The Advantages of Being a White Writer

Disclaimer: I am writing about YA publishing in the USA. Although I’m Australian I know much more about the publishing industry in the US than I do about Australia. Or anywhere else for that matter.

I know that the title of this post is going to lead to some comments insisting that it’s not true that white writers have any advantages and that many white people are just as oppressed as people of colour. I don’t want to have that conversation. So I’m going to oppress the white people who make those comments by deleting them. I don’t do it with any malice. I do it because I want to have a conversation about white privilege in publishing. We can have the discussion about class privilege and regional privilege and other kinds of privilege some other time. Those other privileges are very real. But I don’t want this discussion to turn into some kind of oppression Olympics.

Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t, Redux

There were some wonderful responses to my post attempting to debunk the “damned if you do/damned if you don’t” canard. But I got the impression that some people understood me as saying that it’s fine for white people to write about non-white people and that any criticism for doing so is no big deal. Writers get criticised for all sorts of different things. Whatcha gunna do?

I did not mean that at all. I’m very sorry that my sloppy writing led to such a misunderstanding. I think the criticism a white writer receives for writing characters who are a different race or ethnicity, especially by people of that race or ethnicity, is a very big deal. We white writers have to listen extremely carefully. Neesha Meminger wrote a whole post about why in which she talks about how hard it is for many non-white writers to get published:

I know how tiring it is to hear over and over from editors or agents (who are, in almost all cases, white) that they “just didn’t connect with,” or “just didn’t fall in love with” the characters of a mostly-multicultural book. And, while I know these can be standard industry responses to manuscripts, the fact of the matter is that white authors are getting published. White authors writing about PoC are getting published—sometimes to great acclaim—while authors of colour are still not (in any significant numbers).

Mayra Lazara Dole makes a similar point:

Many POC feel you are stealing their souls. We’ve never, ever had your same opportunities. As an africanam friend would say, “the times of white people painting their faces black in hollywood are over.” Why don’t you sit back and allow us to get our work published while you keep writing what you know until we catch up? Shouldn’t it be about equal opportunity? If so, please consider giving us a chance to make our mark (about 90 percent of all books are written by white authors).

Now before you get your back up and start spouting about how you have a right to write whatever you want. Neesha agrees:

So, to my white brothers and sisters: certainly, write your story. Populate it with a true reflection of the world you live in. Bring to life strong and powerful characters of all colours. Do so with the ferocity of an ally and the tenderness of family. But please don’t be so cavalier as to shrug and say, “I did my best, and frock you if you don’t like it—plenty of your people thought I did a great job.” Take the criticism in as well. After the urge to defend yourself has passed, pick through the feedback and see if there’s some learning there. Because the reality is that masses upon masses of “our people” have absorbed toxic levels of self-hatred from the images and messages (and *inaccurate representations*) that surround us. Many of us have learned to believe that we are less than, not worthy, undeserving—and are simply grateful to be allowed to exist among you without fear.

So does Mayra Lazara Dole:

On the other hand, having been born in a communist country with censorship, please, write what you want, but just know that even though you have every right to write whatever you wish, you’ll hurt some of us. Many POC’s won’t be as forgiving, but some will. To some POC’s it will feel as if you are stealing from them . . . Don’t you want POC to write our own books?

So do I. Hey, all my books so far have had non-white protags (follow the link for my reasons why). Neither Neesha nor Mayra want to censor white writers, they want us to be very careful of what we do, and they want us to own it.

That’s what I’ve tried to do, but I haven’t always succeeded. Writing, thinking beyond my privilege, these are things I struggle with every single day of my life. I was not standing here from on high saying, “Here’s how to do it.”1 I was saying, “Here’s what I’m wrestling with.”

What are the advantages that white writers writing about people of colour have that PoC writers don’t have?

First of all (assuming that you can actually write) your odds of getting published are better than theirs.2 No, I don’t have statistics to back me up, but I have a lot of anecdotal evidence. Of friends and acquaintances who were rejected by editors and agents who already had their one African or Asian author. If you’re the only brown writer on a list than you have to be a lot better than all the other brown writers competing for that one slot. The hurdles that many non-white writers have to jump to get published in the USA are higher than they are for white writers.3

Here’s another big advantage: If you, as a white writer, produce an excellent book about people who aren’t like you odds are high that your ability to do so will be seen as a sign of your virtuosity and writerly chops, which it is. However, non-white writers rarely get the same response, even though it’s just as hard for them. I say that not just because I think all good writing is hard to achieve, but because every time you write a nuanced character who isn’t white you’re writing against a long, long tradition of stereotyped characters in Western literature. That’s hard to do no matter what your skin colour. And if you’re a writer working within in a different writing tradition and trying to make it succeed within the English-language novel tradition you’re doing something even harder.

I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that we white writers should feel guilty about any of this. Guilt is a pointless emotion. White writers who’ve written about people of colour and won acclaim and awards don’t have to hand their prizes back. That would change nothing.

What I am saying is that we need to be aware of our privilege and listen to criticism and act upon it. We need to do what we can to change things. The more novels with a diversity of characters that are published and succeed in the marketplace the more space there will be. The more people who can find themselves in books, the more readers we’ll all have, and the more opportunities there’ll be for writers from every background. Of course, it’s not just the writers who need to be more diverse, but everyone in publishing, from the interns to agents to the folks in sales, marketing, publicity, and editorial, to the distributors and booksellers.

There are many wonderful books by writers of colour. Read them, talk about them, buy them for your friends. Point them out to your editors and agents. Be part of changing the culture and making space for lots of different voices. The problem is not so much what white people write; it’s that so few other voices are heard. If the publishing industry were representative of the population at large we wouldn’t need to have this conversation.

  1. And I’m very sorry if it came across that way. []
  2. Yes, it’s hard for all people to get published. I know. It took me twenty years to do so. But add to that the prevailing notion in the publishing industry that books about people of colour don’t sell and it becomes even harder. []
  3. The hurdles they have to jump to have the time and resources to write in the first place are typically also higher, but that’s a whole other story. Don’t get me started on the differences I’ve seen on tour in the USA between predominately black schools versus predominately white ones. []

45 comments

  1. Jo Ann Hernandez on #

    I congratulate you for taking on such a tough subject to talk about. I know. I’ve done it for years, and guilt, whether it’s called white or liberal keeps getting in the way of any true understanding. As for names, I have submitted my writing under a white name, have won awards for pieces submitted under my white name that were rejected when I let them know my real name. And agents will google a name to see what comes up to check what kind of writing and posts the person makes to see if that person will be fun or difficult to work with. The chances of “passing” are more difficult. Then that begs the question: Why should we have to change our name to be taken serously? I’ve won major Latino awards in fiction yet was recommended from an expensive POC editor that I needed to win a “real” award. Translation: compete with white people because the Latino prize aren’t held in any high esteem. I”m glad that you, Justine, have taken the banner because until white people say enough, all this is going to keep on happening. It’s good to see young women like Neesha and Mayra speaking loud and proud because in the past, a big mouth like me got slammed down. Keep on keeping on.
    Jo Ann Hernandez
    BronzeWord Latino Authors
    authorslatino.com/wordpress

  2. Mayra Lazara Dole on #

    Hola Justina (your Cuban name, pronounced: Whose-TINA),

    I’d like to clarify that unlike Neesha’s experiences, white editors fell/fall madly/passionately in love with my work and praised/praise it from here to Cuba. The challenges I faced in the past, before my YA novel was published by Harper Collins (my beloved editor for Down to the Bone spoke Spanish and her husband is Colombiano), and my two picture books published by Children’s Book Press, and exclusive multicultural press (my editor was Puerto Rican) were toning down my culture and needing to Americanize my characters and make my work mainstream because Cuban-Americans seem to be considered way “over-the-top.” Not until I found these editors did I get published (and I’ve been writing since I was a teen). Recently, I’ve been writing novels still with all Latino ultra contemporary casts, but with more Latino-Americanized characters of a different class in hopes of reaching an even broader audience. I like to bend, because working with editors is a give-and-take… a compromise of sorts, but i’d also LOVE to work with Latina/o and white editors searching for authentic Latina contemporary MG and YA novels. It would be a dream to find white editors with Latina/o and LGBTQI friends who know and respect our culture.

    More later when I can respond to your full post with more time. Gracias! Mayra

  3. Neesha Meminger on #

    @Mayra ~ Mayra, my editor loved SHINE, too—she was one of the few who really *got* it, and supported my vision for it 100 percent. And my publisher has been amazingly supportive, given the constraints of the economy. But we are the lucky ones. There are tons and tons of talented, worthy stories out there by PoC, just waiting for an opportunity. The point I was trying to make, and that I believe Justine is trying to highlight, is that this is a *systemic* problem. There will always be individual exceptions, but the overall problem still exists and affects PoC en masse.

  4. Mayra Lazara Dole on #

    absolutely. i know exactly what justine is saying, but i wanted to clear that my experience was different from yours and not identical.

  5. Shara S. White on #

    Okay, I’m about to ask a completely stupid question out of ignorance: unless a writer’s name is obviously ethnic, how do these agents and publishers KNOW the manuscripts they’re reading is coming from an author of color versus a white writer who “gets it right”? I mean, sure there’s the internet, and more than likely an author might post her picture on her website, but seriously, if an editor/agent went so far as to check the race of a potential author just to see if said author was of color (so that if said author was and the slot was already filled, they’d reject the manuscript), well… I’d like to think people really aren’t that shallow. But in all seriousness, if an author of color whose name is generic, like Ann Brown, submitted a fantastic manuscript featuring characters of color, and if the agent or editor didn’t know her race, why would she have a harder time getting published?

    Bear in mind, I’m just trying to understand the industry a little better. I’m genuinely curious. And I can see how some authors’ names could unfortunately work against them based on what you’re describing in your post.

  6. Shveta on #

    I’m so happy you keep talking about this, Justine. Thank you.

  7. Delux on #

    excellent post.

  8. London on #

    Thanks for another great post on race & writing Justine! <3 I don't know what I would do without these posts of yours. I have attempted to follow your example & add my 2 cents at my blog. No matter how busy I am, good to take the time to talk about these things (if only for my own benefit).

  9. Arachne Jericho on #

    Shara @4 –

    Names still make up ethnicity to people’s minds, unfortunately. One will get you ten that someone surnamed “Ling” is going to have problems whether or not they’re really Asian (and I’ve seen that name belong to families that have no Asian ancestors, unless we go back to the dawn of time or something); the same thing happens to guys named “Lynn”.

    I have a legal entity to whom I mostly only talk to online the other day fill out some forms with my ethnicity as white, because my name reads white, not because they’d actually looked at my picture (which would have cleared things right up). I’m very used to this kind of thing, annoying as it is.

    (On a tangent; the idea of names = ethnicity is one that’s hard to shake, and I’ve always disliked seeing it either in real life or in literature, much less in legal documentation. It’s a shortcut, I know, that’s easy for writers of all stripes, but I think it’s a bit lazy.)

  10. Shara S. White on #

    Arachne Jericho @ #8:

    Thanks for responding. I definitely see your point. I have a friend whose name is Asian, not gender-specific to someone who doesn’t know anything, who’s had trouble selling her work, and I wonder if it’s a double-whammy between the gender ambiguity and the clear ethnicity of her name. She even had an agent call her “Mr. LAST NAME” in the rejection letter, which was really sad because my friend had pitched to the agent in person.

    Hell, even my maiden name (Shara Saunsaucie), which I want to publish under, makes me worry, and I’m not even a writer of color. But I’ve had some people tell me that seeing my name makes them think otherwise?

    But I am really curious about people’s names that are NOT ethnic by any stretch (like my example of Ann Brown) but is a person of color. Does someone in that situation have any more difficulty than the usual breaking into the business? Probably so, if they’ve met the editors and agents in person, or have their picture on their website. Which, again, is really, really sad. I’m sorry the industry is like this. :-/

  11. Zetta Elliott on #

    This is a great post, Justine, and a difficult subject to confront. I don’t want to censor any writers either, but in 2008, more books were published BY whites ABOUT blacks than were published by blacks (see the stats on the CCBC website). That’s not ok, and we need to ask why POC aren’t considered the primary (not the only) experts on their own culture & history. I recently had an experience that infuriated me: while attending a local book festival, a white male author on a panel admitted repeatedly that he makes whatever changes to his manuscript that his editors or agent request. Now, that in and of itself is not a problem, though I would like to see all artists fight to defend their artistic vision/integrity. The problem is that this author is white, and he’s writing about teens of color. I tried finding info on him online, and discovered there was no author photo on his publisher’s profile page; no blog, no website. He’s the new “invisible man,” and THAT is not ok. I truly believe many white editors PREFER to work with white writers, and people of color–when they DO get through the publishing gate–then have to act in a way that makes their editors feel at ease…as June Jordan pointed out, as long as POC act as children or grateful subordinates, they will be sheltered and published and loved. But if they dare to stand up and act like adults, like EQUALS, or–God forbid–EXPERTS on their own experience, they’re doomed. This goes for many agents, too, who want clients that can be easily “managed.” I don’t know how to conclude–writers should write what calls to them, but I do wish more white writers acknowledged that they currently have 95% of the publishing pie…

  12. Mayra Lazara Dole on #

    Shara, there’s a total investigation of who you are before a publisher accepts you. When you send an agent your work, you must state your bio. For instance, I was born in Havana Cuba and raised in Miami, a Cuban community. You get to speak with the agent, too. Before a contract, you must hand over your social security number, etc. Eventually, the puzzle that is you comes together for agents and editors. Even if my name were Sally Smith, any agent who reads my work will be able to tell that I wasn’t born in the U.S. A log of white folks cahnge their name to POC authors, though…

  13. Shara S. White on #

    Mayra @ #10:

    Thanks for clarifying the issue. I didn’t realize writers were submitted to what amounts to a “background check” before they signed a contract. And it disturbs me, because in any other job, wouldn’t rejection at that point be considered an act of discrimination? And therefore eligible for a lawsuit?

  14. Mayra Lazara Dole on #

    For me, it’s about Equality and supporting a movement for authors/writers of color to have Equal chances at being published. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”–Martin Luther King, Jr.

  15. Paula Chase on #

    What I am saying is that we need to be aware of our privilege and listen to criticism and act upon it.

    And this is the heart of the issue, when it comes to finding a solution. The longer people continue to bury their heads in the sand, the less diversity we’ll see.

    Justine, thank you for keeping the fact that this is a systemic problem, top of mind.

    I love the children’s writing community because it tends to be unified and very supportive. But I’d be a fool to think that my publishing journey will equal that of my White peers. It doesn’t. Under the current system, my popular fiction books simply do not get the type of distribution that a “mainstream” series would get. Many books that aren’t traditionaly POC stories (historical, inner city) don’t.

    The industry believes that books like mine must only be marketed to readers of color. The same readers publishing claims doesn’t purchase books on any significant scale. Hmm…where does that leave me and others like me?

    I don’t and never will support a broad stroked ban on White writers creating characters of color. It’s our creative right as writers to write from the heart. The problem is that rule, under the current publishing system, seems only to apply to White writers.

  16. A'Ja on #

    Sadly, this is an issue that can be discussed until the cows come home. The fact is, white people are not running out to buy books with a black protagonist, but the entire world bought Harry Potter. And how many people of color are in those books? 3 or 4.

    White America may run to see a Tyler Perry film (which is a modern day minstrel show), but they have yet to find the same appreciation for our stories.

    I don’t feel that anyone’s voice should be censored, this is America, what comes up, comes out. But even the most politically correct culturally aware author does not have the voice, or is an appropriate medium to tell such a story. Even if they have the best intentions.

    So few talented authors of color get their stories told to the masses. Look at Sapphire! PUSH came out in the nineties and was not very well known outside the Black community. Nearly 20 years later, the story is being told on the big screeen. Not to say that white authors dont struggle, but it’s a “different” struggle.

  17. Clix on #

    It sounds like a major part of the reason that there are comparatively few writers of color who get published is that there is a similar – perhaps even more pronounced – disparity in editors. Does anyone know of any numbers?

  18. Christine on #

    There seems to be a slow movement to “start” acquiring PoC as a result of people like Justine, Neesha, Roger Sutton, and Elizabeth Bluemle to bring the problem to the forefront. When people of color have complained about unequal treatment it was brushed aside.

    I’m hoping the change in climate is a long-term trend and not a “fad” to appease the marketplace rumbling. Tokenism is often worse than the inaction we’ve seen prior to this debate.

    The industry is small, most often the submission of multicultural is a clue and we encourage many authors to develop an internet presence before they start submitting. Some meet (and or ignore) the authors at conferences.

    Hence, a number of authors going underground and adopting pseudonyms just to get past the problem. You know the market has a problem when people are having to hide their race to get considered by a predominantly white editorial staff.

    I would point out the MIT study in which they put out comparable resumes but those that “sounded” black got fewer interviews:

    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0DXK/is_9_20/ai_104521293/

    especially this quote: ……”And indeed, improving the resume quality helped candidates with White-sounding names significantly–their chances of receiving a callback rose 30 percent. But for candidates with Black-sounding names, “we found none of that. If anything, we found the opposite,” Bertrand says…..”

    My point is strictly economic – if an editor’s ability to “connect” with a character results in strong sales performance – more power to them. But continuing to fish in that narrow pond may be, in fact, responsible for the lack of development of new market opportunities across all racial boundaries. Isn’t that the true definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?

    There are a lot of kids out there looking for books that speak to them more broadly, and we should encourage authors like Justine who seek, with great skill, to provide them. But the question becomes, why is it more likely that a white author will be acquired when a black author with a comparable, non-stereotypical book, will not be.

    The trends and current data are pretty compelling that the trend towards exclusion is overt and deliberate.

  19. Christine on #

    Mayra,

    Martin Luther’s Dream bypassed publishing, I’m afraid. They’re still stuck in the “crack-addicted pregnant girl in a ghetto with a boyfriend in a gang but it all works out although they’re still jobless and living without utilities” ditch.

    Justine,

    You have guts. Live long and prosper!

  20. Millenia Black on #

    Christine said:
    When people of color have complained about unequal treatment it was brushed aside.

    Exactly. This is why I believe it is imperative that more white writers be willing to speak up about this as consistently as Justine does, until real improvement happens industry-wide. Justine speaks specifically to the YA segment of publishing, but it’s a great microcosm for what’s basically true of the industry at large.

    When non-white authors are brave enough to voice their experiences and decry the racially biased treatment they are encountering, it is mostly ineffective for any improvement, because not only are they brushed aside, but demeaned and attacked—with great intensity. Essentially victimized again. And statistics of how well the racially defined “African-American niche” does are used to batter their argument that they do not have an equal opportunity for mainstream success. They’re basically told (and expected) to settle for aspiring to be a big fish in a very small pond, and not to aspire to fishing in the ocean. For a writer of color in the US, such an aspiration can only lead to heartbreak. (See the New York Times bestseller list week after week, year after year.)

    Crying out also causes them to risk being blacklisted, losing any chance at a successful career as a commercial author. But this does not seem to be the case when a white writer says the very same things. This has been true historically, and it is still true now.

    But color and race aside: Although it is natural for many of the beneficiaries of unearned advantage to fear the loss of said advantage and opt to remain silent, everyone who participates in the industry has a moral obligation to speak out against it. Spend a little time thinking about the price we all pay for the existence of such an unjust advantage, wherever it exists.

    Great post, Justine!

  21. Laura Atkins on #

    Great post, Justine, and I’ll add to the thanks for keeping this topic going. One other thought on why more white writers get published when writing about people of color. If you consider that most editors who work at children’s publishers are white, and that the perceived audience (especially the adults – say teachers, librarians, parents – who buy books for children) are also white… then books written by white authors are more likely to conform to “mainstream” or white-dominated expectations of what these books should be about, how characters should behave, and how stories should be told. I realize this as a white editor who used to work at multicultural publishers. I think I was unconsciously looking for books that focused on problems or issues around race. That, perhaps, felt more comfortable or obvious than books where race wasn’t the central issue. And many authors of color have spoken about their difficulties in publishing books where race isn’t THE main issue. So choosing books written by white authors can perpetuate the already self-enclosed system in which most children’s books get published in the US. And in terms of knowing the race of submitting writing – as an editor at multicultural publisher most people of color noted their race in the submissions. I guess at a multicultural publisher (I worked at Children’s Book Press and Lee & Low) this was seen as advantage. This was certainly true for me as an editor. But in many contexts, I’m sad to hear that it might actually work against that author.

  22. Doret on #

    This is a very difficult topic that needs to be discussed. Others have said that- White authors have to bring this problem into the light because authors of color would be seen as complaining. (Their books are not selling or they weren’t good enough to get published so now they want to blame it on the industry)

    The fact that authors of color would be dismissed if they made a similar argument when all the evidence says that the publishing industry does favor White authors only proves what we already know that there is a problem.

    All authors should write the stories that come to them. At the same time I think when White authors are praised and awarded for their ability to tell the truth of another race, they should acknowledge their work stands tall on the works by authors of that race that go unrecogizned or unpublished.

    While White authors collect awards for their characters of color, authors of color collect rejection letters.
    Now I am not going to pull a Kanye West, and try to steal
    a White authors spotlight.

    1. its not right. 2. They worked hard 3. They didn’t create the problem

    Though I do think White authors who tell the story of another race should suggest authors of that race at every opportunity.

    Thanks Justine

  23. Ancient on #

    This is admirable of you, Justine. We have yet to see one white author in the USA taking such a stand on this issue. There was even a relevant case that was in federal court, which exposed how a large publishing company consistently gave larger advances and processed authors of color differently than white authors, yet it continues because of the silence and fear to speak out against everyday practices of white supremacy that nonwhites are forced to contend with.

    It’s clear in the USA, that white aristocratic oppression of blacks has never really ceased. I see the publishers hiding behind marketing strategies as excuse for blatant discrimination, and telling the authors to be glad for whatever scraps they get. The publishers are the ones responsible for classifying and presenting their books to stores and resellers. It’s the publishers professional racism that puts all authors’ backs against the wall, and the only difference is that blacks are kept insolvent, while more white authors succeed, because they have the advantage of being mainstream by default!

    The question is, how do we get more US authors to speak out about this problem until it’s solved?

  24. KatG on #

    For me, the whole thing with Justine’s cover and the information that came up surrounding it was just very shocking, because I had thought that U.S. YA and children’s had since the 1990′s had been aggressively seeking to be multi-cultural, as that’s what the schools were requesting of them. To find out that the exact opposite has been going on, that instead white culture has become further entrenched in YA to such a degree that publishers are practicing open racism, well, like I said before, it just breaks my heart.

    It is also slit your throat idiotic in a country where the non-white demographics are rising into a majority, and where white kids have multi-racial friends and classmates, are used to multi-racial characters in cartoons, etc. Big publishers are going to lose business to savvier small presses over time if they don’t wise up.

  25. Kirsten on #

    Clix mentioned the “what if all the editors and editrices are white” issue which made me wonder if the New York Bubble effect weren’t at play. That bubble comprises a very narrow racial, social and geographic worldview: it can be astonishingly parochial. Challenging it, as Ms. Larbalestier hopes to do is going to be an uphill battle.

    As I side note, I wonder if the more well-meaning members of that bubble don’t also sideline POC authors by insisting they can only acceptably write a very narrow range of stories, i.e. they have to deal with what the Bubble People (heh) consider (imagine are?) POC issues, their POC characters have to have certain “authentic” voices, etc.

    It seems to me that there is no reason why a Latino author couldn’t write a “lightning thief” sort of series (or a black author a “hunger games” kind of story; or a forbiden supernatural romance) with POC characters – assuming he (or she wanted to, but why wouldn’t they? Why must thrilling sciffy adventure be a solely white province? It seems unnatural to me.) These are the kind of books that would regularly hit the NYT best-sellers list (if the NYT book people weren’t weasels who ban Childrens/YA, of course) – the kind that would put POC authors in the same economic powerhouse spot as their white counterparts.

  26. Lisa on #

    I stumbled across this post when I was looking for information about your book LIAR. I was multitasking as I was looking up information on representations – am currently looking at whether or not one can self-represent etc… focussing on “ethnic literature”.
    I am ethnically Chinese – (thus lumped into the more generic Asian category). Within my small circle of friends issues or racial/cultural difference is not an issue – but in the wider community (eg. workplace) it always comes up.
    Hopefully things are changing. Thanks for discussing this.
    Though with the point about having one African/Asian author already on the list, I know that my “PoC” writer friends worry about this. The flipside to the argument is that if more write and more get published..e.g such as Indian writers who write in English, it creates more possibilities and context for future writers.

  27. Lisa on #

    Also wanted to say that I recently read the first YA book here in Australia by an Asian writer. It was stereotypical in many ways and seemed to explain things that we take for granted in every day life, but it was important that she wrote this book because it provides a context for future books. Though this is what they said about Amy Tan and apparently there’s still only the one Amy Tan. Often PoC are expected to write about cultural difference and “multicultural” issues.

  28. Amber on #

    I don’t know much of anything about publishing except what I’ve read here, so I didn’t even realize they checked details of who you are before publishing a book (I always thought the work was the make it or break it deal?).
    Whether or not something is published should be based on the work, not the author. It bothers me that you have to give over identification of ethnicity before agreeing to a contract. Even though a person would probably see you before you signed the contract, the agreement should be made upon the work, without any identification of who the author is racially or ethnically.

  29. Mayra Lazara Dole on #

    Amber, my apologies! I meant a total investigation on Google, Facebook, MySpace.. not FBI. : ) And, your social security number is asked for in the contract. Although I don’t believe in Astrology, my partner is an astro maniac and just told me, “Mercury must have been retro when you wrote that!” Sorry.

  30. EL on #

    This is something that plays on my mind. I’m an “emerging writer” and feel a lot of pressure to continue writing about what I first made me write – questioning cultural difference etc.. Lately, I’ve started writing something that is a young adult story – which could be about people of any colour – and 100 pages in, I start thinking, “uh oh should I make one of my characters a poc because I am a PoC” – I am externally a PoC and internally quite a hybrid. I’ve often wondered whether I’ve been published because I write about identity issues and it’s token…I should probably just use a pen name – except for the fact I have a body of work behind me under my ethnic sounding name. Sure I should feel free to write about what interests me, but we’re far from being post-racial. I could turn my characters into aliens – except I’m not into sci-fi.

  31. EL on #

    Also I feel quite ashamed of the fact that now that you (a white author) are saying these things, I feel more validated. It’s terrible that people like me need to see this validation…that it’s not all in our heads.

  32. Nat on #

    Lord,this is terrible. I’m black and an aspiring writer of sci-fi,horror,and fantasy. I cannot believe the publishing industry is so far behind the times! This country is getting browner by the minute and they still have this 1960s attitude? Kids go to school with every shade of the rainbow. They have no problems reading multicultural YA,it’s their elders. How can they justify not publishing or turning down authors of color?
    This behaviour is outright racial profiling.

    This is awful. It makes me worry about when I start querying agents. Will they reject me automatically because I’m black? Will they reject me because I write in genres that aren’t”traditionally” black? I already stress enough about my writing and querying. Now I have to worry about an agent being an undercover racist or if he/she isn’t,a publishing house that is?

    It’s enough to make a writer even more crazy. This needs to be stopped immediately. Writers of color need to stand up and let it be known. For God’s sake,this is 2009!

  33. Mayra Lazara Dole on #

    what if after listening to POC writers, white writers/authors start using Latino or AfAM pen names, saying they have Latino or black heritage and start filling the people of color gap? shouldn’t there be a stamp of authenticity? perhaps libraries should place an APC sticker on “Authentic Person of Color” books so the public knows when a white author is behind a pen name writing our books.

  34. Alaya Dawn Johnson on #

    Nat and EL:

    Not that I can speak from any experience but my own, but I wouldn’t take Justine’s (entirely valid) points as a reason to despair or give up or change your own vision of your work. These realities exist in publishing and they suck. But they are also (I think) changing, and there are a bunch of new POC writers out there who are doing stuff that doesn’t solely focus on race but are bringing different perspectives and backgrounds to the field. Nnedi Okorafor, for example, writes YA fantasy about non-white people having adventures. N.K. Jemisin has a fantasy trilogy coming out next year that prominently features non-white protagonists, where race is an issue, but not THE issue. And I wouldn’t say I’m as successful as either of them, but I’m also a black writer of fantasy and YA, and I’ve never felt pressured in my published (or soon-to-be-published) work to do anything but what I want regarding race issues. Race informs everything I write, but I have yet to write a “race novel.”

    All of which is to say, yes, it is harder, but you can also make it. The problems Justine discusses don’t happen because publishing houses or literary agencies have some formal whiteness test. They happen because of passive racism, and probably because agents and editors feel they don’t need to think about these things. Talk about these issues, make them think, and continue to write and submit the best work you can. I can’t promise success, but I think you’ll have a good shot.

  35. Karen L. Simpson (lafreya) on #

    El and Nat,

    Change is coming but it may not be with the traditional publishers anytime soon. I predict it will be independent presses that will discover and publish talented authors of color in the future. I’m a African American writer of fantasy and after 6 months of my agent getting every stereotypical excuse about my book I finally found a home for my manuscript with a new independent press that is deeply devoted to writers of color and have the money for marketing and distribution.

    Keep writing what you are called to write and send it out there until things change. I know I will be still be speaking out.

  36. Ancient on #

    Dawn Johnson; are you aware that publishing companies like Penguin have an internal black author treatment, beginning with the advancement they pay which are much lower than that paid to white authors without regard to work quality. Are you suggesting that black authors must be content with marginalized gradualism, while white writers enjoy better compensation for their work daily than non-white authors? I [think] conclusion of your comment convexes the nucleus of the problem in publishing of which effective approach is necessary if their racist practices are to cease.

  37. Justine on #

    Ancient: Alaya is not suggesting any of those things. She’s saying that the system is unjust and unfair but that writers of colour can’t allow that to stop them writing and that some succeed within mainstream publishing despite it. Those successes are important.

    I was very dismayed to see the comments above from aspiring writers. I don’t want to discourage any of you; I want to galvanise you because your voices need to be heard.

    Mainstream publishing is not homogenous; there are editors and agents who are actively looking for different voices and actively working against the aversive racism that permeates the field.

    I strongly believe that mainstream publishing can change. More to the point that it has to change. Because if it doesn’t it won’t survive. (Which I can fully understand some people will see as a good thing.)

    That’s why the self publishing and small press successes are so important. Because changing a centuries old industry is hard work and slow and maddening. It is possible to reach a wide audience outside the traditional publishing industry. It’s hard but it has happened.

    The two strategies aren’t opposed. Some of us can work at changing publishing from within. And some of us from without. It’s all the same battle though.

  38. Ancient on #

    Justine, thanks a million. To date you’re the best. It should be noted that one deficiency which plagues opposition to racism in general including the publishing companies is weak ineffective rhetoric. I won’t discuss the underlying cause for the delinquency here, but there’ll be more progress made when folks know how to get to the chase using more formidable representation.

    E.g., not long ago this president shows us what a difference it makes to confront a big problem head-on when he spoke this: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” A similar approach should be used on publishing too. I have yet to hear somebody describes racism as an abominable or disgraceful thing, instead because its white elites perpetuating this evil conduct, racism is couched and made equal to a mere minor blemish, but its far from being one.
    Now you said editors and agents etc., are looking for new writers and I’ve no doubt its true. But which are the publishing companies they work in? Justine, to speak pitifully about two hundred and thirty yrs of racial injustices just won’t do anything, placating and circumvening the official practice of racism still won’t help either. Think about what it would take to guts out internal racist conduct which pays authors of color far less advances for their work than they do white authors.
    “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

  39. Neesha Meminger on #

    What amazes me is the shock and surprise in some of these comments. This country (the US) was built on slavery, attempted genocide of Native peoples, dislocating Mexicans, Asians and Indians building railroads and infrastructures, sweatshops in Chinatown, cheap Irish labour, and the list goes on. There is racism on Wall Street, in Hollywood, and in Washington. Why would anyone be shocked that there is racism in publishing?

    The point of posts like these, and others where PoC are raising our voices, is to create awareness and raise consciousness. It is not to say throw up your hands in despair and stop trying. *That* would allow the current paradigm to continue. The hope is that by raising awareness, dialoguing, and opening roads to new possibilities, things will slowly begin to change.

    I am not saying don’t be outraged. I am saying go ahead, *be* outraged, then funnel that rage into action and solutions. Make connections online and in your day to day life with like-minded people. Bounce ideas off one another. Spark movements. Forge new roads. There are tons of people out there who want something better. Find them.

  40. Paula Chase on #

    Exactly, Neesha. Both recognizing that racism is entrenched deeply in many/most american institutions and realizing it takes us all to reverse that is key. It’s frustrating that it’s taken the outrage of “mainstream” authors to keep this dialogue moving, yet also appropriate. We need a united voice to reverse hundreds of years of business as usual.

  41. Millenia Black on #

    Neesha said:
    I am not saying don’t be outraged. I am saying go ahead, *be* outraged, then funnel that rage into action and solutions. Make connections online and in your day to day life with like-minded people. Bounce ideas off one another. Spark movements. Forge new roads. There are tons of people out there who want something better. Find them.

    I agree with you, 100%. We should not allow this discourse to die down again, because every time it does, we lose all hope for action and solutions.

    I’m definitely one of the tons who wants something better and is willing to speak up for it. The problem has always been that not enough people are so inclined, and one or two persons can’t do it alone. If we can sustain the awareness, becoming a squeaky wheel, things will have to improve eventually – but enough people have to be willing to speak up and take action…until.

  42. N. K. Jemisin on #

    Very belated on this — I had time to retweet it but not to respond, though I want to thank Justine again for such an excellent post!

    I’m a black woman who writes science fiction and fantasy, along with a bit of interstitial and mainstream stuff. I’ve been wrestling with this issue for my entire writing career: it has always been obvious to me that trying to get published (in SF/F in my case) as a black female writer meant that I had a strike (or three) against me from the get-go, but what do I do about that? Choosing not to try was out of the question. So was self-publishing — which works for a few, but not the vast majority, and was beside the point anyway. The point being that we have a future too. Our mythology and history is just as storied, literally. So why shouldn’t my SF/F stories, featuring characters who looked like me and touching on issues and complexities that resonated for me, be right out there with all those endless tales featuring white protagonists questing across yet another iteration of medieval Europe? Or all those endless “Star Trek” futures, where a token PoC or two hung around to answer the phone, but never got to be the hero or get the hottest love interest? So mainstream publication has always been my goal. (And I’m happy to say that it’s on the way — I’ve got a book coming out in February, first of a trilogy.)

    What we’re fighting against here, as Alaya notes, is aversive or systemic racism. That’s the subtle stuff, which even the most well-meaning people, who don’t think of themselves as racist, can perpetuate. I’ve been following a community that’s fighting Hollywood’s tendency to replace Asians with white actors even in their own stories (e.g., the movie “21″, forthcoming films “The Last Airbender” and “Hachiko”). The most common excuse that’s given for this whitewashing is that Asians aren’t “universal”, and that white actors are needed to make the stories appeal to all audiences, not just Asians. But it’s a vicious circle — because Asian actors rarely get lead roles, they aren’t perceived as universal… so they rarely get lead roles. This is the same thing that’s happening in publishing.

    What kills me is that, as Millennia Black noted, this problem isn’t new. Authors and scholars of color have been complaining about it for literally decades. Consider Zora Neale Hurston’s work: some of her most brilliant novels featured white protagonists and didn’t focus on racism or “The Black Experience ™”. But despite the quality of the work, Hurston (and later her estate) had real trouble getting these books published and keeping them in print. Publishers knew she was a black writer, and they wanted her to write about “black subjects” — and they simply weren’t interested when she ranged beyond that. Even today these books don’t get nearly as much critical or scholarly attention as Hurston’s “Black Experience ™” books, and frankly a lot of people don’t even know the other work exists.

    So a writer of color is working against twin pressures: the assumption that only stories drawn directly from her racial experience are “authentic”, and the perception that such stories aren’t appealing to anyone beyond her race. (Now there’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” for ya.) And both are rooted in a subtle sort of racism that pervades the entire entertainment industry.

    And there’s only one way to stop this kind of racism, IMO — for all writers (and readers, and editors) to raise a stink whenever they see PoC characters and stories being marginalized, and for all writers to try and incorporate all aspects of the human experience into their work. Normalize and center PoC as well as white characters. Make us all universal.

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