White Women Working Together on Personal and Institutional Racism

By Starr, Carol | American Libraries, March 1988 | Go to article overview

White Women Working Together on Personal and Institutional Racism


Starr, Carol, American Libraries


White women working together on personal and institutional racism

TWENTY WHITE WOMEN LIBRARIANS, including this writer, gathered at a private home in San Antonio on Friday, January 7, to spend a day focusing on their own racism. This special preconference, sponsored by the SRRT Feminist Task Force, developed as a response to a summer 1987 Preconference on Racism the Feminist Task Force had held in Berkeley.

Racism--institutionalized, subtle, taught and absorbed from birth on in conscious and unconscious ways--is still a problem prevailing among libraries and librarians. The summer 1987 group, a mixture of people of color, whites, women, and men, had wrestled with the question and suggested that the white women would do well to get together by themselves, the better to work on their growing awareness and means of change--this, rather than ask people of color once more to set aside their concerns and play educators while whites took the stage to deal with their problems. This issue of exclusivity was only one troubling aspect of a full 12-hour day that confronted participants with behaviors, beliefs, and historical stories of racism.

The workshop was facilitated by Frances Kendall, a consultant who conducts workshops on institutional racism for schools, libraries, health care facilities, police departments, and others. She carefully led our group through a structured day of discussions and exercises organized to help us think about things most of us would rather not think about.

One of the first concepts to grasp in depth is the many ways white people have automatic power and privilege in this country, as the culture supports their mere existence as the norm. Whites needn't ask the grocery store clerks or bank tellers to be courteous to them, when the previous minute the clerks or tellers were rude to a person of color. It just happens. Understanding the insidious nature of this constant barrage of spoken and unspoken messages begins to frame the issue. A discussion on the differences between prejudice and racism, with participants calling out lists of traits, revealed a universal truth, Kendall said: i.e., that prejudice is a prejudgment or a judgment based on limited or no knowledge (stereotypes), while racism occurs when an institution or individual puts that prejudice into action (based on skin color).

Inherent racism

Kendall challenged us to work on what she calls our inherent racism. This concept of inherent racism is a difficult one to accept. …

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