Let's Talk About Race at The Library

Libraries play a vital role in our society. As institutions of learning, the library collects, preserves, and shares knowledge. Libraries are also spaces of power and privilege that, throughout history, have hurt and oppressed Black lives. The Tougaloo Nine protested the segregation in Jackson, Mississippi and chose the whites-only public library for a read-in in 1961; Pearl Townsend resigned herself to suffering such indignities quietly and waited 73 years to get a library card. The library's painful legacy continues to affect our communities to this day.

In 2016, I was working as a branch manager of a public library. It was the summer of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille. Before the 2016 election, white people believed in a color-blind post- racial society. But as police brutality played out on social media feeds and TV news, white Americans could no longer ignore the elephant in the room. I saw families coming in angry, wondering what they should tell their children. At that same time, I was presenting two storytime sessions per week 10 months of the year to toddlers and preschoolers.

Library storytimes consist of songs, rhymes, and, of course, reading stories. When storytime ends, there is playtime or an activity to help build community and support healthy brain development. Early childhood is an incredible time of learning and growth, and it was a joy to support families in exploring the world together. I wondered how I could do a better job of incorporating anti-racism in my storytime work.

For years, the publishing industry has done a dismal job of publishing (and promoting) diverse books. Racism shows up in the public library by the lack of diversity reflected in many books for young readers. I felt a responsibility to make sure my storytime books reflected Black families, but I felt it was still not enough. I wanted families to know that we must give children the correct tools to process the world around them. There needed to be support for social-emotional intelligence around race and belonging. Caretakers needed to know how important it is to affirm Blackness and help disrupt conscious and unconscious biases.

Librarians can be a force to stop white supremacy culture and oppression; my profession has an amazing opportunity to model anti-racism. We can give caretakers tools to model inclusion and acceptance.

Libraries should be spaces helping children gain confidence to work, live, and commune alongside people who look different than themselves.

There are many challenges with addressing racism in white-dominant spaces such as the library profession, which is 88 percent white. I needed white librarians to talk about race to parents and young children, especially in the company of Blackness.

I created the first version of Let’s Talk About Race in Storytimes in fall 2016. I started small, letting the storytime audience know that “it was okay to point out race” in a picture book with a child. I featured authors of color and discussed their important contributions to children’s literature; it was a glorified book talk.

Discussing race in storytime sparked many side conversations with parents and caregivers. White people shared their fears related to talking about race; Black families asked me to provide more recommendations of Black authors. I spoke with library staff around Grand Rapids, Michigan, about incorporating this into all our storytimes.

Often people shared that they were afraid they would “do it wrong” or that they did not know what to say. This made me determined to find ways to change attitudes and behaviors around avoiding discussions of race. I released a toolkit for librarians and educators in June 2017 to provide support and encouragement for new children's programming in libraries. The toolkit centered around normalizing, organizing, and operationalizing talking about race and was informed by a 2017 paper published by the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) titled “Libraries Advancing Racial Equity, Case Studies from the Field.” Later that year, I received a job promotion which allowed me to take on the challenge of shaping my entire library system's storytimes in equity, diversity, and inclusion. The first step was to take my library colleagues on a journey through history around understanding cultural identity.

Cultural identity in children gives them a sense of belonging and helps with self-esteem. Representations of Black people in children’s literature have often depicted them as lazy or unfit; illustrations of Black people have often been limited to caricature, with an emphasis on our dark skin or big lips. We were seen as exotic prizes like Sarah Baartman or Ota Benja — who were displayed as “freaks” and anthropological exhibits for white audiences — existing at the whim of colonization.

The absence of positive or normalized depictions of Black culture, and the lack of diversity of authors and librarians, has prevented people of color from uplifting a shared history and overcoming fear of racism to empower and affirm our own identities.

The level of internalized racism that children contend with brings to mind the Brown vs. Board of Education Doll test — in which researchers assessed Black children's self-esteem through a test that showed they held a preference for white dolls and described them with positive characteristics. When my mom graduated high school in the late ‘60s, people were beginning to understand the detrimental effects that segregation had on African American kids. These impacts did not end with Brown vs. Board.

Nowadays, there are better developed tests that show the power of implicit or internalized bias. Harvard University, for example, developed Project Implicit where they have many studies that help us understand the preconceptions we carry from childhood, not only around race, but also related to other aspects of identity like age and gender. As librarians and educators, our willingness to address “difficult” subjects matter. Implicit racism is perpetuated when we pick “fun” reading topics without helping kids navigate how their identities intersect with others. Reading is foundational — we must be proactive rather than waiting until conflicts arise.

We are committed to being accountable to the communities we serve and must be committed to be fearless about racism. A white librarian once told me about the tense reaction of a Black family in a preschool science program when she incorporated a “Let’s Talk About Race” talking tip. I interrupted her story to speculate, “It was because he thought you were going to say something stupid.” She said after it was over, the father was surprised and impressed, and said that he could see that the library is committed to diversity. That family has not missed a storytime session since.

Going forward, we have a pilot program with our local children’s museum to do a two-week session debuting our Let’s Talk About Race in Storytimes. I have begun to share my toolkit with libraries across the country and I’m finding that there is an opening to explore anti-racism in these spaces of power and privilege. I want to keep empowering families and children that they do not have to learn to embrace ignorance and fear.

About the Author

Jessica Anne Bratt is a Michigan-based librarian and public speaker who brings a high level of passion and enthusiasm to being a Black nerd. When she is not gaming or reading she is trying to figure out what her 1-year-old is saying.