Publisher Bloomsbury White-Washes Book by Using White Girl's Face on Cover to Depict Black Character.

In the history of publishing, it hasn’t been uncommon for publishers to take books about black characters and white-wash them by depicting the characters on the covers as white. The example I was most familiar with as a kid was Dawn by Octavia Butler. On the cover of the old paperback my parents had, we see the events of the book depicted as a skinny, naked blonde white woman being sealed into some kind of pod. Of course, the main character of the book is a black woman named Lilith whose race and sex are pivotal to the way that the other characters interact with her.

Dawn was first published in 1987 (which I just looked up on Wikipedia; I’d thought the book was from the 70s). While there are always stories about how cover art misrepresents the contents of books — sometimes in blatantly racist or sexist ways — I’d thought that kind of blatant miscasting of black characters as white ones was over.

It’s true that publishers seem to believe that audiences won’t buy books with black people on the covers, especially when those books are YA. The grounding for these beliefs is tenuous — something which I’d heard before, but which is confirmed here by the author of the book, Justin Larbelestier, and discussed in comments by Tor editor, Patrick Neilsen Hayden. Publishers have used a number of techniques to avoid putting black people on the covers of their books. Books featuring black characters may show a silhoette on the cover, or an abstract painting, or some other kind of image that intentionally keeps the characters out of view. Of course this erasure is terribly problematic. But while it exists on the same spectrum of behaviors as replacing black characters with white images, the latter is so much more blatant and corrupt that I find it really shocking that Larbelestier’s publisher felt comfortable pulling these shenanigans.

Larbelestier has written in detail about what happened, and I recommend you take a look at it. Here are some excerpts.

On the difference between how the book is read in Australia (where it was published without a face on the cover, which Larbelestier says she prefers), and how it’s being read in the US:

No one in Australia has written to ask me if Micah is really black.

No one in Australia has said that they will not be buying Liar because “my teens would find the cover insulting.”

Both responses are heart breaking.

On the claim that books without black covers won’t sell:

Every year at every publishing house, intentionally and unintentionally, there are white-washed covers. Since I’ve told publishing friends how upset I am with my Liar cover, I have been hearing anecdotes from every single house about how hard it is to push through covers with people of colour on them. Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA—they’re exiled to the Urban Fiction section—and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all. How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white? Why would she pick up Liar when it has a cover that so explicitly excludes her?

The notion that “black books” don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them4 Until that happens more often we can’t know if it’s true that white people won’t buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with “black covers” don’t sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with “white covers.”

On how white-washing in the publishing industry is peculiarly retrograde:

Are the big publishing houses really only in the business of selling books to white people? That’s not a very sustainable model if true. Certainly the music industry has found that to be the case. Walk into a music store, online or offline, and compare the number of black faces you see on the covers there as opposed to what you see in most book stores. Doesn’t seem to affect white people buying music. The music industry stopped insisting on white washing decades ago. Talented artists like Fats Domino no longer needs Pat Boone to cover genius songs like “Ain’t That a Shame” in order to break into the white hit parade. (And ain’t that song title ironic?)

And on actions that readers might consider taking to support work by, about, and showing people of color:

When was the last time you bought a book with a person of colour on the front cover or asked your library to order one for you? If you were upset by the US cover of Liar go buy one right now. I’d like to recommend Coe Booth’s Kendra which is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Waiting on my to be read pile is Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger, which has been strongly recommended to me by many people.

I’ll add some more recommendations. Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson, Fudoki by Kij Johnson, and the anthologiesSo Long, Been Dreaming edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Dark Matter edited by Sheree R. Thomas.

Myself, I just pre-ordered The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (The Inheritance Kingdom) by N. K. Jemisin whose posts come to Alas through Angry Black Woman where she writes as Nojojojo (although I have to say that while the cover seems to be depicting a black woman, her face is in shadow and mostly hidden)*. I also ordered Racing the Dark by Alaya Dawn Johnson.

Bloomsbury: you’ve done something really contemptible. I hope you’ll republish the book with a better cover.

I’ll even buy it if you do.

*In comments, Nojojojo points out that the face depicted on the cover represents a character without a specific race or sex. I apologize for my assumption. So, while purchasing her book doesn’t count as purchasing a book with a non-white character on the cover, I’m still looking forward to reading it when it comes out.

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32 Responses to Publisher Bloomsbury White-Washes Book by Using White Girl's Face on Cover to Depict Black Character.

  1. 1
    nojojojo says:

    Myself, I just pre-ordered The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (The Inheritance Kingdom) by N. K. Jemisin whose posts come to Alas through Angry Black Woman where she writes as Nojojojo (although I have to say that while the cover seems to be depicting a black woman, her face is in shadow and mostly hidden).

    Gah — actually, that’s Nahadoth, not the protagonist. Nahadoth doesn’t really have a specific race or gender; he’s a god, and reacts to whoever’s nearby. This normally includes changing gender (and species, and form of matter) as well, but his power has been limited due to certain circumstances in the book, so he’s usually stuck at male, humanoid, solid, etc. When he’s around white characters he’s white, but in the presence of the (brown) protagonist he becomes brown. His “true” appearance is exactly as you see him on the book cover — his face perpetually in shadow, features invisible except for his eyes. (He’s the god of darkness.)

    So he could become a black woman… but that’s not what’s depicted on the front of the book. Just want to make that clear.

    Also, there’s a post on my pro-author site about this, giving more details about the cover.

  2. 2
    Mandolin says:

    Oh, okay. Sorry. I made some assumptions based on what I was looking for.

    I am looking forward to reading the book when it comes out, though!

  3. 3
    nojojojo says:

    Well, for you he would maybe become a black woman. =)

    The protag is still a woman of color, note. She’s just not on the cover.

  4. 4
    PG says:

    Thanks to all on this blog who have been mentioning Octavia Butler — I normally avoid sci-fi, but I bought what’s now marketed as “Lilith’s Brood” and it was fantastic. I almost feel like the description on the back cover does it a disservice because it makes it sound like the themes about race, gender, etc. will be obvious, when Butler is so subtle and story-driven that I (someone who gave up trying to write fiction because any time I tried to express a serious idea it came out horribly pedantic) was left at the end of each book of the trilogy saying, “Wow.” Just… “wow.” So thanks to all the Butler fans here. Starting “Kindred” tonight.

    I would have tried to excuse the 1987 cover of “Dawn” by saying that it was showing Lilith in the active role as the midwife of humanity’s resurrection, except the black-haired woman also is depicted with lily-white skin. So I got nothin’.

    But at least the kids reading Butler today (and she’s on the curriculum at some high schools) are getting the version I have, with an ageless-looking black woman on the cover.

    What I find odd about Bloomsbury’s belief that a YA book with an obviously black protagonist (obvious in that the black protag is on the cover) won’t sell is that white kids have been buying books with non-white folks on the covers in huge numbers when those books are manga and show what are at least theoretically Japanese people (admittedly manga style doesn’t make ethnicity terribly clear, but I don’t think those are white people on the cover). Is there an underlying assumption that Japanese is cool and foreign and thus not part of the U.S. racial hierarchy (and therefore not subordinate to white)?

  5. 5
    Mandolin says:

    PG,

    “Kindred” is the most blatant of Octavia’s books when it comes to dealing with race and sex. If you don’t end up liking it, I still urge you to keep reading more of her work. (In my experience, “Kindred” is the weakest of her books. It’s most people’s favorite, though, I’ve noticed.)

    My favorites of hers are Lilith”s Brood (which was a really profound experience for me) and Parable of the Sower. But I’ve read all her books multiple times… Fledgling, Wild Seed… she takes my breath away.

    Also — Nalo Hopkinson’s _Salt Roads_ is seriously profound.

    *

    Yes, I do think there’s an assumption that Asian people are cool, and not like black people. There’s some academic theory that postulates that blacks are perceived as the opposite of whites, and then other races are aligned either on a continuum between the two (e.g. white, asian, hispanic, black) or symbollically aligned with one or the other.

    I don’t mean to minimize American racism against Asian people, but it does function differently than racism against black people. And I think this is one of the times when one can see that most clearly. (Which means that maybe I shouldn’t be recommending books like Kij Johnson’s _Fudoki_ as being good books to buy to protest the white washing of covers, since it shows a stylized Asian woman in armor. Hmm.)

  6. 6
    Beth T says:

    I think perhaps the most annoying thing about the white-washing that the publishers chose to do is how the original cover was neutral: just the word ‘LIAR’ in red on a black background. The publisher invented that cover out of whole cloth, but then defended it by saying that people won’t buy a book with a black face on it? There wasn’t a black face to begin with!

    As for manga (I was a huge fan back in the day) I think it’s a really interesting question. A limit for the publishers is that no matter what they put on the cover, they can’t change every image in the book, and even though the images are seen by the creators as descriptive of Japanese people a lot of white people find the images descriptive of themselves. It used to be a common FAQ back when manga+anime were just catching on, ‘why do the Japanese artists draw white characters? What’s with all the blonde hair and blue eyes?’ Nowadays though, there’s an emphasis on ‘authentic’, and books are getting published back-to-front style with kanji left in and notes on Japanese culture– partially an effect of an audience that got used to importing the originals.

    Oooh, but doesn’t mean they didn’t try to white-wash, at the start. Common tricks were changing city names to US ones, flipping images so that cars were on the right side of the road, and calling Japanese food by Western names.

  7. 7
    Amanda Marcotte says:

    This was a major issue in the 50s-70s with album covers. Black artists routinely saw the record companies design covers that showed white people dancing, lounging, etc. instead of art involving the artists themselves, which was standard for white artists. There was a lot of pressure from civil rights activists to change this, with the first major coup being, I think, convincing the record company to change a Chantels record so that it had a picture of the group on the cover.

    The argument from the record company’s perspective wasn’t that the white kids wouldn’t buy albums from black artists, but that the parents wouldn’t let them. In other words, not putting the artists on the cover was a way to smuggle them into the collections of kids with overtly racist parents. I have to wonder if this is a consideration with YA literature.

    If so, it’s screwed up, of course, but it would reflect how far we haven’t come.

  8. 8
    Lilian Nattel says:

    It’s a shameful reflection on our society or a shameful reflection of perceptions of it. I wonder if all the bestsellers about Obama would sell better with a picture of McCain on the cover? I’m adding Dawn to my book list.

  9. 9
    nm says:

    I know people in the magazine business, and they all say that their off-the-rack sales are lower for issues with pictures of black rather than white people on the covers. They have actual sales numbers on this; it’s not a question of their assumptions of what the US public at large will or won’t buy. They’re not happy about the situation, you understand, and the people I’m thinking of still go ahead and put black faces on magazine covers, but they know they’re going to take a financial hit when they do.

    Similarly, HBO-watchers were in love with The Sopranos but mostly avoided The Wire. (And the second season of The Wire, which had the most white characters in it, got the most viewers.) So whitewashing characters of color is morally wrong, but I don’t think the publishers are lying about it making them more money.

  10. 10
    Dee says:

    I think the publishers are wrong. If anything, I’d be more likely to buy a book – particularly a genre book – with black characters, and I’m white. It would make me think that the book was probably more interesting and less formulaic than the others. The first book I bought by Octavia Butler, published in 1980, had this beautiful cover.

  11. 11
    FurryCatHerder says:

    In an era of on-demand publishing, what technological roadblock is supposedly keeping these publishers from binding an audience-targeted cover onto the books?

  12. 12
    shah8 says:

    There is a trend in urban fantasy in which the main character is a creole of some type, but is mostly if not completely written as white and the covers will depict a white woman. Actually, that technique has always been present to some extent. Honor Harrington, for instance, is not white, but is written and is depicted as if she were. A cheap bit of color, if you understand.

    Asian people, especially asian men, are not depicted on science fiction/fantasy covers very much. It took until the fifth book before the main character of one of Eileen Wilk’s popular series was depicted on a cover. And you still cannot see her chinese ethnicity. The only sf/fantasy books I can think of offhand with definitive imagery are resolutely ethnic–Lian Hern’s Tales of the Otori, Jane Lindskold’s thing on majong, and Liz Williams’ Singapore 3 series. Anything that is not specifically ethnic, like saaaaay, Spin State by Chris Moriarty will get anything else other than some asian woman on the cover. If east asians are treated better, I think that this is only because there’s no urban to dump. Whitening asians doesn’t just happen in Firefly, folks.

    Yeah, chances are very, very good that if you see a book in the sf/f department and it has nonwhite faces on the cover, then that’s because it’s so good that there is an established fanbased ready to grab the next book.

  13. 13
    Mandolin says:

    What trend of creole people are you thinking of? I mean, yeah, Cherie Priest, but who else?

    And I think you’re wrong about established fan bases, etc. Leah Cutter’s “Paper Mage,” Kij Johnson’s “Foxwoman” and “Fudoki”… I mean, more data is always good, but I don’t think the trend is as cut and dry as you’re suggesting.

  14. 14
    JaneDoh says:

    When I was a kid, I read all the SF I could get my hands on at the local library. As a girl, I was especially interested in books with strong female protags since they were all too rare. I remember when I read my first Octavia Butler book (since after 1, I HAD to read all the rest our library owned). I noticed early that most of the characters she wrote were black. This was a surprise to me, since the cover depicted a white woman. I had actually read the entire Lillith series before I saw a photo of the author, and realized she was black. I was too young to understand whitewashing then, as a white girl with skin privilege. But in my child logic, I figured that if the cover didn’t depict the characters inside, it must have represented the author.

    This is a double betrayal–of the author and of potential readers who might read out of favored genre books written by potential role models (as a child I often read female-authored books in genres I usually avoid as a change of pace). I certainly enjoyed all of Octavia’s books, and sought them out at the library, even after I knew the characters were black and the author was black. Most SF/Fanstasy fans I know don’t care too much who the author is if the books are good. It is a lot of work finding the gems in all the formulaic garbage published. Publishers are projecting their own racism on their audience.

  15. 15
    shah8 says:

    C.E. Murphy, LA Banks, Sarah MacDonald, Sean Stewart, Mark Ridley, are just some of the authors that I know off-hand who has done this. Kelley Armstrong’s “Personal Demons”, like Eileen Wilks in a way, actually does depict a nonwhite whiteness on the cover, even though the main character is written pretty white. I suppose I do have to say, all of these authors also include some sort of hair-brained knowledge of their non-whiteness (really crude “hey that’s racist!” moments and forgotten). LA Banks and Kelley Armstrong are still better than most others at least (hey Banks ain’t white, gotta count for something!). I’m not much of a fan for LA Banks. I *really* wish Steven Barnes did more stuff along the lines of “Iron Shadows”–which of course have abstract images on the cover–and oh my god, the later additions do, if abstract still! Not that it’s easy to tell anything from Amazon’s depiction.

    Also, Kit Johnson books are not typically on bookstore shelves in the megachains like Borders. Nalo Hopkinson is rather hit or miss. Leah Cutter and Alma Alexander are *definitely* not on the shelves. I’m mostly talking about bookstore shelves, which to me is kind of the point. Covers aren’t so prominent when you’re searching on the internet.

    Ah, hey, um,…Kit Whitfield, someone who wrote a really great book roughly in O Butler’s ouvre (and there’s some talk about a screen adaptation) with “Benighted” (Bareback [UK]), is about to release “In Great Waters” in Oct, which looks to be good as well.

  16. 16
    PG says:

    Mandolin @5 re: Kindred,

    I see what you mean about finding it weaker than something like “Dawn.” It reminds me of the difference between Toni Morrison’s “Bluest Eye” and later work like “Jazz” (which many people find less accessible than “Bluest Eye”).

    Both “Kindred” and “Bluest Eye” work at a strongly emotional level; if you’re becoming emotionally invested in the characters, then what is happening to them is so graphically terrible that it hurts the reader. And succeeding in making us readers feel that strongly about fictional occurrences is going to make the book a favorite for a lot of readers. Both Butler’s and Morrison’s later works seem to be less of an emotional punch to the gut, and instead derive their power from what they make you think as well as feel.

    (The comparison may have been in my head because my edition of “Kindred” has an introduction — not by Butler — in which the introducer does a quick review of what was available to a young black woman in sci-fi before Butler began publishing, and quotes a black male sci-fi writer despairing over how to get other black people reading sci-fi, saying that the “literary” black readers were avoiding genre and reading James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. “Kindred” isn’t really a sci-fi book unless something like “Beloved” is a sci-fi/fantasy book — and maybe it is. The interest is in excavating an American slave past as intactly as possible, not in seeing how magic/technology affects people.)

  17. 17
    shah8 says:

    Sean *Williams*, Sean *Williams*, not Sean Stewart, who’s one of the very best but completely unrecognized urban fantasy writers of the 1990s…

  18. 18
    Mandolin says:

    PG — I do think of Beloved as fantasy.

    But yeah, a lot of African American magical realism is about reimagining lost histories, which I think is a stunningly important project. Salt Roads has the same project, in part, if you get the chance to pick it up and read it.

  19. 19
    Mandolin says:

    Shah — I admit I sort of hate urban fantasy, so I guess I’m not familiar with a lot of the authors you name. I was expecting you to mention Tobias Buckell.

    By Sarah MacDonald, do you mean Sandra MacDonald? (Totally possible there’s a Sarah too, but I’m familiar with Sandra.)

  20. 20
    FurryCatHerder says:

    shah8@ 15:

    C.E. Murphy, LA Banks, Sarah MacDonald, Sean Stewart, Mark Ridley, are just some of the authors that I know off-hand who has done this. Kelley Armstrong’s “Personal Demons”, like Eileen Wilks in a way, actually does depict a nonwhite whiteness on the cover, even though the main character is written pretty white.

    It really depends on where the story is set and the ethnic and racial background of the person. Creoles where I grew up range all the way from completely White European in appearance, and very much identifying as “White” (or at least not “People of Color”) to not-so-white-looking, and often still not identifying as “People of Color”, but rather as “Creole”.

    In Louisiana there is often horizontal racism between Creoles and African Americans. Many of New Orleans’ African American mayors were Creole, and in some instances were accepted as White (many Creoles are white for most social purposes — Louisiana is big on roots, and being Creole means you definitely aren’t a recent migrant, where “Recent” is the last few hundred years) before they announced they were African American.

  21. 21
    shah8 says:

    Yes, I do mean Sandra MacDonald. I also mean John Ridley, not Mark Ridley. I can really suck at details…

    I have not gotten to read *any* of Tobias Buckell’s work, actually. I know I will eventually do so, though

  22. 22
    Mandolin says:

    Sandra MacDonald has written some very feminist short stories. Check out “The Boys and Girls of Rumney Mill” if you haven’t already.

  23. 23
    shah8 says:

    I use creole as a general term for long featured mixed race culture. For instance, I think NO and Hawai’i’s cultures has quite a few structural similarities. So I’m not just talking about the NO kind of creole. I *am* actually incorporating the whole racial dynamic in the term. Part of being creole is the whole insecurity about purity thing…

    If you like the NO kind of creole, a classic is Jewelle Gomez Gilda stories.

  24. 24
    shah8 says:

    You know, Mandolin, that is odd, because I thought McDonald was writing her novels in a pretty antifeminist way and I didn’t like them all *that* much. I read them because, omfg, where ELSE am I going to get that kind of interesting Aussie Aboriginal (and the sort of general Polynesian Navigation ethos)sort of Sci-fi? I think she could have done quite a bit more with the concept than she did. Perhaps at some point, I should read them again and see if I feel the same way.

    Come to think of it, S McDonald is hella like Karen Traviss (at least in the City of Pearl series), and one of the problems I had with Traviss, beyond a mary sue *plot device*, was that she got really Skinny-Bitch Calvinist towards the end of the series. I wonder how much all of this had to do with military and australian culture. Traviss is from Australia and McDonald put in lots of time on Australia…

    Nonwithstanding all of that, both series were well worth reading for various reasons, though you are strongly advised to know 19th century E Asian history for the City of Pearl series. At least the long fall of the Qing and the 20 years before and after Meiji Restoration.

  25. 25
    Mandolin says:

    Aussie aboriginal SF — the main character of Justine Larbelestier’s Magic or Madness series is aboriginal. I don’t like the books much, but they were quite popular. They’re YA. Fantasy. Urban fantasy, really, I suppose.

  26. 26
    FurryCatHerder says:

    shah8 @ 23:

    I use creole as a general term for long featured mixed race culture. For instance, I think NO and Hawai’i’s cultures has quite a few structural similarities. So I’m not just talking about the NO kind of creole. I *am* actually incorporating the whole racial dynamic in the term. Part of being creole is the whole insecurity about purity thing…

    I don’t think racial insecurity / purity is at issue with Louisiana Creoles, probably because they’ve been around just about forever. In Louisiana, Creole is its own identity at this point, not a “not this / not that” catch-all for mixed ethnicities as it is in some regions. That’s what I was trying to get across in my earlier post — mayors such as both Morials (Dutch and Marc), Barthelemy and Nagin are all Creole and their Creole roots — even though Marc Morial and Ray Nagin are decidedly more African in appearance than Dutch Morial or Sydney Barthelemy — give them significant social advantages over carpet bagger Whites or non-Creole African Americans.

  27. 27
    shah8 says:

    Hmmm, you’re missing my point…the creoles in NO can look down on more recent/field slave history african american with almost the same effort as the whites do.

    White/Black is a term that has most definitly been used both as a catchall *and* as a very specific ethnicity/group. While creole as applied to people does mean a certain thing, we are still talking about wildly diverse people that includes NO, West Indies, Mauritius, etc, etc. Creole as applied to other topics has the same kind of connotation that I had meant when I used creole for mixed race people in general. I don’t think there is a general word for long established mixed race people. I’d be delighted to use that word if there is one.

  28. 28
    FurryCatHerder says:

    Shah8 @ 27 –

    I was originally responding to your comment that some texts write Creoles as white. My point was that in some cultures, Creole is a form of “White”, or at least a more-privileged-than-people-of-color class.

    In the case of Louisiana Creoles, the ones who are of any degree of African extraction are almost exclusively related to Freemen and that, as I understand it, is how the taint of “Black-ness” is avoided, or at least down-played. So, writing a Creole of that region as “white” is fairly accurate. Indeed, if they weren’t written as “white” to some degree, the authenticity of the work would be in question. Much like movies that portray New Orleanians as having a Southern accent, rather than a Brooklyn-ish accent.

  29. 29
    shah8 says:

    I don’t think that line of thought is very legitimate, which is why I mistook you.

  30. 30
    FurryCatHerder says:

    Shah8 @ 29 –

    I don’t think that line of thought is very legitimate, which is why I mistook you.

    That’s part of the fun of that region.

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  32. 31
    Ocean Yamaha says:

    I found it interesting to see what Patrick Neilsen Hayden had to say about the fear that depicting people of color on a bookfront will preclude its selling well. I also wonder what he thought about the editors of Del Rey, an imprint of Ballantine Books and their decision to retitle a book by Richard Morgan for printing in the United States.

    The original title of his 2007 book in the UK was Black Man, while in the United States, they changed it to Thirteen.

    It is also a science fiction book where the protagonist’s race constantly comes up as an issue for the people he deals with. In addition, he is a genetically engineered super man who is viewed with fear and terror by those he is trying to save.