Looking In, Looking On

I remember back in the mid 90s going to buy a car with my then husband. While we were initially impressed with the presence of black sales reps who approached us, it didn’t take more than a couple of visits to realize that the black sales reps were assigned to black customers.

I was reminded of this experience when I read Walter Dean Myers’ recent editorial.

Years ago, I worked in the personnel office for a transformer firm. We needed to hire a chemist, and two candidates stood out, in my mind, for the position. One was a young white man with a degree from St. John’s University and the other an equally qualified black man from Grambling College (now Grambling State University) in Louisiana. I proposed to the department head that we send them both to the lab and let the chief chemist make the final decision. He looked at me as if I had said something so remarkable that he was having a hard time understanding me. “You’re kidding me,” he said. “That black guy’s no chemist.”

I pointed out the degrees on the résumé that suggested otherwise, and the tension between us soared. When I confronted my superior and demanded to know what about the candidate from Grambling made him not a chemist, he grumbled something under his breath, and reluctantly sent both candidates for an interview with the chief chemist.

Simple racism, I thought. On reflection, though, I understood that I was wrong. It was racism, but not simple racism. My white co-worker had simply never encountered a black chemist before. Or a black engineer. Or a black doctor. I realized that we hired people not so much on their résumés, but rather on our preconceived notions of what the successful candidate should be like. And where was my boss going to get the notion that a chemist should be black?

Publishing more books out by authors of color seems like such an obvious solution to so many problems, however the problem of not enough books with characters of color does not exist in a vacuum.

Numerous people have suggested ways to change what is published and many of these people work outside publishing as do I. I’ve never attempted to write a book, never visited a publishing house and have never tried to obtain an agent. My criticisms of this industry are a bit like Sandra Bullock cursing the universe when she realizes her spaceship had no fuel.

But, I see things and it makes me wonder.

I’ve read too many books by authors of color where the author is truly skilled, the story is fresh, entertaining and well developed. Yet there were shortcomings that ranged from flaws in world building, lacking character development, or the lack or a good sense of setting. Who edits these books?

I know that when artwork and teaching materials is needed for a book, the preference is to assign the project to a person of the same ethnic group.  I can’t identify the thought process behind this. Is a book so “Black” or so “Latino” that only people from that ethnic group will relate well enough to the story to develop it correctly? Or, do we just not work together if we don’t have to?

Isn’t it the oddest thing that we see so many creating ways to help Whites write books about people of color rather than identifying and publishing more authors of color and Native Americans? And don’t tell me authors of color don’t exist! Where are the new books by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich? Neesha Meminger? Sheba Karim? Padma Venkatraman? Derrick Barnes? Alex Sanchez? Kelly Parra? Torrey Maldenado?

Creating a culture inside any industry where people understand the advantages to themselves as individuals, their company and even society as a whole is something that no one outside that industry can force.

I don’t believe there will be more books by authors of color until those in publishing understand that they can mentor and edit someone of a different complexion, that they can be as demanding of these authors and have high expectations of them. Or unless more companies like Quill Shift Agency, 7th Generation Press, Cinco Puntos or Just Us Books exist to innovate alternative avenues of success.

When CBC Diversity first formed, I wondered why they didn’t reach out to those outside their industry to build an alliance. There are so many people who address diversity from so many perspectives that it would have to be empowering to bring them all together. But, as I’ve come to believe I understand problems within the industry, I can’t help but applaud these individuals for trying to do something that certainly will not increase their popularity in their own offices. They best know the limitations inside their industry and what changes need to be made.

How can I end this on a positive note? Well, I cannot ignore all the voices (predominantly female, I must add) that continue to fight the good fight. In many different ways and in many different corners, there are people who are passionately trying to make a difference for young readers. Because right there, those pages in the hands of a young child will color their entire worldview. We have to keep hoping because there is no change without hope. We have to keep our ear to the ground and listen for those who are beating a new path. We can move beyond talk and take action. And, we have to continue questioning this industry.



6 thoughts on “Looking In, Looking On

  1. Padma Venkatraman does have a book coming out in May. But in general, if the book has a flaw that gets it indifferent or negative reviews, or the publisher doesn’t get behind it, the author’s career is pretty much over. Especially for authors of color and other authors out of the mainstream, you get one shot to “make it big” and if you don’t, your publisher drops you and your agent drops you and that’s pretty much the end of your career with the big publishers. Some folks go to small presses, while others self-publish (or do a little of both), but that doesn’t earn a living. That’s why Quill Shift is so important, and I hope some of the authors who have lost their old agents and publishers come Ayanna’s way.


  2. This post comes at a strange moment for me. Not just because this was posted on my birthday (and no, I won’t say my age) but because I have recently been asked to give a class to white authors on ways they can write more diverse characters. I like many other authors can’t get my books to publishers and can’t get my independent books noticed. So I will be in the back helping white authors create characters of color and use divers setting without injecting stereotypes into their work. I just keep telling myself, “half a loaf…”


  3. Hi Barbara,
    I can’t help but think that the people who are able to add any sort or diversity to their writing won’t need training to do so. They may need a nudge, but that would be it. I would think that if living in a diverse world, having friends that are Asian or gay or developmentally challenged or Hindu or over-weight would prepare you to write such characters. And, you would have a reading list that is just as diverse.

    I wonder what makes publishers think books written by white authors with black characters will sell better than black books by black authors. Will the protagonists still be White? Will the publishers promote them differently? Or, is there an ethnic difference in writing styles: is it real or perceived?


  4. Edi,

    My ears were burning this afternoon and I didn’t know why, only that it had been too long since we had spoken and I should check out your blog. Lo and behold, here I find your article about the current state of things and continuing the conversation from February (thank you) about how exactly we can make change.

    I so appreciate the fact that you’ve not only looked at your knowledge of current and past offerings, but also your lack of firsthand knowledge when it comes to the inner workings of the industry. Not many who advocate for change understand the many cogs needed to turn the wheels.

    I also appreciate that you’ve included Quill Shift Literary Agency in that change. The fact of the matter is that if we want change, we have to support and applaud those who are advocating/taking action to bring about that change. We also must support and applaud those who have paved and continue to pave the way. Another bright company pairing action to their words? Cake Literary. And one that needs no intro and has been publishing since 2011, Tu Books.

    It’s been said time and time again that talk is cheap. To publishing companies–businesses–it really is. Industry professionals have now spoken up multiple times that if you want more of something, show your purchasing power. Quill Shift is all about providing readers a way in which to do that–show that there’s a market–for manuscripts ready to be sent to editors who are the evangelists of the books in-house.

    If Barbara has been asked to teach white writers to write outside of their authentic zones, that means that there’s a market for those characters. That’s progress. Now it’s about finding (authors finding agents, agents finding authors), supporting, and packaging authors of color who create those stories in the best way so that their stories are the ones picked for publication.


  5. Ayanna,
    So good to hear from you! Certainly as important as knowledge and motivation is the spirit in which the work is done. Yes, I’m skeptical of teaching how to write diversity but at the same time, I do know that there is more than one way to approach the issue of diversity in kidlit; it’s not a simple problem! Quill Shift will work not only because of your knowledge, but also because of the spirit of your work.

    I follow Cake Literacy and interact with them on Twitter but need to find out more about what they’re doing!


  6. Here’s my follow-up. As writers we are taught to “write what you know.” And frankly, for a variety of reasons I won’t even try to list, there are more white writers in 21st century America. I was of two minds when I first offered this workshop two years ago, and frankly I was probably happy no one took me up on it then. I never have believed that only members of a particular race or ethnic group had a right to write about them. (I better not, or I would never have put Hispanics or Whites in my books) But I do feel that if you are going to do it, it should be done with sensitivity and though and without stereotypes (as far as humanly possible) Because I have seen some books with Black characters in them that literally made me cringe, the stereotyping was so bad.

    When I first began writing (back in the dark ages) I was told one of my characters did not sound like a “real black man” and given a list of (white) authors to read to see how they should be written. Since one of those was an author whose black characters I already knew and hated, I said nothing, although my brother and I had a good laugh because he was the model for the character and he never knew he wasn’t a real black man. Right now I am working on a YA where I was told that “people in the inner-city ghetto wouldn’t care that a kid sold drugs because it happens all the time.” Admittedly this was a critique partner and not an editor and she did not know I was Black (not at first). She also did not seem to notice I had placed the story in a middle class suburban neighborhood. I guess the presence of two black kids as main characters and the mention of a gang was enough to make it a ghetto no matter what and for her to make assumptions about what people who live there feel about crime.

    This class is not going to take those kinds of assumptions away. But there are a group of authors who would like to include more diversity in their work, whether because they want to do the right thing or because their editors and agents are asking for it, or someone sees a possible market. And I have heard authors say they don’t add characters not like themselves because they fear they won’t do a good job. I applaud that, to me it says they care enough to want to do things right and not just throw something out there. So I offered the course again, and this time three different writers groups responded, so it is scheduled twice this year and again in 2015. What I hope to give are tools to help them drop their preconceived notions and really look at their diversity characters as people.

    Do I feel like the proverbial token woman trapped beneath the glass ceiling in the 20th century doing a great job but left to train men who will be promoted over her because they fit the bosses notion of executive material? A little. But I also feel if authors want to create worlds that are not lily white and are willing to go a little farther to try to do a good job, and I can help them, it will benefit the kids who will read their books and find the windows that don’t just show a Black Barbie and mirrors that don’t reflect funhouse images.


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