Race & Representation

Because there has been another whitewashed cover, I am being asked for my response.1 I have one thing to say:2

This is not about the accuracy of covers on books.

It’s not about blonde when the character is brunette, it’s not about the wrong length hair, or the wrong colour dress, it’s not even about thin for fat. Yes, that is another damaging representation, but that is another conversation, which only serves to derail this conversation.

The one about race and representation.

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 marginalisaton and misrepresentation. Publishers don’t randomly pick white models. It happens within a context of racism.

Back in the late 1960s, Nichelle Nichols was asked by Martin Luther King to stay on Star Trek, even though she was sick of the boring, constrained part of Uhura. She was one of the few black faces on network TV. She was inspiring thousands of young black girls all over the USA, possibly the world. Nichols playing Uhura was changing lives and so he asked her to stay and she did.

Ari of Reading in Color reminds us about those young black kids and why this is so incredibly important in her moving open letter to Bloomsbury:

I’m sure you can’t imagine what it’s like to wander through the teen section of a bookstore and only see one or two books with people of color on them. Do you know how much that hurts? Are we so worthless that the few books that do feature people of color don’t have covers with people of color? It’s upsetting, it makes me angry and it makes me sad. Can you imagine growing up as a little girl and wanting to be white because not only do you not see people who look like you on TV, you don’t see them in your favorite books either. You get discouraged and you want to be beautiful and be like the characters in the books you read and you start to believe that you can’t be that certain character because you don’t look like them. I love the books I grew up with, but none of them featured people of color. I found those later, when I was older and I started looking for them. Do you know how sad I feel when my middle school age sister tells me she would rather read a book about a white teen than a person of color because “we aren’t as pretty or interesting.” She doesn’t know the few books that do exist out there about people of color because publishing houses like yourself, don’t put people of color on the covers.

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.

This is not merely about book covers.

  1. Journalists would do better to interview the people most adversely affected by whitewashed covers—readers like Ari of Reading in Color. []
  2. Well, two. Stop blaming the author, Jaclyn Dolamore. This is her debut. Take it from me, she’d rather people were talking about her book than her cover. Also I am very suspicious of this approach. It feels like derailing. “Let’s not talk about race, let’s talk about bad authors!” Hey, let’s not. []

42 comments

  1. Sarah Rees Brennan on #

    I agree with you completely on both counts: that this is important, because of the history behind and connotations of it, in a way that *shouldn’t* be conflated with other things. (The thin models to represent overweight characters is another issue, also important! But we need to address these issues separately, so people understand exactly why this is so much more important than ‘my heroine has brown eyes!’)

    Also that Jaclyn Dolamore shouldn’t be blamed at all. People act like a writer hasn’t *sold* her book to the publisher, when she has: that’s what you do. You can fight and fight and fight them, but they have the ultimate say.

  2. Maureen Johnson on #

    There does seem to be a lot of confusion on this point–at least on the blogs I’ve been reading. It’s not about every little detail . . . it’s about the very significant element of race, and it’s about how this has happened for so long, and how it has to change.

    And speaking as someone who’s had some dicey covers, I can say: IT’S NOT THE AUTHOR. So good luck to Jackyn! And maybe, with this getting attention again . . . maybe there will be a positive impact!

  3. Yamile on #

    I have a friend of Hispanic descent who grew up in LA. When she went away to college she was thrilled to meet “tv people”. When she told me we laughed, but I think it’s heartbreaking when children can’t identify with tv or book characters they love. Thanks for this post. Unbelievable that at this time and age we still talk about racism.

  4. susan on #

    Justine,
    This is why I have mad respect and love for you. And remember that as I wage a boycott.

  5. Rochelle on #

    I agree with you completely. More and more I am becoming frustrated with faces (or people) on covers. I know that authors have nothing to do with the decision and that you must be frustrated when you create something and the image on the cover distracts from that character. I don’t understand why representing a character is so difficult. I have seen so many new covers that have people, but my favorite covers tend to be more abstract or feature items that are significant in the book. I’ve also noticed when working at my local library that cover images really affect how teens read a book. Last weekend my younger cousin began reading The Confessions of Georgia Nicolson, and she said to me “I don’t understand why this girl thinks she looks bad, she’s really pretty on the cover.” Which led to a huge discussion about cover art where I used the Liar controversy to help explain to her why you shouldn’t base your vision of a character on the cover of the book. I know that a skinny girl on a cover isn’t the same as a white girl on the cover of a book about a dark skinned character, but all images shape the way we imagine things. And really, isn’t the point of a great book being able to peek inside an author’s imagination and to exercise our own?

  6. Justine on #

    Rochelle: Yes, indeed.

    However, I’d really like the discussion to stay on the topic of race and representation and not stray off into a discussion about what covers should and shouldn’t do. There’s already been way too much sidetracking away from this important conversation.

    Thanks, all.

  7. Ah Yuan // wingstodust on #

    As a POC fan of your books (Liar and How to Ditch Your Fairy, respectively. I still have to get my hands on your Magic trilogy), it means so much to me that you’re willing to speak up and be an Ally. I appreciate this post far more than I can say. (Seriously, if I could put my feelings right now into words, I would do it, but I can’t so this is the best I can say.)

  8. Kristan on #

    Oy. Ari’s comments are heartbreaking. But really important. I’m glad you highlighted them here, to help focus on the real issue. It’s a shame for a debut author to have to be dealing with this. I can only hope that it boosts her sales and allows her to continue making an impact with her writing.

  9. Mariah ( A Reader's Adventure) on #

    I agree and since these controversy’s are coming to light I am noticing a lot more whitewashed covers such as the Poison Study series, the fact that Yelena is brown is very important to these books and putting a white girl on the covers dismisses that important fact in these books! Even the reprints have white girl’s on them. It is really not fair.

  10. Jo Treggiari on #

    Thanks for voicing your opinion, Justine. I knew you would since the same thing has happened to you and you are vociferous when the occasion demands it.
    Jaclyn should absolutely not be blamed. I wish her much success and hope this has not cast a shadow over her debut.
    But this is definitely a real issue and should not be covered up. Sad to say that racism is a pervasive and ingrained problem.
    I have decided to boycott Bloomsbury. I am still open to hearing what they have to say. But I cannot in good conscience support them with my book-buying dollars.

  11. Tracy on #

    I know this is superficial, but one of the first things I thought when I read about this and saw the cover, was how gorgeous that dress would’ve looked on someone with dark skin.

    It’s a shame that Bloomsbury didn’t take the initiative and lead the industry in a new direction by having all of their upcoming covers properly represent what’s inside. What a wasted opportunity! There could’ve been a huge media blitz announcing the ground-breaking decision, and they could have challenged all other publishers to put an end to this sort of racism in the industry.

  12. Justine on #

    Susan & Jo: Obviously you both have to do what you have to do, but here’s why I don’t think a boycott would be effective. There are too many reasons for a book not selling and publishers always blame the authors for their sales figures. For a debut author especially bad sales can be career ending. On the other hand, the odds of a boycott being effective, or of proving that people weren’t buying the book because of the whitewashed cover, are very small.

    On another blog, can’t remember where, someone suggested encouraging unpublished writers not to submit to publishers who whitewash. Sadly, that will have even less impact. There are literally millions of people desperate to get published. Millions. I fear the people who care enough to stop submitting are exactly the people who would have the most impact: authors of colour, white authors who care about making change. There’s racism at all the big publishers. But there are also people fighting the good fight at all the big publishers.

    Mariah: Yes, the whitewashing of covers is so widespread. It’s so depressing.

  13. MissAttitude on #

    @Mariah-The mc of Poison Study is a poc?! I’ve been meaning to read those books for a while and they definitely got bumped up on my tbr list because I’ve heard people raving bout them and if they’re about POC that’s a huge bonus. Although you’re right, the girl on the cover is white.

    @Tracy-Me too! The cover is pretty but with a dark skinned girl? Eye catching and gorgeous!

    I’m with Ah Yuan-Justine you say it so well. Authors should have a say in their cover design but let’s stay focused on the whitewashing/lack of POC books because honestly, headless covers,blondes instead of brunettes etc. are not as crucial (to be blunt about it)

    and I should hope no one blames the author. A positive is that I’m going to read and review the book at least. Once it’s at my library.

  14. April (Good Books & Wine) on #

    I agree with this one hundred percent. I see this post and I see Ari’s letter and think of the study with the black and white dolls and feel it’s heartbreaking that people see the cover as a non-issue. I see this post and I think of traditional representation of African Americans in America. I think of the unfortunate practice of black-face, where instead of Blacks being real people they are reduced to caricatures. I think of Latina women being sexualized. I think of Native Americans being portrayed as savages. I think of Indians portrayed as convenience store owners. I think of Breakfast at Tiffany’s where Mickey Rooney portrays the most stereotypical Asian. With all these negative images of PoC throughout history, is it any wonder that PoC are hurt and angry by Bloomsbury’s decision to whitewash? I wish Ari could have been able to walk down an aisle of books and find covers with beautiful Black/PoC characters on them, because as far as I’m concerned there’s certainly no shortage of beautiful PoC women to put on book covers.

    I think you are amazing for posting this.

  15. MissAttitude on #

    Oh and I didn’t know that about Nichelle Nichols and Martin Luther King Jr. Very cool bit of information. I need to watch some old Star trek. I really liked Zoe Saldana in the movie (ok that was a bit random).

  16. Angela Craft on #

    Thank you, Justine, for calling for this derailing to stop. Changing a character’s ethnicity is SO DIFFERENT from hair length or freaking EYE COLOR, that not only is it derailing to compare them, but it’s downright insulting.

    The portrayal of overweight characters is a valid point, but for a different discussion at a different time.

  17. Aarti on #

    “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.”

    That sentence itself sums everything up so perfectly. That’s what I wrote on my blog about the controversy as well. Kids should have role models that look like them. That’s all.

  18. susan on #

    Justine,

    I doubt Bloomsbury will worry and not to shoot myself in the foot, but my first thought was the message. A boycott sends a message. My second was the boycott is personal.

    I appreciate you and all the authors who disagree but respect my choice to decide how I fight.

  19. Diana Peterfreund on #

    YELENA WAS BROWN?

    Wow, do I feel sheepish. granted, it’s been a few years since I read those books. I have no memory of the brownness of Yelena.

    Perhaps I should not have fretted so much the other week over no one noticing my black character was black. (Everyone read “dark skin” as “Italian.” Le sigh.)

  20. Jonathan S on #

    Nice post, Justine. I just wen looking for Jaclyn Dolamore on teh Bloomsbury site and found a completely different cover image, at http://www.bloomsbury.com/images/Books/medium/9781408802120.jpg
    The figures are too small for my eyes to discern skin colour, but perhaps this means wiser heads have prevailed at Bloomsbury, again?

  21. Justine on #

    Jonathan S.: That’s the UK cover.

  22. Jonathan S on #

    Oh! So no wiser heads, then?

  23. Lori S. on #

    Yes. Thank you. (I wrote a letter to Bloomsbury today, and I made sure they knew this was about race and representation, and the assumed and intended audiences for their books.)

  24. Kelly (CazzyLibrarian) on #

    Thank you for sharing the excerpt from Ari’s blog. She moved me to tears.

    What is most frustrating to me as I read the opinions and comments, here and elsewhere, is how powerless I feel. What can I do? How can I help? I just don’t know.

  25. Justine on #

    Kelly: Ari has lots of suggestions on her blog.

    What you can do right now is start buying and reading way more books by people of colour. Tanita S. Davis’s Mare’s War is highly acclaimed. I loved Sherri S. Smith’s Flygirl. Jacqueline Woodson is a gorgeous, gorgeous writer. Her If You Come Softly is one of my favourite books. But you can find even more recs by going to Ari’s blog and following the links.

  26. Jinian on #

    I absolutely agree that it’s a problem in general. A huge problem. But I perceive a little beam of light at Bloomsbury too: Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days had a headless girl in HC, and the cover for the TPB has an accurately Asian girl. They deserve a little credit for that, even if they’re still messing up on other books.

  27. Violet @ The Eager Readers on #

    Thank you for posting about this, Justine. You make excellent points & I completely agree that representing a character of color with a white-washed image is very different from representing a blue-eyed character with a green-eyed image.

    I purchased Magic Under Glass the week it was released because Jaclyn Dolamore’s story appealed to me. As I read it, I was pleased to find that the dark-skinned protagonist is confident, compassionate, and proud of her heritage despite the discrimination she faces as a person of color in a foreign land. Her ethnicity is not the main theme of the novel but it is definitely relevant to the story, and that makes the white-washed cover all the more upsetting. That cover effectively undermines the main character’s confidence & robs her of her ethnicity. Within the fictional narrative she is free to be dark-skinned & lovely & confident, but when it comes time to display her image to the public & give her ‘shelf appeal’, the publisher consciously choses to alter her race. The message that type of misrepresentation sends to young readers is disturbing and disheartening.

    I fully support the idea of sending a strong message to the publisher, and I have sent Bloomsbury a letter myself. But I do not believe that boycotting a book which features a dark-skinned protagonist is the best way to get more books with ethnically diverse characters onto bookstore shelves. Also, I truly believe that the author (who is not at all responsible for that white-washed cover image) would suffer more than the publisher from the sales lost due to a boycott. Especially since this is her debut novel, I fear that low sales numbers are likely to be mistaken for a lack of interest in the story itself, rather than a reflection of people’s reaction to the cover image. A clear & precise message is vital to a successful boycott, and I think that would be very tricky in the case of a debut author without a proven sales history.

    Instead, I would definitely encourage people to write letters to the publisher and to ask their friends & family members to write to the publisher (whether they are interested in this particular novel or not). Mention your concerns about white-washing & the general lack of POC book covers to your local booksellers & librarians too. And if you have already purchased Magic Under Glass, consider mailing the dust jacket back to Bloomsbury with a note letting them know that you are pleased to see that they’ve published a lovely story with a dark-skinned protagonist but that you are terribly disappointed in their appallingly white-washed cover. Be sure to point out that if their covers continue to be white-washed, you will not continue to purchase their books. Snail mail is harder to ignore than email & flooding the publisher with discarded dust jackets makes a statement about the specific reason that they will be losing business.

  28. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    I’m white, and I’ve never been deterred from reading a book because it had a person of color on the cover. I bought those books without a moment’s hesitation. I asked at my book club (eight teenage girls and one teenage boy, from three different schools) how a “black cover” vs. a “white cover” affected them. Turns out, it didn’t. They have all bought books with “black covers” by the same criteria that they have bought books with “white covers” or even books with abstract covers.

    The criteria they cared about? The cover’s color scheme (not the people, but the fonts and backgrounds), whether or not the title was readable, whether or not the title was stupid, and the cover and/or title’s catch-your-eye-ness. Several of the girls said they tend to avoid books with “chick-lit” looking covers, and one admitted that she dismisses covers that simply “look stupid”. Not a one of them would be reluctant to pick up a book because the model on the cover wasn’t white.

    And that was just picking up the book. Decisions about whether they would actually *buy* the book were based on genre, sales pitch (the bit on the back or the inside flap), and word of mouth. By that point they often knew (from skimming, or word of mouth, or sometimes even from the blurb) if the actual character was a person of color, and it mattered not one bit.

    So before publishers claim that “black covers” don’t sell, they should take into account all the readers who have, you know, *bought* those books and would do so again.

    A side note: I agree with those people who say that rather than boycott white-washed covers, better to simply go out of your way to buy non-white covers. That is, of course, if you don’t already. Buy them for your friends, too. And it wouldn’t hurt to ask your fave library to stock a copy. *hint hint*

  29. wandering-dreamer on #

    Wow, I feel really sorry for the author here. Here she is, trying to tell a story she loves and now has a huge controversy over something that wasn’t even her intent. Good freaking fishes.
    And like what Mary Elizabeth S. reported with her teens, the the person on the cover has never stopped me from picking up a book and deciding to read/buy is decided by a whole slew of other factors. I can think of three covers with colored protags on them, but it took me a few minutes which is pretty sad.
    And I must confess, I had no idea this was such a big deal partially because I don’t see the person on the cover as one of the characters in the book. They almost never mesh with my ideas and I probably have white-washed characters in my mind. But I’ll be paying more attention now, just hope that the white-washing won’t continue.

  30. Shveta Thakrar on #

    Yes, again, this made my heart hurt.

    I definitely want to support Jackie, who just wrote a book she loved and had little to no say over the cover it received. But I don’t want to support whitewashing covers. *sigh*

    How many times do we have to say “only white people” sell is not true before it stops? That it’s hurtful and racist and simply inaccurate?

    I don’t know. I’m glad Ari’s wonderful letter was quoted in Salon, though. That’s something. And I’m glad you spoke up, Justine, even though I agree that journalists should seek out the people affected most. That’s also something.

  31. PixelFish on #

    I know that not only have I been thinking about representation of all kinds of folks (mostly along racial lines, but also along lines of sexuality, physical abilities, etc) but I’ve also been thinking about my art too. Why have most of my models and characters up til recently been white? I’ve started noticing the lack of PoC in other media I consume as well, and taking note of folks who are more inclusive.

    ….

    As an aside, I came across this piece the other day and thought what a great book cover it would make:

    http://cghub.com/images/view/47473

    Ees gorgeous and beautiful and shiny….and features a woman of colour.

  32. mythicagirl on #

    Justine, thanks for your post.
    Such fire and truth!

    The cover will be changed, per Bloomsbury:

    Bloomsbury is ceasing to supply copies of the US edition of Magic Under Glass. The jacket design has caused offense and we apologize for our mistake. Copies of the book with a new jacket design will be available shortly.

    http://www.bloomsburykids.com/books/catalog/magic_under_glass_hc_306

  33. Trakena on #

    As a woman of color and a writer I want to thank you for putting this on record. You did it in a way that was professional, but that also told the truth. So many times it’s much easier to stay quiet, to keep your head down, and to wait out the storm without putting yourself out there. I’m glad you didn’t decide to do that.

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