The Intertwining Scholarship of Normative Whiteness A review of the utilization of critical Race Theory and explicit naming of racism in LIS Master’s theses.


The reproduction of white normativity in LIS and libraries occurs readily in the absence of a social justice orientation that illuminates this whiteness, explicitly acknowledges the racism pervasive in the field and practice, and centers the knowledge and perspectives of marginalized voices. This data physicalization, looking at the presence of Critical Race Theory and substantial analyses of racism in LIS Master’s theses, represents the continuity of whiteness in the absence of significant disruption to the reproduction of this normativity.

The Data

To create this dataset, I used text and content analysis on the downloadable SILS master's theses in the Carolina Digital Repository between 2017 and 2020 for a total of 319 theses (7 could not be downloaded). Using Moritz Mähr's guide on Working with batches of PDF files, I converting the files to plain text and used grep to locate the theses matching selected terms, then analyzed matching theses to determine which ones utilized Critical Race Theory or explicitly addressed racism of/in LIS/libraries.

Terms and process

My initial search was for Critical Race, to capture both Theory and Practice. 11 theses included reference to or discussion of Critical Race Theory, although several merely introduced the theory and utilized an aspect of it (i.e. counternarrative) to look at another marginalized identity irrespective of race: 8 were determined to address racism while utilizing Critical Race Theory.

Following this search, I proceeded through a series of terms that would likely appear in work that explicitly names and addresses racism in and around libraries and LIS. For these terms, I will list the number of thesis matches (after removing duplicates already analyzed by previous terms) and the number of theses from this list to substantially address racism.

Racism or racist - 32 matches, 14 included; postcolonial or post-colonial - 4 matches, 1 included; intersectional - 6 matches, 1 included; queer theory - 2 matches, 1 included; white supremacy or whiteness or white privilege - 3 results, 0 included; neutrality - 9 results, 0 included; discrimination - 17 results, 2 included; microaggression - 0 results, 0 included; counternarrative - 0 results, 0 included.

Future Possibilities

There were quite a few theses that utilized other critical theories, and addressed other types of marginalization . Additional data analysis could show not only these, but also the extent to which these theses have an intersectional approach.

The Physicalization

What I set out to represent was a visualization of the normative whiteness in LIS that persists from a lack of explicitly naming the racism.

I decided to represent each thesis by a piece of twine:

  • white/beige: did not use CRT or explicitly and meaningfully engage with racism
  • brown/black: utilized CRT or otherwise explicitly and meaningfully engaged with racism.

Ultimately, I chose to create tassels (similar to what you would see on a graduation cap) with these strands of twine, to represent the theses of a graduating cohort (by year, including spring, summer, and fall graduation).

To create the tassels, I followed a tutorial by Kin.

The Result

The resulting tassels show the ease at which the norm (whiteness) remains visible in the absence of significant and widespread work to explicitly name and address it.

Further, over time the strands become more intertwined and knotted, strengthening their position - this can be seen in the resistance to change in the profession that is justified using the "way things have always been done" argument, or pointing to scholarship and standards developed in this way.

Interacting with the object: By rearranging the twine, one can easily obfuscate non-white twine. By intertwining the strands, one can create a stronger strand that withstands force.

While these tassels represent LIS masters theses, they also serve as a symbol of both the academy and professionalized librarianship - the barriers they present, and the normative whiteness they perpetuate.

"...three decades of discussion of the urgent need for diversity in our field in order to make good on our professional ethics and commitment to equity has nonetheless yielded little direct action or change...the use of language to prioritize conversation rather than action with regard to systemic change is perhaps the most effective deployment of power." - Collins (49)

Moving Forward

In order to disrupt the normative whiteness of LIS and libraries, it is critical for students and librarians to deconstruct and name this whiteness and the racism it is predicated on. Using critical theories and frameworks is a starting point, but theory must extend to action: centering the knowledge and perspectives of marginalized folx, removing barriers to librarianship, rearranging power and control over spaces and process.


Collins, A. M. (n.d.). Language, Power, and Oppression in the LIS Diversity Void. 14.

Cooke, N. A., Sweeney, M. E., & Noble, S. U. (2016). Social Justice as Topic and Tool: An Attempt to Transform an LIS Curriculum and Culture. The Library Quarterly, 86(1), 107–124. https://doi.org/10.1086/684147

Espinal, I., Sutherland, T., & Roh, C. (2018). A Holistic Approach for Inclusive Librarianship: Decentering Whiteness in Our Profession. Library Trends, 67(1), 147–162. https://doi.org/10.1353/lib.2018.0030

Gohr, M. (2017). Ethnic and Racial Diversity in Libraries: How White Allies Can Support Arguments for Decolonization. 3, 18.

Honma, T. (2005). Trippin’ Over the Color Line: The Invisibility of Race in Library and Information Studies. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 1(2), 27.