How Labeling Books as “Diverse” Reinforces White Supremacy

In this guest post, librarian Alexandria Brown discusses the issues with labeling books as “diverse” and other ways we can build and promote a more equitable library collection. 

Every so often, the question of whether or not to add a spine label designating “diverse” books makes the rounds. Many condemn the practice, but lots of library staff persist in labeling. Like most diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues in librarianship, many of my colleagues are still operating within a white (and cisgender and heterosexual) supremacist framework. It is an understandable predicament to be in – after all, many library degree programs are not as strong as they could be in advocating for DEI and decolonization. So let’s examine the question of diversity labeling and see if we can’t get to a better understanding of why it’s problematic.

Before we dive in, I want to make sure a few things are clear. First, I’m only going to discuss labeling for race/ethnicity, not LGBTQIAP+. While the issue is similar for both, there are a few key differences significant enough to merit a separate conversation. Second, intent versus impact. We often like to say “assume good intentions,” but that does not, should not, and cannot negate or undo the offense. Good intentions that cause harm still require an apology and action plan of how to do better in the future. Third, you are allowed to be uncomfortable. If you find yourself feeling uncomfortable by the end of this, sit with it. Feel it. Consider the roots of your discomfort. Understand that your comfort level does not merit tone policing or demands for civility, insisting on good intentions or bothsidesism, or anything else that forces the oppressed to accommodate the needs of the oppressor over their own. My goal is not to assuage discomfort but to engage in a difficult conversation.

Now, let’s begin.

The two most common reasons I hear from library staff who use “multicultural,” “diverse,” or “POC” labels are that 1) their patrons want to more easily find those books; and 2) that libraries already use genre labels and diversity is no different. Whew, there’s a lot to unpack here!

Although people often use “multicultural,” “diverse,” and “POC” as if they were synonyms, they aren’t. “Diverse” or “diversity” can relate to almost anything: gender, sexual identity, romantic identity, religious beliefs (or lack thereof), citizenship, place of birth, political affiliation, ability, age, etc. “Multicultural” is exactly what it says on the tin: different cultural groups sharing a space. Neither are inherently about race, though both are frequently used to imply that race is a factor. “POC” stands for “people of color.” I prefer to use the term BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and Person of Color). Indigenous people are not people of color; furthermore, “POC” is often used as a way to avoid saying “Black” and because of that many Black people (including me) prefer being called Black instead of POC.

If you plan to use labels with the words “multicultural,” “diverse,” or “POC” on them, are you using those terms correctly? How narrowly will you define multicultural? Will you include books by white authors and/or about white characters? If not, why not? Whiteness is a racial affinity and cultural identity. Before you even get to the labeling stage, how will you determine whether or not a book is “multicultural,” “diverse,” or “POC?” Who will do the physical labor of creating the relevant criteria? Who will evaluate, pull, label, reshelve, and update the catalogue?

But wait – there’s more! Are you labeling based on the author, the main character, or both? What if the book has a large cast but not all are BIPOC? Would you add a label to books about BIPOC by white authors like The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow or Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire? What about racially problematic books like American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins or The Help by Kathryn Stockett? Would you label books written by BIPOC that feature main characters that aren’t BIPOC like The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu?

It’s great that your patrons are seeking out books by and about BIPOC! And yes, many libraries choose to separate out mysteries, science fiction/fantasy, westerns, and “regular” fiction. But identity is not the same thing as genre. To reduce my life as a queer (asexual and aromantic) biracial Black cis woman down to a genre is tokenism and othering at best, offensive and regressive at worst. Tokenism and othering are damaging microaggressions with long lasting ramifications. Labeling books by or about BIPOC is to declare them different because of who they are and that they are only interesting because of how they contrast with whiteness. Labeling does not celebrate diversity but instead centers whiteness as the norm and relegates BIPOC-ness to the abnormal, thereby reinforcing white supremacy.

There are many practical ways to highlight BIPOC authors and works, especially #OwnVoices, without resorting to stickers on spines, such as handselling, readers advisory, programs, end-caps, shelf-talkers, staff picks, booktalks, book clubs, giveaways, and social media. Create book lists that are easily accessible to your patrons on your library blog, website, or OPAC, in patron-accessible binders, on display in the collection area, or on social media. Always feature a wide array of identities while ensuring that representation isn’t only occurring during a heritage month (i.e. Indigenous authors only being displayed during Native American Heritage Month). Crucially, make sure those books and authors avoid stereotyping the group they’re meant to represent -and that the author themself is not problematic.

You may also need to rethink how you use your OPAC and/or ILS. Replace outdated and derogatory subject headings and DDC numbers, incorporate the use of tags, and add in links to staff-created book lists. If your collection does not have enough books to represent multiple races/ethnicities, sexual/romantic identities, abilities, body types, etc. then it may be time to reevaluate your collection maintenance and ordering processes.

We want our patrons to read books that provide windows, mirrors, sliding glass doors, and prisms, but we first must set up a system where diversity, equity, and inclusion are the default rather than the exception. I firmly believe that neither library staff nor libraries are neutral. We make choices, and those choices reflect, reject, or reaffirm our biases and dead spots. Labels, even when used with good intentions, tokenize the BIPOC reader and author by presuming whiteness as the norm. We cannot claim to be working toward diversity, equitability, and inclusion while othering books based on race.

About the author: Alexandria Brown (she/her) is a librarian, local historian, writer, and author. She has a BA with honors in Anthropology and Sociology, a Master’s of Library and Information Science, and a Master’s in US History. She writes about speculative fiction and young adult literature for Tor.com, as well as on her blog. Diversity, equity, and inclusion set the foundation of all her work. Find her on Twitter at @QueenofRats.

7 thoughts on “How Labeling Books as “Diverse” Reinforces White Supremacy”

  1. Thanks to Lee and Low for continuing to publish books featuring characters who are not exclusively middle class and white. I agree with Alexandria Brown’s post concerning the negative aspects of labeling books as “Diverse” or any of the many variations of such a designation. My daughter (who is a middle school librarian) introduces books to her students through her podcasts, review blog, and classroom book talks. Many of us grew up reading books that reflected our world and no other. Today’s young readers have one advantage over the children of yesteryear: Books that are beyond labels, books to open minds and hearts.

  2. I just ask myself whether the desired endpoint – which you are describing, where books are mixed together as fiction or non, historical or modern,… – and the status of whether the author is diverse or not can actually be achieved without going through the step of special attention.

    People need to have their prejudices specifically challenged – and made visible to themselves – before they can be overcome. You don’t just wake up one day to a diverse world and take it for granted. Maybe the kids can – if their schools/parents make this world for them, and keep them from becoming prejudiced, a big IT. But those whose biases are subconscious, who think we are unbiased, need to have the challenges be made conscious.

    If anything, that’s what the history of this nation proves: good intentions by a few do not translate into a just society for everyone, even after 400 years.

    In my own writing, the main prejudice I tackle is the attitude of society toward the disabled and chronically ill (we get left out of ‘diversity’ a lot) as some how not having or being worthy of the same goals and aspirations as ‘everyone else.’ My own characters are a mix, though one of the main characters is chronically ill. The marketing is hard.

  3. Thank you so much for this article! I’m puzzling over how it may or may not apply to a reading choice list I assign to my 8th grade language arts students (they have to pick a book from the list). I called the list “Diverse Cultures” and it features almost all own-voices books, with stories from immigrants, minorities, and indigenous peoples. It doesn’t really feature any stories of whites. Now I’m wondering if I should use a different name for it! I also have a choice list called Global Lit, with settings around the world, and lists called Memoirs, Journeys, and Realistic Ficition. All of those other lists include some own voices books, too.

    (The books on my “Diverse Cultures” list are Hidden Figures, Dia’s Story Cloth, The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora, Aru Shah and the End of Time, Blended, It Ain’t so Awful Falafel, Amina’s Voice, In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse, Ghost Boys, How I Became a Ghost, Clayton Bird Goes Underground, The Crossover, Home of the Brave, The Dark Pond, The Birchbark House, The Year of the Dog, Darnell Rock Reporting, The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen, Pacific Crossing, One Crazy Summer, The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond, Front Desk, Ghost, The Land of Forgotten Girls.)

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