Thursday, March 14, 2013

Plain and Natural

When I joined this committee in January I jumped into the middle of a discussion that’s full of terms and ideas I need to think about.

As I read through various blog posts I was struck by the different points of view, even on the use of “diverse,” and "diversity.” For instance, Annie Schutte posted an interview with the Diversity Committee on the YALSA's The Hub blog and there were two comments: 
  1. Hannah Gómez said: “We need to make a push to stop calling those books diverse books and multicultural books if want to emphasize that they are for everyone.”
  2.  B.A Binns responded: “I have to disagree. The problem of discovery is difficult enough…We have to name them so we can find them.”
I noticed the way these words inspire unnatural phrases such as “coming from a place of a diversity,” “characters that don’t come from a place of diversity themselves.” Eeyike. Awkward. Aren’t we all Word People? Can’t we speak plainly? Do better?

I started thinking about other terms. For instance, when is “African-American” correct? When might one use “black?”

My copyeditor said our usual choice is African American.  No hyphen.

I spoke to a director in Human Resources, who said that the usage was a matter of “self-identity.” She would describe herself as African-American. But someone whose roots are not in Africa, who is from the Caribbean, perhaps, or Haiti, might not use that term.

Susan Guerrero, a staff editor at the New York Times,  referred me to their style book:

"African-American, black. Try to determine and use the term preferred by the group or person being described. When no preference is known, the writer should choose. But use black when the reference is not only to people of African descent but also to those whose more immediate roots are in the Caribbean or South America. Use more specific terms — Nigerian-American; Jamaican-American — when they are appropriate. Also see ethnicity and historically black." The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage : The Official Style Guide Used by the Writers and Editors of the... by Allan M. Siegal and William G. Connolly (Jan 2, 2002)

I asked her how terms had evolved for journalists. And what about this: I’d say that Susan is Mexican-American.  But which is correct: Mexican-American, Latina, Hispanic?

She said:
Well, you want to get the family arguing, trot this one out. Me, I don't like being a hyphenated American, but The New York Times insists upon the hyphen between Mexican and American. Not so long ago we were chicanos, which many in my family liked, although not my grandfather, but then he had tiraded against zoot suits and admired Barry Goldwater. But the use of chicano seems to have faded. Most of us (I'm just speaking for los primos), prefer Latino to Hispanic. I'd have to think about why; I guess because any relationship with Spain is in the distant conquistatorial past. Of course, my father always said he was a Mexican, although he, like his parents before him, had been born in the United States. But Uncle Fernando bridles at that; We're Americans!

Well, that simplified things.

She also said:
Pet peeves: I spend 9 percent of my time here changing '"the town was discovered/settled by whites in 1603" to "European colonists arrived in ..."

Crime stories where the suspects are black but the victim's race is not identified. Hey, fair is fair.

The word "tribe," often unnecessary.

The use of the word race for people who are not a separate race: Mexicans, for example, are not a race. So we can't have "racial tensions."

An editor once changed a reference I made to being Mexican to "Hailing from South of the Border."

I don't know what diverse means -- usually an euphemism for an iffy neighborhood. Multicultural? Pretty useless.

And there we have it.  I’m so happy to have clarified these questions for everyone. 

And now I see that I was after the wrong thing—clear, direct language.  The language is often awkward because the discussion itself is still awkward.  The fact that we’re puzzling, and tripping up, over our words is a good sign. Change can be clumsy. Earlier terms were less convoluted, but not inclusive. Plain and natural: That’s not going to happen for a while. Keep trying.

Dear reader: I’d love to hear what you think.


  1. Great blog post (I was pointed here by Stacey Barney)--very useful, and I'm planning to share it with my diversity committee at school. Thank you!

    Here's a writing example for you: in my book BEAUTIFUL MUSIC FOR UGLY CHILDREN, I chose to refer to my MC, Gabe, as a "transsexual," because it's the most specific term for how he feels about himself (I chose it as his self-identifier). A reader took me to task for it, saying that the more recent, more accurate term would be "trans* man." I explained that I chose "transsexual" because more people know that word, and the word indicates a medical transition, which Gabe was choosing. But as a cisgender person who's outside of the community, I appreciated the reminder that the term doesn't work for some readers.

  2. I love this post. The part about the hypen is the exact point I made in the all racially inclusive American history book I wrote, Beads

    America's Racially

    Biographical History. To me that hypen is a great divide between both race and citizenship. Can I just be Black? My DNA has been in America so long it couldn't find it's

    microscope The controversy between using the term diverse/multicultural feels the same as the argument whether to have books in the store separated by race. Some say it makes it easy to find while others feel discriminated against. Thanks for sharing.

  3. When I moved to Scotland for a year to do my MSc, I got an eye-opener in the idea of "race." I was asked to fill out one of those optional ethnic tracking forms for the university, and the options were quite different from those at home! No "Native American." No "Pacific Islander." No "African American." No "Hispanic." And "Asian" meant "from India." I was all ready to check the "Caucasian" box, but even that wasn't the same. My choices were "Caucasian English," "Caucasian Irish," "Caucasian Welsh," and "Caucasian Scottish."
    I had to check "Other."

  4. One thing that I think will help the diversity discussion A LOT is to rethink the hyphenation "-American" after everything. The term "African-American" is next to useless for me, because I'm Canadian and if I write a character of African descent, chances are they are too. If all our language is Hyphen-Americanized then a big part of the lack of diversity problems is that all our books are set in the USA.

  5. This is also something I see as a teacher--schools are often described as "diverse" when they are, in fact, 99% black or 99% Latino or whatever non-white ethnic group dominates that neighborhood. Having taught in Jamaica, Queens (our 400 students came from some 30 or so countries/ethnicities, many of them recent immigrants, speaking more languages than the city was able to provide translation for) I know what a diverse school looks like, and I get frustrated when people say "diverse" any time a largely monoethnic group of people looks different from themselves. (See also: "urban" to describe black or Latino people, particularly young men.)

    1. I'm so gald to hear from you--right, hyphenation is an issue, as Ey and Gabrielle point out, as well as "Amercanization" shutting out Canadians from other backgrounds.
      Lisa's experience with the racial options on the UK form is fascinating.
      Kristin speaks to the issue of self-identity. (Love the title, BEAUTIFUL MUSIC FOR UGLY CHILDREN!)
      As a teacher from Queens, Mrs. Silverstein is on the front lines, working with a truly diverse group of students. More languages than the city has translators for? Wow. The Queens NYPL collection has books in hundreds of languages, more than any other borough. Those librarians are on the front lines, too.

  6. I agree with *both* Hannah Gomez and B.A. Binns! But I think the only way to allow for both concerns is cross-filing, which is probably not going to happen!