Racism in publishing: if you believe Riptide is the outlier, you’d be wrong
Another scandal in the LGBT publishing sector. After cat-phishing, it’s sexual harassment and racism. Make no mistake, the LGBT community ain’t no different than the rest of the world. We are as guilty as every other community of white-washing, racism, and all those other inherently human flaws. Why? Believe it or not, we are human, too (despite what Mikey Pence and his cronies will have you believe.) The problem with racism in publishing isn’t that it is so common, that it is as institutionalized, as structural as it is in the rest of society. No. The problem is that we, as intellectuals, as artists, who are supposed to see through this shit, expected to lead the way, to be that painful stick-up society’s ass, aren’t more aware of this. We should be mirrors to society, not of it.
The typical reaction
When Xen’s rightfully angry blog post hit the air-waves, Riptide almost instantly pulled the plug on the editor which had made those racist remarks on their behalf, and later issued statement after statement after statement about how sorry they were and that they would do better, somehow, someday. I for one don’t really believe they’ve really thought about the underlying issues, but are scrambling to save a business, anyway they can. That’s fine of course, I just hope they ‘really’ do their homework. But the comments I’ve read online about Sarah being a racist and that she’s to blame for all this? NO, that’s making it too easy. It’s letting Riptide off the hook and it’s assigning way too much blame to an employee.
An editor doesn’t get to make decisions about a publisher’s corporate policy about what goes on a cover (or not). She merely informs authors of her boss’s rules. Ms. Lyons transgressions in the department of sexual harassment are an entirely different thing…
I challenged myself to go through Riptide’s covers, to see how many POC they actually have on their covers today. The e-mail to Xen was three years ago. Do the same, and you’ll see that very little has changed since. I found five “diverse” covers before I got bored, five out of maybe 100? Now go do the same for other publishers, from the big five to M/M romance behemoth DSP or any other publisher. Just for fun (I haven’t.) You’ll see a very similar thing, everywhere. Minorities are grossly underrepresented everywhere.
It’s not just Riptide…
The problem with structural racism or white privilege (two sides of the same coin) is how it is affecting every aspect of society. When a character in a book isn’t described in terms of ethnicity, we automatically (subconsciously) assume them to be white. If we don’t say they’re gay, they’re assumed to be straight. If we don’t mention they’re Jewish, they’re assumed to be Christian. Even minority readers fall into that trap because that’s what they always see, read, watch. There’s that nasty thing called socialization. It takes a conscious effort on behalf of every individual to overcome that bias, it’s a lot of hard work, and you’re never done. It sits so deep within us that it’s become invisible, like muscle memory.
I could say the same about homophobia. Even as a gay man, more than halfway through my life, I am a homophobe, subconsciously. I still react negatively (instinctively) at seeing a camp man, I find feminine behavior in men (and vice versa) difficult to reconcile at first, and I really, really have to consciously make an effort to keep my mouth shut and to smile and treat that human being with dignity. I’ve been raised a homophobe, and it’s difficult to get that shit out of your system (which makes coming out so fucking difficult for so many of us.) By now I think I’ve got my brain under control and people don’t see/notice, but I still do, every time, and it’s painful.
I’ve seen racism at play, and it’s utterly disgusting. I tend to forgive though because most people aren’t hopeless. I want people to have a second chance. They’re not evil. They’ve been raised that way by society. I’ve come to understand why we are the way we are, and I’d much rather have a conversation to show that person their erroneous ways than to shout from the rooftop just what an amazing person I am (not really), compared to the rest. On Twitter and Facebook people scream, yell and are all high and mighty. They pretend to be holier than thou, but yeah, that’s easy, because there’s no one to point a mirror at them, point to what they really feel, deep down. How they act. Nobody to force them to look at their own privilege.
White privilege is almost invisible to those who have it
Sometimes white people will ask you “how am I privileged? I’m poor, I have less money, fame, and success than a lot of [insert minority rep of your choice]” Privilege is hard to pin down when you’re inside the bubble. Money is a sort of privilege, of course, so is education. A rich white person is obviously more privileged than a poor white person. But they’re still both white. Just as I pointed out in the blog post linked above, white privilege is only visible to POC. To a white person, seeing six Star Wars episodes with only white actors in the lead doesn’t raise any eyebrows. It’s natural. Normal. But boy did those same people raise hell when one of two lead humans in episode seven suddenly wasn’t white. That would be racism. The former is white privilege.
When an innocent white person walks down Broadway toward Times Square and meets a police patrol, they feel safe. When an innocent black person is in the same situation they’re thinking about what might happen: will I be stopped, abused etc. When a white person walks into Macy’s to buy make-up, they don’t notice that all the models have fair skin. A black person looking for makeup will most likely have to frequent a specialty shop to find make-up for their skin tone. Same thing for hair products. Or even band-aids. Skin-colored band-aids are light beige. I’ve never seen anything that wouldn’t scream loudly on a person from South India or Africa. That’s white privilege. But most white people don’t think about this ever. It’s just normal to them. But it’s painfully obvious to everyone else.
Black Panther? Heard of that blockbuster movie from Marvel? That is so very much the exception to the rule that it is a slap in the face of the black populace of the world, just as Lando Calrissian was in Star Wars. From the first short Superman movie in 1941 to 2017, that’s seventy-six years without a black superhero in a major film. White privilege. There is a painfully well-written (and played) episode in Star Trek DS9, Far Beyond the Stars, where Captain Cisco is dreaming about being a black comic author, essentially inventing “Captain Cisco” and facing the ridicule of the time. If you haven’t seen that, watch it. It’s on Netflix. It explains this all so well.
So what can we do?
First of all, forgive. Second, seek a conversation, a dialogue. I remember back in late 2014 after I had begun work on my novel Willem of the Tafel, only a chapter or two. I sent a message to my New York publicist, excited about my coming novel about a black man in an underground (literally!) culture in South Africa. The message back was a shock: “are you sure you want to do this? Nobody’s going to buy a book about a black hero…” Racist statement? One could also argue that said publicist (a POC!) was trying to warn me of the consequences of pursuing such a story. He simply pointed out that I sell most of my books in America and that most people buying books in America would not buy a book about a black hero. That’s also what’s at the core of the Riptide decision (at one time) not to feature POC on their covers. Most readers of LGBT books are white, they are economically privileged and have the money to buy books (another aspect of said white privilege.) And most of them are not interested in POC. Putting them on the cover would be an automatic signal to move on.
It’s also the reason why there are over 100,000 M/M novels out there and almost no F/F. Simply because most straight white women (who are the dominant reader base) don’t get moist when reading about two women forking. Publishers, editors, and authors are in the business of making money, and therefore follow the money. There’s money in M/M, but not in gay fiction. There’s money in beautiful, handsome, white men, but not in POC. There’s money in healthy characters, but none in disabled characters (my friend Tracy says “we’re invisible” about her condition. Sadly, she is right about it.)
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
There is another complexity to all this. Writing about POC, minorities etc. is hard work. As an author, you need to do your research properly and get it right. And there are those out there who will still put you through the ringer no matter how hard you worked to get it right, even if you did get it right. It’s a thing, a dogmatic belief in some that only members of a minority should be allowed to write about that particular minority. I don’t subscribe to that, but it shows that even if you try to write diverse stories, you can’t please them all. Their main argument? Privilege; majority privilege. They don’t have the privilege to write those stories because they have to work, or because they don’t have the connections to publishers etc. They do have a point, of course, but forbidding others to write while basking in self-righteous pity only makes their minority more invisible. And thus deny their minority the chance to become popular in fiction.
Not everyone is in it for the money…
I make $500 bucks a year (give or take) in royalties. I don’t make a living off my writing. I get to write the important stories, the difficult ones, along with some other amazing authors who don’t (have to) care about money (or compromise their creativity to get it.) We care about the stories that need to be told. And we are lucky to have found a home with publishers who indulge us, who also don’t put money first. Or they increasingly self-publish, thanks to modern technology.
When I got the original feedback on Willem, I was scared. Scared of sales losses and what it might do to my reputation. I was still new to writing and quickly decided to change my approach, and I killed my intended main character in chapter two in an accident that gets Willem’s story rolling. I thought long and hard about how to tackle the subject. In the end, Willem of the Tafel turned out to be a big middle finger up white privilege’s ass, as Willem is literally white as white comes, but the rest of his future Earth is almost 100% POC. I reversed racism, thrust it in Willem’s innocent face to showcase how ugly racism really is. Hopefully some lily-white asses were appalled by how miserably Willem and the few remaining whites are treated, and hopefully, one or two realized that Willem is, in fact, a mirror of our world, set 500 years into the future. Willem is indeed a POC.
From Willem to Martin
My coming novel, Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm (sign up for the newsletter, top right, to be the first to partake of the cover reveal this Thursday), features a black, main character. Martin is amazing, and I am very proud of him and his life. I’m no longer afraid. So what if no one buys the book? The ones who do will like it, and they’ll like Martin. I’m sure because the story is a beautiful one. Martin has taught me a lot, particularly about the country he longs back to, Korea. The second main character is a Korean. I consciously try to paint my characters in different colors (pun intended.) I’ve included various aspects of disability, ethnicity, religion, and gender regularly, mind-fucking my readers (I once had a proofreader question why a man would take his wife’s last name, to just state one example!) As an author, I think this is my responsibility. Make people question their assumptions about what is (right) and what isn’t.
Publishers have a responsibility, too. Encourage diverse stories, from a diverse authorship, but even from the (existing) mainly white authors. Last not least, readers have a responsibility, too, to engage with diverse stories, just as those of us who are “diverse” have been forced to engage with mainstream stories in school, books, TV, the movies ever since our childhood. We need to talk about this. We need to have a discourse about racism, not attack each other on Twitter and pretend to be flawless. Because we’re not. None of us are. They who cast the first stone… Just saying! So let’s not judge Riptide too harshly. Yes, they fucked up, badly, but a) there are very good (as disgusting as this may sound) business reasons for them to have done so, and b) they’re not alone.
They just happened to be the first one caught in the cross-fire. Hopefully, they’ll learn their lesson and will find a way to combine making money with embracing diversity, fully, and honestly. Either that or quietly disappear into the darkness of oblivion.
Famous last words…
Let’s talk about this… I’m curious to hear your points of view. Mind you, I monitor all comments and if you’re not civil in tone, I won’t approve it. As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram.
Have a good week. And be forgiving.