Thursday, February 4, 2010

"We Aren't as Pretty or Interesting": Why White Readers and Publishers Have Got to Think in Color

I've had this post outlined for weeks, but I've been too busy during the week and too exhausted on weekends to find the motivation to write it, and now it seems a bit outdated. So let that be a lesson to you, writer-friends: make time to write, because if you don't a giant Amazon/Macmillan debacle will come and outshine you.

I considered scrapping this post altogether in order to focus on what's hot in the news right now, but to be honest, I haven't got much to add to the breakdown you can get from Rachelle Gardner, Kristin Nelson or that awesome dude named Eric over at Pimp My Novel. But since I do have something to say about people of color on book covers, and because it's incredibly important that these things get said, well... here goes:

In another blogger uproar like the one I posted about in November, the white-washing of Jaclyn Dolamore's Magic Under Glass made big news. After enough bloggers pointed out the fact that Bloomsbury -- the same publisher that whitewashed Justine Larbalestier's Liar -- had misrepresented the novel's darker-skinned narrator on the cover, the company issued an apology, stating that they'd soon be providing a new cover for future editions. And the book-blogging world rejoiced, again.

But when we stop celebrating, we've got to realize that the fact that the same publisher whitewashed covers twice, in rapid succession, is indicative of a serious issue. And other bloggers have noted that it's not just these books, and not just Bloomsbury. So why does this happen?

It happens because, unfortunately, the publishing world has yet to fully step outside of the white privilege with which it's been associated for ages. And it will be hard for it to do so.

Breaking into the industry -- even devoting serious amounts of time to reading for leisure -- requires money. It requires proximity to most of the publishing world in Manhattan, a notoriously expensive place. It requires a certain amount of leisure time in which to read and think. It requires, usually, the privilege of education. It requires the propensity to dream big dreams, and to see their fulfillment as a possibility. And all of these things are unavailable to a large segment of our society: the lower classes. And because race and class (along with gender and sexual orientation and gender identity and countless serious matters I can't discuss in one post) are inextricably bound in our culture, publishing's class issues are also its race issues.

I'm uncomfortable blogging about this, as a white, upper middle class Editorial Assistant. Only 33% of my city's population identifies as white, and yet 95% of the people I work with from day to day are Caucasian. I can't ignore the fact that my background -- my class and my race -- benefit me in this industry. Does that make me an inherently bad person? I hope not.

But it does mean that I, and other white readers and industry professionals, have an added responsibility. Because a huge percentage of the decision-makers in the book business are white, proposals most often get read by white agents, who bring their white perspectives to the table when deciding if characters feel realistic and if their struggles feel relevant. From there, they're read by white editors who bring them to acquisition meetings attended by the mostly-white staff of their respective houses. So, in effect, the people who get to decide which stories are worth telling, worth re-telling, and worth printing and binding and hyping up and selling, are mostly white. And if we're not careful, it's easy to forget that our experience is not universal. Having benefited from our backgrounds, we as publishers have a responsibility to consider what stories will speak to those whose experiences have been different from our own.

It's very, very easy to assume white as a default -- especially when we spend most of our time around people who share our background. One of the reasons that an uproar was so long in coming is that Magic Under Glass stated its narrator's skin color less explicitly than did Liar. And, having read the textual descriptions of the main character's appearance, I can see why many readers assumed Nimira looked just like the model on the cover; the book never specifically calls her colored.

And that's the problem. Too often, when we imagine a character from a book, we assume white unless otherwise stated. And we've been able to do that for too long because of our privilege. But white is not the default race -- whiteness is not the default experience -- and we must shake the idea that it is.

I'm working hard to do this. I'm trying to shake the fact that my internal narrator has an undeniably European-American accent. I'm trying to imagine characters in a rainbow of colors rather than picturing them as white characters and then modifying that image when I learn of their race. Frankly, it's hard. It's hard to go outside my own experience and forget what it's like to be in the majority -- which is to say nothing of how hard it is to not be in the majority, and to have no choice but to venture outside one's own experience.

So I'm looking to you all. How do you deal with this issue? Are you challenging yourselves to read or buy books about people of color? To drop whatever assumptions you may have about race? And how do you think we can help change the industry and -- even more importantly -- the way we and other readers and publishers think?