Racism without Racists

a guest post by Tracey Overbey and Amanda L. Folk


As academic librarians, one of the reasons we felt it was so important to explore the library experiences of Black and African American college students is that our profession is overwhelmingly white. While many white librarians do take seriously their commitment to serve all members of their communities, we know that our nation has a troubling, racialized history that spans several centuries. Even those who value racial equity might have ingrained mythical narratives that unconsciously guide their practice. Furthermore, because race is not a significant identity marker for many white folks, it is something that often remains largely invisible and undiscussed. Indeed, before becoming Executive Director of the American Library Association, Tracie D. Hall wrote, “the library and information science field has seemingly slapped itself with a gag order [about race and racism]. While the discussion of diversity in libraries has proliferated over the past few decades, meaningful dialogue around race has been eviscerated or altogether evaded” (Hall, 2012, p. 198). This practice is consistent with what some scholars have called the new era of racism in the United States. Some refer to this as colorblind racism (Bonilla-Silva, 2018; Burke, 2019), though we prefer the term color-evasive racism (Annamma, Jackson, & Morrison, 2017). Another way that this phenomenon has been described is “racism without racists,” and we believe this is an important concept for library professionals to understand and grapple with when working with diverse racial and ethnic communities.

book cover for Narratives of (Dis)Engagement: Exploring Black and African American Students’ Experiences in LibrariesWhat is racism without racists?

Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, the James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Duke University, is one of the leading scholars in exploring color-evasive racism and coined the phrase “racism without racists.” Through his extensive research exploring racial attitudes, he identified four characteristics of color-evasive racism:

  • Abstract liberalism – The belief that government should not enact programs to promote equal opportunity for BIPOC (e.g. affirmative action), because it is inherently unfair.
  • Naturalization – The belief that racial differences and resulting behaviors are natural. An example is the belief that Black people naturally prefer to have close relationships with other Black people, not because of years of systemic discrimination and ingrained implicit racist bias from white people.
  • Cultural racism – The belief that differences in key outcomes, such as housing or educational attainment, is due to cultural values and not due to systemic racism.
  • Minimization – The belief that racism is no longer a salient issue in the contemporary world.

All these frames allow white folks to dismiss or ignore race as being salient in the contemporary world, rather than acknowledging that many of our policies and institutions were designed to intentionally exclude BIPOC during eras of explicit racialized discrimination and continue to hold a legacy of that explicit discrimination. Racism without racists allows white folks to feel that they are not inherently bad or prejudiced and prevents them from feeling accountability to change policies and institutions that continue to reproduce injurious outcomes for BIPOC.

What are some library-related examples?

Racism without racists may result in uninterrogated implicit racial biases, which could have unintended and negative implications for BIPOC library users. The Black and African American college students in our study shared several examples of racial discrimination and microaggressions in library spaces, which we report in Narratives of (Dis)Engagement. (Chapter One, p. 2). Some of these not-so-positive library experiences include:

  1. The males felt when entering their public library that they were looked at or watched very closely as if they were expected to do something wrong, especially if this library was located in a predominantly white neighborhood (p. 39, 46).
  2. These students mentioned not always feeling welcomed to visit their public library, with some students sharing explicitly negative experiences with white public librarians. Some of these students reported that they received a rude or dismissive tone from white librarians when asking a question (p. 14, 15, 39, 44).
    1. One student stated that when it was time to pick up the prizes for reading in the summer book club, the white librarian showed enthusiasm towards the white youth patron. When the Black students turn to receive the prize came, the white librarian was very stern; no excitement or enthusiasm was shown towards the Black students for reading their books. Just the prizes were given.  This in turn made the students disinclined to ever participate in the summer reading club at their local library because of those interactions (p. 34).
  3. The students in our study were not made aware of library programs for youth.
  4. The only mention of security guards in a library was in reference to a public library in a Black urban neighborhood (p. 47).
  5. When using their college library, several students reported staring or white students not wanting to share a table with them (p. 47). The students believe there was the assumption when using both college and public libraries that they were going to create disruptions, and some would get in trouble for just acting like kids (p. 34).

We found that the Black students in our study were encouraged by their families to use their local public libraries. to read and study (Narratives of Disengagement chapter 3 page 10).  Many of the students that we interviewed utilized their local public libraries often during grade school through the early years of college. Some of the examples mentioned from our interviews above show how Black library users experienced acts of microaggressions, biases, and stereotypes. This indicates that Black library users likely face some level of stereotyping and discrimination in library spaces, similar to what they might experience in other institutions, such as schools.

As a Black librarian who worked in an urban public library system, I (Tracey) have also witnessed white librarians who are short with Black students while having a little more patience with white students. The findings of our research are not intended to make anyone feel bad or isolated.  Our study is to share with non-BlPOC librarians that when you interact with BIPOC library users, they are entering our institutions ready to learn and utilize our resources. Given the prevalence of color-evasive mindsets, we hope to promote the importance of self-reflection on potential internalized and implicit biases, so that all library users receive the same level of service regardless of their skin color.

How can we do better in the future?

One way we can make change is to advocate for changing school curricula. Oftentimes school curricula teach BIPOC from a deficit point of view and from a conquered, non-contributory point of view (Akua, 2012).  Therefore, if we re-educate educators and librarians about the history of BIPOC in this country, a history that is far richer than enslavement and exclusion, this will help alleviate some of the stereotypes and biases that can have detrimental and tragic outcomes for BIPOC citizens.  If librarians don’t feel empowered to make this kind of change at the national or even local levels, self-education is a critical way to move forward, as this can result in individuals completely reframing the ways in which they approach BIPOC history. We've included a suggested reading list on p. 58 of Narratives of (Dis)Engagement. This kind of self-education is also important for determining how to provide culturally relevant resources to our diverse user communities, such that BIPOC communities feel included and represented in the resources that we offer. For example, having BIPOC scientists, educators, historians, musicians, artists, and other great scholars that have made great contributions to the work prominently featured is one way to accomplish this.

We need to continue prioritizing recruitment and retainment efforts of BIPOC librarians, as we continue to remain a predominantly white profession. We have seen almost no success in this priority over the past several decades, and we will likely find this to be even more difficult with the recent Supreme Court ruling related to using race in college admissions decisions. Yet many librarians serve incredibly diverse communities, and our profession does not reflect the communities that we serve, including in schools and at colleges and universities. Representation matters. Our research indicates that we likely need to begin recruitment efforts for a diverse library workforce beginning at a young age, by helping young BIPOC library users to be engaged with our programming and feeling a sense of belonging in libraries.

Because our profession currently does not reflect the communities we service, we need to have a better understanding of how to service this population. In Narratives of (Dis)Enfranchisement, we discuss the need to have more race-centered assessment, evaluation, and research which ensures that we are creating equitable and anti-racists libraries. We should want our BIPOC communities to have a positive experience when visiting our libraries, and we can provide them with a good experience by welcoming them when they enter our buildings and getting to know them. This, too, will have a positive effect on providing inclusive services, programs, and collections.

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Akua, C. (2012). Education for transformation: The keys to releasing the genius of African American students. Imani Enterprises.

Annamma, S. A, Jackson, D. D., & Morrison, D. (2017). Conceptualizing color-evasiveness: Using dis/ability critical race theory to expand a color-blind racial ideology in education and society. Race Ethnicity and Education, 20(2), 147–162.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2018). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in America (5th ed.). Rowman & Littlefield.

Burke, M. (2019). Colorblind racism. Polity.

Hall, Tracie D. (2012). The black body at the reference desk: Critical race theory and black librarianship. The 21st-century Black Librarian in America: Issues and Challenges, edited by Andrew P. Jackson, Julius Jefferson (Jr.), Akilah Nosakhere. Scarecrow Press.