Running The Gauntlet: Lives of Practicing Minority Academic Librarians

To run the gauntlet is to take part in a form of corporal punishment in which the party judged guilty is forced to run between two rows of soldiers who strike out and attack them. (Wikipedia, 2018) (Author’s note: check the details of this political illustration. Do you see parallels to academia/librarianship?)

Elizabeth Martinez Smith noted the “balancing act” dilemma Black people face as they run the gauntlet of contradictory pressures. She describes the meaning of “running the gauntlet” as smarting from the pain of prejudice even as white colleagues deny that race has any impact; maintaining excellent performance even when recognition is withheld; being smart but not too smart; being strong but not too strong; being confident but not egotistical to the point of alienation; being the butt of prejudice and not being unpleasant or abrasive; being intelligent but not arrogant; being honest but not paranoid; being confident yet modest.” (Fisher, 1991)

I think I found this quote while working on my second bibliography, which focused on racial and ethnic diversity in librarianship. The quote resonated so deeply that I immediately typed it, printed it, and hung it in my cubicle where I could clearly see it. I’ve been employed at two other libraries since then, and that same piece of paper has traveled with me and been posted in those offices as well.

Despite the sad (but true) content that the statement offers, it gave – and gives – me an ironic sense of relief; of place; of community: I am not the only one who toes these lines. I am not the only one buffeted by real and phantom smacks dealt by those who actively seek to stunt the progress of a career I enjoy immensely. I am not the only one who gets tired; who worries “What will happen if I…?” but also is determined that “I should do X because it is right.” I am not the only one with wide eyes, nose pressed flat, hands pressed open against the outside of a clear window. I am not the only one who has considered walking away. I am not the only one.

More times than I can count, I have run every contest in this gauntlet. I have felt every single blow from each side. Most often, there are non-PoC librarians, teaching faculty members, or staff on one side and (also often, non-PoC) campus administrators on the other side.  Much less times  – but still significant – a colleague who ‘looks like me’ is on one side (yay, colonization mentality!) and library users are on the other side. If I’m really honest with myself, some days it’s me on both sides (effects of the false-competition cycle of academia combined with negative bias and stereotype threat, anyone?)

When I periodically consult Fisher’s gauntlet-running observation, I think about how LIS literature covering the experiences of racial and ethnic minorities validates the idea that PoC librarians continue to encounter pre-emptive abuse or duplicitous proving-grounds in academia. But now, it’s under new or updated labels of negative experiences (or even well-meaning initiatives) like:

  • microaggressions (Alabi, 2015; Vanscoy & Bright, 2017)
  • (with a nod to my upcoming research and exploratory work associated with) low-morale (also, Kendrick, 2017)
  • vocational awe, which Ettarh has posited within the framework of White supremacy (2017); and 
  • equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) (Edwards & Fisher, 2003; Sensoy & Diangelo, 2016)

The push-pull  – and devastating outcomes – of running the gauntlet is mirrored in the general Western workplace, particularly within the experiences of women of color. Check out the following succinct infographic – which came across my social media feed  while I was drafting this post – from the Centre for Community Organizations.

Problem of PoC Women in Workplaces
Credit: Center for Community Organizations and 鄧欣正 (Emily Yee Clare)

It’s more than feasible to map gauntlet-running to the “repetitive inquiry” and “response” portions of this infographic. Moreover, “tokenized hiring” maps to the rhetoric and lip-service of EDI policies and practices; and in the end, “retaliation” links to issues of low-morale (my emerging data show that the most likely abuse PoC academic librarians encounter is systemic) and vocational awe (e.g., academic environments, systems and values are sacred and beyond critique; she is pushed out when she brings attention to the status quo, which is inherently damaging to her health or career trajectory)

On social media, anecdotal responses to this infographic seemed visceral and elicited immediate statements of recognition and resignation (the latter of which seems couched in the desire to prioritize and re-posit health over academic careers – promising).

Librarianship is a profession that is persistently Caucasian and female, moreover, it posits itself as a politically progressive field that values racial and ethnic diversity. However, other issues that PoC librarians’ guantlet-running seem to highlight or underscore include:

  • libraries and librarians are *not* neutral;
  • Caucasian women working in LIS continue to be complicit in covertly and overtly upholding and solidifying institutionalized, political, and cultural systems and outcomes of White supremacy; 
  • the continuing one-note rhetoric/one-size-fits-all approach to EDI creates an environment for and ignores the “softer” harmful impacts that, ironically, such language and programs seek to resolve, including tokenism, paternalism, and a focus on entry-level recruitment rather than holistic career promotion and advancement; and 
  • the ongoing denial of the real need for expanded mental health and counseling services for PoC in hostile workplaces (to be clear, for PoC academic librarians, Historically White Colleges and Universities are potentially hostile environments – (Bonilla-Silva, 2012; Bonilla-Silva, 2015)).

Do you recognize the Fisher/Martinez summation of your LIS career challenges as a PoC professional? Do you believe you’ve successfully escaped/exited the gauntlet? Was there a reward? Are you still running? Why? Did you stop? Why?

Works Cited

Alabi, J. (2015). Racial microaggressions in academic libraries: Results of a survey of minority and non-minority librarians. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 41(1): 47-53.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2012). The invisible weight of Whiteness: The racial grammar of everyday life in contemporary America. Ethnic & Racial Studies, 35(2): 173-194. doi: 10.80/01419870.2011.613997

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2015, November 12). The White racial innocence game. Racism Review:
Scholarship and Activism Towards Racial Justice [blog]. Retrieved from http://www.racismreview. com/blog/2015/11/12/white-racial-innocence-game/

Edwards, E. & Fisher, W. (2003). Trust, teamwork, and tokenism: Another perspective on diversity in libraries. Library Administration & Management, 17(1): 21-27.

Ettarh, F. (2017). Vocational awe. Presented at the Pushing the Margins Symposium, UCLA, July 14. Retrieved from

Fisher, E.M. (1991).  Modern racism in academic librarianship towards Black librarians. A California study. University of Pittsburgh.

Kendrick, K.D. (2017). The low-morale experience of academic librarians: A phenomenological study. Journal of Library Administration, 57(8): 846-848. Retrieved from

Sensoy, O. & Diangelo, R. (2017). “We all are for diversity, but…”: How faculty hiring committees reproduce Whiteness and practical suggestions for how they can change. Harvard Educational Review, 87(4): 557-580. Retrieved from 

Vanscoy, A. & Bright, K. (2017). Including the voices of librarians of color  in reference and information services research. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 57(2): 104-114.


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