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been too busy during the week and too exhausted on weekends to find the motivation to write it, and now it seems a bit outdated.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?


  1. The blogging world is the reason I know about - and purchased, instead of borrowing from the library - Liar. It's next up on my TBR. I'll admit I didn't really think much about the race of the characters I was reading until the past few months. I just imagined them how they were described, and if they weren't described well I even caught myself whitewashing them in my own mind.

    Thanks to bloggers, I've also decided to feature a Latina as the main character of my next novel. She's very excited to get written, but I have to finish editing (and start querying) my current WIP first. It started because it didn't matter what race she was, so why not make her non-white? And at first it wasn't going to be a significant part of the plot. But then I realized that as a 15-year-old female, she would have recently had her quinceanera, and for reasons central to the plot (no matter what race the character was), that would have been a Very Big Deal. So her culture became more important. I also learned that not every Latina culture celebrates quinceanera - I was going to give her the last name and heritage of a friend (to have easy access to resources), only to find out that his culture doesn't have quinceaneras. Just goes to show how much my privileged white butt knows. So I have to change her name and culture (not a big deal, since I haven't started writing yet), and do a little more research, because I'm attached to the quinceanera sub-plot now.

    In the end, it's worth it. I don't think white readers will be distracted, as it's not a book about a Latina girl, but Latina readers will be happy to see a FMC who looks like them.

  2. Yes! Zadie Smith has a wonderful essay that touches on this in her book, "Changing My Mind." Why does the black character have to explicitly state that she is black, and if it is not stated, the character is assumed to be white? I know characters should be specific as possible, but I sometimes wonder, what does it matter? So many people have a mix of a thousand different nationalities and cultures inside them. Do I have to identify each one in order to write a story about this person? Is there any reason I can't leave this detail up to the reader's imagination?

    lindsay ||

  3. Heather -- I'm so glad you decided to feature a character of color in your work in progress. But I'm even more glad that you took that as a call to action and really researched the character's culture and background. It's hard to toe the line between making a book about a POC into an "issue" book and doing justice to the differing experiences of POCs. Often I think that writers who try not to make a big deal of race (a good intention) make a bad choice in ignoring the fact that the world isn't colorblind, and a person who's grown up non-white will have been treated differently throughout their lives because of that. Considering that is essential to conveying these characters honestly and to doing them justice.

    I'm impressed by the fact that you let your character "tell you," so to speak, what was important to her, and you didn't shy away from covering that. Thanks for sharing!

    Lindsay -- I worry that it does matter, only in the sense that if we identify only people of color, it singles them out as "other." I think readers' imaginations need to learn to flex a little more and expect a myriad of colors rather than whiteness by default before we can leave that detail up to imagination. What do you think?

  4. I agree with you that my "race neutral" scenario would only work out if everyone agreed to this, which is probably not going to happen. Until then, hopefully writers can continue describing their characters as best they can, and maybe one day, gaps in description won't have any color attached. I hope!

    lindsay ||

  5. My current WIP features Native Americans prominently, but it wasn't until my current (complete) rewrite the I realized I wasn't tackling their issues in the right way. Just having a character be a POC doesn't show the true experience. Fortunately, I grew up with enough NA friends that I feel I can at adequately convey what my characters' lives have been like. I'm just glad I finally realized I needed to do it. Great post.

  6. Hello there, just thought I'd drop a comment to let you know I found this post particularly interesting.

  7. You have a beautiful blog! I love title. Will definitely be back to read more.

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. You've very gracefully and tactfully approached this issue. It is one that I've touched on in my own blog (which I've been neglecting) and one I had difficulty with. It's very easy to simply ignore the issue, as so many seem to do, and go on blissfully treating it as an elephant in the room rather than discussing it frankly. Kudos!

  10. Interesting points. Interesting dilemma. Some of the points you raise are valid in their contexts.

    It could well be the case that publishing houses overwhelmingly staffed with members of one race might not be able to identify with or relate with nuances in stories dealing with other races. Definitely, a possibility.

    But diversity will ensure that differences remain. Differences in taste, differences in what one reader identifies with as opposed to another, both randomly chosen.

    Attempting to "achieve" race neutrality in books by balancing numbers will serve no purpose other than to deprive readers of great writing just because someone decides to achieve "equality" and says, 'forgo this one for that one to neutralise any perceived skew'.

    I suppose it should be possible to identify stories well told, stories that will appeal.

    I'd rather trust the judgement of publishing houses purely on the quality of work, a judgement taken with no influence of any kind, any kind. Then even if numbers appear to be skewed greatly towards one race then I can safely assume that maybe great writing is indeed coming from that race, or maybe there're more people from that race making an effort to tell great stories.

    I feel neutrality has the best chance in fairness instead of in 'balancing numbers'.

  11. Ironically, one thing about this very interesting post stood out to me:

    "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?"

    From the way you phrased that, it sounds as though you automatically assumed all your readers are white!

  12. I also tend to assume that characters are white unless otherwise specified, even though I'm not white myself. There have been times I'd hoped certain characters are actually people of color, but it usually turns out that they're not. So it seems safer to assume they're white to begin with unless I'm sure they're not, rather than be disappointed later.

  13. Fascinating. I've worked both sides of the fence (as editor in both London and NYC, and now a UK kidlit/YA author), and though it's much better now than it was in the mid-80's (at least we have people of colour in YA novels now), more work definitely needs to be done. I've just finished a novel where the narrator is mixed race, and one of the other main characters is of Caribbean ancestry. I am also white, UMC. But as a writer, I am lucky enough to have the ability to create multicultural characters outside my own experience. I also think it's essential to do so - though not in any tokenist way. For me, the characters come as they will, appearing in my head almost as living, breathing entities. My last 'heroine' was white. The next is a North African of Greek descent. One thing's for sure though - I'm going to make damned sure that the cover girl on my latest is the colour she's meant to be! Anyone trying to put a long-haired white girl in her place will get short shrift!