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I was mightily impressed by a blog post that author, Justine Larbalestier wrote a few days ago. The post was entitled, The Advantages of Being White.

First a disclaimer from Justine:

Disclaimer: I am writing about YA publishing in the USA. Although I’m Australian I know much more about the publishing industry in the US than I do about Australia. Or anywhere else for that matter.

She continues with the most refreshingingly honest post that I’ve read from a white author with regards to the Racism in Publishing issue, ever:

I know that the title of this post is going to lead to some comments insisting that it’s not true that white writers have any advantages and that many white people are just as oppressed as people of colour. I don’t want to have that conversation. So I’m going to oppress the white people who make those comments by deleting them. I don’t do it with any malice. I do it because I want to have a conversation about white privilege in publishing.

That right there is what I think a lot of black authors would like white authors who are able to portray black characters and gain success doing it to acknowledge. J.R. Ward, I’m looking at you.

The fact is, caucasian authors by virtue of their colour are about 100 steps ahead of black authors. There’s no point shaking one’s head in denial, I think there’s enough anecdotal evidence out there to back this up.

Larbalestier continues:

What are the advantages that white writers writing about people of colour have that PoC writers don’t have?

First of all (assuming that you can actually write) your odds of getting published are better than theirs.2 No, I don’t have statistics to back me up, but I have a lot of anecdotal evidence. Of friends and acquaintances who were rejected by editors and agents who already had their one African or Asian author. If you’re the only brown writer on a list than you have to be a lot better than all the other brown writers competing for that one slot.

This phenomenon isn’t new. When you’re black you can never be just good, you have to be amazing. But even in publishing, (ESPECIALLY IN ROMANCE) being amazing isn’t always enough, because the Average Jane Reader apparently doesn’t want to ‘step out of her comfort zone’. She has much more in common with vampires and wolfies in an alternate universe, than with black men and women in the here and now.

Here’s another big advantage: If you, as a white writer, produce an excellent book about people who aren’t like you odds are high that your ability to do so will be seen as a sign of your virtuosity and writerly chops, which it is. However, non-white writers rarely get the same response, even though it’s just as hard for them.

The same thing happens in Hollywood all the time. If you’re a beautiful actress who portrays a rough-looking, unattractive woman, you’ll get nominated for an Oscar. If you’re a handsome actor who plays a mentally challenged man, you get an Oscar. If you’re an Anglo actor playing a foreigner, you get an Oscar. If you’re a white author writing about black characters, you get lauded for it.

This isn’t a new thing. The problem is, when it’s a black author writing about white characters, (especially in romance) the skin colour of the author seems to act as a barrier of sorts. This is why black romance authors who want any modicum of success (AKA a bigger part of the White Average Jane Reader pie) are probably better off staying colour-neutral. If the readers don’t know you’re black, the sad fact is, they’re probably more likely to pick up your book.

And onto the most salient advice in Justine’s post:

There are many wonderful books by writers of colour. Read them, talk about them, buy them for your friends. Point them out to your editors and agents. Be part of changing the culture and making space for lots of different voices. The problem is not so much what white people write; it’s that so few other voices are heard. If the publishing industry were representative of the population at large we wouldn’t need to have this conversation.

It’s a nice sentiment, but the fact is, white romance readers tend to stay away from romance books with dark faces on the front of the cover. Unless they’re sheiks of course. But then sheiks in romance books are just white men with better tans aren’t they?

Anyway, well done to Larbalestier for acknowledging that being white in the publishing industry is a huge advantage.

18 Comments »


  • Sparkindarkness
    October 13
    12:10 pm

    ALl of it is so very true. Depressing, but true.

    And the Sheiks (and Native Americans, another tired trope) carry an “exoticised” (and frequently grossly stereotyped) racism of their own

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  • I hate to admit it, but my mother is one who won’t read a book written by an author of color. She says she can’t relate, even if the main characters in the book are white. I don’t think she’ll read one written by a man, if she knows it’s a man, either. Me personally, I don’t care who wrote the book or what they look like so long as the story is good. But then again, I guess since I’m a writer, I tend to realize it’s just a person putting those words on the pages and not some idealized, faceless, colorless entity churning out books. If you’re talented, you’re talented and what you look like shouldn’t have a damned thing to do with anything, but sadly it does, which is a real shame. How much is the world missing out on by allowing these invisible, only whispered about walls to continue to stand? The walls and barriers need to go, but sadly, I have no ideas on how to bring that about.

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  • The idea that authors of color somehow can’t write the books “we” want reminds me of my dear Aunt E. She used to say she wouldn’t read a book by a woman. That there was just no way a woman could write with the skill and hard-hitting clarity of a man. She liked a whopping good tale and she just didn’t believe a woman could deliver on that. I used to argue with her, tell her she was really missing out on some great stories by being so prejudiced. One of her favorite authors? Taylor Caldwell. When I found out that Caldwell was a woman, I took great pleasure in sharing the news with my dear Aunt E. Aunt E was shocked and disbelieving. But when I showed her a picture of Caldwell in the writing magazine where I’d found it, Aunt E had to face the truth. That was when she decided that there has to be an exception to prove the rule.

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  • But then sheiks in romance books are just white men with better tans aren’t they?

    Yup. They’re beardless, usually biracial, educated abroad, and ALWAYS Christian. For that matter, all Native Americans in romance have blue eyes. Sigh.

    People are people. Good writing is good writing.

    Nice post.

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  • Amanda
    October 13
    3:37 pm

    I’m scratching my head with this post, seriously. I don’t see color when I read a book, I see the story, I don’t care if the author is white or African American, Asian, Native American or what have you. It’s about the story, character color has nothing to do with it.

    I happen to be a fan of L.A. Banks and I believe she comes up with some of the most intriguing characters of differnt colors. But my focus isn’t on the color of the characters. Another author who’s books are awesome and intersting is Stephanie Morris. Her stories are interracial and multiethnic, she brings to the fore front the idea that being with someone out side your own race is ok and worth it sometimes.

    Iguess I will never know why race should ever play a part in why someone should or shouldn’t be published or why I should or shouldn’t buy their books. I happen to be NA and yeah you know what I wish, I wish there was more exposure for NA authors and Karen if you know of any send them my way, I’m always looking for new authors and new books.

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  • I really would love someone to do a study with children and teens to see what books they would pick by the cover.

    I thought the change in the cover of Liar was much better and more appealing for me to pick up then the one that reminded me of the girl from the horror movie The Ring.

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  • Well said as always Karen. The publishing industry isn’t going to change by itself. Readers need to vote with their wallets by giving black authors a try just like they give white authors a try. Yes we can :)

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  • Bonnie L.
    October 13
    6:09 pm

    I wonder how much of this racial bias is an artifact of the publishing industry and how much is a true reflection of reader’s desires. If only so many black books or even multi-racial books are published, doesn’t that send out a sly, subversive message that these books aren’t as good to be published as much as white ones, that they’re different enough that they can only publish so many of them? Then readers only see a few or they pick up on the underlying message and stay away, believing that they are indeed not good enough or too different. Thus, in the publisher’s eyes this “sub-genre” doesn’t do as well as mainstream and merits the treatment that it receives.

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  • Las
    October 13
    10:17 pm

    I really want to give her a big hug for this:

    I know that the title of this post is going to lead to some comments insisting that it’s not true that white writers have any advantages and that many white people are just as oppressed as people of colour. I don’t want to have that conversation.

    Every single discussion about white (or any other) privilege I’ve participated in, no matter the context, always results in white people getting offended, because they were poor or otherwise disadvantaged so of course they didn’t have any privilege; or they’re just so wonderful and talented and special that they achieved everything all on their own without any luck whatsoever. It pisses me off, because no matter how many times the meaning of “white privilege” is explained these people refuse to listen and just insist that it’s all in minorities’ heads.

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  • bloom
    October 13
    11:07 pm

    Yup. They’re beardless, usually biracial, educated abroad, and ALWAYS Christian.

    Unless you’ve read every single Sheikh book ever published you can’t actually say that. I have read several Sheikh books recently where they aren’t biracial, and they are muslim. A lot of Sheikh’s are educated abroad – usually in English public schools. It’s a status thing with them. If anything the Sheikh books tone down the asshole-ness of a real Sheikh. You wouldn’t want to marry most of these guys, trust me. Of the one’s seen at work some have had beards, some have been clean shaven. I’m not sure why it matters if the guys in the books are clean shaven.

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  • bloom, I’ll agree in theory that a person shouldn’t make absolute statements unless s/he can back them with proof, but in this case?

    Please.

    If I pick out of ten category romances with sheik in the title, what would you like to bet that the ten heroes are: beardless, biracial, educated abroad and, if not openly Christian, at the very least VERY relaxed in their religious practices and beliefs?

    The point being that the so-called ‘sheiks’ in these novels do not remotely represent reality–as you yourself point out, “If anything the Sheikh books tone down the asshole-ness of a real Sheikh.”

    This is why it matters the heroes are clean-shaven: the use of “sheik” is often used as a category-romance code word for: desirable, rich beyond belief, and exotic. Very little to do with an actual sheik.

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  • @bloom, sorry if my flip choice of words deeply offended…sheik romances? I’m always glad to hear there are authors out there who are switching things up-good for them. Personally, I’ve never picked up a category where the sheik is little more than, as someone else mentioned, an “exotic” white man. For me, it’s tiring.

    Others clearly have a different opinion, since there’s a huge market for that particular fantasy. That’s fine.

    Edit: Um, clearly, I should just let Azteclady do my talking. Thanks, AL, for the eloquence. I’m tired :).

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  • rebyj
    October 14
    4:22 am

    As far as racism on the industry level, I have no idea or input.

    In my little old opinion, authors should work to change the marketing to give themselves more of an advantage. Consumers, especially readers, aren’t racist. We have money to spend and an addiction to feed so our/my criteria is a good story.

    I’ve said this before: What bugs me is all romances aren’t shelved together. The books by African Americans or about them are shelved indepentantly and depending on the store, could be anywhere in the layout. So a shopper has to leave the romance / fiction section and hunt down the AA section to even consider those authors/stories. And the AA section usually isn’t broken up very well by genre. A lot of them are shelved by author name regardless of fiction/ non fiction / young adult etc.

    I’ve also noticed that erotica or erotic romance is showing up in regular bookstores and the white,Lesbian/Gay, were’critters will all be mixed in with romance but if they have a black couple on the front,they’ll be over in the AA section. And ya know, shoppers are lazy. One store near me has the AA books all mixed in with Oprah picks. And I have liked maybe ONE book Oprah picked. (So not a selling feature that will make me want to browse thru all the books.)

    I know there are reasons for AA to have it’s own section and I can understand that as far as non-fiction books go but romantic fiction should all be shelved by genre and give the author more of a chance of being picked up by anyone looking for a romance regardless of shopper, author or character color.

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  • Rebyj, that is the exact conversation I had with my husband about this when he got home. We talked for a very long time on this subject, and I told him that I think part of the problem is the difference in how the AA books are marketed and separated in the stores. Where I live, there aren’t that many PoC around, and yet, I’ve seen the toy section (albeit I was young when that one happened) and the book sections separated out by color. It didn’t make sense to me as a kid, and it doesn’t come any closer to making sense to me now.

    We have to also take into consideration the demographics in certain locations and the social norms. Here, it is still looked down upon for races to mix, though I have noticed seeing an increased number of mixed race children. I think because of there not being that many PoC here, the books should not be separated out, but mixed in. This way doesn’t call so much attention to what the reader is picking up, and those who aren’t confrontational and like to stay hidden away from the public eye won’t feel like a spotlight in shining on them when they show an interest in something most would consider a taboo. I also live in the south and in the bible belt and have had it pointed out to me that the bible states not to mix races. My response to that was so? You love who you love, even though I grew up with the “I’ll disown you” threat looming over my head if I ever brought a non-white male or a female home. Not that the threat would have stopped me if that’s the way things had worked out.

    I grew up in a prejudicial household if the previous statement didn’t make that clear. It is a VERY difficult cycle to break. I don’t allow members of my family to speak in such ways in front of my children because I will not have them taught such things and have been known to let more than one of them have it with both barrels when they let one slip, my father and little brother being the two most common targets. In fact, I just jumped my ex’s case not too long ago over a string of racial slurs he let out, rather loudly, in my house and in front of my sons. It was very difficult for him to continue his story without resorting to such terms, and I think it could possibly be because he didn’t honestly know any other terms and what was considered appropriate.

    I guess the point I’m trying to make is that when fighting against generations of a taught and learned behavior, calling so much undue attention to the fact certain books are “different” isn’t necessarily a good thing. I know there are so called reasons for putting the books in a different section, but it simply doesn’t make any sense to me. It never has, and it probably never will. I see no point in having the distinction clearly made between the books if in real life we want people to stop seeing each other as nothing more than black and white. Lead by example, so to speak, and stop making the line so damned visible and in your face.

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  • Katie Mack
    October 14
    7:30 pm

    Before I read this post I knew that books featuring people of color, written by people of color were treated as “different,” but I had no idea that PoC are being discriminated against even when writing white characters. In both situations, it’s sad.

    I read romances for the story, so why would I care what color the characters are? And why would I care what the author looks like? What someone looks like — be it the author or the characters — doesn’t determine whether it’s a good story.

    I live in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the U.S., in one of the most progressive states, but even here AA Romances aren’t shelved anywhere near the Romance section. Instead they are relegated to some far corner of the bookstore under AA Fiction, while “white” romances have front and center placement in the store layout. Shameful, is what that is.

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  • Thanks for the post. And I also like Justine’s idea of warning people of the kinds of comments she would delete, so the conversation wouldn’t get derailed. It can get really tedious to cover the same ground over and over, when you really want to just talk about the blog entry’s main point.

    Re bookstores: In Canada we don’t have such a large black population, so I’ve never see an “African-Canadian” section (I work for the largest chain of bookstores, but I’ve never seen this in an independent either).

    I would guess they started such a section more because people were asking for such books, rather than to get them out of the romance section. (Example: People ask us sometimes for Canadian authors, and because we don’t put them in a separate section we have to KNOW our Canadian authors in order to pick them out.)

    …But I agree it’s not a great idea. If people complain enough, the comments might filter up to the head offices, and one day change.

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  • Barbara B.
    October 18
    10:39 pm

    “Consumers, especially readers, aren’t racist.”

    Rebyj, I can only assume that you’re not living in the U.S. or referring to Americans. If you are in the U.S. I have a question for you: Are consumers some magical group apart from the general populace? Speaking strictly as a U.S. citizen, American consumers/people are indeed quite racist. Don’t think for a minute that the segregation of black romances is solely for the convenience of blacks. Don’t you remember those multiple university studies last year that clearly demonstrated that non-black Americans DO NOT CONSIDER black people human?

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  • rebyj
    October 18
    11:15 pm

    BarbaraB. I responded to this post as a consumer with comments of my view of my little world. Like I said, I have no input on the industry side of the conversation. No, I don’t recall university studies and regardless of their results, I hope you don’t think that all US citezins think of blacks as non human! That is appalling on a lot of levels.

    I am a reader with a 25 dollar a month budget to spend and since those books last me about 3 days I spend the rest of the month obviously responding to too many blogs. No offense intended and I fully acknowledge my ignorance on a plethora of topics.

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