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.

The narrative we're told/sold over and over again
Cover Talk

by Chally Kacelnik
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7 Comments Have Been Posted

Great post!

Great post, Chally! You raise some interesting questions that remind me of a segment on This American Life awhile back:


It's Act 3, "Babies Buying Babies" (about 15 min long if you're so inclined, it's very interesting but also heartbreaking). Basically, a toy store sells out of white baby dolls first, and a store clerk narrates watching white parents decide what color dolls to buy once they've run out of white dolls. Very disturbingly, they went for the next-lightest toned dolls until they ran out of them, then the next lightest, and so on.

Seems to me that there's no reason white children should be expected to have problems relating to a nonwhite doll, just as you say "there is no good reason why white readers shouldn’t be expected to be able to relate to non-white protagonists." And yet the white dolls run out first, and books are constantly whitewashed as you describe here...it's a vicious cycle of production and consumption of whiteness as status quo that makes itself invisible even as it keeps going! Glad to see folks calling it out. Again, great post (and thanks for the links too)!

Oh, that is disturbing.

Oh, that is disturbing. Thanks for your comment.

I really loathe the idea of

I really loathe the idea of buying baby dolls in the first place, but that is a good (awful) example of the comfort boundaries of white privilege. My mother once tried to talk me out of buying a black Barbie with my birthday money. I really wanted a gymnast Barbie with flexible joints and didn't care about skin color. It's not like I looked like the blonde doll either. How many little kids have those hang ups if the parents won't create them?

It's terrible, I can name all the YA books about black girls I read in elementary school as well as several written about white girls by women of color, such as the Bad Girls series, and shouldn't be able to do that.

This is awkward, but as a

This is awkward, but as a kid, I asked for a specific doll and my mom got me the dark-skinned version. I remember getting upset because I wanted the white one. I threw a similar bratty fit when a store ran out of a doll with red hair (since I have red hair). I did have black dolls, and dolls with other colors of hair, but for those specific dolls I was very picky.

Maybe I was just a self-centered exception to the rule though. I honestly was a brat.

It may also have been that the white doll was shown in the commercials a lot more than the black one. (And now that I've thought of this, I'm thinking this is probably why.)

White Washing

This is an excellent post and issues I raised about two years ago with the "Mysterious Benedict Society" cover white washing the black protagonist. I then went down to Left Bank Books (in The Central West End in St. Louis) and they bravely took up the entire window display (no small thing since they have almost a block long window and are an independent) and they featured all the children's and YA books that had been whitewashed.

I also found it disturbing for a writer, like myself, who does not have the clout of Octavia Butler. I wrote a children's book with my daughters (7 and 9) in mind. My 9 year old (3rd grade) reads at a high level (7th grade) and so we were introduced to the chapter books with more complex story lines. I couldn't buy them for her. She is a a tender age of self discovery and while we have lots of chapter books with white girls (Clementine is what her book club is reading now), I wanted her to also read about characters like her.

The thing that is need is for more brave white parents to insist on true representation and then expose their children to the black and brown world of literature. I say white parents, because just like the human rights issues happening here, we need critical mass to make the publishers (and toy makers) realize they are making huge mistakes and potentially losing out on the one color they all love (green).

Thank you again for posting!

Taye' Foster Bradshaw

thing that fill me with rage

There's a cover of Whale Song that has a white person on it. Never mind that the main character identifies as black and one of the central conflicts of the novel is racism. Actually, thinking back on the YA that I've read that featured a black protagonist it's amazing how many of the covers didn't have people on them at all; the kid on The Red Pyramid could be anyone.

Scary Misleading Book Covers

I'm absolutely as white as a girl can be, but I have a similarfeeling of horror walking into Barnes & Noble. I found a hardback, brand-new, very popular and well rated book about a woman fighting to live up to her parents' failed expectations because she was plain and obese Predictably, she binge eats out of depression about her weight, making her fatter, making her eat - a vicious cycle.

What a shock: the cover photo is of a hot model eating candy.

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