White privilege and children's publishing
So I’ve been thinking about white privilege, thanks mostly to a friend of mine who is mixed-race, a children’s book author, an academic, and someone who is never afraid to speak her mind.
This is partially in light of the recent arrest of Louis Gates, the distinguished academic from Harvard who was arrested after being suspected of breaking into his own home. The media in the US came alive, mainly with white reporters and radio djs defending the actions of the police. Once again, as with OJ Simpson, even Michael Jackson, there seems to be a divide between the white and black response to events. And is that a surprise?
I’ve been turned-on to two white critics who discuss white privilege, Tim Wise and Peggy McIntosh. Both examine how white people are able to live their lives with unfair advantages, and with very little understanding of this fact. Wise created a three-act play on his blog showing how his interactions with police over his lifetime were based in a completely different dynamic than most black people, particularly males, would most likely experience. For instance, when attempting to break into his car where he’d locked the keys inside, a policeman offered to help him out. McIntosh has created a list of 46 circumstances in which white skin offers an unearned advantage, such as being able to choose the company of her own race most of the time, shopping without being followed by store detectives, and criticizing the government without being seen as a cultural outsider.
This makes me think about my role as a previous white editor working with non-white authors, it makes me consider my role as a white academic focusing on issues of diversity and representation. The friend mentioned at the beginning – Zetta Elliott – do look out for her picture book and self-published timeslip novel and visit her provocative blog – said she was tired of having to explain racism to white people. And I admire these above critics for taking that responsibility, for examining the place and role of white people in the dynamic of racism rather than always focusing on the people of color.
What can we do if we want to contribute in a positive way to such an unfair situation where we carry this advantage? I chose to work as an editor primarily of multicultural books because I wanted to be part of improving the lack of diversity in books published for children. I have tried to be aware, to learn from those I worked with, in order to recognize and challenge my own cultural and subjective position. But is that enough? And in some ways am I being self-serving by trying to speak for, or on behalf of, people of color?
I look at the publishing industries in the US and the UK, both extremely white and middle class. I read about the recent controversy about the cover of Justine Larbalestier’s book Liar, where US publisher Bloomsbury put a white girl’s face on the cover even though the protagonist is black. And even though the author has stated that she meant the girl to be black (in her articulate blog post about the cover), Bloomsbury defends this decision by saying that the cover implies the girl, a pathological liar, might be lying about her race. My mind boggles, really. The Publishers Weekly article which offers Bloomsbury’s defense also shocks me, with the lack of outrage, and the perspectives of people who can understand why this cover, which they say looks nice and is eye-catching, was chosen for the book. At least there has been an outpouring of response on the blogosphere, neatly summarized by Chasing Ray. But what of the mainstream, the media, the publishers themselves? Where is the outright apology from Bloomsbury, the mea culpa?
OK, now I’m ranting, and moving away from the conference paper which I’m trying to work around through this blog entry. There are too many things wrong here, and it seems like too few people see it. The children’s publishing industry is blind, blinkered, insular, and self-enclosed in too many ways. Yes, many good and well-intentioned people work in the industry, and most desire to make things better, to provide all children with wonderful books to read. But this is such a fundamental problem based on who primarily works in the industry, and even more so who holds the positions of power and dictates marketing and publication decisions.
Perhaps self-publishing will be the way forward, the internet, the ability of people to bypass an archaic publishing industry that seems slow to respond to change. At the Diversity Matters conference in 2006, Francesca Dow of Puffin said that by 2010, 1 in 5 schoolchildren in the UK will be from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME)) communities (you can see my full notes from the conference here). The United States grows more and more diverse as well, with a mixture of stories, backgrounds, ways of telling. It’s such an enormous shame that these voices and stories are mostly unheard and unpublished, and that those which do come through struggle to carry their original nuance and address.
Hopefully I can channel some of this into the conference paper I'm writing for the upcoming IRSCL congress (International Research Society of Children's Literature), taking place in a couple of weeks in Frankfurt, Germany. The theme is children's literature and cultural diversity, and there are an amazing number of people presenting papers. Which offers some hope that this is an area that is getting lots of attention, at least in some ways. Take a look at the congress website to see more. I'm struggling to get the paper done, but will try to post more about it here as I (hopefully) progress.