them if they are perceived as disrupting the status quo. In addition, in this instance, there was also the power dynamic of myself a White male and President of the Association.

EG: Even if we don’t see or appreciate it in the moment, feedback is a gift. It is someone saying, “I care enough about you to push you to do better,” and “I care enough about the people being hurt to tell you this behavior is harmful.” After a session this week, I overheard a White conference attendee use the term “Oriental” to describe a person of Asian descent. On this post, Howard University Law Professor Frank H. Wu is quoted in talking about how that word is linked to stereotypes, and how for “many Asian Americans, it’s not just this term: It’s about much more…It’s about your legitimacy to be here.”  After I heard the word used, my heart started racing, and I did not know exactly what to say or do. I ultimately told her directly that that word is hurtful and that she should stop using it to describe her friend. That person might not have appreciated the feedback right then, but that discomfort was irrelevant. As two White women, my silence would have centered our comfort – it would also have signaled to the person “I am ok with you saying this.” Silence is a co-sign.

JCN: During the conference, I heard the word “tribe” used to mean a group of like-minded people. It has been used in kids books and in our field too. Can you explain how that word can be harmful?

EG: Debbie Reese recently wrote about this hurtful usage of “tribe” in a post at American Indians in Children’s Literature.  While individuals might each carry different definitions of this word, for non-Native people to use it when they are trying to casually say “I found my people” shows that Native people are not being thought of as part of that group.  If ALSC wants to help its members be inclusive to Native people, then we need to help non-Native members own the harm that this language causes and be thoughtful about the word choices used. It is true that mistakes are learning opportunities, but something I often try to remember is that while a person (when speaking from a position of power or with a connection to an oppressor group) can embrace those “learning opportunities,” these mistakes always come at the cost of others’ pain. After you’ve made a mistake, you can’t undo it;  but, you can work to push against patterns of aggression (like White fragility) and understand the impact of your actions. You can recognize the reality that those with more privilege get “more chances” to mess up without facing consequences. You can work to listen and respond when someone calls you in about something you’ve said or done. This is why I was especially disappointed at the end of the conference, when the authors of Baby Monkey, Private Eye (Brian Selznick and David Serlin) did not have a Q&A session. Images of anthropomorphic monkeys have been used in history and are still used today to dehumanize and justify mistreatment of Black people – Edi Campbell discussed this issue during the Institute session she presented with Sujei Lugo and Laura Jiménez: “Review is Critical: Developing Decolonial Book Evaluating Competencies.” To have no Q&A felt to me like the creators were saying: “We don’t want to hear you. We don’t want to engage with you.”

JCN: It was my understanding that a Q&A was not offered due to time constraints to allow for the closing announcements after the presentation, as well as the anticipated time to sign boxed sets and multiple copies of books. Brian and David graciously stayed for an extra 45 minutes after their session to finish signing and answer questions from participants in the autograph line. ALSC is appreciative of their extra time to accommodate everyone. I am certain that important conversations about Baby Monkey, Private Eye will continue.

Speaking of conversations, another term that I heard in several conversations was “parent.” As benign as it seems, the word “parent” can be hurtful to members of the LGBTQAI+ community. The word “parent” is often used to mean a child’s legal guardian. Depending on the state where they reside, some LGBTQAI+ individuals who have children may never be a “parent,” because of laws that prevent them from adopting the child of their spouse. The more inclusive term “caregiver” holds a similar intent as “parent” but doesn’t make certain segments of your library community feel excluded due to legal definitions.

EG: When people say “parents” instead of caregivers (something I heard a lot this weekend too) it also implies that some experiences and identities are “normal” and those that don’t match the majority are “other.” “Ladies and gentleman” is another phrase that might feel inclusive and respectful to some folks, but it reinforces a gender binary and leaves people out. These hurts might not seem like a big deal, but language matters–and tiny cuts add up. If you are the one getting feedback, it is also important that you take on this work and do not demand that the people you hurt do it for you.

At a session at the Institute this week, Edi Campbell was asked if a certain book was problematic. Her suggestion was to search the title and racism together online: “and you’ll get your answer.” You can work to educate yourself when critically evaluating books, and you can do this too when trying to understand your own behaviors and mistakes. You might not be able to promise that you won’t make more mistakes, but you can do things proactively (like take an Implicit Bias Test) to work on better understanding your own identities, privileges, and areas for growth so that you do everything possible to reduce the likelihood of it happening again at the expense of others.

JCN: Thanks Elisa for sharing conversations that you heard. As a predominantly White, cisgender, heterosexual, non-disabled profession we do have a lot to learn. We can collectively say “we don’t know what we don’t know,” but that is not an excuse for hurting someone and is not permission to commit microaggressions. ALSC is working to create opportunities to help all members think critically about these types of conversations. One such example is the 2018 Emerging Leader Project “Cultural Competency in Youth Librarianship,” which gives examples of microaggressions that people may perpetuate and how to respond when you’ve committed a microaggression. The report also provides suggestions that ALSC leadership is using to inform our own work.

Other ALSC Work Related to Word Choice   

As an organization committed to equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI), ALSC wants to get things right. Association leadership knows that we have a lot to learn and that at times we and our members will commit microaggressions that create spaces in our organization that are not welcoming or safe for everyone. As part of our learning, we are in the process of planning and developing cultural competence and humility training to help our members better understand how we as a profession and an association unintentionally construct spaces where everyone is not welcome and to discern ways to model inclusive practices in our daily work within the association and in our libraries.

This month, the ALSC Board and ALSC Staff will begin work auditing and updating ALSC policies and procedures to help ensure consistency across all our work and to modify the language and pronouns in our manuals, bylaws, etc. to make them more inclusive. On October 18th from 12-1 PM, ALSC will host our next Community Forum with the Library Service to Underserved Children and Their Caregivers Committee. The forum will provide opportunities for members to give feedback that the committee will use to update their 2015 toolkit for librarians and library workers. This might include suggestions for services, programs, and inclusive language, as well as outreach to populations not currently addressed in the toolkit such as homeless and refugee families.

We still have work to do as an association and hope our members will join us as we examine and learn how to be aware of the impact of the words we use.

Cultural Competencies Addressed: Commitment to Client Group (1); Professionalism & Professional Development (VII)

11 comments

  1. Monica Edinger

    Thank you so much for this post. There is much to mull over.

    I was glad you called out the problem with the word “tolerance” as it has always bothered me. I’m a longtime subscriber to the excellent publication Teaching Tolerance, but the word has always rankled for the reasons you point out.

    I was curious about the recommendation of using caregiver instead of parent. As a classroom teacher I work with all sorts of families and had thought it was okay to call those who identified as the parents of the children to just that whatever and however they gained that role. (I do address them collectively as “families” in my communications so as to include grandparents and others.) I’ve used caregiver for those paid to care — for children (here the terms used are nannies and babysitters) or elders (my parents both had caregivers including me). For instance, we are starting an oral history project and children often want to interview these individuals. Is there a different term we should be using? (As to the issue around doing so — that is different and we definitely discuss that. That these paid employees are placed in a difficult position by agreeing to do this. Some love it and some don’t. We definitely discuss this and try to help families consider this too. But that is a whole ‘nother issue.)

    Anyway, much to think about. Thanks again.

    1. Nina Lindsay

      In the public library world we’re trying to use the word “caregiver” to recognize that many children are truly “parented” by people who are not legally their parents. We are looking to elevate and recognize the position of the primary caregiver in children’s lives, as well as that of “informal caregivers” (aka Family Friends and Neighbors) who are key in children’s development. In a public library setting, as opposed to school, we don’t always know who we are working with when an adult comes in with a child….just that that adult is important.

      1. Monica Edinger

        How interesting. In my NYC independent school community the term caregiver is definitely for those involved in paid care for children and elders or doing the work for a family member themselves,. (I prefer to use caregiver as it feels more respectful than nanny or babysitter which is often used.) We have to be very careful about who is responsible legally for a child (this can be very complicated) and to the best of my knowledge address them as parents or families.

  2. Renee

    Great post. Adding this previous ALSC Blog post to the conversation as well: “Words Matter: https://www.alsc.ala.org/blog/2017/07/words-matter/“

  3. Debbie Reese

    I’m thinking (for the millionth time) about the word tribe, because Jeff Flake used “tribalism” this week to talk about how people in groups are tearing the country apart (his words, not mind). He and others who use “tribe” (or a variant of it) in this particular context may be saying that people are forming groups that are at odds with each other, and that they are behaving in uncivilized ways. The many ways in which that use of that word calls on derogatory stereotypes of Indigenous peoples around the world is blatant.

    I like the suggest of doing an Internet search of a book title and adding the word racist to the search to find information, but don’t stop there. Far too many people don’t see books as problematic. Before Edi started her critical look at Selznick’s book, there would not have been a link that took someone to a place where they could assess the book for racist content. If you’ve got a question about a book’s content, dig. A lot. And if you do an analysis yourself, share it, and use the word racist or racism in your review so that others can find your analysis.

    Last: over and over, news people (and others) use “off the reservation” to describe someone who is going against the wishes of this or that group. So many people use “low man on the totem pole” to refer to status. Both are problematic. “Circle the wagons” is another. “Bury the hatchet.” I’m keeping a page on these phrases. It is a slow in-progress page that I add to when I can. It is here:
    https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/p/all-you-do-is-complain.html

  4. Marge Loch-Wouters

    I very much appreciate this reflection about the way we often speak without thought and how this impacted our recent ALSC Institute. Thanks for addressing these issues quickly. We all learn more and can do better.

  5. Edith Campbell

    I do believe my suggestion was to specifically do a Google search for “Five Little Monkeys racism” or “Curious George racism”. I think many will be stunned by the results they get on these classic words. To add ‘racism’ to any text is not necessarily going to provide a simple way to find problematic texts. Using the tools provided at our session will. As Debbie stated, you have to dig deep. ” And if you do an analysis yourself, share it, and use the word racist or racism in your review so that others can find your analysis.” Do the work, see the omissions and misrepresentations that are based in race, gender, sexual orientation or disabilities. Be willing to do the work!

  6. Elisa Gall

    Thank you for sharing insights, clarifications, and links in these comments so that we can keep pushing ourselves to learn, and to do our own work of examining media and our behaviors critically.

  7. Emily Schneider

    Ms. Gall has not given any evidence of racism in “Baby Monkey.” There is indeed a history of using anthropomorphized monkeys as racist symbols, but Selznick and Serlin’s book doesn’t share any of the allusions or agendas of those books. Are you suggesting that monkeys have become so corrupted that no author should make them central to his or her story? If so, say that. What about other animals, which have sometimes also been employed to express abhorrent beliefs? “Baby Monkey” has sly humor, cultural allusions to film and literature, and the obvious connection between impish toddlers and the animal most visually like humans. If you want to discuss the book in contrast to others which have used this connection in an oppressive or destructive way, you should make that clear. Selznick’s work has always shown great sensitivity and inclusiveness. It is hard to see how your accusation, as it stands, advances an “important conversation.”

    1. Laura M. Jimenez, PhD

      Emily Schneider,
      Did you bother reading Edi Campbell’s work or did you just decide there isn’t racism because you don’t see it?
      The fact that monkeys – especially unnamed, male monkeys – have been and continue to be coded by readers and writers as Black or African or African American in our society is clear.
      The fact that the authors cherry picked the “funny” images of monkeys in pop culture in their presentations but ignored the racist overtones of those self same images is racist.
      The fact that the authors clearly erase Marian Anderson’s race – they go as far as to say that David was the model for this iconic African American singer.
      So, yes. There is ample evidence. Will you believe women of color who study images and representation in children’s literature?
      I will leave that up to you.

  8. Emily Schneider

    Of course I read Ms. Campbell’s work. Please note that she corrected her own errors in accusing the authors without basis of omitting important information about Anderson and Jemison.
    https://campbele.wordpress.com/2018/10/02/review-baby-monkey-private-eye/
    They did not “cherry pick” by writing a work wholly unrelated to other books which employ racist imagery. If you believe that any use of monkeys as stand-ins for toddlers in children’s books is wrong, then say so.

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