Exactly one week ago, a black Columbia University student was violently attacked by campus Public Safety officers on the first floor of Barnard College’s newly created Milstein Center for Teaching and Learning. Floors 1-5 constitute Barnard Library and Academic Information Services (BLAIS), and Barnard Library is where I’ve had the privilege of working since last August.
Now, I didn’t find out about this racist attack until Friday evening, after co-presenting on an ACRL panel titled “Beyond Race 101: Speculative Futuring for Equity.” I didn’t see the harrowing footage of Alexander McNabb being surrounded and pinned down by uniformed officers until it crossed my social media feeds. Yet there I was at this large, expensive conference, collectively organizing to imagine tangible steps we might take to create just futures for library workers of color. To outline how privileged colleagues (who have institutional clout to spare) might actively challenge micro/macroagressions, and systemic racism at large.
How could I dream up futures where resistance and collective action are embraced, but remain silent about the systemic -isms currently at play in the present, in my very place of work? I silently wondered about that this week, after returning to the office on Monday. I wondered about how to unpack the ways institutions value people of color in public-facing websites and brochures, but repeatedly fail to support us as we navigate primarily white institutions (PWIs) with legacies of oppression and exclusion. About the ways institutions love to celebrate diversity statistics as an achievement, and are eager to talk recruitment–but consistently ignore retention practices. Seems like getting us through the door is all that’s important. What we face when we get here, apparently, is of little concern to those who shape the fabric of our institutions at the administrative level.
I didn’t need to reflect on all this for long, because these thoughts are constantly swirling in my mind. So I can’t remain silent, and I don’t want to have these conversations in a vacuum. I want to do better and be better, like my colleague Vani Natarajan, who addressed this immediately, and who has tirelessly advocated for marginalized communities throughout her professional tenure; like my colleague Fobazi Ettarh, whose “bad librarianship” constantly inspires me (peep slide 20 of her presentation for the call-out); like my colleague & co-presenter Sofia Leung, who matriculated from Barnard College and also called this out immediately because she doesn’t play that, ever. And like my colleagues Miriam Neptune, Quincy Williams, and others who spoke up at teach-ins and discussions this week.
In the spirit of Emergent Strategy (a book that has forever changed my thinking on systems and collective impact), I want to embrace the “small is all” tennet. As someone who takes up space in the Milsten Center, & who actively helps shape how our community interacts with that space–from how we work in the Design Center, to programs that happen throughout the library–I have a responsibility to Alexander and others in my community, to call this shit out. And given what I spoke about at ACRL, I will not ask others to do work that I’m not also willing to do myself.
So let’s be real here:
The attack against Alexander was racist. It was emblematic of police brutality. It’s yet another example of how Barnard and Columbia students of color have to navigate systemic racism and state-sanctioned violence on the daily, even on campuses whose missions claim to stand against such things. And I’m livid about it. I’m angry and hurt and grasping for meaningful actions I can take. But before action comes explicitly naming injustice, which is what I want to do here. And I want to be clear–while we can and should tease apart the complexities and power dynamics present in institutional departments (for example, someone aptly pointed out that many of Barnard’s Public Safety officers are people of color, and their greeting/support is part of what’s made some faculty, staff, and students of color feel welcome on Barnard’s campus), what I can’t do is pretend that the violent act itself that Alexander experienced wasn’t racist. It was, and was particularly encouraged by a larger culture of institutionally sanctioned racism that’s at play campus-wide & country-wide.
I’m saying all this so that Alexander knows he’s not alone. So that he knows there are many in his corner, pushing back alongside him. I’m saying all this to amplify the work of Barnard’s student organizations and governing bodies, like the Student Government Association, who’ve risen up to collectively demand accountability and action via their statement. I’m amplifying the voices of students who’ve called for better transparency around campus ID policies, and who’ve pointed out the ways in which such policies have been unequally enforced (or strangely unenforced) during their years here.
I want to acknowledge things for what they are, because you don’t heal from trauma without stating it. Without claiming it openly, using language that clearly names & identifies that trauma.
Simply put, I stand with Alexander, and with all of my library colleagues who’ve called this incident out in one way or another. And I stand with the students of Barnard and Columbia who’ve worked continuously to make their voices heard.
(And in finality, let me be clear–this is not an “official” statement on behalf of Barnard College or Barnard Library. If you’d like to read the College’s existing statements, you can do so here, and here.)