In 2018, Texas-based Latinx artist and literature scholar Yvette DeChavez wrote an editorial in the Los Angeles Times entitled “It's Time to Decolonize that Syllabus.” In her piece she posited that if academia continued to uphold works by white men as the pinnacle of literature, it would also continue to uphold white supremacy.
In her essay, DeChavez made a powerful point: when you mostly teach the works of white men, you perpetuate a falsehood that their voices matter most, and that their voices have shaped America. We shouldn't privilege white voices and Western values (heterosexuality, Christianity; maleness, whiteness etc.), DeChavez argued, as these become the standards by which we are educated and socialized. Rather, we should purposefully look for and prioritize “othered” voices, opinions, and perspectives and add them to our teaching and pedagogy, our bookshelves, and our professional practices.
“I envision a future where we can list the names of indigenous and person of color writers just as fast, if not faster, than white men,” DeChavez wrote. “Sure, Emerson had some great things to say—Nature blew my mind as a teenager. But have you read Leslie Marmon Silko, or LeeAnne Howe? How about Jesmyn Ward or Gloria Anzaldúa or Erika Wurth or Kiese Laymon or Tarfia Faizullah? They didn’t just blow my mind—they changed my life.”
An Ongoing Process
The idea of decolonizing has taken on particular importance in libraries in recent years, and has become especially important amid the current social and racial justice movements. But what does it mean to decolonize a library or a publishing house, and how does one go about it?
Decolonizing is not meant to exclude. When we talk about decolonizing a syllabus, or our libraries, publishing houses, or our professions, what we are talking about is decentering whiteness, and being more inclusive to voices of color and to voices that represent diverse perspectives.
Decolonizing is not a simple process. You can’t flip a switch and be done. Rather, it’s a process you will likely need to revisit frequently to make sure that you're keeping up with changes in your field or profession as well as keeping up with the broader changes in the world.
It is also personal. Each of us must do the work required to develop empathy, cultural competence, racial literacy, intellectual humility, and a culturally responsive practice. This requires each of us to engage in critical self-reflection, which is the investigation and contemplation of who you are you as a person and who are you as a professional and how reconciling these identities can influence your actions. This is something you need to know and understand in order to work toward decolonization.
Recognize too that the work toward equity and inclusion happens on multiple levels at once: on the micro level, through critical self-reflection; on the meso level, by making changes within our workplaces and professions; and on the macro level, by understanding what’s happening in our communities and in society at large.
The process of decolonization is also collaborative. In my teaching and research I tell a lot of stories and I ask my students to tell stories as well. We purposefully talk about racism and other hard topics. And together we engage in critical self-reflection. Our patrons, students, and clients are dealing with a lot in their lives, and it is important that we take the time to listen to them, to learn to regard people holistically, and to treat each other as human beings. Only then can we revise and re-envision our organizational cultures, including the policies at the very top of our organizations as well as our day-to-day practices.
A Simple Question
No question, the work of decolonization can be uncomfortable, and sometimes painful. It takes patience and persistence to develop the competence needed to have the required conversations. And to succeed, we must be adamant about consistently, appropriately incorporating diverse perspectives into our daily work and be mindful about communicating the backgrounds of the diverse people and cultures that enhance our perspective.
As librarians and publishers, we must have honest, direct conversations about anti-racism, equity, and inclusion, and acknowledge our roles as gatekeepers and in privileging Western norms. We can no longer privilege the “canon” or maintain the status quo. We must devote significant and substantive time to discussing the field’s diversity problems, our implicit biases, and the language we use. Specifically, we must reconsider how we think and speak about systemic racism and inequity and how that's baked into the infrastructure of our society.
The work is challenging—particularly acknowledging the roles we play implicitly and explicitly in maintaining the status quo of an inequitable society. But you don’t have to do the work alone. Why not bring in experts to aid in new learning and understanding? Whether it's a colleague, or a video, or a TED talk, hearing others tell their stories can help with the development of empathy and cultural humility.
Think, too, about a diversity audit for your organization. Find out exactly where you stand and acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses before deciding what changes need to be made. Implicit bias training for your search and hiring committees can help your organization create an environment that will be able to attract and more importantly retain diverse new hires.
And if you feel yourself getting overwhelmed, think about this simple question: Are you helping or are you hurting? Ultimately, that’s what this work is all about, helping everyone have the most equitable lives possible.
Nicole A. Cooke is the Augusta Baker Endowed Chair and an Associate Professor at the School of Library and Information Science, at the University of South Carolina. Her research and teaching interests include equity, diversity, inclusion, and social justice in librarianship, critical cultural information studies, human information behavior, and fake news consumption and resistance.