let’s stop calling it “multicultural”

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.


22 thoughts on “let’s stop calling it “multicultural”

  1. I’ve been tweeting to you a little about this but it’s really complicated to fit into 140 characters! I agree that we shouldn’t put books on display once a month for Hispanic Heritage Month or whatever “multiculti” holiday has been dictated by the dominant culture. But one of the things I like about having some sort of label is that people can find things more easily, a way to build community.

    My kids are German, Lithuanian, Southern U.S. black Alabaman and are being raised in Iowa. That’s pretty multicultural, right? Part of what draws all human beings to books is that we find part of our experience in someone else’s writing…we see that we are not alone. If we could label a set of books as about a German/Lithuanian/Alabaman/Iowan experience, there is a big part of me that would love to be able to point them out to my kids so that they could have that “aha” moment, that “I am not alone” moment that comes when you read a book that touches you and lets you know you are not the only one like you.

    There are shared experiences that are just human and don’t reflect ethnicity or a specific culture, but there are also lots of experiences that are culturally specific. People who live through them might like to continue to write about those cultural experiences and share them with other people –specifically as cultural experiences. To take away the culture part of their stories could really hurt. All books are cultural, but if you take away all mention of the specific cultural tradition from which they come, it can take away from the author’s attempt to share what makes their story unique in the dominant culture, and it can take away from reader’s ability to find a community of people who share their heritage. There is something powerful about seeing yourself represented in literature. Taking away the cultural label could make it harder for people to find themselves in books. I think we still need some sort of way to categorize, but definitely not annual displays that demean and belittle the importance of culture, ethnicity, and heritage to the people who are brave enough to share their stories.

    • Things like that are already present in the book in the front matter. Library of Congress cataloging schemes appear under the copyright (the stuff that says “German-Americans – Fiction,” “Family problems – Fiction,” etc) and can tell you those things, and you can also search by those terms in the library catalog. Most catalogs do that and also integrate LibraryThing tagging so that you have official cataloging terms AND natural language terms to define them.

      But I don’t see where at all you read that I want to take culture out of books. I don’t, and you can’t anyway, since we both agree as readers and scholars that books are all cultural artifacts. My point is that calling all books about nonwhite people “multicultural” is the incorrect term. (Though I have written before about how ethnic labels both pigeonhole and highlight, and that’s extremely problematic and hard to untangle.) This post was about lumping all nonwhite people together and constantly, at least in library school and professional library culture, leaving them for units on “multicultural resources” (also a gawdawful term) or examples of difficult reference questions. This is a very library science-specific post, though I think if you click on my “race” tag you’ll find where I’ve talked about ethnic labels on literature. But if you want to easily find labels to attest to the existence of people, they already exist and have for quite a long time. They’re just inside the book, where they belong, since evidence shows that putting bookstore or library labels in big signs above bookshelves tell browsers that “those books” are for “those people,” and everyone else should just go to the regular fiction section.

      • I only thought you wanted to take “culture” out because of a tweet you sent me saying “But the word ‘cultural’ is actually meaningless without a qualifying adjective. They’re just books.” (It’s why I came here to make a comment instead of continuing to tweet–140 characters wasn’t enough to understand or discuss what that means!)

        • Well, that’s still true. “Culture” doesn’t mean anything without context. But that’s because you were saying “Let’s just call them cultural books,” and my point was that we should be calling them books and letting the content be the content instead of making the content the label.

  2. I really loved this point you brought up. It’s a term that has been coined and then caught on. I have a book coming out next year which I would actually term more “international” since my characters are from many different nationalities as well as various races. I wonder if there is a term for this? Regardless, I love to think of my book as just a book that anyone would love to pick up and read, regardless of my characters’ races or ethnicities.

    • Hey, thanks for retweeting the link! And congratulations on your book. I actually hope there’s not a term for it, since your book deserves to be read on its terms as a book, not its diversity points. 🙂 What’s it called?

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  13. ‘white people’ do not have a ‘monoculture’ white people are multicultural. Your chief errur is to equate culture with skin pigmentation

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