So now that I’m subscribing to more librarian listservs, I get to participate in tons of conversations about books and reading issues and library issues related to cataloging and collection development. It’s sweet. I’m learning a lot, and even if I end up working somewhere more suited to me than a library, it will all be useful and relevant and interesting, I’m sure.
BUT. No matter how well-meaning people are, I am sick sick sick of seeing requests for “multicultural books.” Sick of it. My experience at the YALSA symposium last month taught me that talking about issues surrounding those books with librarians is the epitome of preaching to the choir, and quite frankly, it’s well past time that the choir got evangelical. Librarians need to bring this discussion out to the people they serve, and they also need to change their language internally and police each other.
“Multi” is a prefix meaning “many.” That means more than one. If your book is only about white people, it is monocultural. But here’s the thing – if your book is only about black people, it is still monocultural. That’s just words. I think we can all understand that using words properly is kind of important. A bird is not a fish. A book is not a banana. One group of people is not multicultural just because they’re not white folks.
So yeah, the first reason this drives me crazy is because I’m anal retentive. But that doesn’t make it unimportant or incorrect.
I happen to actually be multicultural. I’m mixed race and also transracially/transculturally adopted. I have a lot of cultural baggage, but it’s the nice, designer kind of matching luggage sets, not a ratty old duffel bag that makes me sad. So that’s great. Lots of people live in a multicultural world and have friends and family members of different backgrounds. That’s pretty awesome. But the more you say that books about any one group of nonwhite people are multicultural, the more you create a rift between them and your totally normal, ethnicity-less white people. And just so we’re clear on how words should be used in accordance with their definitions, ethnicity means culture and heritage, and white people have it, too.
When you constantly sell books about nonwhite people or mostly nonwhite people as “multicultural,” all you are doing is telling people of color that they are different from white people, will always be different from white people, and desperately need to be labeled as such so as to keep white people away from them unless they need to go on a diversity diving vacation. Period. If you want to expand your collection, do so. If you need to ask your colleagues about books about people of color, use that term. Or if you need specifics, you, as white people or as people of color, are totally allowed to say “black people” or “Asian Americans” or whatever other commonly accepted, non-derogatory term for people of color. Please stop being scared of saying race words.
Note: calling them “diverse” books does not solve this problem, by the way. Because “diverse” is used the same way that “ethnic” is used – i.e. incorrectly and as only applicable to nonwhite people. This is you seriously not checking your privilege.
You need to call them books. You need to put them on display with your “regular” books and make themes that aren’t Black History Month or Hispanic Heritage Month. You need to have them in your mind so that you recommend them during reader’s advisory and have other ways to sell them aside from “Well, it’s about this girl – she’s African American – who goes on a journey and blah blah.” You need to stop talking about characters the way you talk about people when you’re trying to prove you’re not racist (you know, the whole “Oh, well, my friend is Chinese, so I’m not racist”). If your money is tight, you need to take a risk and not buy as many books by major publishers in order to spend more of your money on the smaller publishers that actually think that people of color can read and write and might even enjoy doing so. You need to have more of those programs where you booktalk with newspaper covering your books so no one can see the covers (because we all know the YA is notorious for the worst covers in existence anyway, race notwithstanding). And you absolutely need to stop saying words that are incorrect.
Period. Thank you.
*steps off soapbox*
If you think I am the only person who thinks about this, think again. I have been collecting writing on these topics, and you can check out that collection here.