Friday, February 1, 2013

Whitewashing YA Covers and the Problems with Thinking You Can Solve the Problem

In December 2012, YALSA published an article about the whitewashing of YA book covers. While the article didn't cover anything new (for me, at least), it was heartening to see the conversation about racism in YA lit continue--the dialogue on which is clearly nowhere near being over as the problem is still, unfortunately, very much alive.

There were many responses to the article in the comments and some even posted links to responses on their blogs. And while I appreciated reading others' reactions to the piece, I found some of the responses more than a little disturbing. As a person of color (POC), I wanted to discuss the reasons for my disturbance, and since we (the Ink & Penners) have long been looking to get this blog started, I thought this would serve as a great flagship post!
When discussing such a hot button issue like racism, many people are often deeply bothered by the problems it produces and immediately want to “solve” said problems. This impulse is well-intentioned, but can be predicated on problematic thinking. First, the belief that problems like racism, or the many issues that stem from it, can be solved quickly and by one person. Once the fundamental basics of racism, why it exists, and how it operates, are understood it quickly becomes apparent that it is a problem that will not be solved quickly or by a single individual. Second, if you are not a member of the oppressed people group in question (in this case POC) then thinking you can solve this problem alone is problematic for a variety of reasons. Let me try to explain.
As not only the people being portrayed, but those living the experience, POC are uniquely positioned to understand the impact, significance, and importance of seeing ourselves represented on the books we read. While white readers and authors may see whitewashing and understand it is wrong, they have not experienced the multitude of negative emotions that come with being denied seeing reflections of yourself on the covers of books. This is why it is so disturbing to see white authors and readers write about “solutions” to whitewashingincluding assertions on how often POC should be seen on covers, as opposed to abstract designs—without any apparent attempt to research or engage POC in dialogue before reaching their conclusions.

This may not seem like a huge problem as the people writing about these “solutions” are most likely not able to implement their ideas anyway, but this sort of thinking denies POC a seat at the table of discussion, even about issues that directly concern them. To exclude people of color from a conversation that is primarily concerned about their representation is to disenfranchise them—and is an act colonialism.

If we can all engage in dialogue about the issue of whitewashing, discuss how it operates and how to effect change on every level, from readers, librarians, teachers, and booksellers, to design teams, editors, authors, and illustrators all the way up to the Barnes & Noble sales reps who hold such sway in the industry—then when we will effect real and lasting positive change. Believing that such a deep-seated problem as whitewashing can be easily solved is to completely misunderstand the problem itself and is as useless an enterprise as vilifying one link in the chain of this problem. Instead, let’s all take the time to actually talk to one another, and more importantly listen, so that we can begin to take practical steps along the path to a future in which we can see all of our faces reflected back at us from the covers of the books we read.



  1. A good topic to discuss! I hadn't thought much about book covers (other than if they looked intriguing enough for me to pick up the book itself--i know, i am a person who actually judges a book by its cover!). I am glad to become aware of challenges people are facing regarding who is placed on cover pages and how it is not a simple answer.

    1. Thanks, Ashley! I think it's okay to judge a book at least in part by its cover--there are book designers for a reason! And I'm fairly sure most people do, whether intentionally or not. Just another reason it is important not to whitewash covers!