Chilling effects: Sexism, Racism, and #thatdarnlist

If you haven’t been following the latest and greatest in Archivists ListServ drama, count yourself and your probably normal blood pressure measurements lucky.

To sum up:

  • FeministLibrarian wrote a post about Listserv changes to policy. You can see that here:  
  • A certain individual disagreed quite vehemently with FeministLibrarian’s blog posting.
  • A number of people disagreed quite vehemently to Certain individual.
  • Two weeks later, Certain individual returns to the list, proceeds to claim history as unbiased, western history as the bestest EVAR, while being racist and demands to know the credentials of a female member of the profession.
  • Throughout all this, Certain Individual called points raised by female posters as “irrational.”

Here’s Christopher Columbus saving the native population from their BBQing and no undergarment wearing ways by enslaving and killing them and raping them and basically committing genocide! YAY WESTERN HISTORY.

The post was eventually shut down, and there a number of people who can tell you all about western history and it’s inherent biases etc. etc.   However, I want to focus on something else because a lot of digital ink (including my own) has been spilled about western history.

The chilling effect this has on members of the profession.  Especially those who are not in places of power.  This means non-white archivists, non-western archivists, women archivists, LGBT archivists, and any individual who has felt themselves discounted by Western History.    As a white, cis-woman, I don’t feel like I’m entirely the person to be talking about this, but I will speak in general terms.

A Chilling effect is the effect of numerous minor discounting actions (called micro-aggressions) against certain populations who do not hold power that as a cumulative effect makes those groups not want to participate in or to leave the field in which they have worked.   This has been better documented in STEM, but I feel that it will hold true here as well.

This can include a lot of things:

  • Conflicting Roles between expectations due to gender, orientation or race and job expectations
  • perceived lack of authority
  • Small actions like being left out of committees and meetings that directly affect them.
  • Off hand comments regarding common stereotypes.
  • Discounting ideas that came up from someone from the minority group.
  • Ignoring or minimizing contributions

And I could go on.  And this has gone on, historically in the archivists listserv, specifically towards women in this case (although the blatant racism is also a chilling effect in the profession)

Now, I can already hear the cry of “BUT ARCHIVISTS ARE MOSTLY WOMEN.”  This is true.  We also tend not to be the ones in power in the listserv.  Or historically, we have not.

Notice, for instance, when male posters, who tend to be outspoken, get into disagreements on the list, they go after female posters, specifically, younger ones.  Those young women are silenced in the field, because it’s very hard to come back after getting throughly trounced, when other posters were ignored.

When the Certain Poster attacked the credentials of another archivist, he chose to attack the credentials of a woman who disagreed with him, despite the fact that people disagreeing with him were not only women. He also focused on how the contributions of commentary written by women was Irrational, while the men were merely factually incorrect.

This isn’t the first time this has happened.  This won’t be the last.  The first time I remember this happening I was in my first year as a professional.  Some posters went after a woman archivist and the terms used were not about how they disagreed with her interpretation of the facts, but rather that she was irrational and over emotional for disagreeing.  That was 7ish years ago.

As someone who is pretty outspoken when I’m not drowning under actual work (like I was this week), I find this frightening.  Many of us, myself included, get into archives to share information, to help tell those untold stories, and if we’re honest, because we don’t really want to get into fights with people (ok, most of the time I don’t want to fight).  Why do you think our policies tend to be so rigorous?

So many of us are silenced, just when our voices should most be heard.  The continual micro-agressions on the list prevent a future of our profession that looks different than it does now.  One where there is more diversity all throughout the field overall, as leaders on the list, in our literature, in our blogs, and our archives.

We do not want our future as a profession to look just like our past.  A vast majority of us will be women or persons of color or LGBT and the vast majority of loud voices will be white guys, telling us that we’re irrational.


2 thoughts on “Chilling effects: Sexism, Racism, and #thatdarnlist

  1. THIS:

    “When the Certain Poster attacked the credentials of another archivist, he chose to attack the credentials of a woman who disagreed with him, despite the fact that people disagreeing with him were not only women. He also focused on how the contributions of commentary written by women was Irrational, while the men were merely factually incorrect.”

    It’s the pattern — seven+ years of pattern! — that I think is ultimately the most damaging. That this kind of recapitulation of historical inequalities is performed over and over and over and—-in a space where those responsible for hosting the community fail to identify such behavior as unacceptable within the community. Yeah, mansplainers are annoying. But I’m comfortable calling out their behavior as often as I have to. It’s the fact that our national professional organization is failing to call a spade a spade that I find disquieting. Have they really not noticed it happening? Or are they just unwilling to step up and change what goes on in the space they manage?

    Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Thank you for this brave, thoughtful post, Danelle. I’ve been thinking about it in the context leading by example. My wall of text reply shows I feel comfortable in sharing my views here (thank you for creating such a space). My comments don’t center on any one individual but look at systemic problems and why online micro-aggression is more difficult to handle online than in the workplace.

    Aggressors rarely seem themselves as such. Community policing can be difficult. It is most effective when it comes from people on the same side of an issue as the aggressor. Opponents are too easy for aggressors to dismiss as “wrong” or “the other.” As attractive as I find what Timothy Burke wrote in 2009 and Sanyin Siang in 2012, I’ve rarely seen people willing, much less able, to embrace calls to be open to listening and to learn about “the other.” I do admire those who have.

    But appealing in public—and it has to be in public–to fairness and the moral compasses of those who share an aggressor’s ideological or political views rarely works. I’ve tried in various forums, including A&A, to ask people to tap into their moral compasses and to call out “their own side.” It rarely happens. It takes great courage for a person to say to someone whose philosophy or ideology or political views they share, “I understand your perspective but your tone and how you’re framing this isn’t fair to those whose views you and I oppose.” But sitting out such situations only encourages more drive-bys.

    We veteran information professionals do have responsibilities in the virtual world as in the workplace. (I addressed the latter in my most recent blog post at Nixonara.) They are more challenging to handle in the former than in the latter, where there is a structure, a vision, a tone at the top. For one thing, some people tune out what happens on Listservs. They’ve decided with whom it is productive to engage and whom it is not. Sometimes they miss emerging problems altogether.

    I read everything but there now are people with whom I no longer engage. In some cases, this is due to what I’ve seen them write (in one case the comment was deleted by the blog moderator for understandable reasons) in forums other than the Listserv. But I struggle with what my moral obligations are to the larger community, especially the job insecure.

    The problems with A&A erupted in January in a thread where many younger information professionals expressed concern about intimidation on the List. I saw on Twitter that many veteran subscribers filter (send direct to trash) messages from certain people. While it saves them time and perhaps aggravation or frustration, it means they don’t see everything that is happening on the List. This limits chances for intervention to help those who feel intimidated or beseiged or mistreated. I don’t filter any messages but many readers do.

    I don’t recall the particular scenario you remember from 2007. Perhaps that is a sign that I’ve seen poor behaviors too often. On A&A and also on Recmgmt-L and even in some online space where history issues are discussed. In all cases, there were people who handled discussions well and ones who did not. (Many people slip up sometimes; I have, for sure. Some patterns become obvious over time.) Argument by putdown causes damage because it gets in the way of airing out substantive issues. People are silenced or walk away. However, ineffective communications in professional forums is extremely difficult to mitigate or counter. The models for discourse may be affected by internal and external elements that are hard to identify.

    Unless you know a person, and something of his or her past personal or professional or workplace experiences, things not shared online, you can’t begin to know what some of those internal factors are. The external ones aren’t always clear, either. Some may be political, shaped by partisan advocates and commentators who rely on demagoguery, toxic framing, the language of grievance, the comfort of victimology and self-righteousness, the “othering” of those considered not “pure” and like oneself. Neither the Right nor the Left is immune to such weakening elements, which, because they rely at their core on “make me feel good” dehumanizing of others, serve as poor models for online discourse generally.

    One response to these challenges is to focus on the positive, praise good models (which I did in my last blog post). But I absolutely understand your call not to leave others stranded. What can we do to make A&A more welcoming and useful? And not leave so many people feeling they are stranded, while still respecting the Terms of Participation?

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