Committing to Making Change – Karen Macfarlane

In December 2019, archivists across the UK met to discuss structural racism in the sector. The resulting statement to ‘End structural racism in Britain’s archives sector’ was signed by hundreds of people, and caused some contention on the Archives-NRA list-serv during discussions following the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in June 2020.

White fragility was identified as a key problem within the statement.

For my dissertation for my MA in Archives and Records Management at the University of Liverpool, I was interested in understanding “How do UK archivists perceive ‘white supremacy’ in the UK archives sector?” To answer this question, I used a questionnaire asking for views on the meaning of ‘white supremacy’ and its impact on archival praxes.

Out of 96 participants in my study, 40 (42%) signed the statement, 46 (48%) did not, with 10 declining to say whether they did or not.

Looking at who didn’t sign, there was a near even split between those unaware of the statement (21) – somewhat surprising given the discussion on the list-serv and Twitter! – and those giving “Other” reasons (18), with a small number of people stating they did “not believe there is a problem with structural racism in Britain’s archives sector”.

Another problem identified in the statement included the barriers to workforce diversity and inclusion.

A little must be said about these participants who “do not believe there is a problem with structural racism in Britain’s archives sector”. Their feelings are borne out by their non-constructive feedback for other questions, which criticised aspects of the statement’s actions as “vague”, and challenged someone to “define racist records”, and even “define structural racism”.

The feedback for “Other” reasons for not signing was mainly critical of the statement. Some people did not believe in the effectiveness of petitions to bring about change (though it is important to note that the statement is not petitioning anyone; a petition site was simply used to allow people to sign the statement), some thought it tokenistic, and one somewhat defeatist respondent stated that it will be impossible to eradicate structural racism if it continues to exist in society. While these perspectives seem reasonable, others demonstrated a defensiveness, with respondents claiming to resist “bullying” to sign and accusing those promoting the statement as “actively promoting violence not community”. Emails from June’s Archives-NRA list-serv were cited as evidence of people being “labelled as racist and in denial of white supremacy” for not signing. The statement’s “strident” tone was cited as giving an impression of intolerance to those who may “disagree with aspects of its approach”. The publishing of the names of the signatories “created additional tension” and one person stated that the authors read “unthinking racial prejudice” “the wrong way, through the wrong lens” and that they unquestioningly used American concepts when race relations in Britain differed.

The statement outlines commitments to individual and collective actions to confront white supremacy in the sector.

On the other hand, looking at the reasons given for signing the statement, the impression is of a desire for meaningful change and to “hold the profession and institutions accountable” for the existence of ‘white supremacy’ in UK archival institutions. Some signatories see the statement as an “important first step towards dismantling white supremacy in the archives profession”, for change that is “long overdue”. Shockingly, one person said their “close friends” had “left the archives sector due to the exclusion and racism they faced.” For them and people like them, the statement is seen to be a “rallying point” and a “driver for discussion across the sector” for those who see “apathy and complacency” from others over such scandals as the twitterstorm of 2019.

For me, this piece of feedback from someone who signed, embodies why the statement was created, and why it is direct in its voice:

I signed this petition because our sector is overwhelmingly pale and stale: that is to say, the workforce is more than 97% white and for far, far too long many of us have been blinded by our own white privilege and have made little to no genuine commitment to or progress towards becoming anti-racist. This petition, and the manifesto that frames it, ostensibly represents a significant step towards disrupting that rampant despondency, changing the way things are done, and – crucially – naming the problem. This is crucial because, as Adrienne Rich says, ‘In a world where language and naming are power, silence is oppression, is violence.’

In sharing this feedback, I hope this blog can help continue the conversation started by the statement. Many of the reasons against signing for me lacked clear understanding of the issues. The feedback is also a reminder that communication is fraught: Where one person hears a bullying tone, another claims it as “heated debate”. Communication between those who created the statement, those who would not sign and those who did sign needs to continue. The pandemic and the crisis our country and profession face as regards health, our jobs and the economy mean there hasn’t been a better time for us all to stick together. The statement’s actions are not complete answers but they are conversation starters and motivators for change. Togetherness and solidarity – and importantly, communication – can help achieve understanding and positive change.

You can join in this communication on the ARA Together Discord server, which has channels devoted to diversity, and for the more radical there is also the Activist Archivist server.

Karen Macfarlane, student at Liverpool University Centre for Archive Studies

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