Whitewashing: Where Are The Minority Authors?

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Where are all the minority authors? I know they’re out there – I’ve seen Bronx Masquerade (Nikki Grimes), Monster (Walter Dean Myers), and Push (Sapphire) in the bookstore. Does My Head Look Big in This (Randa Abdel-Fattah) The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy), and The Kite Fighters (Linda Sue Park) reside on my bookshelf. In mid-January, Kate Harding wrote an article about Bloomsbury USA’s second white washing fiasco wherein the publisher decided, yet again, to put a white model on the cover of a young adult novel about a black character (Magic Under Glass, Jaclyn Dolamore).

But Bloomsbury may be just the top of the iceberg. “The Mysterious Benedict Society” series, a hit for Little, Brown Books for Young Readers has sported all-white covers since 2007, despite one character, Sticky Washington, being “described as having light brown skin”.

According to School Library Journal (click through for a copy the cover, and an enlargement of Sticky)

…the “Mysterious Benedict Society” controversy had been simmering for years. SLJ blogger Betsy Bird, a children’s librarian with the New York Public Library’s Children’s Center, was one of the first to spot the discrepancy in a December 11, 2007 review of the first book in the series.

“Sticky has dark skin in the book,” she writes. “Now look on the cover. It took me a while to figure out why I wasn’t seeing Sticky there. I was, but they’ve bleached him out. In short, they made Sticky white.”

At the time, says Bird, there was little response to her post and the illustrated covers on books two and three continued to show a white Sticky.??A few days ago, elementary school librarian Travis Jonker, who blogs at 100 Scope Notes, wrote: “No, it wasn’t enough to make him white, they made him albino with rosy cheeks. Seeing as how this has happened three times, I’m wondering why it has barely made a ripple.”

Growing up half-Indian in a predominantly white country (Australia), reading was usually about other people. US and UK books were filled with settings I couldn’t relate to (squirrels, snow, giant oak trees); characters I couldn’t relate to made reading even more difficult. Perhaps this makes me over sensitive. Maybe I’m reading too much–or too little–into the lack of black voices, diverse voices, in this conversation. Maybe all the minority authors out there are busy writing books (I hope so!). Yet it still seems odd that there are so few minority authors talking about whitewashing on the internet and in the press. It’s only a matter of time before some astute reader notices a whitewashed cover on a book featuring an Indian/Chinese/Afghani main character. So far, only YA book covers have made the discussion, though it seems likely adult lit covers will soon come under fire, too.

Last year, YA author Justine Larbalestier kicked up quite a fuss–and rightly so–when Bloomsbury published her YA novel, Liar, with a white model on the cover (Bloomsbury eventually capitulated). Ursula K. Le Guin has also “fought many cover departments on this issue, and mostly lost”. In an interview with Publishers’ Weekly, Larbalestier said, “Whitewashing of covers, ghettoizing of books by people of color, and low expectations (reflected in the lack of marketing push behind the majority of those books) are not new things.”

Larbalestier and others like her should be lauded for speaking out against white washing–it’s an abhorrent practice. But where are all the black authors? Liar’s cover has been discussed all over the web. Several high profile sites, including Salon, Jezebel, Publishers’ Weekly, and Boing Boing, ran the story. As far as I can tell (the Jezebel piece is unattributed), all the writers are white.

In April 2009, School Library Journal published an article about sterotypes in children’s literature (Is the Cover Art True to the Story, 2007). So far, this article written by South Asian author Mitali Perkins, this article is the only piece I can find with a non-white author addressing whitewashing and other cover issues (according to Perkins, some publishers also exoticize covers;  for a thoughtful, in-depth look at whitewashing and why minority covers don’t sell check out Perkins’ thoughts at her blog).

Of course, it’s possible black authors haven’t responded to Bloomsbury’s actions because they are unaffected by the issue. After all, no publisher in their right mind would force a white cover model on a black author–it would be tantamount to saying “we like you, really we do, but our readers will only buy books by white people”. Though, according to Larbalestier, publishers do say this–all the time, in fact. She writes,

Since I’ve told publishing friends how upset I am with my Liar cover, I have been hearing anecdotes from every single house about how hard it is to push through covers with people of colour on them. Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA-they’re exiled to the Urban Fiction section-and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all.

When do black cover models make the cut? If the shelves of my local bookstore are any indication, when race–or rather racism–is an issue. Novels about slavery, the American Revolution, black history and the civil rights movement sport black cover models. Novels about contemporary teens–not so much.

Another reason black authors may be reluctant to speak out is alienation–alienation from not just publishers but readers. Jaclyn Dolamore, author of Bloomsbury’s latest victim, Magic Under Glass, is a newly-published author. From Dolamore’s blog,

I know some people are waiting for me to say something on the issue of my cover. I have thought long and hard about my thoughtful response, but the more I consider it, the more I think…

My writing is my voice. My stories are about accepting your fellow man or woman, about how love is the most powerful force in the universe. I do truly understand why some people are upset by my cover. However, Nimira is from a fictional land which is not meant to be a parallel to a specific country in our world…

I definitely don’t want to tell people how to feel. I have no problem with anyone getting impassioned about a cause. But a writer is the only thing I’ve wanted to be all my life, it’s an outlet for a girl who is often timid to express her soul. If you want to know how I feel about acceptance, love, and diversity, it is in my books. I’m glad the story has spoken to many readers. I believe that young readers crave books with ALL kinds of heroes, and the surest way we can satisfy that need is to support books that make heroes out of diverse characters. I do hope that you’ll give Nimira and her story a chance, and that you’ll love her as much as I do.

To me, Dolamore’s hedging reads as both acknowledgement and gentle plea–clearly, Bloomsbury screwed up, but it’s not my fault, so please buy my book. If the book’s author feels unable to make a definitive statement lest she lose her publisher/readers, other authors may think twice about voicing an opinion. Writers depend on publishers, agents, and readers. Push the envelope too much, and they may lose all three. (Read more about Dolamore & Magic Under Glass @ Jezebel.)

And then there’s the issue of, well, issues. Prominent minority figures have oft been accused of forwarding an agenda without considering the effect of their actions. If a black author stepped up and suggested boycotting Bloomsbury, as some outraged readers have done, it’s the Dolamores and the Larbalestiers that lose out, not the publisher. Although any author is likely to know better than to suggest a boycott–writers are a fairly supportive, close knit community–there are always naysayers, ready to pounce, accuse, and fight dirty.

While black authors may be the obvious absent voices, other non-white authors have also remained fairly silent on the issue. So-called “ethnic” (I hate that word) authors shouldn’t be lumped together, but whitewashing is an issue that affects everyone, not just white authors and black authors. Le Guin’s Powers is about a boy of Himalayan ancestry, though the ARC covers featured a white model.

Whitewashing publishers aren’t getting off too easy, though. Librarians, teachers, parents, and YA readers themselves are boycotting, writing letters, and, most importantly, talking about the issue. Little, Brown seems to have responded quickly, and will soon be re-releasing their series with updated, more appropriate covers. Bloomsbury has also caved to pressure from the blogosphere, though it took a little longer. Why should we care about whitewashing?  Larbalestier says it best,

“Sticking a white girl on the cover of a book about a brown girl is not merely inaccurate, it is part of a long history of marginalisation and misrepresentation. Publishers don’t randomly pick white models. It happens within a context of racism…That is what this is about: pervasive racism in every aspect of our world so that young kids grow up thinking they are inferior because they see so few reflections of themselves.”

How do you feel about whitewashing? Would you knowingly buy a book with a whitewashed cover? Would you write a letter to a publisher? Do you know any minority authors speaking out about whitewashing?

Photo Credit: Adlie

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