Thursday, October 19, 2017

whitewashing covers

Last summer I saw an article about the whitewashing of covers.  It led me to a few other articles, and I thought, "Hm, that would be a great discussion post topic."  Sadly for society, but luckily for my blog, it's the kind of discussion topic you can forget about for a few months without it becoming any less timely.

Let's start with the kerfluffle that got my attention in the first place.  It seems Justine Larbalestier's book Liar has a short-haired black protagonist, as is reflected in this cover.

But the original US edition of her book featured a long-haired white girl instead, thus:

See if you can spot the difference. 

After an uproar from the author, agent, and community, the publishers changed the cover.  Then a year later, the same publishing company came up with this cover for a book about, yes, a brown skinned character:

Um, not only am I not sure what the hell she's wearing, she's also white.  And part of the premise of the story is that the protag is exotic in her darkness.  (Which sounds problematic itself, but I haven't read the book, so I have no idea how it's handled.)  Uproar ensued, the publisher apologized, and came up with this instead:

Bonus: it no longer looks like a smutty mid-80s Harlequin romance.  No judgement if that's your thing, but I believe the book is YA fantasy, so it really wasn't quite the right vibe.

It's not just Australian and debut authors who deal with this blatant misrepresentation.  Rick Riordan--maybe you've heard of him?--has dealt with this with editions all over Europe.  One of his characters is described as African American and of Egyptian descent.  This is how the Russian publishers pictured that:

Can you spot the AA character?  Me neither.  Neither could Riordan, who has no control over what goes on covers, and only sees the foreign language editions after they're released.  He called out the Dutch edition and the Italian edition, and he called out the Russian one too.  I suspect you have to be an author of his renown to get Russian publishers to listen to your thoughts on misrepresenting race, but at least it worked.  This is the more recent cover:

Hey, look!  The black character is actually black! 

There are so many things wrong with this.  First, the excuse that people won't buy books with people of color on the cover.  Um, excuse me?  How many times does this have to be proven false?  Okay, maybe that's really the only thing wrong with it, but it reflects some different layers of racism throughout society, from the possibility that it's true, to the lack of diversity in publishing that would let an entire group of people implicitly assume this, to the bland, "Oh, we never meant to offend" responses.  (Don't even get my started on the idiots who were upset that the black characters in The Hunger Games were played by black actors in the movie adaptation.)

It got me thinking about book covers and representation, that's for sure.  One thing I noticed is how often covers of YA/MG books about kids of color either don't show people at all (see examples here and here), or show silhouettes instead of realistic art (examples here and here.)  I am actually a total sucker for covers with silhouettes or unique art, so I mean no disrespect for these books or covers--just pointing out that a kid of color is not necessarily going to look at that and go, "Oh, people like me are in books too!" even though these books offer some terrific representation.

From there, I started pondering the difference between the covers on books that are "about" race (either they deal with slavery/Jim Crow/police brutality for black people or with immigration/migrant work for Latinos, or, possibly, with the country of origin for any of the above and Asians) and the books that feature POC just as...people.  Of course, people of color have to navigate a world in which racism exists, so it would be foolishly color-blind to look for books that don't include that aspect.  I'm trying to say something about books that reflect the most common "single story" versus books that offer additional stories, or stories that challenge that stereotype. That really narrows the list of books with covers that clearly feature non-white characters on the cover. 

When Dimple Met Rishi
This Side of Home
Brave and Awkward

The Wrath and the Dawn
Boy 21
Miles Morales
Rani Patel in Full Effect

Shadows of Sherwood
Fake ID
The Hate U Give
To All the Boys I've Loved Before

So what am I trying to say? If we start from the position that representation matters, it is clear that even as we push for more books that represent the full range of human experience, even those books are lagging behind on making it visible in the most obvious way that this is a book about "kids like me" or "kids like my friends" or even "kids not like me but that's not a big deal." 

Is this something you've noticed?  I have to admit, I'd never thought twice about it before I came across the first article.  (White privilege in action.) But I'm paying attention to it now, to the extent that I may overcome my knee-jerk disdain of movie covers and get my classroom library a copy of the Everything, Everything cover that features the actress instead of the pretty art. 

Here are the articles I read as I learned about this:

That was a first--a bibliography for my blog. 

Discuss!  What are your observations and opinions about this?  Have you ever mentally pictured a character as the wrong race due to cover art?  


  1. Great post! I’m usually not drawn to books with people on the covers. I like the colorful abstract designs. But, I completely understand why it’s important to put people on book covers. Actually, I read a book last year where the narrator was described as “chubby with frizzy hair.” The girl on the cover was supermodel-thin with straight hair. That irritated me.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

  2. I don't know, maybe it's because I grew up in a Caribbean neighborhood, and now I live in an area of NJ known as "Little India", but it astounds me to still hear things like, "people won't buy books with people of color on the cover". --sigh, so sad-- I seek out interesting stories, and I don't care what the characters' color, religion, or sexual preference is. However, I do think it's a bonus if I learn a little something new from the characters in the book.

  3. Great post. And thanks for the links for additional reading. I can't believe with this people who gets wrong the race of characters in book covers and screen adaptation. Haven't they read the books first? I am Asian, and growing up I have little to zero representation in books so I am mighty happy that the push for diversity is gaining momentum nowadays. But there is still a lot of work to do. We should never get tired in every aspect of it: from book covers to screen adaptations.

  4. I'd never seen such blatant whitewashing before---though I have heard it said that covers with POC characters don't sell as well (I thought there were numbers to back that up, but I could definitely be wrong---either way, it's very sad). I love your idea of buying the movie version of a book for your classroom so that the kids see the POC on the cover!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

  5. I'm glad that the Dutch publisher changed the covers but they shouldn't have done it to begin with. I didn't notice it though as I have never bought Riordan's books in Dutch. It is also a recent thing I've been paying more attention to because of Twitter.

    You're right about MG not having a lot of characters on it to show they are poc. That needs to change. For all target groups really.

  6. This. Exactly. The first time I became aware that this was even a thing was on a discussion board, a decade ago. It was something like the author's 5th published novel, a fantasy (non-YA), and the primary character who is described in detail as having a dark complexion, was on the cover so damned white you'd think he was a ghost. I mean, I've seen covers clearly illustrated by people who didn't read the book, and I've seen covers that were absolutely just free stock photography with bad font over it, but I had no idea until that moment how powerless authors are when it comes to the covers of their books. It's heartbreaking, I imagine, to have to hear execs say they whitewashed your character because it'll sell better (which I'm sure is the lazy mentality applied to these things). I suspect the same thing happens when, as in your example (and many others), a cover for one genre is obviously meant to look like a different genre. It feels, at a gut level, sexist for a story with a female protagonist to automatically have a cover with a woman in her underwear (corset). Even if it's a romance novel, I'm sure we can tell that by the title and book blurb- we don't need half-dressed people so overtly selling us sex appeal.

  7. I'm usually pay close attention to the content so I may have missed this issue with the covers!!! Thanks for discussing it! Excellent post Wendy!

  8. Yikes I'm Dutch but I don't read books in Dutch so I had no idea that they had whitewashed Carter on the Dutch covers :/ That is seriously disappointing, but I'm glad they at least listened to Rick and changed it. It's ridiculous that they did it in the first place though and the 'people only buy books with white people on the cover' is SUCH a ridiculous excuse. There are plenty of people who want to see themselves on a cover and/or want to read more diverse books.

  9. I generally don't love people on cover, because they can differ greatly from how I imagine the characters in my head - e.g. hair color, eye color etc. You would think the minimum is to get the race of the character right, though. One example I can think of right now is the Poison Study books, where the MC, Yelena, is a woman of color, which is pointed out various times in the books. Buut... she is whitewashed on alllll the covers, including the redesigns. Another annoying thing, not related to race, is the portrayal of different body types - to an extent, I understand that

    Great post & important topic choice!

    Veronika @ The Regal Critiques


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