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revisiting white privilege in publishing

indexI’d been planning to write an essay on the bias against self-published books/authors when I unexpectedly received an invitation to write on that very topic for a popular kidlit blog. I thought about seeing The Railway Man tonight but I think instead I’ll stay put and get this essay out of my head. I’ve met with a couple of author/illustrators this week and hearing their perspectives on publishing reminded me that walking your own path can be a long, lonely journey. How many friends will I have left if I stay the course? I’ve also started to feel like a broken record, which is why I’m turning away from advocacy for a while. Reflecting tonight on “the myth of meritocracy” led me to revisit another guest post I wrote for The Rejectionist back in 2010. Here’s some of what I had to say 4 years ago:

I have a sequel that’s waiting to be written, but I’m very creative when it comes to procrastination and so I found myself thinking of other advantages white writers might experience here in the US (though I suspect this also applies to Canada).* Like McIntosh, I do not mean to suggest that these advantages are “generalizable” (experienced equally by all writers who are white).**

1. You can submit a manuscript and it will likely be judged by someone of your race—even at a multicultural press.

2. You can query a number of agents who have extensive experience selling manuscripts by authors (and to editors) who share your race.

3. You can be pretty sure that the book buyer in a large chain or indie bookstore is someone of your race.

4. You can be pretty sure that your book—if it’s lucky enough to get reviewed by the major outlets—will be assessed by someone of your race who operates with an appreciation of your culture’s particular literary tradition(s).

5. You can attend numerous children’s literature conferences with programming that reflects your interests and/or your culture, you can network with industry professionals who share your race, and otherwise feel comfortable as a member of the majority.

6. You can write about anyone who lives anywhere and be accepted by many as an extraordinarily creative person and/or an expert on topics outside of your lived experience.

7. You can participate in a literary event and trust that your invitation was based on the merits of your book, not your race.

8. You can be pretty sure that the person responsible for acquisitions and programming at most schools and public libraries shares your race.

9. You can be pretty sure that most major award committees are composed primarily of people who look like you.

10. You can trust that disappointing sales for your book will not be attributed to your race (or to members of your race being unable/unwilling to read).

11. You can expect that your book will be displayed in stores and shelved in libraries according to its genre, and not according to your race.

12. You can be pretty sure that a (white) editor will not call your (white) characters’ language “too formal,” nor will you be expected to make hardship and racial conflict the central focus of your book.

13. You can rest assured that your book will be considered “universal” and will therefore be promoted widely and not only to a “niche market.”

14. You can trust that your book will be for everyday use, and not for one particular “heritage month.”

15. You can expect to be invited to give school presentations all year round, and not only during a designated “heritage month.”

16. You can trust that your white protagonist will not be depicted as a person of color on your book’s cover.

Getting published is hard—I think all aspiring writers would agree with me on that point. And race isn’t the bottom line here, but it is a factor in one’s ability to navigate the incredibly homogeneous publishing industry. I don’t mean to suggest that whites are incapable of editing manuscripts by and about people of color; there are many wonderful books that are the product of such collaborations, including my own picture book, Bird (plus one of my closest friends is a white editor!). Really, I’m talking about cultural competence, and that can be demonstrated by anyone who has taken the time to learn about a culture not their own. But as Peggy McIntosh points out, there’s rarely any penalty for whites who choose to remain oblivious. Instead, PoC pay the price and we see that reflected in the dismal statistics compiled by the CCBC: in 2009, out of an estimated 5000 books published for children, less than 5% were authored by PoC. We could conclude that writers of color simply aren’t good enough to be published in greater numbers. Or we could reach a conclusion that’s closer to the one McIntosh reaches in her essay:

For me, white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own. These perceptions mean also that my moral condition is not what I had been led to believe. The appearance of being a good citizen rather than a troublemaker comes in large part from having all sorts of doors open automatically because of my color.

My father used to call me a troublemaker, and initially I rejected that label because it felt like a cruel mischaracterization—sure, I asked a lot of questions, but why should I accept the status quo if it served others’ needs and not my own? I now realize that as a black feminist writer, making trouble is what I do! I likely won’t be thanked for my complaints about the lack of diversity in children’s publishing, but that’s ok. Being unpopular just might mean that I’m doing something right…[“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” -Ed.]

*Many thanks to Doret and Neesha for their suggestions as I compiled this list.

**McIntosh concludes that “since race and sex are not the only advantaging systems at work, we need to similarly examine the daily experience of having age advantage, or ethnic advantage, or physical ability, or advantage related to nationality, religion, or sexual orientation.”

5 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Blogging@SJSU.


  2. Excellent piece. Love the quote “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” Who is the originator of this quote?


  3. Great post, thank you very much. These are hard truths and everyone who works with kids books (including librarians like me) should be aware. The hardest truth is that white people (like me) have the luxury of not having to think about all this if we don’t want to.
    Thanks again–I’m a big fan of yours.


    • on April 18, 2014 at 6:03 pm | Reply elliottzetta

      Thanks, Allie Jane. You’re right–one of the ways white privilege persists is by operating invisibly. We just have to figure out how to get more whites in the publishing community to acknowledge their privilege and counter the ways it disadvantages PoC.



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