Archivists on the Issues: Reflections on Privilege in the Archives

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from a new regular writer for I&A’s blog, Summer Espinoza. Summer is the Digital Archivist at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

In Fall 2016, Michelle Caswell’s “Archives, Records, and Memory” class at the UCLA Graduate School of Information Studies collectively created the content for the poster “Identifying & Dismantling White Supremacy in Archives”(Caswell, Brilmyer, 2016).  The poster lists five areas to identify and take corrective action towards disassembling the power-structure of white supremacy.  The sections of the poster, identified as an “Incomplete List of White Privileges in Archives and Action Items for Dismantling Them” include appraisal, description, access/use, professional life, and education.  Each section lists privilege and possible actions to create a counteraction.  As an example, in the description section, one privilege is listed as “materials are described using my native language” and actions to counter this as a privilege are “Hire multilingual people as archivists and translators and translate finding aids into appropriate languages” and “Encourage, value, and give credit for language courses in MLIS programs and as continuing education” (Caswell, 2016).  In a related article, “Teaching to Dismantle White Supremacy in Archives,Caswell reflects on her experiences and consequential action to bring the conversation into her class as teaching faculty in a national political climate in which her colleagues and students expressed to her fear and anxiety about their rights as residents of the United States (Caswell, 2017).

Though the poster may have come out of a class exercise, it exudes a sense of professional activism.  It provides rules to live by, goals in daily archival work and easily accessible and relevant issues in archival work.  My own professional experiences have made me stop and reflect on the privileges from which I have benefited.

I am a project archivist at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), where the student population is less than 10% white; the largest populations are Latinx (69%) and Black (14%) per CSUDH Institutional Research, 2016.  The campus also has a large population of undocumented students, also known as “Dreamers.”  At the time of my arrival in Spring 2017, the campus Dreamer Success Center provided ally workshops, informational talks about the challenges of being an undocumented student, and discussions about the threatening nature of the United States’ current political climate.

In an admittedly naive attempt to create a professional space for allyship, I began to investigate the possibility of implementing an oral history project for Dreamers’ narratives, to be accessioned into the University Archives, unaware that this posed a potential risk not to myself but to contributors.  After some initial research and conversations with collaborators, and after wrestling with the responsibilities and possible consequences, I was directed by a concerned party to locate news about a Boston College Irish Republican Army (IRA) oral history collection and the 2016 government-ordered release of restricted content recorded in 2001.

Today, I reflect on my role as an archivist of color at a public university, how I found fear in my position, and the real implications of this particular attempt at inclusivity in the archives without a clear sense of action and acumen in the profession.  The fear I felt was the ease with which the information could be abused, as was the case with the aforementioned IRA oral history collection.

Previously, I experienced this same fear at a community-based private non-profit cultural archive.  In this instance, the emotion was based in possible consequences of increased access and deviation from a “normative narrative” of heroism and reverence.  There were potential tangible consequences to the fiscal health of the organization per se if increased access to content were viewed as the “airing the dirty laundry.”

These two experiences led me to cautious action moving towards inclusivity.  Why?  Chris Taylor’s article (2017), “Getting our House in Order: Moving from Diversity to Inclusion” creates a conversation on the impact of our training, our worldviews and experiences, and how our personal worldview is projected in our professional work (p. 23).  My own professional training and education is far from adequate to effectively maneuver in this conversation that is not yet rooted in any wide-scale and sustained conversations or representation by any governing organization or collective in the field of archives. In both of the aforementioned cases, I recognize a gnawing inadequacy of my professional-self.

With a movement towards dismantling supremacy in archives, there will be challenges and fear of change, and hesitation of being seen as a change-maker.  What is the professional and personal impact of these actions?  How does one engage with the political implications of disrupting an architecture, and what tools can I equip myself with that will diminish negative professional self-doubt, fear of consequences of change, and foster empowerment.  How do we complete the list of white privilege and structural oppression?  What can be built in its place and what authority does such new inclusive structure have?  Will/can archivists dismantle white supremacy in the archives alone, and should we do so, alone?

Archivists, contributors, users, are faced with personal and professional risks and consequences in an emotionally and politically charged topic that systematically misrepresented, and excluded communities of color.  My sense of fear is based in real daily experiences, not as case-studies or theoretical conversation.  Perhaps others feel fear, confusion, hesitation, exhaustion and other emotions that can deflate professional duty, and create a roadblock for future attempts to build a truly inclusive archive.




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