This past week, (on thursday and friday), my school’s library put on an interesting event. The idea behind it was really neat, actually–people who belonged to a variety of marginalized populations volunteered to make themselves available to answer questions people might have. It’s a cool way of educating folks, and since it’s all volunteer, you don’t run into that horrible thing where privileged people are like “I DEMAND YOU TEACH ME, SINCE I CAN’T TEACH MYSELF”.
But the way it was concepted, and the language they used to advertise it, were…problematic. Extremely so, I thought.
Let me introduce you to The Human Library.
The main page doesn’t get too much into weirdness. It speaks of “people meet[ing] face to face to engage in open conversation about these challenges [ie, discrimination]“. That’s really fantastic! But then you look down a bit and see this:
“Check out the catalogue and come by the Human Library reserve desk in the Williams Coffee area of the McLaughlin Library to reserve a spot with one of our ‘books’!”
And, bam. You aren’t talking about people speaking as equals any more. You are demoting the marginalized people, the educators in this situation, to the status of ‘books’. It gets worse when you actually click through to the ‘catalogue’ page. Because all of a sudden, the dehumanization becomes even more pronounced.
Pre-reservation of the books in the Human Library is now closed. Many of the books still have available timeslots. To check availability of the books and to make a reservation[...]
I’m sorry, what? What happened to ‘people’? What happened to ‘open conversation’? You know what you do with books? You read them. They are a thing which you have total control over. This is something that is–or should be–strikingly different from the way you interact with people, actually!
Like…reducing the people who have come in, who have volunteered their time to educate others and challenge misconceptions, to “books” to be “reserved”, that’s…not quite on. It’s demeaning, dehumanizing, and especially worrisome due to being within a context that is supposed to be about building understanding of marginalized people as human.
The event, as far as I can tell, is supposed to lead to greater empathy for marginalized folk. It’s a worthy goal, and I think the way they’re doing it–face-to-face conversation–is a good one. Too bad it’s totally undermined by the language they are using to talk about the project.