Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Question for White Readers

Would you buy a book with an African-American person on the cover? I'm guessing most people would answer yes. Now go look at your bookshelf. How many books have African-Americans or any people of color on them? I'm guessing, not a lot. Why is this? I really want to know. I really don't believe people would be opposed to buying a book with a person of color on the cover, but why don't people take that extra step and actually buy it?

This was prompted by Justine Larbalestier's post here about why the cover of her book, Liar, looks nothing like the character described in it.

An excerpt: Every year at every publishing house, intentionally and unintentionally, there are white-washed covers. 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. How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white? Why would she pick up Liar when it has a cover that so explicitly excludes her?

Someone might ask, why would a White teen pick up a cover that's Black, when it excludes them. I think people need to stop worrying about being excluded. When you look at a cover, you should see another teen girl, just like you. Why do you have to feel excluded because their skin is different from yours? There are far more ways in which we are alike.

I really would like a response to this from all my readers, but especially from a White reader. Tell me something, anything. I won't attack you. I'd just like to know how you feel about this. Is there anyone brave enough?

Tashi <3


Color Online said...

See Colleen's response and call at Chasing Ray.

Doret said...

I don't think the publishing industry gives teen readers enough credit.

I like to watch customers shop. It gives me an idea of what works where. I'll share two this is what I saw customers to stories.

I've seen White customers show interest in Gregory's Catwalk. Did they move on to the next book because there was a poc featured? No Almost every customer who stopped to look at Catwalk brought it. btw if you like Project Runaway, or fashion, Catwalk would me much fun.

Once a girl was shopping in YA, she was looking at Booth's Kendra hard - in a hmm this looks really good sorta a way, not in a hmm Black person on the cover what an interesting concept way. Who was on the cover didn't matter, she picked it up simply because it looked good to her. The only reason she didn't buy it was because it was HC. Got Booth's Tyrell instead.

One cover I want to point out is Hot Girl by Dream Jordan. Love it, and its a great book.

Allison said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Allison said...

I just looked through my bookcase and found only a little more than ten books with people of color on the cover. However, I could find about that many covers with white people on any one shelf.

I've never been against buying a book based on the ethnicity of the main characters. Given a choice between a book about a white girl and a book about a girl of any other race, I would choose whichever had a more appealing plot. Though I want to believe that the same would be true of every other person, it just isn't. I don't know why.

I can relate to most books with African-American main characters far more than I can relate to the rich, white girls of the Gossip Girl series.

I know I have a ton more to say, but I'm having difficulty forming coherent sentences. This is really a complicated question. Like, if bookstores carried and featured an equal amount of books about African-Americans as they do Caucasians, would my own bookshelves reflect that? Or would I still subconsciously buy more books about white people? I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised if I did.

That being said, I still stand by what I said before about choosing the book with the more interesting plots. It just might end up leaning more one way on a larger scale. Like I said, it's a complicated question.

Okay, I think that's all I can put together without giving myself a major headache. Sorry if this was somewhat of a confusing response. I'm interested in what other people have to say as well.


Phoenix said...

Here via various links. One of the things that weirds me out about whitewashing is that, when you get right down to it, the justification they use is something like "white people are too racist to empathize with POC." As a white person, I find that insulting -- not as insulting as the message to POC that their identity is less important than white people's comfort, of course, but still insulting. Why they think this is a good way to get anyone to give them money is a mystery to me.

Stacy Whitman said...

I'm very big into fantasy and science fiction, and the people on the covers of my books tend to be white, if people are featured at all (sometimes aliens or dragons are featured, or it's an iconic image--actually most of my books about people of color are iconic covers). Out of the hundreds of fantasy books I own, perhaps 10 feature people of color, I think.

I think that says more about the state of fantasy and SF--finding books in those genres written for kids and teens that feature people of color is hard. This situation with Justine's book is part of the problem, but I think there's also a general perception that readers of color, especially black teens, aren't interested in fantasy. I'm not sure that's true--or at least, I've known plenty of kids of all backgrounds who loved Twilight. Perhaps it's that the genre isn't welcoming enough?

I've actually been putting together a book list over on my site of multicultural fantasy and science fiction featuring main characters who are people of color and/or written by people of color, so if you have suggestions for books I'm missing, please feel free to recommend them.

Ali said...

I'm not a teen, but I am white, so here's my answer: there are a lot of covers with people of color on my shelves right now. Several purchased, 3-4 accepted as review copies (there would be more if they were offered...), 5-6 accepted as gifts or prizes, and a couple dozen checked out from the library (out of over 100 total library books).

Great blog, girls, keep up the good work!

Unknown said...

I have checked my bookshelves, and I've seen too many colors to keep count.. Maybe it's because I'm raised to never judge others by color. Therefore, it's the same for my books... I believe that sure, some people won't by the book because maybe they feel like it won't relate to them, but then again, some won't buy them because it's not the type of genre they like. I find it interesting on how people buy their books. I don't know. I judge books by the contents within them. I'm sorry if it offends anybody, but it's a question that should be asked in an ever-changing world. I thank all of you for your comments. Nobody should be ashamed to state their opinion. [as long as it's appropiate]
<3 Kiki

Angie said...

I only have a few books with people of color on the covers; there just aren't that many around in the places I look for books. I have more books by writers of color, since many of their books don't have characters of color on the cover, even if the characters between the covers are brown.

I first read Steve Barnes a good twenty years before I found out he was black. I'd read a number of Octavia Butler's stories in magazines before I found out she was black. On the one hand, it's positive that a big deal isn't made about a writer's race one way or the other, but on the other hand there are so few genre writers of color, it'd be nice to know about the ones who are out there, if only to encourage other people of color to write and submit genre fiction, as well as to wake white readers up to the fact that no, it isn't only white people who are into this stuff.

It was only a few years ago that I read about romance novels with black characters. I never knew they existed, although of course once I thought about it, it made sense that black women would enjoy romances and would want to read about characters like them. But most bookstores still file books about black characters in the African American Lit section, in the back of the store under the flickering light that's about to burn out. I'd never looked there, and never knew there were romances there.

I've been deliberately looking for books by writers of color, about characters of color, over the last few years. There's some great stuff out there I didn't know existed, and I'm annoyed that the way these books are marketed and the way they're shelved at the bookstores, they're effectively hidden from readers who don't go out and deliberately hunt for them.


SerieslyReady said...

I looked up Hot Girl on It has a really pretty cover. Don't know if my library has it, because the system is down.

SerieslyReady said...

Someone might ask, why would a White teen pick up a cover that's Black, when it excludes them.

Until a couple of months ago, the young adult book section in my library didn't have many covers that included AA. Now it does. Probably only about 6 on display.

I haven't read any of them yet, mostly do in part to the fact that some of my favorite books right now, happen to have white people on their covers.

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