Shhhhhh. No, really.*
June 7, 2018 7:22 AM   Subscribe

I work in a public library in a deeply segregated county in the U.S., and just transferred to the department which oversees collection development--what to buy, where to send it, if it merits replacing it if it's damaged, etc. Every three weeks or so, the department manager makes some snide comment about one or both of the branches which are in a predominantly black neighborhood and/or about works by black authors. I don't know how to get this behavior to stop. Bonus difficulty: she's defensive and vengeful, clearly considers herself to have enemies, and is an extremely bad listener.

I don't really care what my boss thinks, but I do care what she does. I think that her snide comments towards two of our branches is a racist dogwhistle since she only jokes about those two branches, and she also has made more than a few snide comments about works by black authors. I think that her behavior encourages an attitude of contempt towards our patrons, and that this is clearly a problem. We are a public library. We serve the entire public, not just the sections of it my boss doesn't hold in contempt.

I'm generally not keen on sharing examples of racist behavior, but in hopes of forestalling the "maybe you're imagining it" line of answer, here are two interactions we've had so far:

[Brand-new book arrives with all the pages rippled. I show it to my boss.]
Boss: "Send it to [branch in predominantly black neighborhood]; they'll be happy to have it."
Me: "They'll be happy to have this book? It looks like it's been dropped in the bathtub."
Boss: "It was a joke. They wouldn't check it out anyway."
Me: [wondering if she means that no one would check it out because of the shape it's in, or if she's making some sneering comment about circulation figures. I'm enraged and can't think of a way to ask for clarification without showing that rage.] "I see. No, seriously, what should I do with it?"
Boss: "Send it to [branch in predominantly black neighborhood]."
Me: "..."
Boss: "Seriously."

[The subject of attrition comes up]
Boss: "I don't see why we keep buying Zane books; they're just going to go missing."
Me: "You could say the same thing about Disney movies. Or Sandman comics. Or manga. Dragon Ball. Naruto. Assassination Classroom."
Boss: "Well..." [trails off, changes the subject.]

Most people in my department are even less confrontational than I am--and I haven't even been challenging her as much as I should be on this, because she's such a terrible listener and I need her to understand exactly what I'm taking issue with when I talk to her about it.

I'm in the union and think that getting fired is extremely unlikely (and, while obviously I'd prefer to remain employed, I could afford up to six months' unemployment). I just need to know the best possible way to approach this situation to get my boss's behavior to stop. It's obnoxious, it's unprofessional, it's unethical. And it's creating a hostile workplace environment.

*Yeah, yeah, yeah, you could make the argument that she has a First Amendment right to say this sort of stuff. You could also make the argument that, per Garcetti v Ceballos, as a public servant her free speech rights on the job and about the job are severely curtailed.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. This is awful. I’m not sure, but can you talk to your union rep for ideas?
posted by bluedaisy at 7:36 AM on June 7, 2018 [12 favorites]

Just to make sure before the various others chime in here - you're documenting these interactions, right? Like, specific words she is saying, your responses, dates and times? Make sure you are doing that with your above examples and others. I'm not sure 100% what to do with that documentation (but someone here will know), but I know documentation is key to having something actionable take place.
posted by juniperesque at 7:37 AM on June 7, 2018 [27 favorites]

Decide what your goal is here. “Getting her to stop” sounds like it will be tantamount to changing her entire worldview, racism and entitlement to be racist included. “Making sure the public library serves everyone and is not a hostile, racist environment” is a more limited — and perhaps more doable, since it doesn’t involve the emotional labor of adopting a gleeful racist — goal.

FWIW, she sounds gleeful about her racism. Those are not generally people who want to change.

I don’t know exactly how to launch a campaign to remove someone like this from a workplace, and I suspect it varies, based on the particulars. But I know it starts with documenting everything. Daily, detailed, contemporaneous notes of every racist thing she says, does, implies, whatever. Does she routinely discriminate with regards to resource allocation or anything else? Take notes on everything.

Hopefully someone here will know of more concrete steps to take with the evidence you accumulate.

Finally...Are there any POC working with you? I might be more concerned with their welfare first.
posted by schadenfrau at 7:39 AM on June 7, 2018 [14 favorites]

Would saying something like, "Wow, that sounded really racist!" in a fairly friendly tone be a possibility? With the tone being light and equivalent to "You've got something stuck in your teeth," like you're just helpfully pointing out that she needs to make a correction. And then NOT getting drawn into a debate about it ("Oh, sure, I get that's not what you may have meant. Anyway, what should I do with this book?") Even if she just stops because she thinks you're "all PC" or whatever, that would still be an improvement.

And yes, I would pre-emptively talk to your union rep.
posted by lazuli at 7:45 AM on June 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

I don't fully understand why the second example is explicitly racist (libraries simply have attrition for all materials? She didn't say only XX branch has attrition? If you use this example to prove your point to it might not be helpful to your cause, might be used to argue you are too sensitive by someone who isn't on your side) but the first is so far beyond the pale, it's an outrage beyond argument. If possible, say "this makes me very uncomfortable. These are our clients." If you feel you can't tell her directly to stop making disparaging remarks about the people she is paid by tax dollars to serve, I would go above her head to as high a library official as you can find, someone beyond the department. I would talk to a union rep at the same time so if suddenly you're fired for some kind of vague incompetence, there is proof for YOUR protection.
She is not going to change, and she is going to resent you. Your best hope is that she's scared of your outing her. She will have plenty of racist supporters. They also know their world is ending.
posted by nantucket at 7:49 AM on June 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

I don't fully understand why the second example is explicitly racist

Because it focused on an African American author who has a predominantly African American audience.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:54 AM on June 7, 2018 [22 favorites]

Agree with documenting every instance and taking it to the union for help. I would also start asking for an explanation to every one of these comments. She's leaving just enough dangling out there to imply racism, but let her hang herself by her own petard.

Ex 1: "Could you explain why we should send it to that branch?" or "I'm not sure I understood, what did you mean by 'they won't check it out?'"

Ex 2: "No, I'd like to understand what you mean. Could you explain why you are citing the Zane series specifically?"
posted by goggie at 8:15 AM on June 7, 2018 [17 favorites]

You can continue to try to push back in a serious but not aggressive tone. "That hasn't been my experience." "Why would you say that? What does it mean?" "People could interpret that as racist." But I agree with people above, this sounds like someone who really gets a kick out of being racist and regards it as a way of building her team. She's unlikely to change. If it weren't for the risks of proceeding further, I would say this step isn't worth bothering with.

Document, document, document.

Before you do anything further, talk to your union rep and get some idea of (a) what your protections are; (b) what the complaint process is, and if it's meant to handle this kind of situation; and (c) maybe most importantly, how likely the union is to back you up if it comes to a dispute. If your rep tries to get you to minimize, you will need to tread much more carefully.

The next step would either be grieving (if that's appropriate) or going to HR/the ombud/the diversity officer. But you want to get all your ducks in a row first. Ultimately you may find yourself going to the EEOC, and the more documentation you have, the better.

It's exhausting, having to deal with these people whom Trump has emboldened. But it does sound like a situation that calls for action, if you can do it without immolating your career. Good luck.
posted by praemunire at 8:15 AM on June 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

I don't fully understand why the second example is explicitly racist

And because it suggests that African-American patrons steal books from the library, while members of other races with other book preferences do not.

In addition to documenting everything your boss is saying, I would do a little research into the policies your county has on workplace conduct, equity, etc. It will help your case if you can also point to specific county policies your boss is violating.

I would start with a plan of documenting every incident over the course of 30-60 days, then sit down with your union rep to talk about what protections you have when you go to HR. Then I would go to your county HR department (bring your rep or cc them on the email you send to HR) and explain your concerns from both the experience you are having as an employee and as the impact she has on library patrons.

And if, after sufficient time, no action is taken, I might reach out to a sympathetic elected county official. An elected official might be able to change county policy, might be able to get better anti-bias, anti-racism training instituted, can generally elevate the issue and put people on notice that this kind of behavior isn't tolerated.
posted by brookeb at 8:19 AM on June 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think that her behavior encourages an attitude of contempt towards our patrons, and that this is clearly a problem.

I do too.

This sucks! It is possible you could find some allies at your state library association if there's an Intellectual Freedom Office, for example. If not, feel free to talk to the national level people (Jamie LaRue is super nice as is Deborah Caldwell-Stone). I agree with others on a few points

- document document document
- push back using more specific language as people have indicated (and be clear that she can think what she wants but her ACTIONS at work are what you are objecting to)
- learn about grievance procedure
- make sure you're being strong in your allyship to POC, if and when you decide to make a thing out of this, consider if there are any who may also have secure positions and might want to help (until then, leave them mostly out of it otherwise because it can be sort of re-microaggressing to have to talk to well meaning folks about other people's racism - you seem like you're being considerate, just tossing that out there)

You can always, if this is a thing you are into, start pushing back on the idea of "separate but equal" accommodations as something we've super outgrown in the library world and something that should absolutely not be part of anyone's current work strategy and how we no longer have "white libraries" and black libraries" in the south but we did and it was crappy. There is also the Black Caucus of the ALA who might be worth contacting since they have probably heard it all (and would be my one exception to not asking PoC for a referendum on this). They have a pretty active facebook presence. I'm not sure if there's any other way I could help as a loudmouth librarian, but if so please let me know.
posted by jessamyn at 8:25 AM on June 7, 2018 [18 favorites]

IANAL, but racist speech at work is not protected and is potentially harassment. Many people look white, but have African heritage, or have Black spouses, etc. And, you are genuinely distressed at being subjected to persistent, unwanted racism.

Every time, I would make noted in my personal email on a major platform, i.e., gmail, and mail it to myself. That gives it a good timestamp. You can describe the tone of voice. Be as specific and detailed as possible, and the only emotion is your reaction to her words. Note who was present, time, date. Document as much past behavior as you can remember. I would talk to the ACLU and NAACP, probably anonymously, and get advice about any action.

Once you have some documentation, you have a bit more job security, as if she is paranoid and vindictive, she may try to get rid of you. Is there any affirmative action you can take, like meeting with branches to see how diverse their collections are and how they might like to expand that, helping with displays, or being part of any committee that is anti-racism. The ALA Black Caucus is a great idea.

I'm sorry this is happening to you, and appreciate you standing up to racism; this is the casual racism at work that keeps racism in place.
posted by theora55 at 9:10 AM on June 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

I don't know how you can get her to stop, except to keep pushing back. One thing you could consider is to stop asking her what to do unless something explicitly requires her signature. Make the ethical choices and decisions and don't ask for her input anymore.

Maybe look around for local people who do workshops on diversity, racial equity, implicit bias, etc. Send those to HR as suggestions for training on system-wide staff training days (assuming you have something like that).

Talk to your union rep about all of this.
posted by purple_bird at 9:15 AM on June 7, 2018

She's terrible, and I would very much like her to experience some professional censure over her terribleness. Document, document, and have a chat with your union rep.

I also don't want you to get any grief, so here's another possible strategy in pushing back: Visit those branches. Chat with the librarians, volunteers, and maybe a few patrons there. And then be excited and explicitly pro-them, and their work, at work. (Librarians are lovely, the branches likely have a few great programs or workshops you can extoll, etc. Read a few of the authors, too.) Get ahead of her snideness and dog whistling, rather than trying for corrections after she's said something horrible. Give her reasons to give pause, before she spews what's she's been spewing to you.

[Thanks for already doing the right thing, and in seeking ways to do more.]
posted by Iris Gambol at 9:47 AM on June 7, 2018 [11 favorites]

This sounds like the hill you do want to die on.

Say things such as:
Wow, are you really that horrible?
You need to retire.
I'm reporting you for that.

Ask here to watch Jay Smooth.

Read excerpts to her from Coates' The Case for Reparations.
posted by at at 9:57 AM on June 7, 2018

I am a TERRIBLE person, and if I worked for this boss I would be absolutely lovely and understanding towards them.

Every time they said something racist I would ask them super politely without emotion to explain what they mean by X statement. I would develop a list of non-inflammatory phrases and deploy my "clueless" questions at will. I would be relentless in this pursuit.

I am a bad person because I would enjoy watching this person explain themselves over and over again. Eventually I would hope hearing their toxic feelings outloud in their own voice would switch on a lightbulb for them.
posted by jbenben at 10:08 AM on June 7, 2018 [15 favorites]

Do the branch managers have any say in collection development for their libraries? Do you know any of them? They may not know what kind of bullshit goes on at the main office. Try reaching out to them. Do they feel they're getting enough new books? Do they like the selection that gets sent their way? You may find that the branch managers can document a long history of their branches getting proportionately fewer resources (books/media/computers/personnel). Or maybe not. Are there policies in place to ensure equity in services to all residents? Are they followed? There probably are and this nasty boss of yours is probably violating them. The examples you give aren't strong enough to make a case, start collecting real data if you can.
I'm a librarian, feel free to memail me if you need support or want to run ideas by me.
posted by mareli at 2:59 PM on June 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

I would document everything and wait. Eventually you'll find something about your manager that is a sure fire grievance. Note that I'm talking about a clear violation of policy or your contract, not anything related to her racism. Gol through the grievance process. Once the grievance is finished anything she does to you for the next little while can be read as retaliation. It puts you in a stronger position to decide what you're going to do about her racism. Keep in mind that this is America. Racism is endemic and people and especially people in power may be stone cold racist but really don't like to acknowledge that they're racist and they react badly to people who point it out.
posted by rdr at 3:51 PM on June 7, 2018

Agree with comments above that there's not much use in trying to change the attitude of this individual. Rather that attempt to move that particular mountain, I suggest you go around it.

If yours is a publicly-financed institution, is there a Board that oversees your expenditures? Are there any public watchdog groups that you can quietly and discreetly funnel information too? Regarding discrepancies by branch in allocation of funds or materials, or regarding discrepancies in percentage of authors of color relative to the demographics of the various neighborhoods that your institution serves.

It sounds like she is not elected to her role, but ultimately there is an elected official who oversees the budget of your institution. Ideally that person has a vested interest in making sure that the interests of all of their constituents are being addressed equitably.

There has got to be a member of the public somewhere who can raise this issue publicly, either with the Board or with the elected tepresentative, that you can support subversively without putting your own job on the line or creating a hostile work environment for yourself. Look for that person.

In the course of pursuing the equitable distribution of materials, hopefully that will either put enough of a lens on your manager, or at least make her uncomfortable enough, to move to a role with different responsibilities that doesn't have as much direct impact on the public. At the very least though, it should get the materials to your patrons.
posted by vignettist at 8:22 PM on June 7, 2018

First Amendment rights refer only to government interference in what you say. It's an overused and mistaken assumption that it gives someone the right to say whatever they want.

In addition, there are laws about workplace discrimination. You are in a tough situation. You could just accept her behavior, leave and find another job, transfer to another section of the library system with a new boss, or you can talk honestly with her, telling her that her comments make you feel bad. If she retaliates or even ignores you, then you can go to HR.

As a first step either research or talk with someone who can fill you in on how a "hostile work environment" is defined, both in federal law and in state law. If this is a public library, then the city/town you are in will probably have similar rules. She is creating a hostile environment and that is actionable. One strategy is to say her behavior is affecting your work. This makes her racist remarks secondary to the more actionable hostile environment. I would also document her behavior with as much detail as you can.

I am not a lawyer. So, talking with someone with some legal experience in this area would be a good idea.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 1:18 PM on June 8, 2018

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