How White People Can Respond to Book Publishing’s Lack of Diversity
On Wednesday night, I sat on a panel to kick off this weekend’s San Francisco Writers Conference. Its title was “Celebrating Diversity: Opportunities for Writers of Color in Today’s Publishing Landscape.” Weeks ago, when the panel was finalized and I realized I was the only white panelist, I figured I’d been invited because I identify as lesbian, and because I’m aware of publishing’s diversity problem to the level of at least being able to speak about it and own it. It turns out, though, I was misread at hapa, or half-Asian (not an uncommon occurrence). So the panel that was to be an all person-of-color panel ended up with one white girl on it.
Because of this hapa look I have going on, I’ve experienced the smallest sliver of what it feels like to be labeled as “other.” People have told me I’m “exotic-looking,” which is basically a acceptable way of telling someone they look foreign, or different. I’ve been on the other side of a scrutinizing gaze, followed by a probing question: What’s your background? This is an innocent enough question, generally fueled by curiosity, but it’s also driven by people’s own desire to label and categorize and box you in.
At the end of the February 7 New York Times Magazine article, “How Chris Jackson Is Building a Black Literary Movement,” the article’s subject, Chris Jackson (a celebrated black editor at Spiegel & Grau), was asked how it feels to be changing the literary landscape. Part of his (second-person) response was:
“Maybe it fuels your desire to not just do good work, but to beat them in a way that changes the game, that uproots some of that stupidity and blindness.”
Stupidity is a strong word, but of course if you’re Jackson, you’re confronting it every day, along with cluelessness and privilege. But the worst offense is that this industry, overwhelmingly white, doesn’t acknowledge or own its blindness, its stupidity, its cluelessness, or its privilege.
Nearly ten years ago, I was involved in back-to-back race-related snafus in my role as an editor at Seal Press. I mishandled a few things, and reacted from a place of insensitivity and cluelessness. And yes, stupidity. I learned some hard lessons, but those lessons have served me well. They changed my entire outlook, not just on the racial inequities within publishing, but everywhere. On our panel, Ayize Jama-Everett spoke to the whiteness of publishing (take a moment here to look at these pie charts), but also to the whiteness of business in general, and what a major stretch it is for white gatekeepers to see anything non-white as mainstream. I’ve experienced this narrow-mindedness in editorial meetings when the marketing people think that the only audience for a book written by a black author is other black people. That we have the term “cross-over audience” speaks to how we pigeonhole authors to singular audiences. A black author I’m working with right now is worried that putting a black woman on her cover will narrow the audience for her novel. I don’t want to steer her the wrong way. I want her to have a cross-over audience. I also want to be able to feature a black woman on our cover with pride and confidence, because if we don’t we’re colluding with a marketing machine that tells us that black faces don’t sell books.
On the panel, I shared my experience as a white editor in a white industry. And realized in doing so that the best conversations happen when everyone gets together to address such problems—not just when white people talk with white people about the issues at hand, or conversely when a panel of people of color talk to an audience of people of color about what’s challenging, or how to get ahead. People of color can effort all they can to get published and to change this industry, but the change has to come from within the dominating white culture first. White editors, agents, marketing teams, and executives have to be willing to admit that they might not know what’s best for audiences they don’t understand or are not identified with. These people also have to open their eyes. It’s probably too kind to say that the lack of diversity in this year’s Academy Awards nominations line-up is a result of blindness. Seeing this year’s sea of white nominees makes Jackson’s use of the word “stupidity” somehow seem tame.
A lot of what we discussed on our panel had to do with the opportunities that exist for people of color in publishing, and there are opportunities, but I came away thinking more about what white people—readers, authors, and industry folks—can do to address our diversity problem head on. Here’s my partial list:
As readers we can:
• read more books by authors of color. They’re not hard to find. Read at least one a year. Panelist Bharti Kirchner talked about how much readers love her Indian characters—and how relatable they are. It has nothing to do with race, even though her publisher originally thought her only readership would be other Indian women.
• give financial support to organizations that support our next generation of writers. Girls Write Now is one such organization that mentors underserved young women to find their voices through the power of writing and community.
As authors we can:
• champion and support contests and scholarships that support writers of color. If your own publisher doesn’t have a scholarship, ask that they start a program. Starting in 2017, my press, She Writes Press, is going to start granting one publishing contract a year to a writer of color—and this started because of a conversation among our writers.
• celebrate our minority brothers and sisters in proactive ways. I’ve seen opportunities go or be presented to writers of color and then watched white authors say, “What about me?” This is another form of blindness, and the opposite of celebrating another person’s success.
Within the industry we must:
• ask questions. Let’s stop assuming we know who the readership is for a given book and start talking to the writers themselves about how to reach their target readership. If a project comes through that has potential but needs more development on audience, author platform, or marketing, explore possibilities with the potential author rather than assuming they can’t reach a big enough audience.
• actively look for projects outside our own immediate sphere of understanding. Agents and editors typically represent what interests them, but part of the privilege of being in this industry is the opportunity to grow and stretch and learn. Shifting the tide on the imbalance will take agents and editors being on an active lookout for writers who aren’t like them.
• own our diversity problem. For me, it took making a mistake to realize how clueless I was. It’s never easy to own how out of touch or blind you might be. It requires you to lower your defenses and admit that you’ve been looking at things in a narrow and non-inclusive way. And then to remain conscious and take consistent steps toward effecting real change.
What else comes to mind for you?