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Archives and anti-racism: Where do we go from here?

Lucy Brownson | 05 May 2021

N.B. This blog requires some transparency about my own positionality. I’m a white, cisgender, able-bodied person with a university education, speaking from my own limited and fallible viewpoint. I cannot and do not speak for anyone but myself. I’m indebted to friends, colleagues, educators and activists of colour who have been doing anti-racist and anti-colonial work for many years; such work has greatly enriched my own understanding of the structures and legacies of harm that shape our profession.

2020 brought about monumental change. In May, following the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and many others, there was a global groundswell of antiracist activism headed up by the Black Lives Matter movement. People took to the streets to protest racial inequity in the midst of a pandemic that disproportionately affects black people and people of colour. By and large, white people began to consider the privileges and biases afforded by whiteness and white supremacy, at an individual and a structural level; for many (myself included), this was the first time that they’d seriously attended to these things for a sustained period of time. Amongst the protests, the sharing of resources, and the call to have difficult conversations, the anti-racist reading list proliferated. I made one such list: a resource bank for UK-based archivists and information workers who want to better understand anti-racist work. As well-intentioned as this was, I didn’t consider that the anti-racist reading list can be confusing, overwhelming, vague even, in its deployment. As Lauren Michelle Jackson, reminds us, ‘[t]he syllabus, as these lists are sometimes called, seldom instructs or guides’ – so how do you know where to start? And then the inevitable happened: with the passing of time came the loss of momentum, compounded by successive lockdowns and social restrictions in the UK and elsewhere.

As the season changes and we look to the months ahead, we can take this time as an opportunity to reflect on what’s changed, what’s yet to come, and how we, as a collective of information workers, can embed anti-racism into our practice and commit to making our community fairer for everyone – so this blog provides some pointers and prompts for doing just that.

Listen and learn – and understand that you’ll never understand

What does being a white advocate for racial justice look like? This can take many forms, but it must be rooted in an understanding that this is a continuous process of learning and unlearning. Listen to your Black colleagues and colleagues of colour when they speak or write; don’t interrupt and don’t question their experiences. Don’t make this about your feelings – defensiveness is another powerful, paralysing response to discomfort, and one that’s actively harmful. Discuss the actions you’ll take to carry this conversation forward.

When you ask marginalised people to educate you on something, you’re asking them for a great deal of emotional labour, too (often without financial remuneration). Before you ask a Black person or a person of colour to explain something to you, ask yourself, ‘Do I really need to speak to X about my questions? What resources are already out there to help me?’ Relatedly, don’t assume that this person will want to engage with you and don’t expect them to explain their reasons – respect their boundaries. Find out if they’re providing services (e.g., training or consultancy) and be clear about paying them for their time. If they aren’t offering a service, ask how you can help them – for instance, by using your resources or network.

Pointer: Much of the above guidance is drawn from this insightful blog by AidWorks, which is definitely worth a read.

Continue to hold yourself accountable

If you like to make lists or hold daily/weekly/monthly check-ins or goal-setting sessions, factor in the actions you’re taking to challenge or disrupt racial inequity. You might make a recurring donation to a Black-led organisation, maybe you’ve got a few things on your ‘to-read’ list, or perhaps you’re considering evaluating your working practices but the prospect feels daunting. Whatever your goal is, break it down, set yourself specific checkpoints and deadlines, and embed it into your routine.

It’s also important to be able to hold others to account if you believe they’re causing harm. It’s important to distinguish whether you should call them out or call them in – but what’s the difference?

  • Calling out means clearly letting someone know, unambiguously, that their words and/or actions aren’t acceptable and won’t be tolerated. We might tell someone that their views aren’t shared, or we might state our disagreement. It can feel uncomfortable to call someone out, but it’s sometimes necessary to intervene in order to limit the harm caused.
  • Calling in means learning about differing perspectives together and trying to find mutual understanding even in difference. We may ask someone what their intentions are or why they think something. Calling in can provide an opportunity for shared reflection.

If I’m upset by another white person’s offensive behaviour, I should consider how to respond appropriately – for instance, could I call them in and use this as an opportunity for growth? Both of these approaches have their limits, so it’s important to recognise which one might be most helpful in a given situation. 

Push for change from where you’re at

With the pandemic rolling on well into 2021, we find ourselves in more of a precarious position than ever. Many information workers are still furloughed; some face the grim possibility of redundancy; for others, this has unfortunately become a reality. Sparking organisational change – even in the smallest ways – can feel like a daunting prospect right now. The thing about change, though, is that it has to start somewhere.

Speaking of employment, one of the most immediate, practical things we can do to enact structural change in our sector is by pushing for fairer recruitment and working practices. Advocacy groups like the Archives & Records Association’s Pay Review Group and Fair Museum Jobs are doing great work in this area, and Kirsty Fife & Hannah Henthorn have recently published their findings on the structural barriers to the archival profession. FMJ in particular provides some useful resources for understanding (and explaining to your employer) why many hiring practices – including salary cloaking and listing postgraduate qualifications as ‘essential' – unfairly disadvantage minority-ethnic candidates, working-class candidates, and female candidates. If your organisation is advertising a job without disclosing the salary, or if they expect someone to gain significant unpaid experience, it’s important to challenge this. If you don’t feel comfortable doing so, you can appeal to the broader professional community or your union for support. Relatedly, creating and supporting mentor groups or buddy systems can also be a means of better supporting your colleagues, disrupting toxic and oppressive workplace cultures, and improving employee retention rates.

Boost the voices of Black people and people of colour. Reflecting on how to be a better white ally, Another Round’s Meg Cramer encourages white people to ‘listen and amplify.’ Don’t turn away from a critical conversation about race – rather, you can use your platform amplify the voices of other people without taking up space yourself. Social media makes this kind of consciousness-raising easier than ever; with one click, we can add to the momentum of a debate or a movement. Ensure that you take your engagement offline, too – for me, having conversations with other white people about race helps me to hold myself accountable.

Further resources

Below are several useful resources for beginning or sustaining your engagement with anti-racist archival practices.

About Lucy Brownson

Lucy Brownson is an archivist and a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield & the Chatsworth House Trust, where she researches the history of archival practices from a critical feminist perspective. She’s an organiser of Sheffield Feminist Archive, a community archive documenting the city’s stories and voices of grassroots feminism. You can reach out to Lucy on Twitter or email her directly.