Friday, April 22, 2011

Thoughts on power, privilege, and Steven Abram's latest

Today, unlike most weeks, I have to leave work early to pick my son up from school and take him to soccer practice. So this morning I approached my paraprofessional colleague who's in the library with me today and asked if she would be willing to stay an extra 30 minutes to close up. She said no problem; it was all very friendly and informal. But the reality of the situation is, I could have made her stay. It would have been unethical and inadvisable, and if I did it too many times I would likely get in trouble with HR, but I could have done it. Meanwhile, if she were the one who needed to leave early and I said no, she would be up the creek without a paddle.

That's power.

If I were talking to a group of other managers about my crazy schedule this week, and how I needed to leave early on Friday, and oh by the way one of my staff closed up for me, most likely nobody would blink. If I were talking to a group of paraprofessionals about it, most likely nobody would feel comfortable suggesting that it might have been inconsiderate of me, or that of course my colleague said yes, what, did I think she was stupid?

That's privilege.


The past day or so there have been several LSW friendfeed discussions sparked by Stephen Abram's call for professional civility. In these discussions, people have expressed frustration with how powerful and privileged individuals don't see how often they move from a discussion of why people are unhappy with what those individuals have said and done to a discussion of why the unhappy people can't express themselves more respectfully. Since saying things "the right way" is, in practice, very often an impossibility for people who don't already share the same power and privilege--e.g., women are either "too passive" or "too bitchy," African-Americans and Latino/as are either "keeping to themselves" or "trying to take over"--many of us are immediately distrustful when someone goes to the "Tone Argument" without providing specific examples of where they think someone else has crossed a line of acceptable behavior. (These kinds of things happen so often, people make bingo cards.)

Stephen Abram, to his credit, has been an active participant in these discussions. He clearly has a thick skin and a healthy sense of respect for differing opinions. Where he falls short in understanding people's objections, in my view, is that he believes that the opinions of himself or Jeff Trzeciak or other library luminaries are competing on a level playing field with everybody else's. In one LSW thread, he comments:

It's certainly not my right or position to tell anyone on this list or anywhere how to behave but I feels it my right to express an opinion or preference. Is it because I'm an old white guy that I am relegated to that limiting box of behaviour that I only get positioned as telling people how to behave? Are all old white males stereotyped thusly? Are we the last safe place to pre-judge our opinions and positions? We can't all be equal until everyone is equal.

Considering that he describes himself on his blog as "ably capable of providing tips and techniques for strategic thinking and innovation in libraries...uniquely positioned to spark ideas and insights," I find it difficult to take seriously his claim that his voice is just one among many equals. After all, he doesn't get paid to give keynotes and such because he's just another librarian. No: he is invited to speak because people pay attention to what he has to say. His reputation and professional track record give him both power and privilege.


Once upon a time, two people I admired and respected had a falling-out. One was, among other things, an editor at a small science-fiction publication. The other was, among other things, an author of published science-fiction short stories. The editor said something in a public space that could reasonably be interpreted as an indictment of the writer's ability to produce compelling stories. The writer objected, vigorously. The editor's defense was that they were not speaking from their position as an editor, who makes buying decisions and influences other editors and readers, but as a private individual. The writer called bullshit. Although I had a longer association with the editor, I agreed with the writer. When one takes on a professional role, one does not have the option of putting it on and taking it off at will. There is no such thing as speaking privately in public.

This lesson is one of the first I learned in my career, when I became director of a small public library less than a year out of grad school. When I was eating dinner in a local restaurant, I wasn't just me, I was the library director. When I was joking around with staff, I wasn't just me, I was the library director. When I wrote a letter to the editor in support of the mayor, I wasn't just me, I was the library director. People paid a lot more attention to me than I had really expected them to.

And they were right to. If I said that I hated romance novels, they could worry about what that would mean for library acquisitions. If I said my wife and I were choosing not to put our son in daycare because we were concerned about studies that suggested there could be negative long-term effects for him, they could worry about whether I would give a fair opportunity to job applicants who had small children in daycare. I had the power, however limited, to affect other people's lives. I like to think that I was (and am) a competent professional who only uses my powers for good. But I learned that I had to be constantly demonstrating my competence and responsibility. If I gave an opinion, I had to explicitly affirm differing opinions and openly acknowledge that I would not use my power against them. If I gave an opinion, I had to consciously remind myself and others that I knew my privilege might keep them from openly disagreeing with me.

It took longer for me to learn that the power and privilege that came from my role were directly related to the privilege I had from being white, male and married to someone of a different gender, because it greatly increased my chances of being selected for that role. But I learned that lesson too.


I suppose I could chafe at the constraints this reality puts on my words and actions. I could grumble that I have to respond constructively to complaints from staff and patrons that aren't always the most diplomatically phrased. But it is part of the package deal that comes with holding a position of responsibility, and I accept it. I wish other people would too--especially individuals who have a lot more influence, and therefore a lot more responsibility, than I do.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo, Mark. Eloquent, on point, and thoughtful. Thank you.