Whitewashing and racefail: The beef goes on!

I’m sure there were a lot of idealists who thought that electing Barack Obama as the U.S. President in November of ’08 kick-started a new era for America: a “post-racial” nation, where our racial and cultural inequalities were suddenly of no consequence. Look at us, a nation of good “libruls”; we’ve got a biracial commander-in-chief, hooray! Of course, the reality is decidedly less sunshine and roses. Everything from teabaggers to whitewashed Vanity Fair covers and mainstream Hollywood films is evidence of that.

I mean, it’s 2010 and people of color besides the Obamas apparently still can’t sell a book or magazine cover. And I’m never going to understand the driving force behind that philosophy, especially when it comes to properly representing inside content. Young adult authors Justine Larbalestier and Jaclyn Dolamore were both thrust into the spotlight this past year because their books, which feature characters of color, were marketed with white girls on the covers. And though they share the same fail-tastic publisher, Bloomsbury, they’re far from the only authors this phenomenon happens to. I’m reading Meljean Brook’s paranormal/urban fantasy Demon Moon right now. On the cover, the biracial heroine, Savitri, is paler than the hero. Her hair length is also wrong — flowing and long, instead of short; which I presume the publisher thought would be “boyish.” Can’t have ’em looking brown AND gay on a book cover, huh? Why?

The second the reader opens the book, they’re going to know the character is a minority who looks nothing like the image, so why bother misrepresenting? Bait and switch is pointless! Are they trying to “fool” racists into reading a book about people of color, or what? (Similar to Valentine’s Day and A Single Man‘s marketing teams trying to “fool” people into thinking Bradley Cooper and Colin Firth play straight men?) I guess they’re okay with an “Oh, noes, I accidentally bought a book about brown people!” response as long as the $8.99 or whatever goes in their pocket? Because, at the end of the day, that’s what it’s about, right? Profit. And, economically, profit somehow translates to white consumers. The rest of us, and our spending power, are irrelevant. (Unless we’re talking about “our” segments of media, that is. You know, R&B and hip-hop, Ebony, the “urban fiction” section of the bookstore, Bollywood movies and henna tattoo mix, anime and manga, etc.)

But I still don’t get it. Why does erasure and whitewashing happen when the content actually includes people of color to begin with? Why not freely market towards a large group of consumers who would be happy to see themselves represented? I probably passed over Demon Moon on the store shelves dozens of times, because it was just like any other standard paranormal cover — scantily-clad woman with a tattoo. And by the law of averages, maybe I would’ve picked it up to read the back. But from cover alone, I would not have known the heroine was Indian (explicitly brown-skinned and Hindi-speaking, at that). In fact, I had no idea until a friend told me. Wouldn’t you think, if you were a publisher, that this might be a chance to reel in a whole new audience for your titles? Similarly, why were Faizon Love and Kali Hawk Photoshopped out of the UK posters for 2009’s Couples Retreat? Can you imagine how much worse the Vanity Fair outcry would be if they had invited Gabby Sidibe to be part of their “New Hollywood” cover and “accidentally” got rid of her when the issue went to the printer?

Is there a sort of backlash against the increasing diversity of America, and the world at large, occurring?

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6 thoughts on “Whitewashing and racefail: The beef goes on!

  1. Is there a sort of backlash against the increasing diversity of America, and the world at large, occurring?

    I’m not sure exactly WHAT is going on right now, but I’m glad that people are voicing and expressing their opinions about the issue. It’s just strange that TIIC are still going with the false idea that you can’t sell anything using POC.

    With each new year and decade, the “preferred choice” of “who’s acceptable/marketable” continues to decline. “They” don’t want to admit it, but “their race” is declining at a rapid rate.

    Almost ALL of my nieces and nephews are of mixed race parentage (and that’s including my step-niece).

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    • Yeah, I really don’t understand what’s going on right now either. For every step we seem to take forward into becoming a more multicultural nation, there are a bunch of steps we take back.

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  2. The whole concept of a ‘post-racial’ nation seemed pretty naive, honestly, as if finally getting one thing right suddenly is going to make everything wrong magically disappear. Just because millions of Americans determined that Barack Obama was a better choice than, well, anything associated with Sarah Palin, doesn’t mean that there aren’t still millions of Americans who look to undermine his credibility simply because of the color of his skin. Reading comments left on blogs and articles and the like are stunning, distressing, and terribly, terribly sad. The anonymous cloak of the internet has apparently created a safe place where racism is not only tolerated, but at times encouraged. (Seriously, some guy was using, as his comment signature, a quote from a 19th-century Baptist minister who is most reknowned for formulating a Biblical justification for slavery.)

    And I say this from the perspective of a lily-white upper-middle-class chick who can’t even fathom having to deal with it on a personal level.

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    • Yeah, it’s a weird dichotomy. On the one hand, you have all these hopeful people who think having a minority president has catapulted us into a new era. On the other, you have the bigots coming out of the woodwork more virulently than they have in years.

      It really shows us, I think, how far we have to go.

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  3. you know it’s interesting that Vanity Fair only put Tiger Woods on the cover after his sex scandal, not during all the years that he was the #1 golfer in the world. And their excuses for not putting Zoe Saldana and Gabby Sidibe are ridiculous in the extreme. But magazines not putting people of color on the cover I’m used to. The whitewashing of books really pisses me off. I don’t understand buying books with characters of color and then not putting the appropriate people on the cover.

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    • Yeah, I found that VF/Woods thing really interesting as well. He wasn’t important to them until he fell from grace and became a source of lurid speculation.

      But, yes, you’re right, magazines are historically famous for such behavior. That books do it, too, is what really gets my goat. I’d like to think that, as an Indian-American writer who writes about people like me, I could have representative people on my book covers, you know? But the more I learn about publishing, especially genre fiction, the more uncomfortable I get. The very idea that our faces, aren’t good enough to sell a book about our experiences just infuriates me.

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