Librotraficante: An Alternative Spring Break

If you’re looking for something to do this March (I’m looking at you, students!), but you don’t have a passport, join the Librotraficante smuggling banned books across the great American Southwest:

 

Or you can visit the press release here. The tour starts next Tuesday in Houston, TX.

I’ve had some conversations with people, about the choice of linking the language of banned books to undocumented immigrants (traficante, wetbooks) as well as the abolition movement (underground libraries). To be sure, its a political choice, saying that any attempt to erase a history is analogous to trying to declare a class of people illegal. To be sure, fans of immigration reform may be less sympathetic to the cause or feel offended by the vocabulary. But did you watch the video? If you can’t have fun in the face of hard times, you may not ever have fun.

Seriously though, illegalizing a people and illegalizing the history of a people. Both are acts of silencing and erasure. Both represent one group of people telling another “We are in charge. You play by our rules, or you don’t play at all.” And the rules they want are a little bit uneven.

Diversity. Happy.

My grad program is only two years long. In many cases, we peripherally touch on very important topics because… I don’t know why. Maybe because the curriculum makers think cases like serving communities in crisis will only apply to a few of us, or they think ethical cases are best left to our own gleaming moral compasses. Who knows. This post is supposed to be positive!

 

Today, one of my classes that focuses on finding things for people did a one hour whirlwind lecture on how to serve diverse populations. In public library settings, this usually means a) age, b) physical handicaps, and c) different languages, but it’s understood to be interpreted widely. In that hour though, the class touched on:

relative privilege

the problems with color blindness

Paulo Friere

microagressions

 

Not the most in depth, to be sure, but pretty cool, no?

 

A Different Kind of Poor

Today, one of the slides in one of my classes said:

When segment(s) of (a) population seems permanently ignorant, their state is labeled “info poverty” & has 3 characteristics:

1. Low level of processing skills, with reading, language, hearing, or eyesight deficiencies

2. Social isolation in subculture, leading to unawareness of info known to larger public, reliance upon rumor and folklore, & dependence on entertainment-oriented media like TV (italics mine)

3. Tendency to feel ftalistic/helpless, which in turn reduces likelihood of active info seeking

My question to the professor was this: does this second category suggest that reliance on traditional cultural knowledge systems, like traditional medicine, is actually a “reliance upon rumor and folklore” that results in permanent ignorance? No one, professor included, liked the implications of that statement. Suddenly, it seemed to smack of cultural supremacy. Some of the suggestions floated by my classmates included:

“This statement could imply correlation, not causation. These communities could be info poor for other reasons, too, but these factors could help us identify communities.”

“If a culture relies on oral tradition, not that there’s anything wrong with that, its just, information probably doesn’t spread as easily. They’re at risk for losing that knowledge.”

“We live in an able-ist society. Information isn’t made as widely available to people with handicaps like deafness.”

“Nope. This statement isn’t recognizing other forms of knowledge. In my culture, in my family, survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide, we knew about the Khmer Rouge through ghost stories. My uncle(?) was shot in the knee during the genocide. When my brother had growing pains in his knee, we associated it with my uncle, and history.”

It’s so good to have someone to back up the respect for multi-cultural knowledge!

Social insulation, having a space space with a critical mass of people who share your culture, is an important part of cultural preservation. And I would venture to say that what this author attributed to rumor and folklore, can easily and detrimentally encompass alternative forms of knowledge.

People thought acupuncture was crazy for a long, long time, no? They didn’t think that Chinese people, in five thousand years of history, hadn’t figured out medicine. Western doctors called it superstition because they didn’t recognize it. I would dare to say, however, it was not the Chinese subculture that was info poor in that case, but the rest of the world that didn’t believe in acupuncture.

A New Outlook on Diversity

I admit, having lived my life near large communities of color, and having a fair number of Asian Americans in my elementary, high school, and undergrad university, I thought that the fight for straight up numbers diversity was over in most places. I thought that the US had moved on to the fight for meaningful representation. Isn’t that why some people are in favor of ending diversity measures like affirmative action?

It turns out that isn’t the case. Graduate school, at least for me, is a very white experience. My cohort is mainly white, with a few asian Americans, mainly east Asian, two Chican@/Latin@ Americans, and one African American who also identifies as mixed race. And my program is relatively diverse compared to some of the other programs I’ve seen.

Talking about meaningful diversity, It’s hard to talk about Asian American issues when my classmates are disinterested, uninformed, or both. It’s hard to do collaborative research with classmates who can’t differentiate Chinese and Japanese. And it’s downright crappy when people think that “immigrant” or “low income” serves as a keyword for all communities of color.

My school is largely professional. My classmates and I are going to be not just the policy makers but also the service professionals in libraries and information centers. How can a community expect culturally appropriate (in the broadest sense of the term) services without curriculum on or exposure to diverse communities?

East is a Matter of Perspective

In the olden days, when Europe was trying to figure out what a globe was, they decided to call one part of the earth the “Far East” and another part the “Near East”, presumably because the Near East was closer to Europe and for them, Europe was the middle of the universe (Christians had to be convinced that the earth revolved around the run, remember?) Since then, the Near East became the Middle East, and the Far East became East Asia? And maybe Southeast Asia? At one point, in the Western imagination, the Middle East was part of Asia. Asia Minor, as it were. Since then, they’ve rarely been counted as Asian. Some are Persian, some are Arab, some prefer to be called Phoenician, some have been counted as white at different times.

 

I don’t want to overstep my bounds, but I think it would be great if Arab/Iranian/Middle Eastern/Western Asian folks wanted to be Asian American. We’ve all been Orientalized, have large Muslim populations, and LOVE FOOD. Both are diverse populations, who, despite long, long, histories in the United States, are treated like foreigners.

 

The history, I’ve known, but the idea for this post came from the APIA Spoken Word and Poetry Summit, just like all my inspiration since going. There was a strong mix of Asian American folks, including Arab Americans. And it was so great! Sure, there was learning to be done, but it felt like expanding the community, not opening it up to strangers, the way that multicultural settings sometimes can.

Jesus and the Technicolored Dream Church

A few months ago, Time Magazine posted an article called “Religion and Race: Can Megachurches Bridge the Racial Divide?” It’s alright. Worth a read if you’re into background, because what I’m really going to talk about is the more in depth interview with the article’s author David Van Biema on Sojourner’s blog.

The article talks about racial diversity in American churches, which have been notoriously unintegrated in the past. One of the questions it raises is this: What does a real multicultural church look like? A multicultural organization needs more than a quota of different skin shades and cultures. Two things that the interview highlights are a diverse leadership team (the leadership should reflect the membership so that people feel like the leaders represent their voices) and a culture that reflects a multiracial membership (an organization isn’t really multicultural if it’s goal, intentionally or unintentionally, is to make everyone assimilate into a white culture).

The other thing that the article brings up, and that I wish that they had talked more about is this: Who wants multiculturalism and who needs it? All white environments are usually looked at as bad, like they’re saying, “We don’t like integration, we refuse to move forward into a multiracial society.” Whereas when a monocultural non-white group wants to say monoracial, it’s more like they’re saying “We like our own culture and we believe that this is the best way to preserve it.”

While being overly insular can make you miss out on great experiences with people unlike you in some ways (but often a lot like you in other ways), I believe that there is a place for monocultural organizations, especially when there is a lack of space for them to voice their opinions elsewhere. For instance, when talking about Asian American issues with Asian American youth, they are often unwilling to share the same things in a multicultural setting, or the non-Asian voices take over the conversation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a mainly Asian American group of people, when suddenly a non-Asian says something like “I wish you people could learn to love yourselves”, or “I really think that your parents shouldn’t be allowed to do things like that”.

What I consider less often is whether there is a space for explicitly white (not counting ethnic specific organizations here) organizations. The knee jerk response I often hear to this is “The entire world feels like a club for whites. Why do they need even more space?” For sure, white-only clubs in the past have been fueled by racism and ethno-supremacy (like the fight over school integration, or the Texas Rangers, or the Native Sons of California, or the KKK), but will there ever come a time when this idea is worth revisiting?

Bad Move for Diversity

I saw this on my way to work:

 

The quote “Diversity is not about how we differ. Diversity is about embracing one another’s uniqueness.” caught my eye. I think what they meant was  something like “Diversity isn’t about dividing ourselves according to difference. It’s about recognizing our differences and working together.” The actual quote doesn’t make a lot of sense. Aren’t differing and having unique qualities the same thing? Don’t you need to know how you differ to embrace those qualities?

 

Then I noticed that the quote was actually a quote, by Ola Joseph. I had never heard of him, so I looked him up. Turns out he’s a motivational speaker. Is he a new diversity guru I’ve never heard of?

 

The moral of the story is that wimpy posters like this, that don’t really say anything, make multiculturalism look bad. It makes all kinds of diversity look bad. Who would want to be associated with that?