A Fine Mess of Dirt and Time to Do Better! –Thoughts on Engaging with Whiteness and White Supremacy in Publishing
[I wrote this when American Dirt was published, so some of this is dated. But I still wanted to post this somewhere public — especially to highlight some of the resources mentioned. This essay offers broader thinking about White Supremacy and children’s publishing.]
American Dirt, Jeannine Cummins and Flat Iron Books/Macmillan. A Fine Dessert, Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall, Schwarz and Wade/Random House. The Suicide Bomber in the Library, Jack Gantos, Dave McKean and Abrams. It keeps happening, again and again. White authors, illustrators, editors, publishers, marketing machines jointly create, acquire and publish books that appropriate and misrepresent stories through a White lens. Far MORE than creating and publishing #ownvoices books in which people write from their own experiences.
And no, this isn’t about telling White people that you can’t write outside of your background. It IS about listening to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) and LGBTQI+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex, plus) people and disabled people when they warn of the consequences of doing this wrong. Such as Zetta Elliott in her powerful essay, “Something Like An Open Letter to the Publishing Industry.” While written back in 2009, her words ring just as true now. She says, “What I am trying to say to children’s publishers is that the lack of books for children in our communities IS A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH.”
Maya Gonzalez tells us of the dangers when cishet (cisgender heterosexual) people, especially White people, write about LGBTQI+ people, and has experienced the violation of plagiarism herself. She writes, “This is about a shift in thinking and doing. LGBTQI+ children’s books have the most severe power imbalance for first/own voice, and lack a clear social justice frame as criteria. This is historically and socially relevant and impacts what is considered respectable/acceptable, and profitable in the industry and society.”
And in relationship to American Dirt, David Bowles has responded to people who have reacted defensively to the Latinx critique of American Dirt, saying that these responses “are infused with either privileged blindness or deliberate disingenuousness.” He goes on to show how the publishing industry has elevated White voices writing outside of their background rather than #ownvoices books. He says, “When you write about an underrepresented group, one whose own voices have been excluded from the world of publishing, not getting it right isn’t just disastrous: it’s harmful to people in that group. Have you read all the Latinas describing the book’s hurt? Believe them.”
Lots of “well-intentioned” liberals, myself included, want to use our creative contributions to help make the world a better, more equitable, and less racist place. And in a world in which cishet non-disabled White people are currently published far more than others, how do we move forward?
Publishers — Do Better!
First, we need to flip those statistics. As Maya Gonzalez and Matthew Smith have shown in their number crunching with children’s book publishing statistics and based on 2018 numbers, we would need 1,421 more books per year by BIPOC authors for numbers to reflect demographics in this country. That’s in addition to the over 3500 books currently published per year — a big jump.
Maya and Matthew also looked at LGBTQ+ statistics, showing that we would need 359 more books by LGBTQ+ authors for parity, while also asking people to consider the impact for a creator having both LGBTQ+ and BIPOC identities. The concept of intersectionality, a term coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 — or “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage” — is important here, and comes up when White LGBTQI+ creators represent BIPOC identities. A White gay man has White male and cisgender privilege, while also existing in a world which often discriminates against gay people. This stuff is complicated. I would like to give similar statistics about disabled children’s book creators but have not come across this same kind of analysis. I’d love to hear from others who have.
Publishers need to stop acquiring books written by cishet non-disabled White people about other groups’ experiences to rebalance these numbers. Publishers also need to hire far more diverse people, across the board. The Lee & Low Diversity In Publishing survey shows that in 2019, the publishing industry (including agents) is 76% White, 74% cis women, 81% straight, and 89% non-disabled.
As David Bowles shares, in part using the CCBC statistics tracking publishing statistics:
- “37% of US population is POC (“people of color”)
- 50% of school-age population is POC
- 26% of school-age children are Latinx
- 68% of those Latinx kids are Mexican American
However, only 5% of the 3653 books published in 2018 for kids/teens featured Latinx protagonists. Just 1% featured Native Americans, 7% Asian Americans / Pasifika, 10% Black folks.”
Bowles goes on: “And it gets worse. Among those books featuring kids of color, white authors are systematically prioritized over #ownvoices. 2017 statistics:
- only 29% of books w/ Black protagonists written by Black authors
- only 34% of books with Latinx protagonists by Latinx authors
- 39% of books with Asian American / Pasifika protagonists by Asian American / Pasifika authors
- 53% of books with Native protagonists by Native authors”
- Additionally, from Maya and Matthew’s statistics, only 21 books of 134, or 15%, were written by LGBQT+ creators.
That’s a lot of numbers. But if we spend time with them, we see and feel the inequity. Of course, BIPOC, LGBTQI+ and disabled people already know this, so by “we” here I mostly mean cishet non-disabled White people. For all of us, the first step is recognizing how unfair the system is. How it is set up to make it easier for cishet non-disabled White people to tell stories about others than for people from within a group/experience to do so. I would hope that anyone can see, that isn’t right.
While recognizing the variety and intersectionality of groups facing discrimination, from this point forward and in light of the American Dirt controversy, I’m going to focus on the privilege of Whiteness, keeping in mind there are other different kinds of privilege. Whiteness tends to be at the top of the privilege pyramid. For instance, White women face far less discrimination than, say, Black women.
White Privilege and White Affirmative Action
How can we White folks try to make the world less racist and more inclusive? What kinds of stories can we tell? I’ve been grappling with this personally, as a White woman dedicated to social justice and the creation of diverse children’s books for over 25 years. I worked at Children’s Book Press (1994–98) and was an editor at Lee & Low Books (1998–2001), both publishers of “multicultural” picture books for kids. At Children’s Book Press, in particular, we focused on publishing #ownvoices books. Publisher Harriet Rohmer saw, starting in 1975 when she founded CBP, that the mission was bringing in diverse voices and not just stories. Part of what I’ve continued to do with my editorial, teaching and academic work, is try to help people from backgrounds that have been marginalized by the publishing industry, and society, to develop stories, in voices and narrative forms that they want, and which might not fit mainstream expectations. I’ve published a few essays (here and here) on the subject in the past, focusing on the place of Whiteness in publishing and how this can impact diverse authors and artists.
For many White people, just recognizing that we carry privilege can feel impossible or intolerable. Painful. Most of us want to think we earned everything we’ve gained based on our abilities and hard work. Some people grew up poor and don’t feel particularly privileged. The white privilege discussion can be challenging. But it’s crucial. There are tools, such as Peggy McIntosh’s foundational essay: “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” This article by Cory Collins, “What Is White Privilege Really?” goes deeper and brings this idea more towards the present day. He writes, “McIntosh asked herself an important question that inspired her famous essay…. ‘On a daily basis, what do I have that I didn’t earn?’ Our work should include asking the two looming follow-up questions: Who built that system? Who keeps it going?”
Which connects to the idea of White affirmative action, which lies at the root of White privilege. White people have benefited from White affirmative action — a policy in which an individual’s color, race, sex, religion or national origin are taken into account to increase opportunities — since Europeans first set foot on what we currently call the United States. These Europeans called themselves “White” based on the made-up concept of race and used this pseudo-science to justify White supremacy and the dehumanization of people they designated as “not White.” When these self-titled White people encountered Indigenous people, who had been living here for thousands of years, they killed them and forced them off of their land. The self-designated White people kidnapped Africans and brought them to the US, calling them “property” and enslaving people, for hundreds of years. As Teaching Hard History from Teaching Tolerance states, “Protections for slavery were embedded in the founding documents; enslavers dominated the federal government, Supreme Court and Senate from 1787 through 1860.” Only so-called White people were granted naturalized citizenship in 1790. While Black people were finally recognized as fully human and granted citizenship through the 14thAmendment, discrimination gave White people power and rights throughout our country’s history. States denied BIPOC people access to schools, jobs, home ownership, and other rights and entitlements, while making these available to White people. Yet this full story is rarely taught in schools, and many Americans, especially White people, can grow up thinking that we live in a fair society, where everyone has the opportunity to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and succeed. A meritocracy. Some said that the election of Barack Obama showed we lived in post-racial society, though I think few people would say that given more recent elections and events. And while race is a made-up construct, its existence is profound and affects all of our daily lives.
We all need to learn about this history, and White people need to accept that we have gained access to power and privilege unfairly and because of fake science that has justified violence, theft and dominance. That’s a lot to acknowledge, and from there we should engage in serious truth and reconciliation or Transitional Justice. Other than the apology and reparations made to Japanese Americans after WWII incarceration, I’m unaware of other significant governmental apologies or reparations made to people who have had to face the atrocities and barriers of discrimination in our nation’s history.
If we learn more about this history, we will better understand what we see when we look at, say, the mainstream publishing industry today. Publishing is an institution, and it functions within larger society, reflecting the profit-driven Capitalist norm that has come to dominate in the United States and many other countries. The Big Five publishers, mostly owned by larger conglomerates, carry a vast amount of publishing power. There are more and more grassroots publishers in which people are “doing it for themselves,” but the Big Five and other mid-sized publishers can carry far more weight and access. And as we learned from the Diversity Survey, most aren’t making the effort to diversify their staff in meaningful ways, including who stays in the job and who makes their way to positions of power.
White privilege, White affirmative action, and mainstream publishing go hand in hand. See David Bowles’ article again regarding American Dirt. Also articles by Yuyi Morales, Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, Myriam Gurbaand Reyna Grande, among others. Look back at discussions around the books mentioned at the beginning of this article. And other White Savior narratives. We all need to educate ourselves — especially White folks — on the place of White privilege and White affirmative action. And then we need to try to be a part of the change.
What Can White Folks Do?
I definitely don’t have all the answers. I have a couple of suggestions, mostly realizations that friends of color have helped me to come to understand. Which is not their job, and I deeply appreciate their engagement with me in conversation and education. I say again, it is not their job. I try to read the articles from BIPOC and LGBQTI+ news sources. And mostly, I believe people when they speak out. We White folks need to put aside our white fragility and listen.
Here are some other specific ideas for well-intentioned White book creators:
1. Amplify #ownvoices books and creators
Educate yourself about who is speaking in your field about issues of diversity and representation, then use whatever platform you have to circulate essays and uplift books. Look at your own reading and be sure it reflects #ownvoices and diversity, from across the spectrum. If you are a teacher, assign #ownvoices books. Wherever you have influence, use it.
2. Advocate for change
Contact publishers and tell them to do better. Vote with your wallet and buy #ownvoices books, especially supporting smaller publishers that are mission-driven rather than profit-driven. Pledge not to speak at conferences with all-White panels. If you are an experienced writer, artist or editor/publisher, find ways to support new authors in developing their voices and navigating the craziness of the publishing industry, finding agents, submitting, etc. But always be aware of the “White savior” trap, which is hard to avoid. I worry about that all the time.
3. Be VERY careful when choosing what you write about
This is a huge one. At this point I would say it is time to stand back and let people from under-represented communities tell stories about those communities, but really, about whatever they want. We need a huge swing in who gets published for equity (revisit Maya Gonzalez and Matthew Smith’s statistics). Ask yourself the questions, such as: Why are you telling this story? Why this point of view? What is your relationship to this community and story? And are you avoiding the core issue, which is a racist society built on White Supremacy? Which leads to…
4. Center anti-racism and confront White Supremacy
As I’ve considered how I can be helpful as a writer and not just an editor, this has become one of my key questions. I’m inspired by the essay by Angela Pelster-Wiebe entitled, “White Artists Need to Start Addressing White Supremacy in Their Work: Those Who Benefit From Racism Should Be on the Front Lines Fighting It.” I’ve read this essay over and over again and invite you to do the same as it really has profoundly shifted my thinking. Pelster-Wiebe describes how White people tend to avoid centering their own Whiteness in their work, and that White artists often create from a victim’s point of view because it is more comfortable, enabling White creators to feel a sort of “membership” in that community, and avoid the uncomfortable work of naming, and helping to dismantle, the systems that protect the status quo. And she concludes, “How to simultaneously protect people of color from further trauma without excusing the white ones from participating altogether is a conversation that I think white artists should be working to be a part of in all the spaces they find themselves in throughout this country.”
How to approach all of this? What’s crazy to me is how much this feels like a challenge — to center White Supremacy when talking about issues of racism and inequity in our society, and in publishing. Because we swim in this water, it’s hard to see, especially for White people who benefit. But think about how many White people have written books about the victims of racism or the BIPOC who have fought back? SO MANY BOOKS about Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King. Or to take this further, stories written by cishet White folks about LGBTQ+ BIPOC people? Or stories about adoption by adoptive parents rather than adoptees? Or stories about disability by parents or non-disabled people rather than disabled people? And it continues. This is all about power. It’s not that people can only ever write stories based on their own experiences or cultures. But we need to look at power — at who has spoken, who has taken and told stories FOR or INSTEAD OF people telling their own stories. And think back to the question of harm. Who is at risk? And who holds the power?
In the non-fiction world, in particular, it still seems that White people continue to feel comfortable writing books about BIPOC people’s lives. And in my experience, the non-fiction community still feels like one of the least diverse spaces in the children’s book world. My hope is that this will become less comfortable going forward. As co-author on two historical books about a Japanese American man and a Black women, that issue is there and I’m not entirely comfortable with my role. I don’t feel it was a perfect solution. But this did provide one way to try to make up for the deficit, and for me to use my White privilege and children’s book experience to help be part of bringing new voices into the children’s book world, and to be part of making sure the books we wrote together included real diversity of voice and perspective. But I’m open to questions and to criticism. I’ve learned that humility is the FIRST thing. Listen, take it in, wait, breathe. Don’t freak out. Really listen. And learn. Be ready to change and try to do better next time. None of us is perfect. And ultimately, we are all in this together.
My current research is on Whiteness and the establishment of the state of California, looking at how the construction of Whiteness led to benefits for White people and exclusion of people designated as not White. I’ve thought about writing a book about a White girl growing up in the South on a plantation, and the everyday mundane racism she witnesses and perpetuates. Though I don’t really feel that’s my story to tell, as someone not from the South. I don’t have clear answers but would love to be part of a bigger conversation. How can White children’s people/book creators illuminate and combat the White supremacist society we inhabit today? And how can we all move forward together towards a better world?
Arisa White brought the idea of Ubuntu to the table when we were creating the Biddy Mason Speaks Up book, and it became a core organizing theme. We defined it as follows: “Ubuntu: a southern African philosophy that roughly translates to ‘I AM BECAUSE WE ARE.’ In this worldview, we actively participate in the well-being of the entire community. An individual is interdependent with others and cannot achieve anything alone.”
I believe this is the way we need to approach our world today, in terms of humans, and also plants, animals and the earth. White folks, in particular, have done enough taking, wanting “all of the cookies” as Maya Gonzalez describes it. Cookies taste way better when we share them, in community, rather than horde them to ourselves. And our community, and planet, will be healthier when we prioritize all of our well-being. In fact, this seems like the only way to move towards a sustainable future. We’ve reached the limit of greed, and the idea that the world is here for the people on top to exploit. Let’s conjure some utopian visions and work for an interconnected and inter-dependent future together.