“Race Matters”: Racial Microaggressions & Everyday Racism in Academic Libraries by Yolanda Bergstrom-Lynch

“Race Matters”: Racial Microaggressions & Everyday Racism in Academic Libraries

Post by: Yolanda Bergstrom-Lynch

America’s Shifting Demographics

We are presently in the middle of two major demographic shifts in America: racial and ethnic minorities are gradually becoming the numerical majority and at the same time we are witnessing the graying of America (Taylor, 2015). At present, about 72 percent of our nation’s population is white (American Fact Finder, 2015) but that figure is expected to drop to 43 percent by 2060 (Taylor, 2015). The changing racial composition of America is driven largely by increases in Asian and Latino populations and, to a lesser extent, by growing rates of intermarriage and higher percentages of Americans identifying as multiracial. While the Black population is not expected to grow significantly by 2060 (from 12 percent to 13), the percentage of Americans who identify as Hispanic or Latino is expected to grow significantly (from 16 percent to 31 percent) (Taylor, 2015).

Though our country is progressively moving toward becoming a “nation of minorities,” the library profession remains largely white. Nearly 86 percent of credentialed librarians in higher education are white, and that figure is slightly higher (88 percent) for credentialed librarians in general (ALA, 2012). Despite the fact that “Baby Boomers” are retiring much later, thanks to the economy, many folks in the LIS community see the graying of the library profession and the shifting racial demographics of the U.S. population as an opportunity to increase diversity in the LIS workforce.

What difference does “difference” make?

One of the core values of librarianship identified by the American Library Association is diversity (American Library Association [ALA], 2004). As stewards of democracy, the composition of the library workforce should reflect our nation’s diversity (in all forms) as much as possible.

It matters that patrons walk into libraries and see themselves reflected in the staff. Studies around structural diversity in librarianship and the perceived approachability of librarians demonstrate this point. Bonnet and McAlexander (2012), for example, conducted an image-rating study where they showed 449 raters pictures of librarians to determine the extent to which perceptions of librarian approachability are affected by the race, gender, and age of both librarians and patrons. They found that African American raters tended to view African American and Asian librarians as more approachable than white librarians, while Asian raters typically rated Asian and white librarians as more approachable than African American librarians. White raters, on the other hand, gave fairly similar ratings for all of the librarians irrespective of race. Based on these findings the researchers concluded that “racially underrepresented populations in higher education may be better served when the librarian population is also racially diverse” (p. 283).

If academic libraries are to remain relevant in our increasingly global society and if we wish to ensure the highest quality of service, then we need to work harder to achieve greater diversity among our staff, our programming, our collections, and our services (Gulati, 2010).

What has been done?

Organizations like the American Libraries Association (ALA), the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) have been at the forefront of diversity initiatives. ALA’s Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services, for example, has a range of programs and initiatives to increase minority representation including the Discovering Librarianship program aimed at racially and ethnically diverse high school and college students, Diversity Research Grants, Diversity Leadership webinars, and, of course, the Spectrum Scholarship, which was established in 1997 to provide scholarship support for minorities pursuing graduate work in library and information science. The diversity office also provides links to various types of diversity committees, roundtables, professional organizations, and resources. ACRL’s Racial and Ethnic Diversity Committee and ALR’s Diversity Programs have similar initiatives and programs, and I am guessing that Courtney Young’s tenure as the President of ALA has helped to increase the visibility of women of color in librarianship.

Academic libraries have also instituted their own diversity initiatives to increase minority representation in academic librarianship. At present, racial and ethnic minorities are more concentrated in library assistant positions than in credentialed academic librarian positions (ALA, 2012). Internships, fellowships, and residency programs along with diversity committees are all examples of diversity efforts at the institutional level (Chang, 2013). Unfortunately, most of these efforts to achieve greater racial and ethnic diversity in academic libraries, and LIS fields in general, have done little to change the face of librarianship. Though it is true that we have seen slight gains in minority representation as a result of all of these efforts, credentialed librarians in general are still overwhelmingly white (Chang, 2013).

Why aren’t we seeing more diversity?

Part of the answer lies in addressing barriers to recruitment in MLIS programs and the LIS workforce. Barriers include a lack of racial and ethnic diversity among the MLIS faculty and within the curriculum, limited financial aid, and a lack of mentorship (Chang, 2013). The lack of progress cannot be limited to just recruitment, though. The answers also partly lies in issues around retention and promotion. Retention of academic librarians of color is not very high and there is a considerable lack of racial and ethnic diversity beyond the entry level (Acree, et al., 2001). The reasons for this are not well understood because LIS diversity research focuses primarily on recruitment rather than retention. In fact, “research on retention of academic librarians of color is practically nonexistent” (Damasco & Hodges, 2012).

Now what? Attending to the Racial Climate

Bear with me for a moment. I have a three and five year old at home. As a result, I have seen the Disney-Pixar movie Finding Nemo more times than I can count. In the movie there is a group of ocean fish trapped in a fish tank in a dentist’s office. Throughout the movie we see these fish devising all sorts of strategies to escape the tank. The leader, Gill, has an idea to get the fish tank as dirty as possible so that the dentist will need to remove the fish from the tank to clean it. Gill explains that once all of the fish are placed in individual baggies, they could roll themselves out of the window, across several lanes of traffic and into the harbor. The movie ends with a scene where Gill’s plan has worked and all of the fish are floating in the harbor in their individual baggies, happily celebrating their escape until a puffer fish asks the most obvious question, “Now what?”

This is precisely the question that needed to accompany efforts to recruit racial and ethnic minorities into academic librarianship. Once the first part of the plan works (we are not there yet), what needs to happen next? This is perhaps the question we forgot to ask ourselves. Diversity efforts cannot just be about increasing numbers to achieve a representative workforce (Yeo & Jacobs, 2006). We must consider whether the climate lends itself to diversity and if it does not then we must work to foster the kind of academic climate that will (Thornton, 2001). Retaining racial and ethnic minorities who are successfully recruited into academic libraries means attending to racial climate factors that create race-specific barriers to retention and advancement.

Academic libraries do not exist in a vacuum, devoid of societal context. Like other social institutions, they are shaped by the broader sociohistorical and ideological context in which they exist. Contrary to popular opinion, we do not live a post-racial America where race no longer matters in terms of a person’s life chances and lived experiences. Race still matters, probably in ways that most of us wish it did not, and as a consequence we must tend to matters of race if we wish to achieve diversity among academic librarians (Alabi, 2015a; Yeo & Jacobs, 2006).

Racial Microaggressions

What kinds of racial climate issues might racial-ethnic minorities encounter once they enter academic librarianship? This is a difficult question to answer largely because there is very little research in the LIS literature on racial climate issues. Jaena Alabi (2015a, 2015b) is one of the few researchers that I have come across that has attempted to address this gap in understanding. Her research considers the role that racial microaggressions play in undermining the efforts of academic libraries to recruit, retain, and promote racial diversity.

What is meant by racial microaggressions? Racial microaggressions are “subtle, derogatory messages conveyed to people of color” (Alabi, 2015b, p. 179). The microaggressions come in three forms: microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations (Alabi, 2015a; 2015b):

  • Microassault is “an explicit racial derogation characterized primarily by a verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, or purposeful discriminatory actions” (p. 180).
  •  Microinsults are “communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean person’s unknown racial heritage or identity” (p. 180).
  • Microinvalidations are “communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of color” (p. 181).

Do academic librarians of color experience these various forms of racial micro-aggression? Alabi (2015a) surveyed 139 academic librarians (both minority and non-minority) via three different listservs to analyze their experiences with and observations of racial microaggressions. The findings from her survey indicate that some academic librarians of color do experience racial microaggressions but few non-minority colleagues report observing these encounters.

The survey included an open ended textbox at the end of each section where respondents could include any additional comments. Alabi (2015b) also coded and analyzed this data in terms of the various forms of racial aggression. Here are some examples of what she found:

  • Example of microassault – One minority librarian relayed the following story: “One day I came out of my office and was complaining about arthritis in my knees. To which the clerk said, ‘Your people are supposed to be walking on all fours anyway.’ Whompwhomp! I just feel as though – whoever is doing this study – y’all should know this actually happened, Spring 2007” (p. 183).
  • Example of microinsults – One respondent noted “that her colleague ‘could not bring himself to believe’ how well-educated she was.” A non-minority participant wrote, “I have heard White colleagues make ‘positive’ stereotypical comments about people of particular racial groups, saying things like, ‘my son must have a touch of African American in him, he’s such a good dancer.’ The tone is sort of jokey and sort of not’” (p. 184).
  • Example of microinvalidations – A minority participant explained, “I’ve been told how lucky I am to be a minority because I get my degree paid for (assuming the scholarships I earned were not competitive). I’ve also been told “Wow! You’re Hispanic? You speak great English . . . .” (p. 85).

The tricky part about racial microaggressions is that their subtle nature makes it difficult to make the case that these experiences can be attributed solely to race rather some other factor (Alabi, 2015b). Consequently, racial microaggressions create an invisible toxic climate that builds up over time and can result in a number of negative outcomes ranging from feelings of isolation, anger, frustration, self-doubt, decreased productivity, lack of job satisfaction, and high turnover (Alabi, 2015b; Thornton, 2001).


I am not going to pretend to have all the answers for how to address issues around the racial climate of academic libraries. That is not the intention of this blog. The goal is to make the point that without attending to the racial climate of academic libraries it may be difficult to achieve the kind of racially inclusive workforce we are aiming for. Obviously racial climate issues like racial microaggressions are not the whole story, but they are certainly part of the story. Yeo and Jacobs (2006) maintain that “diversity means little if there is no understanding of how the dominant culture and ideas are articulated within our institutions and daily library practices; and what’s worse is, at this time, there is little questioning on dominant ideas and values going on in our libraries or library degree programs” (Yeo & Jacobs, 2006, para 16). If we have any hope of creating a library workforce that reflects our nation’s racial and ethnic diversity, then we need to begin to ask the hard questions.


Acree, E. K., Epps, S. K., Gilmore, Y., & Henriques, C. (2001). Using professional development as a reference tool for underrepresented academic librarians. Journal of Library Administration, 33(1/2), 45-61.

Alabi, J. (2015a). Racial microaggressions in academic libraries: Results of a survey of minority and non-minority librarians. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 41(1), 47-53.

Alabi, J. (2015b). “This actually happened”: An analysis of librarians’ responses to a survey about racial microaggressions. Journal of Library Administration, 53(3), 179-191. doi: 10.1080/01930826.2015.1034040

American Fact Finder. (2015). Race and Hispanic or Latino origin. Retrieved from http://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/community_facts.xhtml

American Library Association. (2004). Core values of librarianship. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/statementspols/corevalues

American Library Association. (2012). Diversity counts. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/offices/diversity/diversitycounts/divcounts

Bonnet, J. L., & McAlexander, B. (2012). Structural diversity in academic libraries: A study of librarian approachability. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 38(5), 277-286.

Chang, H. (2013, April). Ethnic and racial diversity in academic and research libraries: Past, present, and future. Paper presented at the Association of Research and College Libraries Conference. Indianapolis, IN. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/acrl/sites/ala.org.acrl/files/content/conferences/confsandpreconfs/2013/papers/Chang_Ethnic.pdf

Damasco, I. T., & Hodges, D. (2012). Tenure and promotion experiences of academic librarians of color. College and Research Libraries, 73(3), 279-301.

Gulati, A. (2010). Diversity in librarianship: The United States perspective. International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, 36(4), 288-293.

Taylor, P. (2015). The next America. Pew Research Center. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/next-america/#Two-Dramas-in-Slow-Motion

Thornton, J. K. (2001). African American female librarians: A study of job satisfaction. Journal of Library Administration, 33(1/2), 141-164.

Yeo, S., & Jacobs, J.R. (2006). Diversity matters? Rethinking diversity in libraries. Counterpoise, 92(2), 5-8.
Counterpoise, 92(2), 5-8.


4 thoughts on ““Race Matters”: Racial Microaggressions & Everyday Racism in Academic Libraries by Yolanda Bergstrom-Lynch

  1. First of all, this was an intimidatingly well-researched article. My own reference list is experiencing length-envy.

    One of the most uncomfortable facts about libraries is that diversity has not spread widely in this profession as it has in some others. As the stereotypical profession for older white women, the entrance of librarians of other genders or ethnicities into the field has been slow, though I will say that I believe integration of men has been a lot easier than for minorities. I have wondered myself why this is, particularly for a profession that values education, inclusion, and tolerance. I think that the stereotype of a librarian has definitely not attracted many minorities to the profession, but more than that I think that the current climate of a library (as you mentioned) is not always welcoming to minorities either. The examples of micro aggressions you gave may seem extreme, but far subtler examples of an unwelcome climate for minorities are common. I have worked at several libraries where the most diversity that can be found is in the support staff — not the librarians. This might send a message to minorities that they should not bother trying to pursue an MLIS and move up in the organization. For my Human Resources class here at Valdosta I read a great article about the importance of mentoring for minority librarians: http://www.ala.org/acrl/sites/ala.org.acrl/files/content/conferences/confsandpreconfs/2013/papers/Iuliano_Reaching.pdf (“Reaching Out to Minority Librarians: Overcoming Diversity Challenges through Mentorship” by Iuliano et al. (2013) ) The article talks about the problems with minority librarian retention (as you mentioned) and how minority librarians are facing a double battle of a.) being a brand new, inexperienced librarian and b.) being a minority in a white-dominated profession. I believe that mentoring is so important for all new librarians, but especially for librarians who might not feel connected with the rest of the organization because of an uncomfortable (whether intentional or not) racial climate.


    1. Hi Ashley:

      Thank you for the comment and thank you for the article. I cannot agree more about the importance of mentorship. Most of what I read just mentioned the importance of mentorship to diversity initiatives in passing, so I am quite happy to now have the article you linked. This issue is close to my heart largely because of my own experiences and I can imagine starting a research project on the subject (may be for the methods course), so I will be putting this article to use.

      I agree that generally speaking men who enter the profession encounter a glass escalator rather than a glass ceiling, but I wonder if this still holds true if we look at how this breaks down for different groups of men. Does this pattern still hold true for men of color who may experience privilege on the basis of gender but disadvantage on the basis of race? I would guess no but I have not really come across any research on men in LIS fields that takes this kind of intersectional approach.

      You mentioned that you worked in libraries where you found greater representation of people of color among the support staff than the librarians. I wish I could say that this is unusual, but looking at the Diversity Counts data through the ALA’s Office of Diversity shows that this is pretty common. I think you are right that it has the effect of creating a catch-22: lack of diversity among librarians results in people of color not wanting to enter the field, getting people of color to enter the field requires more diversity among librarians. It feels like a tautology and I am not quite sure how to get around this problem. Diversity planning may be one way to go but it has to be more than just window dressing. It is such a complicated issue.

      Yolanda Bergstrom-Lynch


  2. You have a very interesting and enlightening article Yolanda, and I appreciate having the opportunity to read it. I know that in a previous class (Foundations maybe? sorry, they’re all running together by now!) that diversity in libraries was discussed, and we had to look at statistics. I was shocked to see how under-represented minorities were in libraries. Where I live, there is a large minority population, and a historically black university, but to be honest I’m not sure how well represented minorities are in the public library system here (its been a while since I’ve gone in, as I use mostly digital products now.) That will be something I consider the next time I am at our local library though.

    Also, your points about microaggressions, there are just no words for that. It is hard for me to fathom that people can be so cruel, but I know it goes on everyday and I’m just not aware of it. Like I said, this post is very enlightening and definitely gives us all something to think about! – Jennifer Griffin


    1. Hi Jennifer:

      Thank you for your comment. I knew from my own experiences that libraries in general lacked racial and ethnic diversity, but I was surprised when I looked at the figures to see how wide the disparity actually is. I experience racial microaggressions everyday in my own life — sometimes subtle and sometimes more extreme like the examples I provided in my blog — so it made me wonder what the climate is like in academic libraries. I am hoping that things start to change at a quicker pace. Only time will tell.

      Yolanda Bergstrom-Lynch


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