Finding my way

frustration-and-perseverance-women-s-bjj-blog-dhdz7f-clipartSome of you may have wondered why there has been so little activity on this blog for a while; did something happen? Is it dead?

I guess the answers are yes, and no. I have been thinking — incubating — in terms of things that I have been reading in blogs and elsewhere, and trying to relate them to being a librarian and doing library research. I wanted to understand why I have been responding so strongly to trigger warnings.  I actually talked about this briefly in a first year women’s studies class in the summer where one of the topics being discussed was sexual violence. I mentioned that I had wanted to blog about Brock Turner but I felt too strongly about it to write. They indicated that I should write about it anyway.

Good point. Of course they are right, but I still needed to stop and think about why I was having such a strong reaction to this particular incident. Why this incident, why now? It may be not so much about the fact that it occurred AND he actually went to court, but moreso that it’s 2016 and we still have to explain in very simple terms that this kind of behaviour between human beings is more than “inappropriate”, it’s WRONG. It bugs me that we have to use laws to encourage respectful human behaviour. But when we do make these laws, we find that they can be bent or broken depending on who you are. Why is this? How did we get here?

Does it matter that you are white, from a well-to-do family, and a student at a prestigious university? Research shows that yes, yes it does. Furthermore, the fact that Turner’s father could be granted the space to intercede on his behalf to secure a more lenient sentence, and that a judge would actually accede to this persuasion, indicates how systemic whiteness is within the legal system.

White privilege is one aspect of sociolegal preference. Over the years blackness has become associated with shadowy, underdefined notions of criminality (for instance, Davis discusses the notion of the “black rapist” in Women, Race & Class). It has led to a “shoot first, ask questions later” form of policing, as in the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. This is not, however, a US-only problem, as the death of Abdirahman Abdi shows. Bringing this back to the Turner case, whether or not a rape has been committed, whether or not one is a rapist, and whether or not one should feel the full consequences of the law can at least in part be understood through whiteness, or more specifically, white privilege. What we are witnessing is that a particular aspect of sexual violence, “rape culture”, is emerging as a loaded term that has been wrapped up in a very unsavoury configuration of intersectionality.  Legal outcomes can support the notion that white guys committing rape aren’t as bad as black guys committing anything.

My silence has another dimension. Within the profession of librarianship, there has been much discussion as to how librarians help. Should they take sides in an issue? Should they show their biases when selecting resources for a collection, or providing research help? This collides directly with a critical feminist notion that one should engage with injustice wherever it is found, and work for positive change. How can one be both feminist and a librarian?

I have decided that one has to be the person one is, good or bad, and one must act in accordance with who that person is. So I won’t remain silent. I am writing to learn, to understand, to find a way to deal with the uncomfortable fact that as a white middle class Canadian with a good education and stable employment, I come from that part of society which is capable of oppressing others in ways that it cannot even recognize or comprehend. I am writing so that I can begin to “get it”, and so that I can begin to make change, even if it is only in a small way. I need to earn the right to be your librarian, every day, in spite of what I am or am not. But I don’t want to repeat what others have said. I will continue to do what I do: to show strategies that uncover what the research says on this topic. So here goes.

The first thing, always, is to decide on terms. Do we talk about whiteness, blackness, and “rape culture”? Or do we use the terms “sexual violence” and intersectionality? And in which search engines are we going to test drive these terms? Try them all and see which yield the best results.

We have a great ebook, entitled The construction of whiteness : an interdisciplinary analysis of race formation and the meaning of a White identity.  Others that may be of interest are:

If you look up “sexual violence” in the catalogue as a subject heading, you will find that this term is not used. It will, however, suggest “sex crimes” or “sexual abuse victims” as alternate terms.   Unfortunately, the term “intersectionality” is too new for there to be alternate terms. If you look for it as a keyword, you are led to resources where the subject headings are “critical theory”, “interdisciplinary research”, or “discrimination”. Hmmm… It’s not enough. Given that subject headings regulate your access to research because they are conceived by foreign body (the Library of Congress is an American government institution), is the absence of terms possibly related?  To fully uncover the nuances of the topic of intersectionality and sexual violence, you must construct careful advanced searches using both AND and OR.

When you search for academic resources, do keep in mind that you won’t find discourse about recent events in scholarly sources. What you may have to do is to analyze the contents of news articles instead. We have many subscriptions to newspapers and newspaper databases; see the News subject guide for help in choosing the right resources.

Similarly, it may be a while before the scholarly sources connect race and rape through the words “whiteness” and “rape culture”. Because these issues target social issues, I suggest that you start with Sociological Abstracts or Summon over Gender Studies Database. Use your terms, configure your searches, and analyze critically what the abstracts tell you.

But is this all?  Is there another way?  Recent feminist work involves looking for new ways of doing things and new voices to include in the discussion.  I wonder if restorative justice and indigenous ways of dealing with injustice may contribute constructively to this conversation.  For instance:

What should I say to wrap up this unusually long blog? My inability to write about this issue makes me think about how best to choose a topic for an essay. I used to advise that you choose an issue that sets you on fire, that is meaningful to you. Perhaps that needs to be moderated. If you are TOO emotionally involved, you may be unable to complete the assignment. Strong emotions can prevent you from taking a critical stand, and working toward a solution in a constructive way. Moderation may be the key: pass up that inflammatory topic and find one that captures your attention and makes you curious instead. Any topic that is worth pursuing will still be worth pursuing with time and perspective.

[image from Clipart Kid,]