The Merits of Ethnic Tagging

July 19, 2014 Opinion 24

Earlier this week I asked how we should tag books where both leads are considered white. (I say considered because race is a social construct.) Ridley and Rameau find the tags useful for finding non-white reads. (Beks didn’t weigh in as she was off doing productive things that will pay her.) Ridley followed up on Twitter. I soon wondered if I was asking the wrong question. Should we be tagging books with ethnicity at all? Is this the blog equal to the bricks and mortar African American Fiction shelf in the far back corner of the store?

Goals

  • Do not contribute to white as the default ethnicity in romance fiction.
  • Do not treat books with non white characters as other. 
  • Maintain useful search markers for the site. 

 

Options

  • Make no change.
  • Stop ethnic tagging.
  • Use a snarky tag for white leads, such as All White
  • Ignore supremacy overtones and tag White Romance.

On Twitter it appeared that authors don’t care for ethnic tagging but reviewers do. For the authors the issue seemed to be the same one that made me uncomfortable with not tagging white books in the first place. Why do we need to make a different area? Why is a contemporary romance either a contemporary romance or a contemporary romance featuring people who are not white? Does the tagging engage the reader who would not ordinarily step outside the white default or does it drive them away? Would the readers who want to seek out non white characters find the books just as easily if they were not placed at that remove from the other reviews?

Countering that, we don’t tag a book with ethnicity alone. We tag them the same way a default white book is tagged and add an ethnic tag to the list. By that measure adding a white tag does nothing, as readers are unlikely to use it as a sorting method. What does it mean when we add an ethnic tag? Our intentions may be good but do we inadvertently participate in the normalization of white as the correct ethnicity for a love story? (Well that was pompous of me. But no, really, do we?) Is part of rejecting white only as the standard definition for mainstream romance to stop tagging non white leads? Or should we be tagging white ones as well?

I’m still not sure what the answer is. I am sure that I don’t want to use the suggested tags Mainstream or Monocultural. Both of those contribute heavily to the concept that white is a default for both. What would a story about Cee-Lo Green and Andre Benjamin be if not both mainstream and monocultural? They’re famous black singers of a similar age from Georgia. There’s nothing white about Mainstream or Monocultural unless we accept the supremacist notion that either one should be. I could talk in circles about this all day so let me pass it over to the comments. Maybe we can figure it out there.

 

Edited on 8/1/2014 – We’ve made some minor changes to our tagging policy, as outlined here. I hope the discussion continues as we do consider this a work in progress, not a concrete position.

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Meoskop

Meoskop's first non-compulsory book review was in 1973. Although a hit with the 3rd grade, concerns raised by the administration necessitated an extended hiatus. Reviews resumed in 1985 but the concerns are ongoing.

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24 Responses to “The Merits of Ethnic Tagging”

  1. Ros

    I don’t have any answers but one thing that occurs to me may be relevant is the title and nature of your blog: Love in the Margins. In general, all the books that you review are in some way non-mainstream, at least as far as the romance genre is concerned. So it does make sense to me that they are tagged in a way that helps readers to find the particular margins they’re interested in – whether that’s ethnicity, sexuality or whatever.

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  2. Tina

    a) Ros’ point about this particular blog is very right-on. I think that should be an element in your deliberation

    b) Is ethnicity tagging a separate issue than other types of tagging? Is it more fraught because it falls into the category of ‘race’ and people tend to have difficulties examining race dispassionately? Are the same arguments there when it comes to tagging a book m/m when the romance default is m/f? Or tagging a book ‘disability’ when abled is the default? For me, if people object to ethnicity tagging or raise the question of a lack of ‘white’ tagging sounds awfully like when people who say “Well, if there the is Black Entertainment Television channel why can’t there be a White Entertainment Television channel.”

    I will say I am in favor of tagging book as IR or Multicultural based on the race of the protags. Finding a book with non-white protagonists is an active exercise. Those readers specifically looking for non-white characters don’t have the luxury of just reading the blurb and deciding that this is a book they want to read.

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  3. Laura Vivanco

    Following on from what Ros said, it struck me that the tag cloud on the right-hand side currently reflects the name of the blog, because the tags that stand out most are related to critiquing the mainstream and highlighting works that are in the margins. If you added “White” to the tags, it could easily get very large (due to how common White protagonists are) and take over visually.

    One way round that, I suppose, would be to subdivide “White” and include tags for some groups who are White and “in the margins” of romance: after all, there aren’t so many French protagonists, for example, or it might be interesting to critique “sheikh” romances (I know that’s not an ethnicity, but the way they’re written, it often might as well be) or bring attention to books about working-class protagonists.

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  4. Laura Vivanco

    I mean, if the protagonists were both White, heterosexual, cis, able-bodied, rich, native-speakers of English, monogamous, young people would you be particularly likely to review the book here?

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  5. Laura Vivanco

    Except of course it was that kind of protagonist that sparked the whole debate. Right, I’ll go away and be quiet now.

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  6. Tina

    The last part of my post got eaten and I hit send too fast… but I was answering this question:

    ‘Would the readers who want to seek out non white characters find the books just as easily if they were not placed at that remove from the other reviews?’

    And the answer is not really. As I was saying, finding a book with a non-white protagonist is an active exercise. You can’t just read the blurb and assume. If you are looking for it you go through a series of steps.

    1 – the cover: Does it include a non-white character? Does the person look unambiguously non-white? No? then you move onto

    2- the blurb. Are there clues there? No? then you move onto

    3- the sample. Is there a description? A Hint? Is it unambiguous? No? then you move onto

    4- looking at reviews

    At this point either you know or you don’t. If you have not found out definitively then you give the book a pass if your whole purpose was finding a book with a non-white protagonist(s). Or you decide you want to read it anyway because it looks good and you may get a happy surprise. Or you don’t.

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  7. Nu

    Removing ethnic tagging is not a good option. That will be more harmful than beneficial. Culture and race are erased or taboo enough. If your blog’s addressing the margins -and your readers are reading in the margins- then why shouldn’t you discuss it? I think it’s important to remember the purpose and nature of LitM. You’re not just Romance Blog #49, you’re addressing certain books or elements of books. Given that, it would be counterproductive not to discuss (via tagging as well) those factors, it’s perfectly natural to discuss them, and what’s more, you probably want to draw reader attention to them and encourage white people to pick up diverse reads.

    So I think ethnic tagging is important. It’s also useful if you assume that your readers are not all white and that many are not only looking for multicultural books but looking to read specific cultures, as any reader might be, in fact. (I’m assuming you are labeling specific ethnicities. If you’re not, you probably should.) It’s helpful to the populations you’re presumably trying to assist.

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  8. Ridley

    I think using tags for this sort of thing, instead of top level categories, makes a difference for me. All contemporary romance we review is under the contemporary category. If you’re just browsing for a CR, it’s all there in chronological order. If you specifically want to look for a romance with a particular element, be it f/f, disability, MC/IR or being set in Louisiana, you can search the tags. Tagging books as “non-disabled” is kinda silly to me, because who would search for that?

    @Nu:

    (I’m assuming you are labeling specific ethnicities. If you’re not, you probably should.)

    I’m not sure we do this consistently, but I try to tag as specifically as possible when the book mentions it. We could probably do better, though.

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  9. lawless

    I too consider the current tagging regime useful. But white romance, or whatever you want to call it, is a silent default that I think should be explicitly recognized. Tagging it monocultural or mainstream or dominant culture (one I thought of in the meantime) is more accurate and less potentially offensive than calling it White Romance (think White Rights and White Supremacy) and is just a reflection of reality as opposed to an acceptance of it, but I’m not picky about the terminology. Whatever term is used, it’s a form of consciousness-raising.

    While it’s true that books with all Chinese characters like Jeannie Lin’s are monocultural (to use her as an example), in that situation other tags already apply.

    I’ll still love you in the morning even if you don’t make the change, but I wanted to go on record as being uncomfortable with a hidden, implicit default category.

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  10. Merrian

    @Ridley: This approach works for me (while knowing that nothing is perfect). I think tagging/meta data is important because it makes something present. I think of a blog like LITM as being mindful and centreing things that can be glossed over or elided in the name of managing comfort zones. I’m not comfortable with tagging using concepts like ‘mainstream’. That comes too close to endorsing default whiteness. I know that’s not what Lawless is wanting but it is how the tag reads at a glance it seems to me. As Nu says tagging with specific ethnicities has an important place and in fact helps breaks up the monolith of ‘default white’ I think.

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  11. Fangs for the Fantasy

    On Fangs, we have taken to tagging when we have a POC, LGBT or Disabled lead in a book – simply because as we are social justice bloggers we want to highlight these and be able to find this – and, without reading every review it would be impossible to find those books in our review log. We recognise the need for people to seek out minority protagonists and the difficulty of doing so – so provide tags that make that possible

    We don’t label White, Straight, Able Bodied leads because it’s so much more vastly common and there is no discernable reason to seek out such books (and if you are driven to search for such a book, it’s REALLY easy)

    Does it mark these books as the other? Possibly – but I think it’s more a reflection of a genre and society that has already rendered these books other and rare

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  12. P. J. DEAN

    I think the tags should stay and be as accurate as possible. Readers say that they want a different reading experience, so the more informative tags should help them find these books if they are truly looking for them. Let’s face it, romance books in 2014 are still mainly the domain of non-PoC characters who are straight and not disabled and are authored by the writer of the default ethnicity. Folks may really get upset but the tagging is in itself is a type of segregation. But for accuracy, what can you do? So, I say go big or go home. Tag for the author too unless he/she vehemently prefers not to be so identified in such a manner. Look, I’m African-American and write multicultural paranormal romance and historical romance but do I get that recognition from say, Amazon or B&N? Noooo. My stuff gets lumped under the gigantic category of “African-American Romance’, or more insultingly, it automatically gets listed under ‘Erotica’ because my pairing is interracial. Can’t win for losing. So, yeah, tag it all! I would not want anyone picking up my books by accident and not really wanting something written by ‘me.’ As for accurate covers: don’t even get me started.

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  13. Jill Sorenson

    I can’t imagine that anyone here is worried about authors getting offended by someone tagging their all-white book as white? I think I’ve had two books reviewed here, one all-white and one with a Latina heroine. Neither were tagged for ethnicity IIRC. I would prefer tagging, as a reader and an author, especially for the Latina book. The white-only tag is useful also. If I’m looking for something more diverse (which why I visit) I can move on.

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  14. CG

    I noticed that in this post you talked about author and reviewer opinions on tagging but not readers’. As a reader, I love tags. They are a tool of discoverability for me. They are tiny descriptors that allow me to find the books I want to read without having to sort thru hundreds of reviews or book summaries (which may or may not be accurate). Therefore, the more tags the better. To avoid othering, I would say go ahead and tag White. I don’t think you should worry about the supremacy overtones on this site. If y’all weren’t thoughtful about social justice issues, I’d probably have a different answer tho.

    Related to tagging, is there a way you can make the tags appear on a review/post without having to click into the review/post itself? A lot of the time I glance at tags to decide whether I want to read a review/post.

    Also, I noticed there is no way to search by multiple tags, Frex, if I want to find SFF M/M romance I could click on one or the other tags in the side bar tag box, but if I try the search box I get a bunch of links posts. I there a way to narrow a search to book reviews only?

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  15. Ridley

    How about this: We keep using Black Romance, Multicultural Romance and Interracial Romance as tags because they’re common search terms, but instead of doing a “white romance” or “mainstream romance” tag, we instead tag every book with the protagonists’ details. So a BWWM IR would get tagged “Black Heroine/White Hero” and your average Avon historical gets tagged “White Heroine/White Hero.” When ethnicities are mentioned, they could get tagged in addition to the above. So Wallflower, for example, would be tagged “Asian Hero/Aboriginal Hero” as well as “Chinese-Canadian” and “Inuit”. Does this make sense? Latino would be a bit of a minefield, but it seems doable and like useful metadata.

    @CG:

    Also, I noticed there is no way to search by multiple tags, Frex, if I want to find SFF M/M romance I could click on one or the other tags in the side bar tag box, but if I try the search box I get a bunch of links posts. I there a way to narrow a search to book reviews only?

    It’s just a limit of the tagging/category architecture that you can only filter by one thing at a time. What I did just do is add the Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction sub-categories to Reviews in the main menu. Maybe that will make it easier.

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  16. Olivia Waite (@O_Waite)

    I like that solution, but I have one question for clarification: are you going to separate out the tags (“black heroine” and “white hero”) or make the couple combination the tag (“black heroine / white hero”)?

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  17. Ridley

    @Olivia Waite (@O_Waite): I guess breaking them up makes more sense, since that lets you see more books with one tag. Also would work well with noting a “disabled hero” or “disabled heroine.”

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  18. Meoskop

    @o_Waite if we go this route I think the most useful way would be solo tags, not couple. So WM / WF would be two different tags. I also think we’d have to make some choices tat allow for tag number minimization but don’t go completely one drop theory. Like do we tag a black / cuban / american character one thing or two? Do we put all South Asian under one label? I’m interested in the approach but thinking about form.

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  19. Ridley

    @Meoskop: Well, I’d suggest doing “black hero” and “Cuban-American” for a book with that character. That way it shows up for anyone looking for black heroes or books with Cuban-American characters.

    I’d do “South Asian hero/heroine” then tag their particular ethnicity if it’s specified.

    No clue how we’d handle mixed-race characters with this scheme, though.

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  20. Nu

    Sounds good to me. Ethnic identities in romance aren’t that complex, I think. Is it a problem if there are a lot of tags? The tag cloud only shows most used, right? So it won’t get too cluttered.

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  21. lawless

    Your proposed plan of action works for me, too. Thank you for taking all viewpoints into consideration and coming up with a workable middle ground.

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  22. Ros

    Separate tags for each character also makes it much easier to include non-m/f books in the same tagging system as m/f books.

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