How could something this cute cause so much controversy? (Illustration by Ben Miller, Towson University)

WeRateDogs Has a Problem with Ethnic Names

If you thought an account rating cute dogs could avoid accusations of whitewashing, you’d be wrong.

Thoughts x

If you thought an account rating cute dogs could avoid accusations of whitewashing, you’d be wrong.

Last week, the dog-rating Twitter account WeRateDogs (@dog_rates) found itself back in the social-media doghouse with a post about a puppy named George. There was nothing obviously out of the ordinary with the post, one of their traditionally glowing reviews that netted the doggo in question a typical 12/10, until a user named Mary Wagner retweeted it alongside the original submission and asked George’s “real” name.

It turns out that whoever originally submitted “George” to be rated called him “Kanan,” an Arabic name. Things escalated when WeRateDogs blocked Wagner, who took a screen capture of the block and quipped that she was blocked for pointing out they changed an Arabic name to something very white. Ouch.

Now, I’m sure you’re wondering — “back” in the doghouse? Last year, WeRateDogs bit the hand that fed it when the account’s founder, Matt Nelson, attempted to capitalize on the eruption in popularity of “covfefe.” Despite the word’s lack of connection to dogs or ratings, Nelson had the phrase “covfefe af” printed on hats and put them up for sale on the WeRateDogs official store.

The hat upset fans of Nelson’s who saw it as coddling the Trump Administration. As an apology to those fans, Nelson then bit himself on the tail by announcing that half of the money earned from the hat sales would go to Planned Parenthood, angering conservative fans of his page. Eventually, Nelson apologized to everyone offended and, tail firmly between legs, declared that politics have nothing to do with rating dogs anyway, and that the page would be rededicated fully to rating good heckin’ boys and nothing else.

So really, this latest incident makes at least the second time that WeRateDogs has been dogged by political controversy. This time, Nelson defended himself against Wagner’s allegation by explaining that the page commonly changes the names of the dogs, and that the dogs’ owners were always asked beforehand.

But what’s the point of renaming the dogs in the first place? Using a personal account, Nelson explained that the name of the dog featured often has a big impact on how well the post does, suggesting that he simply thought “George” would be a more popular name for the dog than “Kanan,” even if “George” wasn’t the dog’s real name.

You might be asking if this is worth caring about. After all, WeRateDogs is, for better or worse, a business: They have an online shop where they sell hats and t-shirts, and they’ve even sold a book of dog ratings. It’s not unreasonable for them to do everything they can to keep their posts popular.

So, is blaming WeRateDogs for the unfortunate ethnic element of this name-changing situation unfairly pointing the finger? Nelson’s motivations apparently didn’t come from personal racial bias, just an attempt to make sure the good boys he reviewed got a wide audience. He’s a publicity hound who’s just doing what it takes to get attention.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to blame the people who favorite tweets with “white-sounding” names more than tweets with names like “Kanan?” Are his detractors barking up the wrong tree? Should they call off the dogs?

Like most questions that have anything to do with racial or ethnic bias, Nelson cannot take all the blame. But companies still have a responsibility to make sure that the way they operate isn’t harming anybody or coming in the way of justice. By changing the names of the dogs it rated to make them more popular, WeRateDogs missed a good opportunity to promote representation.

As it’s understood these days, representation is the simple presence of people of color or other cultures in works of media. It benefits people because by preventing false narratives that “normalize” one culture or race and make others… well, “other.” A feed of dogs with only English names, for example, could create a false assumption in readers that all dogs (or at least, most dogs) have English names and those with names from other cultures are at best unusual, often somehow undesirable.

When it comes to dogs, it might not seem like a big issue, but any issue on a cultural level can seriously mess with a person’s self-perception. Most people perceive representation on a sub-conscious level: unless you actively paying attention in the way that Mary Wagner did, you often won’t notice a culture’s absence from a given work unless it’s your own. This becomes a feedback loop where things people see most frequently define what is “normal” to them, even it doesn’t accurately represent reality.

There’s really no satisfactory ending to this shaggy dog story. Nelson has promised, again on his personal account, that he won’t be changing any more dog names — he’s clearly dog-tired of making mistakes like these and raising his audiences’ hackles.

It’s unclear, however, whether Nelson understands why people were upset at him, which could come back to bite him if he makes any mistakes like these again. It just goes to show that not even running a Twitter account about rating good puppers will insulate you from today’s dog-eat-dog political climate.

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