The Less White You Are, The Less Visible You Are—Wait, What?

So it’s hard enough to find a positive portrayal of persons of color in novels, as I’ve mentioned before, but what do you do once you’ve actually got a minority character? Well, the next step is usually to make a book cover featuring the protagonist… even if the protagonist is a person of color. And that’s where it gets tricky.

One would think that making reference to a character’s physical characteristics would be enough for the reader to identify the character as a person of color, but apparently it isn’t enough for the publishers. (And sometimes it isn’t enough for the readers either—Rue from the “Hunger Games” trilogy is just one example.) The problem of accurate representation becomes more obvious if we first consider a more visual example. Avatar: The Last Airbender was a television series whose mythology was largely based on Asian and Inuit cultures, and the protagonists of the show reflected those influences by, shockingly, looking like Asian and Inuit people.

Then, of course, the series was made into a live-action film. Characters such as Katara and Sokka, who had darker skin in the series, were cast as white teenagers, and Zuko, a character with obvious Asian influences, was cast as an Indian guy (admittedly, the Indian guy was the talented Dev Patel, but even he couldn’t wring any sense out of that mess of a screenplay). Since Avatar had been a television (and thus, visual) program first, people knew what the characters were supposed to look like, and the controversy started.

In written fiction, such as YA novels, accurate representation is even more important because most YA novels will never be made into a film or any sort of visual medium. The cover is the only illustration that many readers will ever see of the characters within the book. So when an author does write the rare person of color, it’s essential that the character be portrayed correctly.

Instead, we often encounter whitewashing on book covers as well. Liar, by Justine Larbalestier, is one of the more well-known examples of whitewashing in YA. The protagonist of Liar is Micah, a girl of mixed racial heritage (she has a black father and white mother). However, in the advance reader copy of the book, the girl on the cover was clearly white. After public outrage from Larbalestier and her fans, the publishers changed the final book cover to accurately reflect Micah’s appearance.

This isn’t an isolated incident. YA author Kate Hart looked at the covers of more than 900 books released in 2011 and put together her own observations of YA cover models in excellent statistical form. According to her research, only four percent of all book covers in 2011 had a person of color on the cover, regardless of what the protagonists really looked like. Four percent. And even in that four percent, many of the models were hardly visible—they were in the background, or weren’t turned towards the reader, or were only shown from the neck down.

(This post focuses on racial representation, but the discussion would be incomplete without at least a cursory mention of disability and LGBTQ representation—Hart’s study showed that there were zero people with disabilities represented visually on any cover in 2011, and a different study by author Malinda Lo showed that only 0.2 percent of YA books published in 2010 were about LGBTQ characters.)

To be fair to authors, it’s difficult to get accurate representation of characters on book covers—a lot of authors have no say at all over what goes or doesn’t go on their book covers, in spite of what their personal opinions may be. And although the whitewashing phenomenon can’t necessarily all be blamed on publishers, publishers are the ones who often have the final say on what a book cover is going to look like. Ursula K. Le Guin, author of the “Earthsea” novels (in which one of the protagonists was a man named Ged, who was described as having red-brown skin), has famously said, “Very, very, very gradually publishers may be beginning to lose their blind fear of putting a nonwhite face on the cover of a book. ‘Hurts sales, hurts sales’ is the mantra. Yeah, so? On my books, Ged with a white face is a lie, a betrayal—a betrayal of the book, and of the potential reader.” 

There are a lot of excuses offered up as to why accurate representation is difficult (few people want to buy a book with a person of color on the cover, only people of color will buy a book with a person of color on the cover, putting a person of color on the cover will consign that book to the “ethnic fiction section”, etc) but actually the solution is very simple.

Just put a person of color on the cover.

Too often when we conceptualize a character, we automatically think the character is white (which is probably why so many inattentive readers missed the fact that Rue was black). This isn’t because people are inherently biased towards white people. It’s because the system is. How are we going to teach people that people of different colors are all equal when readers never actually see any people of different colors? And this isn’t some abstract, philosophical ideal. When people of color can’t even make it onto the covers of books which are actually written about them, the message is loud and clear. “You’re not good enough to be seen on this cover.” And it’s got to stop.

If you’d like to read more about this issue, here are some informative links:

race-based critique of the casting for the Hunger Games.
Justine Larbalestier on the perceived racism of Liar.
Many more examples of whitewashed YA covers., a site that advocates for equal representation in mass media.
A roundtable discussion on people of color as book cover models from the publishers’ point of view.

4 thoughts on “The Less White You Are, The Less Visible You Are—Wait, What?

  1. I’m so glad I read this. This is such a clear example of one of our culture’s flaws that I would never have noticed if I hadn’t read this article. I read the Earthsea novels (and loved them), but for some reason I thought of Ged as white when he was young, but with a darker complexion when he was older. I wonder why?

    • Hi! Thanks so much for reading. Le Guin actually said a little something about that in the interview I linked to– she said, “I figured some white kids (the books were published for “young adults”) might not identify straight off with a brown kid, so I kind of eased the information about skin color in by degrees—hoping that the reader would get “into Ged’s skin” and only then discover it wasn’t a white one.” Looks like it worked with you!

  2. Pingback: Web Crush Wednesdays: Diversity in YA | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

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