I spend a lot of my time on TikTok, and I’ve found myself on the outskirts of BookTok. Mostly because I was looking for more books with Latine characters. My FYP (For You Page, for the uninitiated) has been taken up with discussion about romance author Kate Stewart, and criticism after it was discovered that an early book of hers had a Latina lead, and included a racial slur against the Latine community. The book’s MC is a Latina who doesn’t identify as being Mexican-American, but rather prefers to be called Latina since she’s half-white. (And as a biracial Mex-Am woman, you can bet I’ve got an opinion on that)
Critics talked about the harm that including this perpetuates, that it seemed wholly unnecessary in the context of the book. And Kate Stewart began to defend herself. Her Mexican friend had read it, and said it was okay.
People continued to talk about it – mind you, the entire point of the original videos was to educate Latine readers, so they could decide if they wanted to read Drive, or her other works. The TikTokers who had recorded those first videos were caught offguard. They didn’t want others to be in that position.
The Immediate Reaction
Much like many of these discussions, immediately people started to talk about the criticism as being bullying. About trying to destroy her career. I’ve watched many videos talking about it, and nowhere did anyone talk about cancelling her. Most people were using it to educate on the impact of slurs being used. On the need for sensitivity readers. The importance to know that Latine people aren’t a monolith, and that if your friend is cool with it, others might not be.
Kate Stewart posted an apology. One that fell a little short. Screenshots of the apology video are provided below (text in alt-text)
For many, this fell short. She seemed far too interested in making it clear how popular she’s been, rather than acknowledging where she fell short. Whether harm was intentional or unintentional, it seems surprising that a woman from Texas would have been unaware that the term was a slur, or have never heard anyone talk about how deeply comments like that hurt.
The majority of BIPOC BookTok-ers I follow are/were horrified, creating educational content that was calm, reasonable. Everything they have to be in order to be listened to. Without being deemed angry or hysterical by white audiences. They laid out why the explanation of having a Mexican friend was insulting, without getting too deep into the deep issues that varying Latine communities in the US have with trying to assimilate into “white culture”. After all, you only have three minutes at most.
I watched as white people (non-Latine, since you can have white Latine people) chimed in. Some would say that critics were overreacting. That this wasn’t serious. That they were going to destroy Stewart’s career. There were non-Latine people (including some BIPOC) who said that this wasn’t their place to discuss, and they loved Stewart’s work so they would just keep talking about her other works. Trying to sweep it under the rug.
I saw some Latine women (or half-Latine in one case) say that they weren’t offended, and that Kate Stewart shouldn’t worry or change her words for anyone. Those were the comments that hurt the worst. Because it seemed as though they believed their opinion was the only opinion that mattered.
Remember how I mentioned assimilation? It’s the secondary attempt at colonization that many of us have witnessed. There’s a reason that a large number of Latine people don’t speak Spanish, myself included. My maternal grandparents made the decision not to teach their children Spanish – in the hopes that the lack of an accent in their English might help them succeed. My mom and her siblings grew up with most of the culture, but no ties through language. (The irony is that her siblings both learned as adults for their careers) I don’t fault my grandparents. It was a decision they thought they had to make. So many people who were Mexican-Americans that were lighter skinned said that they were Spanish, not Mexican. Despite the couple hundred years from when their Spanish ancestors arrived in the New World. Some of my extended family likes to say they’re Basque, you know.
And we see it a lot politically too – Latines who are desperate to be spared from the hateful politics of the GOP, so they join them. Thinking that they’ll be seen as some of the good ones and won’t be deported. Won’t be pushed out of neighborhoods. It doesn’t matter. They get used for the political bump and left behind.
The Bottom Line
The fact of the matter is, that if it’s harmful – it’s harmful. Despite the fact that someone calls out the slur in Drive, the MC immediately brushes it aside. She chooses to have her main character normalize it.
So what should writers do? They should work with sensitivity readers. Hiring someone whose job it is to understand the complexities of a POV can help, even if you’re a writer from that community. As someone who has a white father and a Mexican-American mother, I know that if I were to write about my experience – it would have authority and truth behind it. But I might want to get a Latine sensitivity reader if I were to go into other experiences, just to make sure I wasn’t hurting my own community. Getting feedback is never a bad thing, especially if you’re writing something about hatred and discrimination.
And what should we as readers do? I think the first thing that we should learn is to recognize the difference between sharing information, calling someone out, or calling someone in. The first videos were all about sharing information – so that readers could decide if Kate Stewart’s books were right for them, as having a slur. Later came books with more feelings about actions – but calling someone out is to suggest you think there’s nothing worth saving. No rehabilitation. Just throw it out. Calling someone in is asking for them to listen and be held accountable for the harm, since you want them to grow. So a campaign like this isn’t cancelling or calling it out. It was more to acknowledge the disappointment and frustration.
What readers shouldn’t do is stand by the sidelines, or encourage people not speak up. This was trying to acknowledge harm caused by racial slurs. And that’s something we should all be better about speaking up about. It shouldn’t always be the injured community having to lead and manage the discussions.
On that note – if you’re ever unsure about the history of a slur, Google it, rather than asking someone in that community to explain it to you. The important part is that it’s harmful, not the why. That’s secondary, and shouldn’t be something you need explained in order to care.