Last week, I attended the library conference BLOSSOM, “A free 3 day virtual symposium for library staff focused on their health and wellness.” I was also on the panel “Reframing Library Work: A Discussion on Centering Staff Agency, Advocacy and Well Being.” It was, in my opinion, a great panel. My co-panelists were honest and well-spoken and we discussed some heavy, important topics. After the panel, we debriefed an incident that happened in the discussion (I tweeted about it here) and our use of swear words. We all seemed to feel positive about how it went down. I walked out of the conference feeling invigorated and empowered.
Earlier this week, Bobbi Newman, one of the conference organizers and the moderator (and I use that word very loosely) on our panel, sent out an email requesting attendee feedback. I submitted positive feedback as an attendee. (As of now, the morning of April 1, she has not sent out the panelist survey that she said she would.)
Then yesterday afternoon I encountered Bobbi’s blog post that was in part about my panel. I’ll get into the details of the post in a moment, but the summary is that she felt the language I and another panelist used was inappropriate and “excessive” and that audience feedback indicated that some attendees were also “uncomfortable” with our use of profanity.
Some background of my experience. About a month ago a white panelist reached out to ask if I wanted to join. I agreed, on the caveat that the panel be at least 50% BIPOC. They found another BIPOC and I jumped in. That original contact person had to drop out for personal reasons, and another BIPOC was brought it. (I’m keeping this non-specific because I do not want the other panelists getting dragged into this in future google searches. They deserve to have their privacy and to speak about this on their own terms if they choose to.) From what I understand, the panel was formulated by two of the panelists, a white person and a BIPOC. Although Bobbi was on the email chain, she was not involved in developing this panel.
Shortly before the event, I requested not to be asked questions first. Another panelist also requested a set order for who would answer each question. We all agreed, as did Bobbi, but then she proceeded to put me first in the line up she created. Another panelist re-wrote the order, making sure to accommodate both my and the other panelist’s requests, and we all agreed to it, including Bobbi. But at the event she again disregarded our plan.
And then came her post. There are several things I take umbrage with. As I don’t recall the weight loss comment, nor did I see the subsequent public commenting about it, I will not address that. Nor am I speaking on behalf of the others on my panel. I can say that we have privately discussed the post and are all hurt by it to varying degrees. I reached out to Bobbi on DM hoping to have a conversation with her, but she was dismissive.
Text of the DM:
Me 1, 3/31/21 4:04p: “Hm. I kinda wish you had reached out to me about your feelings about me swearing. It had never come up in the prep work. And frankly, I do feel like I was using it to make a point. I am very deliberate in my choice of words. I can’t speak for the other panelists who swore, but I was intentional in my use of fuck.”
Me 2, 6:58p: “Unless you were speaking about [redacted]?.it’s very unclear in your post. You speak as if 1 person swore but both [redacted] and I did. Either way, I’m left feeling uncomfortable by your post. I hope you are not going to edit my words for the posted video, at least not without consulting me first.”
Bobbi , 5:35a: “Hi Alex, Like I said in the post, I’m not interested in calling out individuals. It is about addressing something that happened in a public space. We will be removing the swearing from the recording for the NNLM YouTube channel. We are funded by the government and I have a responsibility to not endanger the positions of my coworkers and colleagues. Regardless of my personal opinions on profanity. Take care and thanks for your time on the panel!”
In her post Bobbi makes herself out to be both hero and victim. She is a hero for speaking out and getting praise for it, yet also a victim for being “put…on the spot” and having to immediately run to her boss. She apparently felt so distressed by our swearing that she had to take it up the chain but not distressed enough to talk to any of the people actually involved in the event at any point over the past few days.
Two of us swore in the panel, I, a Black genderqueer person, and a white person. Reading her post, it’s impossible to know who she’s talking about. It is written in such a way that it almost sounds like only one person was involved. She says she does not want to “call out presenters,” but in trying to “talk about the topics and incidents in general terms” she’s actually made it even more confusing. Is she talking about my use of “fuck” or the other person’s? Is she merging both our swearing into one general incident? She goes on to say that “some of it was not necessary.” I cannot speak for the other panelist, but I personally do not agree that their use of the the word was unnecessary or excessive. In my case, I said “fuck” for a reason. Which she would know if she bothered to ask.
Due to my neurodiversity stuff and mental health issues (that I will not discuss in detail because frankly it’s no one’s business), I almost never speak without knowing exactly what I’m going to say. My responses may sound off the cuff, but that’s because I’ve had 3+ decades to figure out how to manage and mask in a world built for neurotypicals. But make no mistake: I choose my words carefully. If I say “fuck,” it’s because I wanted to. In this case, I was using it to explain why I will not tolerate disrespect from my employer. I am proud of who I am and like who I am. As I said in the panel, I will not sacrifice my soul to an institution that doesn’t care about me. I will not diminish myself because someone else disapproves. It took me a long time to get to a place where I understand and accept myself and I will not apologize for it or silence myself. If you don’t like it, then fuck you.
Bobbi also wrote “As a person who took considerable time and effort recruiting new speakers, and underrepresented voices, I care.” I do not know what her involvement was on the other panels, but Bobbi was not involved in recruiting me or the other panelist brought on after me. I did not even know what her role was in relation to the panel until shortly before the event. And “new speakers?” I have been speaking professionally on librarianship for 5+ years and on diversity issues in general for longer. I’ve written two books on the history of marginalized communities in Napa County, California. I literally get paid to speak and write about librarianship and diversity. To dismiss my work down to a white person discovering a Black person is cringeworthy at best, racist at worst. I am offended at this framing, that a white woman’s beneficence was disparaged by some uppity Black person.
She also wrote “I will confess part of it was seeing the support for how it was going in the chat. It is clear from the feedback survey that there was an equal number of people uncomfortable. Not outraged, just uncomfortable. I don’t think they are wrong.” What does this even mean? How does she know there was an equal number of people uncomfortable? Did she count the number of supportive comments and compare them to the survey responses? Did the responses all use the word “uncomfortable?” How many responses are we talking about?
At no point in the prep work for this event did I receive a document with the “rules” listed. Perhaps they were told to us verbally, but I do not retain verbal instructions. I need them written down so I can refer back to them later. There is a Code of Conduct page that notes “excessive swearing,” but that is too subjective. Who decides what is “excessive?” Is there a number of swear words or just certain swear words? Reading back over this document, there are other issues with it that are similarly vague. Vagueness may seem like it allows for more protection, but it reality it often becomes a weapon the majority can use against marginalized voices. If BLOSSOM did not want people to swear for whatever reason, that needed to be indicated in writing (along with any other rules) and provided to the panelists ahead of time.
As of now, the video has been removed; this was done at the request of the panelists. We did not want our words edited without our consent. We work in a field that is nearly 90% white. A white woman silencing the words of a queer Black person because the white woman doesn’t like what the Black person said is literally tone policing.
I want to make it clear that at no point has Bobbi or anyone else at the National Library of Medicine reached out to me or the other panelists. Bobbi chose to speak to her boss and write a post on her personal blog all without ever contacting any of the people involved. If there was negative feedback, Bobbi should have discussed it with us first. Furthermore, Bobbi Newman is indirectly involved in making sure I get paid for my work on this panel. That puts me in the awkward position of not only being called out by someone who has power over my paycheck but also having to call them out in response. For accountability purposes, as of the afternoon of April 1, I have not yet received payment (however, at least 1 other panelist has).
To discover Bobbi’s post by chance was hurtful and frustrating to me personally. If we’re going to talk about professionalism in the field, then this is a good example of what not to do. BLOSSOM was supposed to be an inclusive space but instead she has weaponized her white woman-ness to undermine a Black queer person. I left the conference excited for a chance to participate if ran next year, but now as long as NLM and Bobbi Newman are involved, I will neither attend not participate.