Iconography: Covering Up Race
I am wary when I walk into bookstores these days, because I don’t need to dip into the horror section to find books that scare me. I take a look around at the white faces on the covers and think about how I’m not encountering books about people like me. Except, given how popular the whitewashing of covers is just at present, maybe I am and just don’t know it.
Whitewashing book covers, representing non-white characters as white* on covers, is a publishing practice which has become disturbingly common. Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore, Liar by Justine Larbalestier, and Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon are the most famous examples of the last couple of years. What else do they have in common? They’re all young adult fiction. I find it quite distressing that, in a time of renegotiating identity and finding a place in a big scary world, the importance of whiteness is what’s being sold to young people. The icing is that these books have become more recognized for their whitewashed covers than for their content, than the actual stories of non-white people therein. If an author can struggle their way through to publication, and with a non-white character to send out to those young people searching for someone with whom to identify at that, they still have to contend with this rubbish.
It’s not just now, however, and it’s not just young adult fiction. It’s terrible to see this happen to books like Octavia Butler’s Dawn, which is so explicitly about what it is to live in the world as a woman of color, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle, which works so hard to upend ideas about white heroism and take the invisibility out of white representations. I’m not sure if books that particularly set out to challenge racism are being targeted, or these are just the ones one hears about specifically because of that incongruity. How many more books have I seen on my bookstore visits that I’ve been misled to think of as having white protagonists?
There are a lot of attitudes shaping why whitewashing happens, including that covers featuring non-white people won’t sell, which has no basis in proof. The one on my heart just at the present time is the idea that white readers won’t pick up books with non-white people on the cover for fear of not being able to relate. I hate to break it to you, but, well, the prevalence of white characters and writers means that non-white readers face the reverse problem all the time. If I shied away from books with white protagonists, I’d have trouble finding enough to read at the local library or bookstore. There is no good reason why white readers shouldn’t be expected to be able to relate to non-white protagonists, unless one thinks that race is the only characteristic of non-white people. In any case, catering to the (perceived!) wants of a white readership oughtn’t be a priority. There are stories worth telling that aren’t about white people.
I haven’t said a word about icons yet, because I want to put this to you: where does whitewashing leave the potential for non-white literary icons? If this is how Le Guin and Butler of all people are being treated, what hope for characters of color from authors without their credentials? Readers are being directed towards whiteness, so how does anyone outside whiteness get a voice? We’re being asked to judge books by their covers, which doesn’t say very much at all for publishers’ confidence in their product or the minds of their readers. Happily, readers and authors care too much to let this stand. May the uproar over whitewashing reach critical mass very soon.
*I mean that the representations are coded as white ones; publishers are intending readers to read the people on the covers as white. I won’t make any assumptions about the actual racial or ethnic identification of the models involved, just point out the lines along which publishers clearly mean viewers’ minds to run.
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