Jasspreet Thethi, Special Collections Reader Services Assistant, writes:

This year I attended my first conference in the record-keeping sector with a bursary courtesy of Kevin Bolton. Among the varied sessions at the Archives and Records Association Conference in Manchester was an exceptionally thought-provoking talk from Kirsty Fife and Hannah Henthorn. They shared the findings from their unfunded and independently conducted survey, Marginalised in the UK Archives Sector, which recorded the experiences of under-represented groups in the Archives sector.

Fife and Henthorn

Kirsty Fife and Hannah Henthorn discussing their findings. You can find a link to their work here: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/0B03n6cJrCQwAaDVZZ3Bic1RHWm8

Many participants felt marginalised in ways I had not considered. For example, one participant did not feel comfortable attending conferences beneficial to their professional development due to fear of being miss-gendered or experiencing other transphobic micro-aggressions.[1] I began reflecting on how we could create a welcoming, supportive and safe space[2] where all under-represented individuals feel welcome.

I concluded that to achieve this, each person in the sector must be willing to engage with the topic of diversity with a sensitivity that will legitimise the feelings of the under-represented and result in a change behaviours and policies. To explain this fully I will use my experience as an example.

As a British Asian in the heritage sector, I work with a majority of white British or European colleagues and have repeatedly experienced being the only BAME person in an entire building. When micro-aggressions occur in these settings I have two options: speak out or let it go. Speaking out is an empowering option if I am confident I am in a safe and understanding environment. Letting it go is more preferable when I am unsure of my surroundings. The latter is more common in a workplace setting.

When these micro-aggressions occur, I am overcome with an array of feelings including hurt, vulnerability and belittlement. Often, I make a joke of what has happened as a protective way to discuss a sensitive topic. The more I learn to articulate myself during stressful situations in a clear concise and kind manner, the more I can discuss these transgressions with my colleagues. I expect my conversational partner to mirror my respectful and understanding approach but often their embarrassment and hurt leads to misdirected anger and/or a dismissive attitude.  This in turn causes me to feel invisible and upset.

If we intend to dismantle all barriers to under-represented groups and fully embrace diversity into the workplace we must be sensitive to those highlighting discriminatory behaviour: accepting our ignorance and discomfort and turning this into understanding and acceptance. This is a complex sensitive topic but we can begin with four steps.

  1. Understand there is mutual discomfort: challenging someone about micro aggressions is intimidating and uncomfortable.
  2. Accept the discomfort: do not immediately dismiss or defend micro-aggressions, because implicit bias is universal and no one has full understanding of other peoples’ life experience.
  3. Do research: learning about the life experiences of minority groups will increase understanding and inform positive interactions.
  4. Forgive yourself for making mistakes: if you are following these steps to create a more welcoming environment for everyone, you’re doing your best.

By doing this we can make a truly safe space for those under-represented groups. As the sector’s diversity grows, so will our discomfort when mistakes are inevitably made. However, this is not a negative prospect. Growing pains are necessary when changing the status quo and this is an exciting and important part of creating a fully diverse and integrated profession.

This article also appears in the November 2017 issue of the ARA magazine, ARC.

[1] Indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group.

[2] A place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm.