Thursday, June 5, 2014

Whither Diversity?: The Society of American Archivists and the Racial Divide

Notwithstanding efforts to the contrary, the archival profession continues to suffer from the ongoing marginalization of change and difference due to its unrecognized or under-recognized aversion to disinterring the normative whiteness that continues to lie at the heart of its motivations. Despite rolling out the proverbial welcome mat for ‘diversity’ in some of its programs and policies, and exhibiting an enthusiastic tolerance for difference, representative organizations in the United States, such as the Society of American Archivists (SAA), continue to maintain structural change at arms length. Anecdotal evidence of the lack of non-white bodies within the profession and at organizational events was recently corroborated by a Membership Needs & Satisfaction Survey published by SAA in the Spring of 2012 which revealed that among individual respondents, only 3% were Latino, 3% were Asian, 2% were African American and 1% were Native American, with zero representation from Pacific Islanders or Alaskan Natives, and a shocking 89% self-identified as white/Caucasian.[1] Not only was this not addressed as a point of concern in the “Conclusions and Recommendations” section of this report but the only comment associated with these racial disparities is located in the section detailing loyalty to the organization which was difficult to measure given the low numbers of representative minorities.
The failed interest in the ramifications of this finding found parallels in the recent debate over the lack of consideration for the inclusion of diversity as a primary goal for SAA in a draft of its 2013-2018 strategic plan.[2] After several years of foregrounding it as a stated priority, the authors of the revised plan now argued that diversity was implied in its other goals and designs for the profession, and did not need to be explicitly stated. Under pressure from members,[3] SAA had to reconsider its oversight and included diversity as a core goal in a revised version of the plan.[4] Nevertheless, given the stated figures depicting a profession dominated by whiteness, it is not surprising that diversity, and particularly racial diversity, should be overlooked. In a socio-cultural and political environment purportedly experiencing a “post-racial” renaissance in which it is hardly necessary to give much consideration to racism and its concomitant structural disparities, SAA’s move to remove diversity as a stated goal and agenda item is unfortunately not surprising. Equally, organizational leadership’s belief in the ability to address diversity, in all of its manifestations, from within other points in its agenda, is further evidence of this investment in the idea of a society not in need of policies and practices that attempt to directly address its inequalities. Although SAA subsequently conducted an online survey soliciting membership opinion on “diversifying the archival record,”[5] the endemic whiteness of the profession will only continue to condemn it to committing the same mistakes if the organization’s, and, in turn, the profession’s own racial disparities are not addressed. Yes, you have efforts such as the Mosaic Scholarship, the Diversity Committee and the Harold T. Pinkett Minority Student Award,[6] all of which seek to redress this imbalance by funding the studies of students of color and fostering diversity initiatives. But, as Adrian Piper notes, these liberal gestures of nobility do little to address the primary reasons there are few people of color represented in the ranks of American archivists.[7]
            But what are the factors that contribute to this disparity and which continue to support whiteness as an archival norm? Of the sparse online comments to the aforementioned survey on “diversifying the archival record,” several noted the need for the archival profession to critically interrogate itself and its praxis, and to do the hard work of looking at its own socio-cultural and racial homogeneity.[8]  In addition, in what could have been a comment on participation in the survey itself, one individual noted attending a session on diversity in the profession at an SAA annual conference, only to find the room less than half full.[9] This rampant disinterest and lackadaisical, if passing, engagement with issues of diversity, and specifically racial diversity, is demonstrative of an inability to envision what is problematic about 89% of your colleagues being white. If whiteness is normative, if its privileged beneficiaries are unaware of the ways in which they are complicit and in positions of great advantage (that more than likely increase their prospects in the profession), then how is it possible to honestly contend with the issue of increasing diversity and changing the very system that suppresses it? Indeed, if one is vested with unquestioned power, why disrupt the structures that hand you that power and ultimately benefit you throughout your career? Are most archivists even aware of how whiteness ferries their lives and enables their success?
Well-intended as some archivists are, the very fact that the profession is predominantly white forecloses the possibility of having a dialogue about racial diversity, for example, due to the fact that the engine of homogeneity driving the profession is not perceived as a problem. As V. Chapman-Smith has pointed out, although population trends indicate that by 2050 the United States will be a majority minority nation, the pipeline currently feeding the archival profession, and its future leadership, stems from fields that are among “the whitest in the United States.”[10] Therefore, the profession will remain immune to change, and increased racial difference, as long as this remains the case. Moreover, Chapman-Smith astutely notes that rampant drop out rates among minorities, lack of early engagement with archives or other historical sources, and an educational system that places the bulk of minorities at a disadvantage, all contribute to keeping access to the archival profession limited.[11] Unless the profession and its leading organizations are willing to confront this fact, and develop and/or participate in policy initiatives and progressive political movements that address these structural problems, as roots of its lack of racial diversity, then the field will continue to be woefully absent of non-white bodies. Laudable as initiatives such as the Harold T. Pinkett Minority Student Award and the Mosaic Scholarship are, they regrettably only attend to the small fraction of people of color that have been able to overcome the structural obstacles that may have stood between them and higher education.[12]
Recognizing the link between educational and economic disparities, and the whiteness of the profession, is to also acknowledge how committing to diversity as a core organizational goal necessitates the examination of structural inequalities and one’s role in perpetuating them. So long as this is not done, the profession will continue to remain as homogenous in 2050 as it currently is. Of course, this is assuming that white archivists are willing to make the necessary changes and reflect upon their own privileged status. As noted before, given the systemic advantages of whiteness, it is an open question as to whether there is much impetus for change and/or self-interrogation within the profession. Are archivists and organizations such as SAA willing to push past a benign interpretation of diversity and prioritize a disruptive engagement with difference that undergirds their own position in the archival hierarchy? Will they ever help promote the growth of alternative perspectives, such as social justice and Critical Race Theory, which seek to question the method and madness, the whiteness, of the profession?
As noted earlier, the ongoing and increasing homogeneity of archivists is certainly a factor, but moreover it is the ideological fall out of this homogeneity, and blind spots engendered by its representative whiteness that act as barriers to the profession moving beyond its current approach to diversification. Rather than supplying facile solutions to what is a product of systemic racism and classism, can the profession commit itself to addressing its role in perpetuating these –isms and in pondering how and where it could intervene to diminish their impact on the make up of its membership? Moreover, instead of framing this as an enforced agenda that is outside the central concerns of archivists, can we begin to reify the notion that archivists are of the world and not somehow removed from it? How do we remind archivists that being an archivist does not somehow absolve them of also being a product of society, and therefore subject to its prejudices and assumptions? All of these questions and issues have ramifications for archivists’ interactions with donors, colleagues and researchers, and deeply inform their perspectives on the needs and direction of the profession.

[1]  Membership Needs & Satisfaction Survey, Accessed December 13, 2013,
[2] Draft, Strategic Plan (2013-2018), Accessed December 13, 2013,
[3] Ibid. See comments section for select member reactions. In a move that belies his complex and contradictory relationship to difference, Mark A. Greene was one of the first individuals to critique the absence of diversity as a primary goal of the plan. He states: “Diversity of membership is not a matter of advocating for archives but of either advancing the field (by making its practitioners as diverse as the material they seek to acquire) or meeting members needs (I would argue we need (whether we know it or not) diverse colleagues to fully realize ourselves as professionals.” 
[4] Strategic Plan, 2013-2018, Accessed December 13, 2013,

[5] Poll: What Does Diversifying the Archival Record Mean to You?, Accessed December 13, 2013,

[6] For more information, see: Mosaic Scholarship, Accessed December 13, 2013, Diversity Committee, Accessed December 13, 2013, Harold T. Pinkett Minority Student Award, Accessed December 13, 2013, It should also be noted that I am the recipient of a similar fellowship from the American Library Association (ALA), the Spectrum Doctoral Fellowship.
[7] Piper, Out of Order, out of Sight. Vol. II. This issue also arises in the general Library and Information Studies field. Even when programs are deemed a success, the adherence to a benign desire for diversity proves challenging to maintaining them. See, Nicole A. Cooke, “The Spectrum Doctoral Fellowship Program: Enhancing the LIS Professoriate,” InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies 10, no. 1 (2014), And again, Honma, “Trippin’over the Color Line: The Invisibility of Race in Library and Information Studies.” For a resounding critique of the ineffectiveness of these “diversity” programs in addressing structural problems, see again, Education, “Research Institute (AERI), Pluralizing the Archival Curriculum Group (PACG)(2011) Educating for the Archival Multiverse.”
[8] Poll: What Does Diversifying the Archival Record Mean to You?, Accessed December 13, 2013, See comments by Jenny Swadosh and “astanley@athens.”
[9] Ibid., Comment was provided by “stev1084A.”
[10] V. Chapman-Smith, “Societal Trends and Archives Outreach: Constructing Roadmaps for Program Growth and Sustainability.” Presentation at the Center for Jewish History for its series of annual seminars, “Archival Leaders Advocate,” New York, NY, November 11, 2011. See Power Point presentation for further information, Accessed December 13, 2013, For a video of the presentation, Accessed December 13, 2013,
[11] Ibid.
[12] Although not discussed here in great length, the Archival Education and Research Initiative (AERI) goes just a step further with its Emerging Archival Scholars program by recruiting and funding the attendance of potential doctoral students from diverse backgrounds to its annual summer institutes. See Accessed April 5, 2014.

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