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Institutional Racism and Transphobia in the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester.

  • Long Read
  • Content Warning: Instances of Racism and Transphobia

Update:

Since posting this article the University of Manchester Internal Investigation found that the greivances were ‘Not Upheld.’

Some comments were as follows:

”I was unable to find any evidence of concerns about a “culture in the John Rylands Library” that was unsupportive or insensitive towards issues of equality, diversity & inclusion.”

In relation to support of support of LGB Alliance and Womens Place UK: ”The views expressed by [both parties], are examples of entirely lawful ideas, opinions and arguments”

“The academic freedom of all its members, without fear or favour, to express unpopular opinions, advocate controversial views, adduce provocative arguments or present trenchant critiques of conventional beliefs, paradigms or ideologies”

In response to the racially charged tweet: ‘There was no evidence found that this tweet was in any way racial in nature.’ ‘The comment was made on a different thread. This allegation is without any substance and can therefore be considered vexatious in nature.’


During my four years working at the John Rylands Library, discrimination was entirely normalised. My experiences of racism and transphobia, and a complete lack of action from the Library and the University of Manchester, led me to resign from my role earlier in 2020. 

The most hurtful experiences of racism and transphobia were perpetuated by a handful of management within the library, who continue to protect each other from the consequences of their actions. 

I have been attempting to find a resolution to this issue since February 2020 and after 9 months was able to trigger an investigation by suggesting I take my story public. However, I have lost all faith in this investigation as the person who caused me the most emotional turmoil during my time at the John Rylands was given permission to write content for Black History Month from her white, racially bias and transphobic perspective. I will ensure to make share the outcome of this investigation once I receive it. 

Although I have been incredibly hurt by the actions of the upper management at the John Rylands Library and University of Manchester as a whole, I still believe in consent. I am giving my consent for this story to be told, but have not received consent of the perpetrators in this story, so will not be using names.

I will break it down into segments, 

1. Examples of Institutional racism 

2. Examples of transphobia 

3. Potential resolutions

  1. Examples of institutional Racism

As most people of colour know, working in the heritage sector can be a difficult process. We love what we do, but this means experiencing and putting up with micro-aggressions. For the sake of brevity I will outline the things I have experienced in a list below:

Black History Month: 

 In 2017 I asked the team in charge of event planning if there was space to create content for Black History Month, I was told and I quote ‘They are not our target audience.’ I took it upon myself to work with the excellent Race Relations Archive to create smaller Black History Month events throughout the University. This required extensive research into our collections as I was told  ‘we do not have black history within our collections.’ This was a mistake, I found many Black Voices from various periods that show the joy, courage and overall history of Black People. I continued this for two more years. My work was noticed by the manager of the special collections team, I was asked to brief her on everything I had achieved, I expected this to be a celebration of my hard work, but once she had all the information, I was told the first official Black History Month celebrations would be run by someone of a higher grade, due to the creation of this project being  ‘above my paygrade.’ I had to specify that if they were to do this, I would recommend giving the role to someone black or of colour, and to consult with the BAME staff network to avoid any use of insensitive and colonial language. 

This will not be a surprise to many people who work in the sector, that my hard work was taken from me, and used to improve the reputation of the John Rylands Library. However, I gave the management the last two pieces of advice as I felt, if they were to go down this road, doing it in a manner that best represented the Black voices was most important. 

Women Who Shaped Manchester Exhibition (2018) 

When the Women Who Shaped Manchester exhibition was being created, the all white exhibition team had 8 potential women to discuss (including Enriqueta Rylands). I soon found out that they had brought the exhibition down to six women, in doing so they had cut the only two women of colour from the exhibition. When I explained that the exhibition was an all white cohort, the response was brief ‘Enriqueta is Cuban, so it’s not all white.’ This argument falls flat, as it would be impossible to do an exhibition about the Women Who Shaped Manchester, without the woman who created the John Rylands Library and gained the Key to the City. It was also explained to me that people did not feel comfortable creating descriptive panels for the other two options as they did not feel they had the training to do so. 

Following this I asked to sit in on the Exhibition Meetings as a Member of the Library Equality and Diversity Team to ensure that the correct language was used in exhibitions and an intersection of the population was represented. I was told I did not have a formal qualification in Diversity and Inclusion and therefore would not be qualified to take on this role. This was a disappointingly dismissive approach to lived experience. None of the members of that board have formal diversity and inclusivity training however, they were expected to be representative of Manchester’s many and diverse communities. 

This to me reflects an attitude of accepting only academic qualifications as expertise and completely dismissing lived experiences. Even when this experience was proactively offered. In addition to the valuable lived experience of a person in an underrepresented group, I run a successful consultancy business working with institutions and universities on Diversity and Inclusion. It really emphasises the need for a wider lens of whose voices allowed a seat at the table. Also if further training was required it’s also a missed opportunity for the library to provide professional support in the form of Career Development training for the upwards progression of BAME staff members within the library. 

Another argument for not allowing me into the Exhibition Meetings was that ‘Equality and Diversity should be in the fabric of everything we do.’ I wholeheartedly agree with this statement but it must be followed by actions such as Anti-Racism Training, to ensure all staff members fully understand all forms of institutional racism and their own biases. This is not something the John Rylands Library or University of Manchester ensures that their staff follow. 

This touches upon the audiences targeted by the John Rylands Library. Within the four targeted audiences there is no room or explicit mention of Disabled peoples, BAME peoples, LGBTQIA peoples or Working Class peoples. When I bought this up during a meeting I was dismissed and told that they were included but not explicitly mentioned. Which begs the questions; why were they not explicitly mentioned? And Why are they not specifically catered for through promotion, accessibility and exhibition practices?

The Inclusive Advocacy Programme 

This programme has been established to mentor Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority staff members within the University of Manchester, however, you must be a grade 5 (management grade) to sign up to it. Most non-white staff members work within entry level roles, (especially within the library spaces) and therefore are not eligible for this programme. This is incredibly disheartening and reduces the potential for diversifying the management teams, and showing solidarity and support to non-white staff members. 

Equality and Diversity Statement 

This year a statement was released which outlined the Manchester Libraries, which can be found here. A consultation with all staff was taken at the time of creating this statement, for which I responded with many changes and actions I felt the Library could take on over the course of the next 5 years. In my role as the Managing Director for Intersectional GLAM, I was happy to share this experience in order to better our community. The response was supportive from many members of staff, but dismissive from the head of the John Rylands Library. I am most concerned specific aspects of this statement in relation to race: 

  • Provide space and support for staff to deepen their personal and professional understanding of racism and discuss its implication in our practices.

This is an incredibly vague statement: Expecting people to educate themselves about racial inequality is not appropriate in this scenario. Staff have had this opportunity before the BLM movement came into play and as a woman of visible South Asian descent  in the library I can attest that much must be done to unlearn systematic racism.

  • Advocate and act to decolonise the curriculum through increased understanding and the sharing of relevant resources with colleagues directly involved in teaching.

Before advocating for decolonisation, one must know what that means for People of Colour and what they want to achieve from this. The ‘decolonising the curriculum’ group at the Rylands is mostly white people including the same person who used racially charged statements against me, and publicly  supports transphobic hate groups, and considered teaching LGBTQIA relationships in schools akin to brainwashing. (To be discussed in detail in the next section) The gender binary, and homophobia is an implementation of colonialism, so you cannot decolonise the curriculum if you have these beliefs. 

  • Engage meaningfully with BAME communities to support the reinterpretation of collections materials and their research.

This was not the case when I worked within the library. As someone who works within the institution and considers myself part of the BAME community.

Support the sharing of lived experiences, where this is appropriate, and listen with respect.

I shared my experiences (as listed above) with the Head of the John Rylands Library however the library dismissed my previous concerns, failed to ‘engage meaningfully’ with me, and I worry that this will continue

  • Express our views with empathy and respect and engage in meaningful debate where appropriate.

Using the word debate implies that there are instances in which people will explain their lived experience and they will not be fully heard in a sensitive manner, as they would be deemed as a debate topic. 

2. Transphobia 

Verbal Transphobic comments have been overlooked within the John Rylands Library and the University of Manchester in various instances. However, these were always difficult to prove to senior management, as those who made these comments are often of the senior management team. In February 2020 I came across a Transphobic tweet from a my team manager at the John Rylands Library. 

She showed solidarity and support for the LGB Alliance and Women’s Place UK, Transphobic hate groups on the same day they have been denounced by the labour party, and who are often highlighted as a hate group by many LGBTQIA charities and groups. When I challenged her on this I was dismissed by her. In addition, she used a racially charged comment when discussing me with another commentator. Implying that I was the ‘aggressive / threatening brown woman’ by insisting she needs a body guard. These descriptions continued into real life, in which I was called aggressive, over the top and insensitive to her needs by workplace colleagues. 

Part of the tweet exchange is seen below. 

The support for these groups are held by someone who is in charge of hiring, firing, people management, student interaction, exhibitions, archives and promotional work. It would be dangerous to assume the extreme biases she carries would not affect her work place behaviour. However, each time I bought this up as an issue with senior management and HR I was dismissed in the following ways:

  • When I first bought it up to my senior managers: ‘This is an outside work issue so cannot be resolved in work’ ‘This is a difference of opinion’ ‘Your tweets were  aggressive towards her’ ‘You have upset her’ ‘You should take her feelings into account’ 
  • When I pushed for a resolution ‘You may push for mediation if you would like’ 
  • When I asked for mediation the first time i was told ‘[The Team Manager] does not think mediation is necessary’ 
  • I attempted to get advice from HR, The Equality and Diversity Team and the Communications Team. It quickly became clear I could not achieve anything without the support of the management team. 
  • I was removed from a Saturday rota as I would be working with her 
  • Mediation was eventually arranged, however, this was postponed due to covid-19 
  • During lockdown I received an email from the Manager of the John Rylands Library saying ‘I do not believe anyone in our building is transphobic’ 
  • Once I handed in my notice, the team manager, no longer felt ‘mediation was necessary.’ 
  • Mediation is required before formal grievance can be submitted. I attempted to submit a formal grievance but the time frame to do this meant that my notice period would end before it would be assessed. There was no other official avenues to continue the complaint once I had left. 
  • I emailed my concerns to the Head of all the University of Manchester Libraries. I did not receive an initial response for over a month, and only received a response once I also approached him on twitter. 
  • The response I received was ‘I will look into this’ However, after being dismissed for 7 months I explained I would have liked more information about the way it will be looked into, I received another email saying ‘the University will look into this.’ It became clear I was only going to get one sentence emails. 
  • I copied in members of the leadership team, Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor. I only got a response from the HR Team once I suggested I would make this public. 
  • In September 2020 I was finally told that an internal investigation would take place. 
  • In October I found that the person who had made racially charged comments at me over twitter and spread racist stereotypes about me around work was given the opportunity to write about Black History Month. This action shows that the investigation was not being taken seriously as someone who is under investigation for racist and transphobic behaviour should not be given a platform, especially when discussing an underrepresented group. 

In the 10 months while I attempted to find a reasonable resolution, the person in question continued to promote hate on her social media platforms. 

My emotional responses to this included:

  • Removing myself from all working groups where she was involved 
  • Crying regularly at work
  • Avoiding the lunch room 
  • I referred myself to occupational health and took a week off due to stress 
  • Handed in my resignation 

3. Potential Resolutions:

– A full external investigation into the way complaints from minority groups are handled in order to ensure that they are protected from the same fate as me.

–  A full external investigation into other peoples experiences with those who have shown transphobic and racist behaviour 

– Transgender Awareness Training for all staff

– Anti Racism Training for all staff

– The women’s historic toilets to be turned into gender-neutral toilets to show support for Gender Variance

–  Donation to mermaids or another charity which supports Transgender people

There are many incredible people who supported me through this period who work in the libraries, however, none of those people were in a position in which they could enact change. If they were, the above actions would have taken place immediately. 

The experiences I’ve described are unacceptable from any employer, but the fact they happened within a cultural institution/university which claims to champion diversity makes it additionally disappointing. 

By denying that there is a problem and refusing to listen, leaders at the library and university are condoning racist/transphobic behaviour and making unsafe space for marginalised peoples to work/visit

Although I no longer work there, I’m writing this to hold the University accountable and hopefully make things better for current or future employees, so that hopefully nobody will have to go through these experiences again. 

Regardless of the last 10 months I do hope that the John Rylands and University of Manchester eventually do the right thing, and implement real important change.

If this does merit a response from the University I ask please do not respond with a statement of intent, but an action plan with all the ways you would create real institutional change so under represented groups like me, don’t feel the need to quit. 

I normally feel the need to take action when reading something like this. If  you have the funds please donate to the charities below. Or check out the Transawareness training. All payments go to the mermaids charity.  

Mermaids Charity
FareShare Charity

It’s likely that was a lot to take in. Go have a brew and a biscuit. Thank you for reading. 

By Jass Thethi

I am a Library and Museum professional. I am passionate about fair representation and diversity arts and heritage. I created theconcept of Empowered Collaboration, which describes how to increase diversity by respectful coproduction with under-served groups. I discuss real life experiences of being a minority in arts and heritage and potential ways to diversify collections through my blog and twitter account. All views in this blog are my own and not that of my employer.

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