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Demanding Diversity In Publishing

I don't think people of color will "breakthrough" in the publishing arena in significant numbers until publishers are held accountable for the discriminatory practices that marginalize diverse voices.
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Last week I was invited by Justine Larbalestier to write a guest post for her blog. I met Justine online last summer in the midst of the outrage over Bloomsbury USA's practice of "whitewashing" books (putting white models on the cover of books about children of color). Despite the controversy and potential risk to her career, Justine bravely spoke out about her disappointment with the cover and made another statement when--just last month--Bloomsbury did it again. Teen blogger Ari made an earnest appeal to Bloomsbury:

I'm sure you can't imagine what it's like to wander through the teen section of a bookstore and only see one or two books with people of color on them. Do you know how much that hurts? Are we so worthless that the few books that do feature people of color don't have covers with people of color?...Can you imagine growing up as a little girl and wanting to be white because not only do you not see people who look like you on TV, you don't see them in your favorite books either?

In both cases, public pressure forced the publisher to stop production and issue new covers (though both feature models of color who are very fair-skinned). LaTonya Baldwin, who blogs at Color Online, mobilized her followers and founded Readers Against WhiteWashing (RAWW). For the moment, at least, many of us in the kidlit blogosphere felt victorious--we had conquered one publishing Goliath!

When Justine asked me to write on a topic of my choosing, I opted to share my preliminary thoughts on race and reviews. Yet I found myself reflecting on Gwen Ifill's book about the strategies that enabled a new wave of black politicians to "breakthrough" in the political arena:

Candidate Obama had to assure white voters that he was neither angry nor bitter about the nation's history of racial oppression, and no mention was ever made of the unearned advantages that come with being white. Fortunately, I'm not running for political office. And I assure you that at times I am angry and bitter, and I must insist that we talk about white privilege.

I don't think people of color will "breakthrough" in the publishing arena in significant numbers until publishers are held accountable for the discriminatory practices that marginalize diverse voices. My friend Stefanie used to say, "Hope and a token will get you on the train." Effecting change requires more than good intentions--it takes a lot of hard work, persistence, and a clear vision. I often tell people that I'm "not a joiner," but I know that collaboration is key to transforming the children's publishing industry. So I was heartened when my good friend, Laura Atkins, forwarded me a draft of the UK Publishing Equalities Charter.

Developed by the ACE (Arts Council England), DIPNET (The Diversity in Publishing Network), the IPG (Independent Publishers Guild), Skillset, the SYP (Society of Young Publishers) and the PA (The Publishers Association), the charter outlines specific actions publishers can take to achieve equity in the industry:

• Produce an Equal Opportunities Policy
• Become involved in your local neighborhood by promoting publishing in schools, colleges, universities, libraries and other local venues
• Promote more literature by authors from under-represented groups
• Develop a mentoring programme that supports under-represented groups
• Set up an equality working group to champion in-house equality policies/practices
• Provide specific training/development to staff from under-represented groups to enhance career progression into middle/senior management

Recognizing that "publishers, trade associations, booksellers and other organisations related to the publishing industry" vary in size, the charter suggests that each "champion" two to four actions per year, and welcomes "any other suggestions that promote equal opportunities." Most importantly, signatories to the charter agree to complete an annual survey, which will enable progress to be MONITORED.

The charter also outlines potential benefits to signatories:

• Increase your talent pool
• Gain access to an increasing consumer market (what they call "Brown Pounds" in the UK)
• Develop and share good practice
• Improve your reputation as an equal opportunities employer
• Improve productivity
• Recognize the benefits of equality for employees, customers and service users in global competitive markets

Lyn Miller-Lachmann, editor of MultiCultural Review and author of Gringolandia, concurs: "Increased diversity in publishing will also help those whose lives and experiences have been privileged to become less insular, which is so important if we as a people are to thrive in a global economy."

This Equalities Charter is still in draft form, but I think it provides an excellent model for increasing diversity in the US publishing industry. After reading my guest post, one sympathetic commenter asked, "What can would-be allies do?" My response: we need multiple strategies. I'd like to see public pressure placed on the children's publishing industry so that by 2015, we have twice as many authors of color in print. We also need to ensure that editorial boards reflect the true diversity of this country. Could a US Publishing Equalities Charter achieve this goal? Whether you agree or not, blog about it, write to publishers, start a petition, educate others--let's start a dialogue! Go to the DIPNET website to read statements of support from UK authors, politicians, and other major players in the publishing industry.

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, author of 8th Grade Super Zero, urges us to remember that:

...the industry is failing *everyone*, not just under-represented groups, when it continues to promote and present a largely homogenous, narrow perspective. I hope that children's publishing in particular will recognize the opportunity here to play a role in creating a more just society in which every voice has value...Looking at the current state of things, a reader doesn't even have to be particularly thoughtful to see that this just doesn't make sense. (Or cents, even. It's hard for me to believe that a more inclusive industry would not be able to reap tangible rewards.)...By each of us taking responsibility to do *something* that will increase diversity in publishing, we can demonstrate a real understanding and effect real change.

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