The Mass Media, YA, and White America: What’s Wrong, Why It’s Wrong, and How to Fix it Read more at
The Huffington Post, did a small recap of her article along with the graphs, and linked to the rest. That was in turn was posted on ONTD where it came to my attention.
I found many comments on the HuffPo article that fell into very disturbing trends about the issue of diversity in YA covers. If this were an isolated incident I would shrug it off, and carry on about my day. However, I have seen many of these insensitive, dismissive, and downright derailing comments across the web, and even encounter them in real life.
As a book blogger, and aspiring author/screenwriter I hope to shed light on this topic from a minority perspective of how publishers not only perpetuate a system of beliefs to the average American consumer that isn’t necessarily true, but also why the industry does this, and how they might be able to fix it. I also wish to break down a few common arguments that are counter-productive to the cause. I know this topic has been discussed many times (and should be) but I wish to put in my proverbial 2 cents in the TL;DR format.
Though I am mostly discussing the publishing industry, I do believe that many of my points reflect issues within mass media as a whole. Substitute publishers for studios, book covers for magazines and movie posters, protagonists with actress/actor, authors with directors, etc.
Why are there so few PoC on YA covers? The answer is both simple, and complicated. Most people within the industry are under the assumption that minorities don’t read (at the very least don't have the purchasing power of white teens), and that white readers will not be able to identify with PoC protagonists. I’ve read many interviews with agents, and when writers, and characters of color are brought up one can usually find a similar response: It is much harder to get works that feature leads of color published.
The main reason for that is not because it is not being written nor written well, but the belief that PoC are not a profitable commodity, and that if you go with white, everyone can identify with them, thus making the book more sellable across all demographics.
The industry is about art, and entertainment at the core, but it is a core of a business. Businesses have a bottom line, and that is profit.
If Stephanie Meyer wrote Twilight with a black Bella, a Japanese Edward, along with the Native Jacob, and left everything else exactly the same (with the only mention of race via skin tone once), I don’t know if the series’ runaway success would be the same. And I hate to say it but the marketing campaign most likely would have been completely different. I know this is big assumption, but I swear I have reasoning for why I think so.
When a book first comes out, or an author first gets signed where does the hype start? It’s usually in a few key places. Huge million dollar multi-book deals, early movie rights sales, and massive initial printings for 1st time authors.
Recent popular titles also have the advantage of enormous marketing pushes that get the attention of potential readers, which exacerbates the hype. If books aren't mass marketed, and mass printed they are far less likely to become huge successes, and thus less likely to be heard about aka less read aka "people don't like it because it is not selling." I rarely see books with PoC leads get the marketing push that works with white protagonists receive.
If PoC fronted books aren't privy to huge marketing strategies(expensive), and don't get 100,000+ copies out into circulation (expensive) at nearly every retailer then how can they even prove they can sell without being a dark horse and becoming successful despite a lack of visibility? Even then it would be considered an anomaly, not proof that PoC can sell.
Since publishing has a bottom line, many won't take a risk by overspending on a PoC fronted work because they don't sell, yet without the financial input that other titles receive they won't sell. Starting to see a pattern here?
PoC protagonists tend to get heir faces obscured, or minimized on their already limited covers.
Even when PoC are the main characters in YA novels the 1.2% of covers that black models do get according to Kate Hart “black characters/models are not only fewest in number, they're barely even on their own covers." The 1.4 % each of Asian, and Latino covers "characters/models do slightly better-- not much increase in numbers, but at least they're allowed to look at the camera."
My what pretty, expensive dresses on these covers. And the white leads are the focus of attention!
That is a completely different strategy for selecting a book cover than white lead works. We all know that a pretty girl in a dress, and beauty shots, are what is hot right now. When (some) readers complain about the stagnant development in art direction of covers, the rationale is “that is what sells the most.”
Such elegant designs, and beautiful face shots that appeal to teenaged girls!
If pretty prom dresses, and beauty shots are what are “in, ” and “sellable,” then why don’t minority cover stars get the same treatment? Maybe the approach to marketing PoC fronted novels, is apart of the problem of the titles not selling? Just a thought.
Roughly 5,000 YA books were published in 2010 (excluding children's books), and if 90% of them in 2011 have white protagonists/cover models, and taking into account the amount of non-descript covers (which could also have white leads), that means that somewhere around 6 or 7% of books have PoC main characters.
These aren't hard numbers of course, just a guesstimate, but the point remains: if so many titles get published every year, then why is it such a gigantic risk to not assume that minorities don't read, and white people don't want to read about non-white people?
I am not ignorant to the fact that the publishing industry is having tough times right now, but you can't claim that the system (marketing to whites almost exclusively) is working, and in the same breath say the industry is suffering major losses. If the system was working, there would be no major losses.
Not to mention that YA is arguably the most profitable genre in the game at the moment, and thus creates a perfect opportunity to take financial risks, and reap the rewards.
Really, every deal signed, every advance paid, every dollar spent on marketing any book, is a financial risk. If that is the case (and it is) then why is taking the chance on something different somehow unmanageable?
The answer is it’s not. It’s just not a safe bet, and therefore, not in the forefront of the industries’ minds.
Now I know what some of you might be thinking: “Why are you so worked up over this? I mean is it really that big of a deal?” Yes, yes it is and I will gladly tell you exactly why.
White people make up an arbitrary 90% of what you see and read in the entertainment industry.
Katniss, Hermione, Bella: Successful YA series and their movie counterparts.
Many white people develop the privilege of being the dominant race in our county in the same way that males have a certain privilege because we live in a patriarchal society.
This causes two things in white consumers. The first is that they don’t have to, nor bother an attempt to relate to characters not of their race if they don’t want to. Most things are made for them, from their perspective. Now this isn't a problem on the individual basis. However, this leaves the impression (to both readers, and publishers) that white people somehow can’t identify with other races, which is just not true.
Why can't white America read books that happen to have people of color protagonists, or love interests? Are they less than people to the white audience? I don’t know, but this ideology certainly suggests something similar.
The second is that since white Americans have more than their fair share of representation, it makes it easier to pay little attention to the issue at hand. Sometimes, certain people can be completely dismissive that there is even an issue at all.
This is where white privilege comes from.
As a black woman, if I only identified with PoC, I couldn’t/wouldn’t read nor watch the vast majority of entertainment. Nearly the entire industry would be inconsumable for me and other PoC alike.
A lack of diversity plays a major factor in PoC’s self worth, and position in our society. Considering the amount of books being optioned for movies that affects not only novel covers, but what type of actresses get their break in major roles and franchises. That leads to a lack of PoC in film, and television, on the cover of magazines, and in mass media in general.
Considering the epic amount of media saturation in this technological, and Internet age, this is no small issue, and should no longer be treated as such. Period. We get our standard of beauty, and many of our social queues from the media. No one should, nor could argue that our media consumption doesn’t have a significant impact on Americans and how they view our world.
Of course this is not limited to PoC, Females lack representation in most mass medias though they are 50% of the country.
The two reasons why you see less PoC in books/media:
“White people don't want to read books about minorities, even if race issues are not brought up in the novel, and the character just happens to be a PoC."
"Minorities are a smaller market, thus aren't profitable. "
Those rationales are behind the marketing/buying side of publishing that leads to 90% white protagonists/covers, which in turn leads everyday people to believe the statistics generated by a flawed, self-perpetuating system to be a fact of life. This creates the illusion that there is nothing wrong with the system, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
With less than 10% of stories being told coming from a PoC perspective is it really too much to ask to have just a bit more? Hell no!
Common misconceptions, and arguments that are not helpful:
PoC should write more books, if they want representation.
Do people really think that people of color don't write too? This is an issue because the gatekeepers AKA the agents, and publishers are less likely to sign writers of color.
Not having accurate representation can make PoC less likely to create their own stories when they are being constantly bombarded with the message that you can read it if you like (which is ~doubtable), but this form of media is not made for you.
I know many minority writers that feel trying to get published is nearly impossible. They look at the numbers, they see that most writers are white, and they see that what is being bought, and sold is white stories, from white perspectives. Considering the industry is highly competitive to begin with, regardless of race, it can be viewed as a daunting task.
This is the same mentality in women trying to enter screenwriting. Males make up the majority of screenwriters, which write mostly male-driven stories, and females quickly become disillusioned that they will never make it.
If there are more non-clichéd, PoC driven stories, maybe more PoC will have the confidence to seek out this profession in the same way that female-driven movies can break the mold, and let females know that their ideas do in fact matter.
Most writers are white, and that is the reason why most fictional characters are white as well. It is too much to ask to write what they don’t know, and it is not right to force them to!
I’ve read several books in recent months that were written by white women that have PoC as protagonists, and these books were done well. That automatically makes this particular argument invalid.
The term “write what you know“ is often used as an excuse for not having diverse populations in fictional works. If an author writes about book set in say modern day Los Angeles, or New York City, and has zero minorities, then their story is flawed.
It isn’t an issue of the obligation to fill the void- nor for the sake of pleasing minorities- it an obligation to make their works remotely true to life. Even fantasies, and sci-fi have to be grounded in some sort of reality for suspension of disbelief to be upheld. Most of these YA protagonists live in completely white, hetero-normative pockets of society.
On their own, this may not seem like a big deal, and on their own it's not. But the fact of the matter is that the majority of YA novels as of late have these issues. That, in my opinion, falls on the authors, if only in part.
It is not just about white writers writing about themselves and what they experience as the default race of our society. I must reiterate the fact that white people are conditioned to see works with PoC as “not for them.” PoC can feel “othered” in return.
It's gotten to the point where even the very few covers and roles available for PoC are white washed for the sake of money, and marketing.
The Last Airbender: Sorry for the whitewashing! But it's OK you can have the villain and all the extras as PoC!
The protagonist in the book Starship Troopers, Juan "Johnny" Rico, is Filipino. In the movie he is played by Casper Van Dien. Seems legit.
Here are two PoC YA titles released this month that have the "in" covers, The Immortal Rules has a big marketing push. But wait these girls are supposed to be Japanese(which I didn't even know though I head a lot about the book), and brown skinned! Hrmm.
Maybe if people experience new things through literature (and the rest of the media) they’d be more open to seek out friendships of those that aren’t exactly like them. Maybe they can eventually expand their horizons, and finally accept their fellow (wo)man to be truly one of the fold.
And maybe, just maybe, that will allow writers of the future to write PoC into their scripts out of nature, and not out of some ill-convinced notion that “they have to.”
You want to talk about diversity, and other issues of race in the media? RACISM!
Discussing the lack of diversity in anything doesn’t automatically mean that someone is claiming straight out racism. They are (or at least I am) pointing out that there is something that needs to be addressed.
I’ve just noticed (again IMO) that whenever this topic, and similar ones are brought up some white people get immediately offended, and defensive. It is as if they are being accused of being racists, just because they have white-privilege.
Do white people have privilege in American society? Hell yes they do.
Does that make them racists? NO! And no one is claiming that so I would really like to see this argument never brought up again.
It’s not up to white writers. People of Color just aren’t trying hard enough to get their work published.
It is not a PoC’s fault that they lack representation, and it is not up to them. In the end the individual author has little sway over the industry as a whole. It’s agents, publishers, and marketing teams that wield the real power.
So no, people of color do not need to simply “work harder” to publish their works. People of color need their works to be bought, and seen by the masses, and the only way for that to happen would be for the industry to change their model.
We are in a post racial society. We even have a black president!
I have ended racism just by existing!
Maybe if people didn't try to automatically shut down the discussion at hand by saying it's inconsequential, because we live in a “post race” society, their eyes just might be opened to how we can fix things.
A short, true story: I was outside a coffee shop in (supposedly very liberal) Hollywood, CA minding my own business reading George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords. Out of nowhere a 40-something white male approached me. He said to my face that quote “niggers are ruining this country," and that I should "go back where you came from,” along with some other unkind words.
This isn’t the distant past, this happened within the last year, and was completely unprovoked. We are not in a post racial society. The sooner people admit that to themselves, the sooner we can actually tackle the race issues in America.
A post race society would not have people so up in arms over Idris Elba being cast as an Asgardian in Thor (which is a minor role btw). See also: Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Furry of Avengers/Marvel Universe movies fame, and the casting of Nonso Anozie as Xaro on HBO's Game of Thrones. The excuse is that they are only being book/comic book purists.
OK time to retcon for a moment here. I cannot stress enough that there is a HUGE difference between giving a PoC a role originally written as white (especially non starring roles) and taking away from the limited pool of PoC characters because white actors are "right for the part. Why are they even auditioning white actors?"
Without using Google, try to name 10 black actress under 30. How about 5 Asian actresses? 3 Latina/Hispanic actresses? Now 15 white actresses under 30. Think about which categories you thought of with the most ease, and I bet it was the white ones.
Hint: Halle Berry, Gabriel Union, Lucy Liu, Eva Mendes, J-LO, and Zoe Saldena are all over 30.
In a post race society YA novel The Hunger Games fans wouldn't take it to Twitter and other places to complain about a half African American/half Danish actress being cast as Rue (a character described in the narrative and confirmed by the author as black) in the movie adaption. When something terrible, and heartbreaking happens to Rue in the movie it "wasn't as sad" because the actress didn't look like the "little innocent blonde girl [Prim 2.0]," they'd imagined. Apparently being half white isn't enough for fandom.
Amandla Stenberg and Willow Shields: Rue and Prim from The Hunger Games. Obviously the one on the left isn't as "innocent" looking right???
Don't forget THG's sequel Catching Fire casting controversy. Finnick Odair is a character never explicitly stated as any race only being described as "Extremely handsome, tall, muscular, and athletic, with tan skin, bronze-colored hair, and 'incredible' sea green eyes." Once again there was an outcry because the half white Jesse Williams is a contender for the role, and Finnick is allegedly Caucasian according to fans . The role has yet to be cast.
Hair dye and being a good actress was enough for the pale, tall, blonde, blue-eyed, curvy, Jennifer Lawrence to play racially ambiguous (casting calls asked specifically for white actresses) small, under-fed, olive-skinned Katniss.
It should be enough for Jessie Williams who actually fits the physical description for Finnick.
White fandom cries to high heavens about PoC being cast in white, and racially ambiguous roles, and they complain when a PoC is cast in roles written for PoC? Yet somehow they still manage to excuse white actors being cast as PoC because they were right for the role. Well, that is a little strange isn't it?
It's the lack of diversity, exposure, and visibility of PoC in the media that cause such strong reactions. If we were a truly post race society peppering in a few PoC wouldn't even be an issue to begin with people!
Do you know the reason why Eva Mendes was cast opposite Will Smith in Hitch? Because the studio feared America would be offended by a black/white couple, but if they cast a black actress it would put off audiences. So they opted for a Cuban actress. This is according to Will Smith himself, the most bankable star in the world.
America is ~sew post racial it hurts.
America is mostly white, so aren’t the statistics true to life? Why should it matter how many minorities are represented in YA/the media? They are such small problems, and really not a big deal.
The most obvious, and easiest way to debunk this is the fact that America is not 90% white. 58% of people in the country under the age of 1 are PoC. It is projected that by 2050 non-Hispanic whites will be the minority (including Hispanic whites, they would still be in the majority, but not by much). This country really is a “melting pot,” and there are more and more mixed race children being born every day.
The times are changing but PoC representation is actually getting worse even though our percentage of the population is rising.
Let's look at some statistics of America. Bless Google, Wikipedia, and the Untied States Census.
The non-Hispanic white percentage of America is 66%. Including white-Hispanics, white Americans are 72.4% of the population at roughly 223.5M.
People of color in America vary with 37.6M black(14%), 13.4M Asian (4%), 7M multiracial (2.3%), 2.4M Native Americans and Alaska Natives (0.8%), and last but not least 47M Americans with Hispanic or Latino origin (16.3%).
Now let's put that into context.
Pretending that America segregated itself based on racial makeup, where would our new nations rank population wise out of 242 countries?
White America: Ranked #6 excluding, and #5 including Hispanic whites both between Argentina, and Brazil.
Hispanic/Latino America: Ranked #26 in the world below South Korea, and above Columbia.
Black America: Ranked #34 in the world tied with Algeria, just below Poland, and above Canada.
Asian America: Ranked #69 in the world tied with Cambodia, below Ecuador and above Zambia.
Together, as one nation as the United States of America, we are ranked #3 in the world, the largest Western nation.
Canada and Australia are two easily recognizable 1st world countries between Hispanic/Latino America, and Asian America that have their own media that we publish, and broadcast in the United States.
Since we are not separate countries, we have one entertainment industry, one publishing industry, one media, and one social class system. We are supposed to be a nation of immigrants, who worked together to build their own culture.
Like I've noted, media saturation is at an all time high. The images, and messages that we are constantly bombarded with are where we get our standards of beauty (whether from book covers, models, or movie stars), among many other aspects of our American culture.
If we deny over 100 million of American citizens what kind of country are we to not care? How can patriotic Americans treat their fellow countrymen this way, and still call themselves good people? I for one, cannot comprehend how anyone would consider this issue "not a big deal."
America is the self-proclaimed "best country in the world." Somehow this great nation has glossed over the fact that a population bigger than nations like The United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and France (that all have their own fully fledged mass media) are being vastly ignored within our own borders.
To wrap up my tome that no one will read…
This essay is not about racism(well mostly); it is about privilege, and diversity. The terms are not interchangeable.
The only way to change things for the better is to work together as people, as a nation, to help mold a broken system, and flawed ideologies into something that reflects us all, and the world we live in. One cannot advance to the future if they ignore the past, and turn a blind eye to the present.
Ya'll know the drill