Let’s Make Inclusion A Thing
by Jen Wang
I work in publishing. I love reading, and I love designing books.¹ But every day I look around and see white faces, and I hear white voices talking about a white market. In today’s iteration of the culture wars, words like “diversity” and “political correctness” are thrown around by progressives and conservatives in white spaces while minorities keep on fighting just to exist, demanding to be treated equally, and pushing to be represented. There are increasingly vocal groups across the publishing industry organizing for change. Some companies among the Big Four have also instituted internal initiatives, and more needs to be done.
The art departments of publishing houses are no exception to the whiteness; often the only non-white faces have been like mine — ‘honorary’ whites.² Designers have been talking around how we go about the task of representing experiences that are ethnically, culturally, and racially dissimilar from our own.³ How do we make a cover or a book design that doesn’t reenforce tired-ass, paper cut-out racist tropes dictated by white cultural norms and perspectives?
For the designers of color I know, this question is fraught with the weight of responsibility, while our whiter colleagues sometimes seem to approach it like a neo-liberal thought experiment. We could say⁴ that we rarely have power over the final outcome, but a collaborative effort doesn’t absolve an individual of complicity. Yes, books are put into the world by collective efforts of authors, publishers, editors, publicists, author agents, marketing, and sales reps who all have their own subjective peculiarities. Yes, jacket meetings can be fraught with memorable⁵ incidents of coded or outright racism. True, designers don’t have absolute say in the final outcome. And there are always the fallback excuses: “We’re playing to consumer expectations” and ”this is what sells in this market.” Both of those statements are true when you look at things with the tunnel vision of whiteness — white consumers and white markets.
Tossing a token minority into the corporate mix as the representative for all things and leaving them to drown in a sea of whiteness is basically the current practice.
Of course, people give lip-service to the importance of appealing to non-white consumers. However, nobody seems to want to do the work of researching what makes non-white people pick up a book. I get it, it’s hard to understand people who are not like you. At all. But it’s lazy to chalk it up to the demands of the free market. The free market is a magical unicorn — an unattainable, aspirational panacea rooted in myth. Governments regulate markets to benefit their country,⁶ incentivize behavior through tax breaks,⁷ bail-outs,⁸ and housing.⁹ And in any case, marketing departments are there to create strategies to bring attention to products within any given market-driven landscape. Additionally, digital marketing has allowed companies to reach very specific audience segments to drive sales.
In short, the issue is not “the market,” it’s where companies choose to put their resources. Publishing is no different. If we do not put in the hard work of making up for all the time we neglected non-white buying patterns, “diversity” initiatives are doomed to failure for lack of ROI. But what do you expect if one’s idea of investment is “allowing” your employees to meet outside of their primary roles to talk about diversity?
Publishing is inherently a fiscally conservative, risk-averse field, but if traditional publishing wants to stay relevant, the industry needs to step up and find that growing segment of people who are going to keep it afloat. Tossing a token minority into the corporate mix as the representative for all things and leaving them to drown in a sea of whiteness is basically the current practice. Hiring more designers of color is a must, of course, but it will effect little change in visual representation if the institutions in which they are embedded do not change.
So what the fuck does all this have to do with designers? Everything! Engage with the organization that employs you. If we continue to be “just” designers, and take no responsibility for the way our industry operates, we can’t complain about the racism in publishing because we are part of the problem. Throwing up our hands and saying “it’s not in our power” is exactly how the system survives.
The burden is on us to own up to all our work and for how our departments are run. We need to have conversations with our editors when we think a cover is going into a bad place. Ask hard questions at meetings. Force a dialogue around racist design suggestions. Being greater advocates for the people we are trying to represent through design is how we lay the foundations for retaining and attracting people of color to the industry.
We can say it isn’t a design problem but design doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is a human/systemic/corporate problem, and we are steeped in it. We are responsible for our designs, for doing the work to create smart representations, for being an active voices in our publishing houses instead of sitting back and attempting to absolve our complicity through inaction. I don’t have the perfect solution to the problem but talking about and owning our roles is at least a place to start.
¹ Or ‘reading experiences’ for you tech avants
² Depending on U.S. relations with the monolithic Asian stand-in, China. Asian Americans currently seem in denial on our revoked status, I think. Or we into it? I don’t know. The trade war isn’t going to help…watch your heads, friends. Vincent Chin. Never forget.
³ Ironically, this debate never arises around representing white voices. What does it say when we are so fucking good at representing the oppressor and not ourselves? “It’s like, how does racism define your work? Being told to see things a certain way for decades, you realize, ‘Oh my god! They brainwashed me!’” Sandra Oh, recounting her being offered the titular role in Killing Eve http://www.vulture.com/2018/08/sandra-oh-on-killing-eve-and-her-emmy-nomination.html
⁴ We totally do say. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/05/15/books/review/15covers-gallery.html
⁶ And by country we mean a selection of rich white men.
⁷ Filing taxes jointly, child tax credits (Totally not welfare when white people do it.)
⁸ The irony.
⁹ For white people. Read The Color of Law. Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: a Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Liveright Publishing Corporation, a Division of W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.