There's a big push in the publishing industry for "diverse" books (and I put "diverse" in quotations because I'm not a fan of that word - it leads to tokenization of writers and characters of color). Agents have been actively asking for "diverse voices", "diverse characters", etc. Which is great! It is signifying a real shift in the publishing industry.
Or is it?
Whenever I am unsure about the efficacy of an action against racism, I look to the "white gaze". This, I define as the culture that dictates that literature and art that must meet the approval of Whiteness.
The Whiteness I talk about is not just Trump-like confederate flag culture. Whiteness is liberal racism. Whiteness is white feminism. Whiteness is quoting Martin Luther King Jr. out of context. It is idolizing Jon Stewart for saying what Black people have been saying for decades. It is this Whiteness that pervades the publishing industry, and so it is this Whiteness that I am talking about.
Whiteness is a mostly-white industry asking for diverse books and diverse writers while pushing little to diversify their own industry insiders.
Now, I'd like to move the anti-racism rhetoric to something that I hope the publishing community will follow. The problem for writers of color is not only that the publishing industry is made up of predominantly white employees - although this is influential. "How removed from Whiteness is the operations of the industry?" is the question we should be asking.
Even if, in some magical step, the publishing industry hires hundreds of people of color, people of color are not a monolith. They are not interchangeable. The ideologies of the people of color who make up the industry matter. Are the people of color anti-racist or are they yes-men to their bosses? Will they speak up? A better question might be: if they do speak up, do they have reason to fear reactions and discipline from their bosses and colleagues? Are the "radical" people of color not hired by the industry?
Whiteness is when a race-related novel hits an agent's desk and the entire industry's initial instinct is "How will white people respond to this book?" instead of "How will the communities depicted in this novel be impacted by this book?"
Something as simple as "How will the market respond to this book?" has layers of ramifications that can be deconstructed with pointed questions concerning race: "What populations make up said market? What responses are you afraid of?" When race-related novels come to play, the supposed colorblindness of the market that the publishing industry always focuses on is revealed for its whiteness.
When I look at the publishing industry, I see some publications that I trust to be pretty removed from the white gaze (such as AC Thomas's THE HATE U GIVE). However, these are far and removed. A view of the publishing industry structurally reveals that the white gaze is ingrained into every layer of its culture and operations. The race books that are published must be "respectful" enough to not upset white people too much. With white fragility, this goal is almost impossible to achieve.
(Sidenote: the task to publish an "not respectful" novel about race is not impossible. There are a few ways to accomplish it. 1) If the author glorifies the pain of people of color - especially Black people - which people crave to consume and which distracts from their constructive guilt. 2) If the author of color has credentials that no white author would be expected to have (see: Ta-Nehisi Coates). 3) If the book is written with such a high degree of technical expertise that no white debut author is expected to write with. All these reasons should not exist.)
When I look at the publishing industry's anti-racist work through the lens of the white gaze, I am less optimistic that true subversive and anti-racist change is occurring. The white gaze has not been addressed, confronted, or deconstructed; it has only ever dictated which novels can be published and which novels cannot. Whiteness has been the gate-keeper of the publishing industry since its origins, and it has not ended yet; it has simply morphed into liberal racism. The present era of colorblindness has indeed led to the publication of novels about race and writers of color; most of this literature still continues to be dictated by the white gaze.
I think about all the authors of color who did not get published. The books of color which got rejected. The books of beautiful color which got revised into books of beige. What did the editor's red pen scratch out?
Do agents and editors support books that will upset white people because they aren't written for white people? Do agents and editors support books that talk honestly about the rage people of color feel towards Whiteness and white people? (Because God forbid that people of color being brutalized and beaten by Whiteness ever dare to say, "Fucking white people.") Do agents and editors support books that engage with anti-capitalism, books that refuse to say "Not All Cops", books that have Assata-supporters and radical queer activists of color that reject the white gaze?
I guess my point is, do agents support diverse ideas or do they support diverse faces speaking the same White ideas? It is a masterful tactic of white supremacy to have its ideas be spoken by a person of color (see: Ben Carson, Nikki Haley, Bobby Jindal). The same white gaze that uplifts these people also shuts down those of color who dare speak ferociously against it.
I know the main criticism of my assertion: the profitability of the market dictates what books are published or not, not race. To that, I have three responses.
1) Why not both? The publishing industry, with bookstores and libraries disproportionately in white areas, has structured a market geared towards white consumers. Yet the truth is: people of color buy books too.
2) Why assume white readers won't read books outside the white gaze? If the publishing industry seeks to engage in allyship, it cannot babysit its readers.
3) The profitability bottom-line must be confronted. In a Western world where white people are the plurality and hold most of the wealth, the publishing industry can not say it is anti-racist without troubling its profitability idolization.
So I guess I come back to my initial question: "Do agents and editors support diverse books?" And by this, I mean diverse ideas.
If any agent or editor is reading this, please feel free to comment, Tweet, respond, etc. with #YesIDo. I am SC_Author on Twitter. I want to create a list of agents and editors (right below!) so that writers who seek to find supportive agents might find someone to query.
1. Your name here!
Writers need to know which agents and editors will support them - if any. It's scary to speak. In my own personal case, I've decided that there's no point to me being a writer if I have to swallow what I want to say. So I'm speaking, I'm pushing, and will continue to do so.
What do you think? Please feel free to comment below, and share!
This has been a post part of the Write Inclusively campaign. I'm planning to change its name soon, but if you would like to be up-to-date with the campaign, sign up for the newsletter. We do not email much - in the last two years, only two emails have gone out. We were responsible for #BigFiveSignOn.