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My Effort to End Whitewashing (the level-headed version)

July 11, 2010

Passionate discussions continually circulate on the web regarding young adult novels that have been whitewashed, the practice of using Caucasian models on the covers of books whose stories feature characters of color. Publishers get lamblasted. Boycotts get organized. Letters get written. Petitions get signed. And fortunately, authors get defended (because 99% of us have no control over our books’ covers). Two recent cases of public outrage (one author’s take ) resulted with new covers for the books in question, so yay to the people with the big voices (one of the best)!

But  yet another kerfuffle has hit the world of young adult literature in the past week (the author’s take), and the internet outrage continues (a sample), but I cannot condemn the publisher in question this time because they did everything right with the hardcover. They published a book WRITTEN by a person of color that was ABOUT about a person of color that FEATURED a person of color on the cover. Three big thumbs up! But sales were disappointing. And the cover for the release of the sequel aims to reach new audiences who perhaps didn’t connect with the original cover, which was bold, brilliant and beautiful, in my opinion. But people are crying foul again, because the sequel features an ambiguous cover model who could be a person of color, and then again, maybe she’s not a person of color…it’s just vague enough.

But boycotts hurt authors who earn mostly meager wages for years worth of work. And as an author myself whose debut novel features a person of color on the cover, I am greatly appreciative of my publisher who also put my Laotian surname in big red letters across the middle of the book (I’m a white woman married to a Lao). But I am also greatly concerned and  saddened that caucasians might look at my cover and say, “Nah. Those people don’t look like me so I’ll pass. Ooh, there’s a cover with a pretty white girl on it.”

And well-meaning people even suggest I market my novel in areas where the Laotian population is greater, but I gotta say, that population already knows the story about which I wrote. Most of them lived the story I wrote. And I feel quite depressed that my sales are also disappointing, despite my publisher doing the right thing. I don’t want my novel to be more fuel for the fiery argument that book covers featuring people of color don’t sell well. And when there’s an impression that these books don’t sell well, then bookstores don’t stock them. And when bookstores don’t stock them, the public doesn’t see them. And when the public doesn’t see them, people don’t buy them. And when people don’t buy them, publishers don’t publish them. Anybody dizzy yet?

So in this post, I want to make known my effort to end whitewashing. I’m buying books that get it right, because in capitalist America, money talks, and publishers and bookstores gotta make money to survive just like the rest of us. So here are my two most recent purchases of 2010 debut novels (Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves and Tortilla Sun by Jennifer Cervantes): books not only about people of color, but books that proudly show a person of color on the cover. And if you think that children of all colors deserve to see themselves represented on the covers of books, then might you consider joining me? And if money’s tight, then pester your library for the book and CHECK IT OUT. That counts too! And please share your thoughts or tell us what POC books you’ve bought lately…

(EDITED TO ADD: For my angry version, click here. I’m really not a fan of name calling. Especially from anonymous editors.)

24 Comments leave one →
  1. lishacauthen permalink
    July 11, 2010 3:33 pm

    C’mon, people. Quit being boogers.


  2. July 11, 2010 4:25 pm

    Hi Laura,
    First of all, I dig the word “kerfuffle.” 🙂

    Ok, here’s my take: I am a columnist. I haven’t even considered the term “whitewashing” when it comes to my care of writing, being published or how it affects my readership. Having said that, I can tell you that there are certain subconscious and conscious reasons why I AVOID books with “white-washed” covers. First of all, they look staged and phony. Secondarily, they tend to say to me, “hey, check me out… my content is about as meaningful as the gorgeous people on my cover.” No thanks.

    My first impression of you book cover, “Escaping The Tiger” was one of intrigue. Did the two individuals on the cover play a part in that? Yes. Of course. But so did the entire cover illustration with its mix of contrasted colors and design. I really had no idea there was anyone “of color” on the cover. I had to go back and look at it again after having read this blog of yours. (By the way, I’m not a big fan of saying, “people of color”. People are either white, black, brown or whatever. People will say, well, “white” is the absence of color. No. That would be invisibility. White IS a color) But I digress….

    So I, for one, do indeed make book-buying decisions based upon the look of the cover: If it is “white-washed” and if by that you mean it has “supermodels” on the cover… I will avoid buying it.
    If, on the other hand, a book has a cover similar to “Escape The Dragon” I am initially intrigued and would consider a purchase.

    I wish you the best of luck in your authorship!



    • Laura Manivong permalink*
      July 11, 2010 4:59 pm

      Thanks for chiming in, Doug! Score one for kerfuffle. Lose one for POC, but that’s the catch-all term that’s most common around the net lately in regards to the discussion of books. I’m a measly follower in that regard…


  3. Larissa permalink
    July 11, 2010 4:33 pm

    Laura, I completely agree with almost everything you’ve said here, except one thing. The models on Cindy’s new covers are not ambiguous. They’re white. And I think that’s the biggest issue. Silver Phoenix had poor sales because the major chains didn’t pick it up, and I fully agree with Editorial Anonymous about that. (I’d link if I could, but I’m on my iPod). I understand the publisher’s wish to repackage, and I see where they are going with the new cover. But,
    I think they could have gotten the same result with an Asian model on the new covers.


    • Laura Manivong permalink*
      July 11, 2010 4:42 pm

      Larissa, thanks for your comments! Do you know with certainty that the model is white? I hadn’t read that but admit fully that I could’ve missed it. I said ambiguous because the cover model could easily pass for any of my southeast Asian sisters-in-law or extended family. I’ll go check out EA’s post…thanks! But I’m afraid of what I’ll read because Escaping The Tiger didn’t get picked up by the major chains either. And like Silver Phoenix, my book has been reviewed well by journals like Kirkus, SLJ & more. What’s an author to do?


      • Larissa permalink
        July 11, 2010 6:13 pm

        I think you’ll like EA’s post. She calls the big bookstores whores. It’d be funny if it weren’t true.

        I don’t know with absolute certainty that the models are white, but they don’t look remotely Asian to me. And it saddens me because SP is so beautifully Chinese. (A lot like The Last Airbender thing saddens me because the cartoon is so beautifully and richly Asian).


        • Laura Manivong permalink*
          July 11, 2010 6:49 pm

          Um, I kinda just went off on EA’s post (I added a link in my OP). I interpreted her post as lumping in the publishers WITH the giant bookstores as racists and whores, since they were allowing their perception of the buying public to affect their decisions. Harper got it right the first time around with SILVER PHOENIX, in a big pink obvious way, and when it didn’t sell well, they tried to reach out to a new audience. Whose fault is it that the book didn’t sell well? The people who didn’t buy it, that’s who. Cindy Pon’s all over the internet doing self promotion like we authors hear we have to do. We as consumers have to create the demand, then the bookstores will happily provide the supply, because publishers are publishing a smattering of books with POCs on the covers: TORTILLA SUN, BLEEDING VIOLET, ONE CRAZY SUMMER and mine, of course, just to name a few recent debuts. So don’t let them down. Buy these books and create the demand. The supply will follow suit.

          I might take some pictures of my female Asian relatives from the nose down and mix them with pics of Caucasians from the nose down. I wonder how many people would guess correctly.


  4. July 11, 2010 5:01 pm

    I think you are on the side of the angels (if there are any angels). I wonder how much hard data there really is to come to conclusion that the cover image was driving away readers. I suspect not that much.
    Sadly, I think the people making bad marketing decisions we continue to make them. No one is holding them accountable. We don’t even know who they are…


    • Laura Manivong permalink*
      July 11, 2010 5:09 pm

      You know, I work in TV, and the number of stats and studies that come in that try to give clues as to who is watching what and for what reason is staggering. It’s still a guessing game, and in the realm of whitewashing books, the whole chicken or the egg question plays a frustrating role in the blame game. Bottom line…demand creates supply. So in addition to letter writing campaigns and boycotts, consumers need to put their money where their mouths are (there, I switched up a cliche by using the plural!).


  5. July 11, 2010 5:42 pm

    Great blog about whitewashing and I so appreciate your point about NOT BOYCOTTING PUBLISHING HOUSES … That’s just NOT the way to go. I love the option you’re giving people. And I think that, with time, as soon as lots of people get the drift, things will change. Until then, we have to keep educating buyers and appealing to the publishers that we want DIVERSE covers.
    Your book cover is exquisite!!

    Thank you, Laura


  6. July 11, 2010 5:44 pm

    GREAT post giving solid, constructive ways to fight whitewashing. DON’T BOYCOTT PUBLISHERS is a biggie since it’s like shooting ourselves in the feet (taking last commentor’s idea and turning cliche into plural!) The more we educate the public about choosing diverse books and demand accurate covers from publishers, the sooner things will change.
    Your cover is gorgeous!
    Thanks for the great post.


  7. July 11, 2010 5:48 pm

    Sorry about the double post.


    • Laura Manivong permalink*
      July 11, 2010 6:05 pm

      Well, your posts have different content so I’ll leave them both there and consider it a Heidi double feature. Thanks for taking time to share your thoughts!


  8. Anne Bingham permalink
    July 11, 2010 10:00 pm

    I own Silver Phoenix. I just finished reading Bleeding Violet this weekend and until you mentioned it, I had no clue the model on the cover was a POC because all I saw on the library copy was a swirl of color and some random limbs.

    And I have purchased THREE copies of Escaping the Tiger (gave away the first one, will give away the second for an ESL classroom, will keep the third for my Shelf of Inspiration).

    (and you didn’t ask, but Laura, I say, sell it to Lao people, because even though they’ve lived it, their grandkids haven’t necessarily and what better way to get them interested in how it was back in the day.)

    FWIW, we have a Sikh author here in Milwaukee, Shauna Singh Baldwin, whose books have won awards the world over but is practically unknown here, probably for some of the same reasons you and Cindy are suffering. And they are wonderful books.

    It’s a cruel business but you do what you can. {off to read your LJ rant now!}


    • Laura Manivong permalink*
      July 12, 2010 7:43 am

      What an honor to be on your Shelf of Inspiration! Your support, Anne, has been phenomenal!. And one of the greatest thrills so far with this book thing was having a Lao grandfather hold my book at the launch party, point to the title and speak emphatically in staccato clips. “My. Grandkids. Will read. This. Book. And they will know.” So it’s an honor to have Lao people read it of course. I just cringe at the implication that that group of people may like it since they are the same color as the kids on your cover. So like you said, you do what you can!


  9. Kim Baccellia permalink
    July 11, 2010 10:58 pm

    Loved both SILVER PHOENIX and BLEEDING VIOLET. I love multicultural heroes and will go out of my way to buy them. Love covers that reflect the diversity of the characters. What’s frustrating to me is how they say we need more multicultural books but no one buys them. Or they say they are cliche and/or stereotypical. I’m like, “Hello, I grew up in a multicultural family and neighborhood. That’s how it is.” Grrr.


    • Laura Manivong permalink*
      July 12, 2010 7:45 am

      Yes, Kim, we hear the same thing about boy books. We need more boy books! But wait, boy books are a hard sell! And I’m loving BLEEDING VIOLET too…almost done!


  10. Kim Baccellia permalink
    July 11, 2010 11:00 pm

    I also loved how BLEEDING VIOLET used the character’s bipolar disorder as a strength. I’m also sick of the stereotypes on mental illness.

    Another fab read is GRINGOLANDIA. It reminded me of my former classroom aide’s experience during the El Salvador war.


  11. July 12, 2010 6:13 pm

    “I am greatly appreciative of my publisher who also put my Laotian surname in big red letters across the middle of the book (I’m a white woman married to a Lao). But I am also greatly concerned and saddened that caucasians might look at my cover and say, ‘Nah. Those people don’t look like me so I’ll pass. Ooh, there’s a cover with a pretty white girl on it.’ ”

    This is my concern, too. And it’s frustrating that is has to be a concern. I’m proud of my husband’s Portuguese heritage (no, that Cruz last name is not Hispanic), but I feel stuck between two worlds as an author. I can’t write a book with people of color without concern about the Caucasian people who might not read it, and I can’t write a book with “white” characters without Hispanic people wondering why I’m not writing for my “own” people (again, I’m not Hispanic, but most people automatically assume that I am…especially Spanish-speaking telemarketers).

    I don’t understand these divisions. Why can’t we all just get along?

    Can’t we figure out a way to accurately represent POC characters on book covers AND have them sell well? I find this entire idea of POC covers not selling well ridiculous. It defies logic. My logic, anyway…


    • July 12, 2010 6:15 pm

      Oops. I mean that it’s “frustrating that IT has to be a concern.” Sorry about the typo.


    • Laura Manivong permalink*
      July 12, 2010 11:52 pm

      It’s a mad, mad world. I wouldn’t be published if I’d listened to the people who say authors shouldn’t write outside their culture. The best way to get more accurate portrayals on covers, IMO, is to speak with our dollars. Buy the books that get it right, or at least request the heck out of them at the libraries. It may seem like a drop in the bucket, but change often comes slowly. It’s certainly better than a boycott which only gives a publisher more fuel for the argument that books about POCs don’t sell. Thanks for weighing in, Elissa of the lovely “Cruz.”


  12. July 18, 2010 8:28 pm

    Thanks, Lara for this post. It is such an important topic and one worth not only meaty discussion, but action. And thank you for highlighting Tortilla Sun. I am anxious to read Dia’s and am two more books away from yours, amiga. I know I will LOVE it! Keep the drive and passion going…



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