Taking a Stand Against Islamophobia | ALA Annual 2017

Deepa Iyer discussed the hostility directed at Muslims and advised librarians on ways they could make a difference.

Photo by Les Talusan

“How can libraries be safe, brave spaces of inclusion at a time of rampant Islamophobia and xenophobia?” That was the main question posed by Deepa Iyer, senior fellow at the Center for Social Inclusion, a national policy strategy organization dedicated to addressing structural racism, during the panel “Solidarity in Action: Combating Xenophobia and Islamophobia,” at the American Library Association (ALA) annual conference on June 25 in Chicago.

Iyer, author of We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future (New Pr., 2015), discussed how with the Trump administration’s executive order preventing travelers from Muslim-majority countries, many libraries face a growing challenge when it comes to ensuring that all members of the community feel welcome. She acknowledged the struggle ahead—and called on librarians to meet the challenge.

Iyer discussed the hate crimes perpetuated against those who are Muslim, or perceived to be so, as a result of the Trump administration’s hateful rhetoric, from the bullying faced by girls who wear the hijab to the vandalizing of mosques in the United States, and the risk of deportation. These incidents, she said, lead to a fear of violence, result in shame and self-editing, and have a “chilling effect on civic and political participation.” Many Muslims in the United States isolate themselves from the world, avoiding school, work, or other public places, she said.

Librarians have the opportunity to oppose this culture of fear and suspicion, Iyer maintained: “Now, more than ever, librarians need to be nonneutral.” She stressed that a consistent statement of values emphasizing a commitment to inclusivity is vital in order to make all members of the community feel accepted in the library. Iyer encouraged librarians to make that statement readily available through as many access points as possible, such as on the library’s website and through newspapers consumed by members of a Muslim community.

Iyer urged librarians to open up their spaces to other organizations. Because of the rise of hate crimes, Muslim groups might feel unsafe holding an event in a mosque, she noted. Offering the library as a space is one way to be an ally.

Diversity workshops vs. antiracist training

Iyer drew a distinction between diversity workshops and antiracist training, highlighting the importance of libraries offering training to their staff to prepare them to take a stand against attitudes of xenophobia and Islamophobia. While diversity and cultural competency workshops tend to celebrate differences, antiracist training forces participants to examine the underlying societal power structures that lead to systematic xenophobia and to address their own biases.

According to Iyer, antiracist training doesn’t always leave participants feeling optimistic, the way diversity or multicultural sessions do. But it’s crucial to understanding the roots of oppression. “We need to talk about power and privilege. Feel-good multicultural workshops are not enough. Discomfort is important.”

Iyer wrapped the session by posing difficult questions to the group. What would they do if a security guard in their library responded to complaints from patrons about a woman wearing a hijab by asking her to leave? Audience members noted that correcting the security guard and ensuring that library staff are properly educated are imperative. Iyer agreed and emphasized a strategy centered on the needs of the Muslim woman and her community. A public apology that shows the library’s accountability in such a situation is also key. Iyer stated that it was important, too, to speak to the patrons who complained, as their response reflects an ignorance that should be acknowledged.

What about if U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) showed up at the library asking for the names of patrons who had registered for English language courses? How can librarians protect patrons from potential deportation? Though members of the audience agreed that libraries have a long history of safeguarding patron privacy and protecting this kind of information, Iyer noted that these kinds of situations are arising more frequently—and that in the current political climate, eventually libraries may be legally compelled to comply with such a request. Education and awareness are key, she said. “Know your rights. Speak with community members.”

Iyer concluded by appealing to librarians to commit to fighting against xenophobia, noting that even small or subtle efforts can make a difference.

Deepa Iyer’s appearance at the 2017 ALA Annual Conference was made possible by the organization’s Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association, the Social Responsibilities Round Table, the Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table, and the Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services.

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