In today’s day and age we hear a lot about tolerance, how not to be offensive, the evils of racism and sexism. But it wasn’t until I began working at the local public library that I realized just how bad it has gotten.
In the past I have worked on crews that in Orwell’s world of 1984 would immediately be sent to room 101. They seemed insensitive, harsh, uncaring, and full of disdain for the outside world. Sexist insinuations, racist jokes, lewd comments, and immoral stories flew about the cold shop room every morning. Yet these men believed very little of what they joked about. I saw them defend each other on a daily basis from the condescension of the customers. Though they lived very worldly lives they were men of character, who believed each person was special and they had unique gifts to be shared with others. As I worked with these social outcasts I found that though they were almost unbearably rough around the edges they each had a heart of gold and would do anything for those they cared about. They are now some of my closest friends.
I thought that I could never work with a crew as rough as these men. But, as the frost cut the season short I found myself looking for new employment which I found in the seemingly quiet, sophisticated public library. “If I can handle the boys on the crew I can handle any crew!”
“We believe everyone has a right to express their individuality… we encourage our employees to be themselves so that they are more honest with the patrons.” These were among some of the instructions and comments in my first hour inside the book filled building. Surely I could do quite a bit of good here. If I am instructed to be myself and express what I believe as an individual I could help the community more than I thought I could. Apparently, librarians are allowed to promote certain books, put up displays based on a theme, and offer generic suggestions to the patrons. With this in mind, and with the election quickly approaching, I sought to put up a book display on the founding of the United States featuring titles such as “The Constitution of the United States of America,” “The Declaration of Independence,” “Selected Writings of James Madison,” and the list goes on. It was then I learned the unspoken rules about expressing oneself and promoting topics:
-You can express your personal beliefs as long as they are all inclusive and non-offensive to anyone.
-You can express yourself as long as you don’t include any religious beliefs unless you are an atheist, then it is ok.
-You can express yourself as long as you are anti-gun.
-You can express yourself as long as you are not pro-life.
-You can express yourself as long as you are pro LGBTQ.
-You can express yourself as long as it does not go against the mainstream media.
But all of this seemed to go against what I had been told. I thought I was not allowed to promote any one political agenda. Or that I could not promote anything that was proven to be untrue. And even if none of this were true I failed to see how pushing books that spoke about a history which was, in fact, true could go against anything I had been told not to do. And still, instead of a patriotic display of American history, before the election we put up nothing.
With all this in mind I figured that we must only be allowed to promote fiction books, things like our favorite mystery novel, romance, or young adult action series. Then the children’s display went up. Books with titles like “What if Bear Doesn’t Want to be a Bear Anymore?” or “Rainbow is my Favorite Color!” and topics that talk about how white people don’t want you to vote. Apparently being a patriot and promoting patriotism to adults is offensive and exclusive, but telling kids in the first and second grade that they might not be the sex they thought they were and that white people are evil is tolerant and accepting.
My “intolerant” crew from the summer was far more accepting of people’s individual thoughts than this staff was. I just could not believe it! The rough men of the labor crew in the summer were much better and less hypocritical than the soft, gentle women of the library. Never, ever, judge a book by the cover.
Then I started my “Diversity Training.” I thought this was the thing of jokes. That there was no way people actually had to do this kind of thing. I had only ever heard of this before. Never had I met anyone who actually had to go through it. And here I was, sitting through hell.
In my training I have learned that I am not allowed to be a racist but due to me already being white I am inherently a racist and there is little I can do about it other than admit to the fact that I am a racist and promise to make amends for it. I also learned that because I am a racist I think white people to be superior to all other races, which is, in fact, not true since I must consider other races to be superior to myself, like African Americans, for example.
Furthermore, due to my being a woman, I am also a victim. That there is nothing I can do to escape my victimhood I have been assured. And, if I have the audacity to believe that I am not a victim, that I take responsibility for my own actions, it is because the men in my life have manipulated me to think that way so as to cast the blame from themselves. I was reassured that acknowledging my own victimhood is the first step towards becoming “a survivor.”
And lastly, I was instructed that I must never participate in micro-aggressions. This one was new to me. Micro-aggression can basically be defined as inferred passive aggression where there actually is none. For example, I am not allowed to compliment anyone on anything. If I were to compliment Jane on the good job she did handling that horrible patron that would imply that in the past she had done an awful job handling a patron and that is offensive and derogatory so I must say nothing.
When I finished this training my co-worker, Prudence, commented, in a joking but also serious manner, that I must be a conservative. Astonished at her deduction, since the only thing I had ever done to show what religion or political affiliation I had was my attempted history display, I asked why she thought so. “Because only a conservative would think that that training was as awful as you clearly did. You were making faces and tensing up throughout the whole thing.”
While everything that I had thus far seen and experienced was not to my liking it was the week before Thanksgiving that I witnessed perhaps the saddest part.
My favorite librarian is Theresa. She is in her 60’s and is recovering from breast cancer. She is very spunky and full of sarcasm and joy. I hardly get to work with her because I work behind the counter and in the stacks and she works in an office in the back, but my favorite moments are when she comes to the counter to show me how to do something or help me with a customer. Well, we just had all the carpets replaced in the library. Because of this a lot of the books were out of order since the contractors were taking them on and off the shelves. So, naturally, we had to go through all of them to make sure they were correctly ordered. I happened to be in a row with Theresa, which I was grateful for. She and I were having a grand time of the supposed miserable task. She would tease, make sarcastic comments, and laugh about them with me. She felt like the only human on the staff. I loved these interactions! Then she joked to me in front of one of the others. Immediately she got very defensive and made sure I knew she was just teasing and that she would never think ill of anyone or intentionally hurt someone’s feelings. She remained quiet the rest of the day. That night, upon reflection of my past experiences with her, I realized she only ever seemed herself when it was just her and I, never when the others were around. I still feel very honored that she thinks highly enough of me to show me who she really is. But, then, how sad that she feels she cannot be herself in front of the others. What happened to appreciating the expression of individuality?
What are the others like? Who are they? Do they actually care to know who I am? Why do they feel the need to let Big Brother dictate what they think and how they act?
Sure, the guys were rough. But I knew them and they knew me. They stood up for me when I needed help and I cared for them when they were going through rough times. We did not agree on most things, but we knew that and could talk about them openly. We respected each other and knew that our differences made us a better crew. That crew was everything the library staff thought themselves to be. We were actually all inclusive. We had a mentally handicapped guy, we had an old, old man, a high schooler, an atheist, a Catholic, a Mormon, an ex-con, a college drop out, liberals, conservatives, libertarians, religious, non-religious, and even a white supremest/science denying/holocaust-didn’t-happen/radically pro-life old man, and we all got along well enough.
At the library we work under the guise of diversity and inclusiveness but all it does is suppress the mood and depress the staff. There is a feeling of imprisonment which is inescapable; that if you make one wrong move you will be reported and fired.
Though I do not enjoy it all that much, I am grateful to be working at the library. Rather than have a remarkable impact, I think I have given them cause to wonder. Though forbidden, I am not afraid to talk about my faith and political beliefs when asked or challenged. The “tolerant” Library has taught me to be a better person, though not in the way they had intended.