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Imagine Otherwise: Fobazi Ettarh on the Limits of Vocational Awe

Imagine Otherwise: Fobazi Ettarh on the Limits of Vocational Awe

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October 23, 2019
Fobazi Ettarh wearing a black shirt and glasses

How can radical librarianship forge solidarity across the university’s faculty, students, librarians, and greater community? How does “vocational awe” forestall important critiques about libraries as institutions? What role do frameworks such as critical race theory play in building radical librarian projects that center marginalized voices?

In episode 98 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews librarian Fobazi Ettarh about what it means to be a radical librarian, how vocational awe limits solidarity options in libraries and academia, how progressive archivists and librarians of color are stitching critical race and feminist theory into the very fabric of knowledge repositories, and why demanding the impossible is a crucial way Fobazi imagines otherwise.

Guest: Fobazi Ettarh

Fobazi M. Ettarh is the undergraduate success librarian at Rutgers–Newark. Her identities as a first-generation American, queer, and disabled women of color shapes her librarianship, which is guided by critical perspectives and the deconstruction of white supremacy.

Creator of the concept of “vocational awe,” Fobazi’s research focuses on the tensions between the espoused values of librarianship and the realities present in the experiences of marginalized librarians and users. She also studies equity, diversity, and inclusion in libraries, specifically how social and organizational infrastructures privilege the works of certain groups over others.

Fobazi is the author of the article “Vocational Awe: The Lies We Tell Ourselves” and the blog WTF is A Radical Librarian, Anyway, which examines issues at the intersections of librarianship, education, activism, and social justice.

We chatted about

► The definition of vocational awe (02:16)

► Libraries as institutions of privilege (05:00)

► Strategies to dismantle vocational awe (06:52)

► Fobazi’s blog WTF is a Radical Librarian, Anyway (11:45)

► The role of social justice and critical race theory in libraries (13:49)

► The nexus between art, critical thinking, and activism (20:18)

Fobazi Ettarh wearing a black shirt and glasses. Text reads: Equality is not pie. There's no taking away. As people from the margins take more equity, it doesn't mean that there's less equity for everyone else. Rather it is a renewable resource, one that never runs dry.

Takeaways

Libraries and institutional access 

Every institution exists within a white supremacist, patriarchal society…by thinking of libraries as inherently good because they provide access to all, we ignore the fact that in many cases the policies show that they’re not actually giving access to all people.

Deconstructing vocational awe

The biggest way to start to deconstruct vocational awe is one to understand that it exists. You can’t fight a problem unless you know it’s there. [We need to] to work together in dismantling this concept. Vocational awe is so dangerous because it isolates everyone into specific bubbles….By working together and actually talking to the other departments and units on campus, we can start to shoulder the complex problems together rather than burning out as we try to solve everything by ourselves.

WTF is a Radical Librarian?

The idea of a person of color speaking out is really desirable by organizations because they want to tokenize you. They say, “Look, we have this person…She’s great for the bottom line, for equity, diversity and inclusion.” However, once you’re in the organization, then all of those things that they use to promote their EDI work to other universities becomes problematic. Like, “We wanted you to speak out—but not about our institution. We wanted you to speak up—but now you’re doing it too much. We wanted you to be loud—but now that you’re here, your loudness is being translated as anger.” So it’s just like you want a radical librarian but you don’t. So WTF is a radical librarian then?

The difference between conflict and violence

I know that conflict can be kind of a four letter word when we talk about it because conflict is often seen as inherently violent. But I think that in order to get to that better world, where there isn’t a population or peoples that are treated badly, that are subjugated, that are marginalized, I think that it requires a total shifting of the paradigm that we currently live in….In a better world change would be embraced, not seen as divisive, not seen as trying to hurt someone.

Imagining otherwise

It’s great that we on the margins are starting to see it as a place of strength rather than a place of subjugation. But a better world would mean that there was no subjugation happening. A better world would mean that we wouldn’t have to speak softly in order to make changes to pacify those in power. Where change wouldn’t be seen as inherently violent.

More from Fobazi Ettarh

Fobazi’s blog WTF Is a Radical Librarian?

► Fobazi’s article “Vocational Awe: The Lies We Tell Ourselves

► Fobazi’s article “Making a New Table: Intersectional Librarianship

► Fobazi’s game Killing Me Softly: A Game about Microaggressions

Fobazi on Twitter

Projects and people discussed

Critical race theory

Gloría Anzaldúa

Gloría Anzaldúa’s book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza

History of unions in the United States

Anti-union right-to-work states

Jennifer Ferretti

“We Here” counterspace

Sophia Leung

Jorge R. López-McKnight

Anastasia Chiu

Jen Brown

April Hathcock

Charlotte Roh

Rachel Winston

Black Diaspora Archive

NK Jemisin

► NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy

Imagine Otherwise episode with Sami Schalk on Black women’s speculative fiction

Imagine Otherwise episode with Ebony Elizabeth Thomas on young adult speculative fiction

Imagine Otherwise episode with andré carrington on race in science fiction

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Episode trancript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:28] This is episode 98 and my guest today is Fobazi Ettarh. Fobazi is the undergraduate success librarian at Rutgers–Newark. Her identities as a first-generation American, queer, and disabled women of color shapes her librarianship, which is guided by critical perspectives and the deconstruction of white supremacy.

Creator of the concept of “vocational awe,” Fobazi’s research focuses on the tensions between the espoused values of librarianship and the realities present in the experiences of marginalized librarians and users. She also studies equity, diversity, and inclusion in libraries, specifically how social and organizational infrastructures privilege the works of certain groups over others.

Fobazi is the author of the article “Vocational Awe: The Lies We Tell Ourselves” and the blog WTF is A Radical Librarian, Anyway, which examines issues at the intersections of librarianship, education, activism, and social justice.

[01:26] In our interview, Fobazi and I chat about what it means to be a radical librarian, how vocational awe limits solidarity options in libraries and academia, how progressive archivists and librarians of color are stitching critical race and feminist theory into the very fabric of knowledge repositories, and why demanding the impossible is a crucial way Fobazi imagines otherwise.

[To Fobazi] Thanks so much for being with us today.

Fobazi Ettarh: Thank you for having me.

Cathy: A lot of your recent work focuses on what you call vocational awe and the power dynamics that are at work in any kind of library or archive space. I want to talk more about vocational awe in a minute but first of all, for some of our listeners who aren’t familiar with the term, can you give a little bit of a context? What do you mean by that and how does it shape library spaces?

Fobazi [02:16]: Vocational awe is defined as the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in notions that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred—and therefore beyond critique.

So to break that down a little bit, it’s the idea that libraries are inherently good because they provide access to all, have diverse collections, and champion free speech. [It’s the idea that] they’re inherently sacred in that the are often named safe spaces or sometimes even awe-inspiring. Finally, [it’s the idea] that libraries are beyond critique because they’re the soul of the community or the last bastion of democracy.

Cathy [03:15]: Hearing you describe those, there’s so many connections to academia. This narrative of certainly a workplace being beyond critique, but also this emphasis on [the idea that] this isn’t a job, it’s a calling.

Fobazi: Yeah.

Cathy: This kind of sacred calling that we have to teach or to do research or to work in library or archive spaces—so many connections here and it’s really problematic because it hides a whole bunch of stuff.

Fobazi [03:43]: Yeah, exactly. I definitely don’t see vocational awe as just a library thing. I’m a librarian and so that’s the context that I work within. But I definitely see it in a lot of professions that are driven by missions rather than by practicality. Education is definitely another field where it’s driven more by calling. Also social work.

The interesting thing is, and one that I definitely want to explore more, is that it tends to be very feminized fields that have a lot of this mission-driven rhetoric. Being a teacher, being a social worker, being a librarian—they all are majority feminized fields. So I think that there is definitely something about the way gender plays a role that is interesting about vocational awe.

[05:00] If we’re talking specifically about librarianship, the problem right with vocational awe is that no field is beyond critique. Every institution exists within a white supremacist, patriarchal society. Ignoring that leads to marginalizing people.

Also, by thinking of libraries as inherently good because they provide access to all, we ignore the fact that in many cases the policies show that they’re not actually giving access to all people. The “undesirable,” whether it be in the time of segregation where libraries weren’t open to Black people or now with the policies against the homeless or the mentally ill. Any population that is seen as undesirable, policies are used to exclude them.

If we’re saying that libraries are inherently sacred because they are safe spaces or sanctuaries, they’re only safe spaces for the privileged and the sanctuary is for those who are deemed worthy. Again, to say that the field is beyond critique because it is the last bastion of democracy when it in fact upholds and continues to uphold white supremacy and ignore valid critiques actually, in and of itself, chips away at the democratic values that libraries espouse to hold.

Cathy [06:29]: I’m curious what kinds of connections or maybe solidarity opportunities we can find or that you’ve explored in in your work between, say, faculty, graduate students, librarians, archivists, community folks, and readers to create library spaces or archive spaces that are not run through vocational awe?

Fobazi [06:52]: I think the biggest way to start to deconstruct vocational awe is one, to understand that it exists. You can’t fight a problem unless you know it’s there.

Two, is to actually start to work together in dismantling this concept. Vocational awe is so dangerous in a lot of ways because it isolates everyone into specific bubbles. Because no one’s actually working together, everyone’s trying to do everything all the time. So a librarian is trying to be a social worker, be a lawyer, be an accountant and help with all of these problems that are happening, that the students are bringing to them.

Same thing for faculty. A faculty [member] is not only helping with the academic part but often taking on that student support service role as well because no one’s actually talking to each other because they believe, as you said, it’s a calling. So whatever problems that they are seeing or encountering, it’s their duty to fix them themselves.

By working together and actually talking to the other departments and units on campus, we can start to shoulder the complex problems together rather than burning out as we try to solve everything by ourselves.

Cathy [08:21]: I’m curious how this works with unionization because I take your point about these groups, particularly on college campuses but I’m sure there are analogous examples elsewhere. These groups are kept quite apart in their daily work, their community work, how they’re treated by administration, and by whether they’re unionized or not unionized if they can, particularly in the case of adjuncts.

I wonder if there’s potential there, maybe strategies there? Or is that the reason why librarians are often in a different union than the adjuncts who are in a different union than the tenure-track faculty who are in a different union than the graduate students. It seems like there are these structural barriers to this kind of collaboration.

Fobazi [09:04]: Yeah, I definitely think that unionization is a way to start to dismantle vocational awe. As to your question as to why all of these units are in different union structures and the structural barriers to working as a collective, I mean white supremacy in general wants to make sure that everyone is siloed and no one is talking to each other because that is how power can continue to be kept by the few instead of by the many. So I definitely think that physical unions, actually unionizing, is definitely a way to start to dismantle vocational awe.

But also, if unionization isn’t possible because you’re in an a right-to-work state or there are other legal and social barriers to physical unionization, starting to think of yourselves as a collective is one way to start to build those bridges and therefore understand that, again, you don’t have to do it all by yourself. There are people either in your department or on campus or in your organization that are there to help you.

[10:20] Things like overwork and burnout happen partly because there are no structures in place to alleviate that. So working together with the other people in your unit or department or organization, whatever it may be, and just saying, “Hey, we are all going through the same thing. If we decide as a group that we are not going to answer emails on the weekends,” for an example. Then an administration can’t point to any one person and say, “Oh, but you know, Leslie, she answers emails at 2:00 AM; she answers emails on a Sunday. Why can’t you be more like Leslie?” There’s no Leslie to use as a leverage point to continue to marginalize people.

Cathy [11:24]: I want to talk more about how this taps into your broader approach to librarianship and to knowledge production and I think turning to your blog actually might be a really good way to do this. Your blog has one of the best titles I think I’ve come across: it’s called WTF is a Radical Librarian. First of all, is there a story behind that title?

Fobazi [11:45]: It was a little bit of a cheeky way to demonstrate what I and some of the other librarians of color in my network, specifically women of color, have felt in terms of the discrepancies between espoused values of librarianship, of academia, and the realities of it.

So often, especially when you are the type of person who speaks out, the idea of a person of color speaking out is really desirable by organizations because they want to tokenize you. They say, “Look, we have this person. Not only is she a person of color, but she speaks out and is trying to make feel better. She’s great for bottom line, for equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI).” However, once you’re in the organization, then all of those things that they use to promote their EDI work to other universities, to other spaces, becomes problematic. Like we wanted you to speak out but not about our institution. We wanted you to speak up, but now you’re doing it too much. We wanted you to be loud, but now that you’re here, your loudness is being translated as anger. So it’s just like, you want a radical librarian but you don’t. So WTF is a radical librarian then? That’s sort of how it came about.

Cathy [13:24]: I’m curious about the kind of radical social justice tools or frameworks that I know you bring to your work as a librarian, but also that you work to ensure that other libraries and archives spaces help to embody. What are some of the tools or frameworks that you’ve drawn from social justice movements that you want to see more libraries encompass?

Fobazi [13:49]: That’s a great question. Currently, I’m writing a book chapter with two other librarians, Anastasia Chiu and Jennifer Ferretti about how the concept of neutrality intertwines with vocational awe to uphold white supremacy. That chapter is part of Critical Race Theory in Library and Information Science, which is being published by MIT Press sometime in 2020.

I think that critical race theory is definitely one of the frameworks that librarianship would benefit from using. It talks about what is whiteness, which anyone who does social justice work knows can be hard for people to grasp. The fact that it’s not the shark but the water. When most people think of whiteness, racism, or insert any ism here, it’s the most egregious example, the extreme example: someone being called the N-word or someone taking someone’s wheelchair away or whatever it might be. So all of the points up until that extreme example are dismissed as, “Oh, you know, maybe you misheard or maybe you misunderstood or you should assume good intentions” or whatever reasons that people use to ignore and defend white supremacy and the other isms that come with it.

[15:08] Frameworks like critical race theory, feminist theory, and queer theory begin to peel back the layers of all of these structures, both explicit and implicit, that uphold white supremacy within the organization, within the unit, within the campus. Not only that, it starts to show the place of the margins as not as something to be pitied but as a place of strength.

Gloria Anzaldúa and her borderlands mestiza framework is another one that I thought was really interesting because again, she views the margins not as a place of weakness but as a place where you can really see how to make the organization or the world or whatever be a better place.

Cathy [16:35]: What are some of your favorite actual radical librarian projects or spaces that you see embodying critical race theory, feminist theory, and queer theory—these forms of intersectional analysis and critique that we want to see more broadly taken up. What are some of your favorite projects that are doing this kind of work?

Fobazi [16:57]: Well, as I mentioned, one of my coauthors, Jennifer Ferretti, is one of my favorite radical librarians. She actually, with Charlotte Roh and Jennifer Brown, created the counterspace We Here. We Here is a space only for people of color and that is enforced. It’s not people of color and their white husbands or wives or brothers or sisters. It’s very clearly only a space for people of color, which I think is really important, especially because we’re only 10 to 15 percent of the field. So it can be a space where those counternarratives can be generated, where counter-storytelling can begin, as well as a place where you can commiserate with stories about our daily lives, whether it be microaggressions or all of the examples of white supremacy and how it impacts the micro and macro without necessarily having to explain why it’s a microaggression or why it’s white supremacy. All of that background knowledge is already there and therefore it can actually be about thinking about solutions, moving beyond the 101, in other words.

[18:14] Another person, well two people actually, are the editors and masterminds behind the Critical Race Theory in Library and Information Science book: Sophia Leung and Jorge [López-McKnight]…I cannot remember his last name right now. They are definitely two radical librarians whom I really respect.

April Hathcock and Charlotte Roh, again, the person who was one of the admins for the We Here space. They are doing great things in scholarly communication, getting publishers to see how white their collections are, how whiteness informs who they accept as book proposals or articles and how to begin to change that.

In terms of archives, Rachel Winston, she’s the Black diaspora archivist in Austin. She is doing amazing work with decolonizing archives and special collections.

There’s so many. I think one of the positives about being someone who lives in the margins is that you really can create a network of people who are doing similar things to what you’re doing and work together to slowly radicalize the field in whatever aspect that might be.

Cathy [20:01]: I’m curious how you see your work in all of these kinds of projects bringing together your interest in academia, in art or creativity, in critical thinking, and in social justice activism. What draws you to that nexus?

Fobazi [20:18]: I won’t lie. Part of it is the fact that I feel like I have to. Once you start to see all the discrepancies, it’s a lot harder to ignore the unfairness of it, the inequalities that you’re seeing on the day to day basis.

In terms of all these intersections with art and activism and academia, I’m also just interested these spaces in general. My mom is an educator, so education was always something that drew me. My partner has her PhD in communication, specifically focusing on how users influence the industry and vice versa. Seeing things like popular culture, how people can influence and actually change the industry and the systems put in place to marginalize, is so fascinating to me.

Cathy [21:24]: This brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to talk with folks about and it gets at that big why behind all of these varied projects that you’re involved with. That’s that version of a better world that you’re working towards. So I will ask you this giant question, but I think it’s an important question that we often don’t get enough opportunities to talk with each other about, especially when have to spend so much of our time fighting. What kind of world do you want?

Fobazi [21:53]: That is a giant question, but an amazing one. One of my favorite authors is NK Jemisin, who wrote the Broken Earth trilogy. She’s a speculative fiction writer. In The Stone Sky, which is one of her books, she says, “There are stages to the process of being betrayed by your society. One is jolted from a place of complacency by the discovery of difference, by hypocrisy, by inexplicable or incongruous ill treatment. What follows is a time of confusion—unlearning what one thought to be the truth. Immersing oneself in the new truth. And then a decision must be made.”

[22:57] Now I’m going to paraphrase while before it was a direct quote. So the decisions are either accepting your fate, swallowing your pride, doing your best to assimilate despite whatever harm that might be inflicted it on you. Another is to demand the impossible; to say this isn’t right. We have to change it. We are not inferior. Whoever the who we are, we do not deserve what’s happening to us.

Then the only way there can be peace is through conflict. I know that conflict can be kind of a four letter word when we talk about it because conflict is seen as inherently violent. I don’t necessarily disagree that conflict isn’t violent, but I think that in order to get to that better world, where there isn’t a population or peoples that are treated badly, that are subjugated, that are marginalized, I think that it requires a total shifting of the paradigm that we currently live in.

[24:07] So that perfect world, that better world, the one that we’re hopefully moving towards, even if it is in a slightly meandering way, that better world is one where we don’t have to necessarily take power from the margins because there are none. It’s great that we on the margins are starting to see it as a place of strength rather than a place of subjugation. But a better world would mean that there was no subjugation happening. A better world would mean that we wouldn’t have to speak softly in order to make changes to pacify those in power. Where change wouldn’t be seen as inherently violent.

Too often conflict, that four letter word, is seen as synonymous with change in that any change is conflict. But in a better world change would be embraced, not seen as divisive, not seen as trying to hurt someone.

[25:23] Going back going to the metaphor, equality is not pie. There’s no taking away. If equity is to occur, it’s not pieces of pie. As people from the margins take more equity, it doesn’t mean that there’s less equity for everyone else. Rather it is, hopefully, a renewable resource, one that never runs dry. That is obviously a long way from now and perhaps idealistic. But when I think of a better world, that’s what I think of: a place where change is embraced and people work as a collective rather than working in opposition to each other and to one’s own interest.

It’s also a place where conflict is not seen as a four letter word but as a fulcrum to a better time, a better organization, a healthier world.

Cathy: Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of the ways that you imagine and create otherwise.

Fobazi: Thank you for having me. This was super fun to be a part of.

Cathy [26:27  ]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]


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