Reading and Race

I was going to do Simon’s meme today but my camera battery died last night and no one likes posts about books when there aren’t any nice sparkly pictures, so I’ve decided to do a post in response to a couple of interesting posts by Eva and Aarti that I’ve read today and yesterday about reading and race instead. Sorry, Simon – I will get around to the meme, I promise!

Eva’s post on ‘white privilege’ and the Eurocentric, white author domination of the publishing industry has garnered a lot of discussion, as it should. Race is a complicated minefield of a topic that everyone has different views about dependant on their own life experience. As a middle class, wealthy, privileged English white girl born, brought up and still living in one of the most multicultural cities on the planet, I don’t think about race, ever. But this is because I don’t have to; as Eva quite rightly says in her post, as a white European I have the world at my disposal; I don’t have to ever face the indignity of something as simple as not being able to find make up that suits my skin tone, or having the colour of my skin used as a way to describe my appearance. The world is set up to uphold the subtle, all permeating attitude that has prevailed for centuries; white is best, any other skin colour is inferior. Of course today we have our positive discrimination policies, our politically correct children’s books with children of all colours and shapes and sizes featured; our soap operas with families representing every ethnic minority possible, all designed to demonstrate just how far we’ve come in the area of race relations, and how wonderfully equal the world is. This is nothing but an elaborate smokescreen, however; how else can we explain the shocking statistics showing the poor academic attainment of black boys? How else do we explain the appalling minority of black, asian and other minority backgrounds in positions of power in our government, in our businesses, in our academic institutions? Western society is set up to favour white people; and if you’re of the right class, from the right school, and a man, you’re even better off to boot. So much of our everyday lives are dominated by the inherent, unthinking assumption that white is the ideal that I don’t think we even notice any more. Eva’s post made me realise just how blind to racism I had become. I didn’t agree with all of her points, but the essential ingredient of the unjustness of the white superiority attitude that is prevalent in every area of our lives struck me powerfully. I want to do something about it, but what? How do you undo centuries of brainwashing?

One thing I said on Eva’s blog was that I didn’t think that the publishing industry in the UK was as white centric as the US, as I have seen a lot of books available by authors from all different nations and cultures, many of whom are not white, in our bookshops. I thought I’d go on Amazon US and Amazon UK and compare the bestsellers lists to see whether there is a difference between the publishing industry in the two countries when it comes to promoting authors from ethnic minorities. I was surprised, saddened and disappointed to see both lists were very similar, with not one book written by a non white person among the top 50.

However, a search on the UK’s population statistics showed that actually only 7.9% of the UK population is non white. That’s a tiny proportion. In real terms that’s 4.6 million, compared to the over 60 million population of the UK. If a country’s publishing industry is supposed to represent the interests of most of its readers, is it therefore wrong for the majority of the books published in the UK to be by, and about white people? Surely it’s a case of supply and demand? Unless we believe that the publishing industry is removing the element of choice by only supplying what they think will sell, and ignoring the work of non white authors writing about non white experience. I don’t know enough about the publishing industry to make a judgement on that. However, what I do know is that I would love to read more books by and about people who aren’t English, and I’d love to read more books set in the historical past of other countries. Are these books written? I don’t know; they might be, but I never get to hear of them. Perhaps they are written in their country of origin and just never translated, because they’re not considered marketable outside of their own nation. But, as Aarti says in her excellent post, aren’t all of us, regardless of how the colour of our skin compares to the majority of the rest of the population in the country we live in, entitled to be able to access literature that speaks to us, that speaks about us, and is written by people we can relate to? If so, is it right for a country’s publishing industry to be directly correlative to its population statistics? And, why is it assumed that white people don’t want to read about people from other ethnic backgrounds anyway?

I’d love to read your thoughts on this issue. I’m still trying to work out my own!

21 comments

  1. I'm not sure that it is assumed that white people don't want to read about other ethnic backgrounds… then again, doesn't your Top 50 poll across Amazon US/UK suggest that might be the case? It may be that people of color don't sell books as well as white people, but try telling that to Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

  2. Well exactly…I think there must be an assumption going on somewhere, or why else would there be so few books? I don't believe that there aren't plenty of non white writers out there producing manuscripts. The examples you quote demonstrate that non white authors can sell well, and people do want to read books about different cultures as they have bought theirs in huge numbers, so where are they in the Bestseller lists?? It doesn't make sense.

  3. This is a really complex and thought provoking issue. When I look back at my reading history, like Aarti, I grew up reading what is essentially Eurocentric literature (in English) as my education was mainly in British and American schools. However when I lived in Japan I used to read a lot of Japanese authors (and that is reflected in the the bestsellers list on Amazon Japan). It may be to do with what is available in predominantly English speaking countries, but it wasn't something I thought about much until recently with all the controversy surrounding the book covers. I think you are right in that it is a subtle issue which remains below the radar until such controversies highlight the issue and makes you question what is and isn't acceptable.

  4. I think you may have your stats wrong- don't think 6 billion people live in the UK :-)As for books reflecting a population, I'm not sure. The US has a huge population of non-whites (and a lot of different types of whites). Assuming that people of other races don't read may be a valid assumption based on numbers, but you'd think there must be a way to tap into that HUGE population of non-whites, if only to keep the publishing industry afloat. That is a huge untapped resource of potential customers and avid readers, if they were just to have the opportunity to read books that appealed to them.And listing three authors who have won massive awards and are so well-known as Morrisson, Rushdie and Marquez does not negate the fact that MOST successful authors (in terms of sales and in terms of art and awards) are white. Three people of color vs. goodness knows how many whites is kind of a depressing ratio.I think the translation thing may be true. Chinese authors, I assume, write in a Chinese dialect and maybe those don't get translated. But a lot of other people (Indians and people from Africa and the Middle East) write in English.

  5. Surely there's a socio-economic side to this as well… white readers can afford to, and do, buy books, and a majority of the time choose to buy books that speak to their own experiences. As you've mentioned, minorities are often disadvantaged, usually financially so. Possibly there just isn't a big enough market to make it worth a publisher's while to either print, or market enough to sell, books pitched at other audiences.Although, in saying that, New Zealand, where I live, seems to publish a substantial amount of Pacific Island and Maori writing which is also very well received by the general public.

  6. Aarti, those three that I mentioned were just off the top of my head, but of course there are clearly more writers of color who are out there and are being published and doing very well. I just didn't think it was very helpful to simply make a list…I mean, are we assuming that people who aren't white aren't going to read white authors if given their druthers? Maybe that's the case, but if so, then why should we say that those who are white should be pushed to read more authors of a different color? It's a two way street and quite frankly, I imagine most people don't know nearly enough about authors/books/publishing to use author ethnicity as their motivation when wandering around a bookstore. As I've said, I read the books I do because I like the writing, the stories, the questions they tackle… ANYONE, regardless of skin color, can do this. I don't think about color when I pick up books, and I think it would be disingenuous for me to start doing so.

  7. I don't assume non-whites would never read white authors if they had the choice. But they don't REALLY have the choice, whereas white people generally do. I don't pick books based on author ethnicity, either. I am of Indian origin, but most of the books I read- the VAST majority I read- are by white authors. It's not really a "two-way street," because whites are so obviously at the advantage. You pick books based on writing and stories and the questions they tackle, but when the majority of the books AVAILABLE to you and recommended to you are by white authors, those would obviously be much easier for you to pick up. I'm not saying to seek out authors of color- I certainly don't. But it does say something, in my opinion, that the majority of people read substantially more books by whites than by people of color, when whites are not so much the majority race (at least in the US) any more.

  8. Rachel, in my comment to Eva's post I referred to your first comment there, in that I also tend to read what reflects my own experiences. In my case, however, being Asian, it's actually the reverse. I naturally gravitate towards international literature, multicultural, ethnic, etc., because they are just more interesting to me (being of very mixed heritage) and I relate with them more.But since we moved to Canada a few years ago I have been consciously trying to fill in my reading gaps in terms of literary greats/classics and prize-winners, because a lot of them weren't available in the town we used to live. In short, I am trying to balance out my POC reading with white reading. But since there are so much more books by white people being published, it's much easier to do this than the other way around.Sorry for the incoherent rambling but I'm hungry and also have to feed the kids now I can only think about food. Heehee.🙂

  9. Chasing Bawa – thank you for your thoughts. It's interesting to hear the experiences of those who have lived in other countries. Perhaps availability of books is a much more linguistic issue than we think? There must be a whole raft of amazing literature out there I never get to read because it's not translated into English. Literature in translation has always been a minority market and I think that must come into the race issue too.Aarti – Thanks for pointing that out! I seem to have added on an extra nought somewhere…that'll teach me for trying to get statistical! I agree – there is a huge untapped minority out there. But – as Anon says – there's a social issue too – in these minority cultures, is reading such a big deal as in white, western cultures? I know that a lot of ethnic minorities work menial jobs with long hours compared to their white, western neighbours, resulting in little time and money to read, be up to date with cultural trends and afford to buy books. The deeper you get into this the knottier the issues become and I can't begin to untangle them. And, I think the problem of translation and its traditionally hard to sell nature – who wants to read books not written in their original language if they have the choice of reading in their own language without a middleman interpreting for them? – does contribute to the lack of literature by ethnic minorities available in the western world.Steph – I don't think it's right to feel pressured to choose books just BECAUSE of the colour of the author's skin – in a way, to alleviate some sort of guilt at being white – but I do agree with Aarti's point that actually there isn't much choice for people to do that anyway because white authors have so clearly saturated the market. However, the population of the UK would suggest that this is because the majority of people who live here ARE white – and so, naturally, there are more white authors than ethnic minority authors anyway, simply as a point of statistic probability, I suppose. Claire – Thank you, it's so interesting to have a point of view of someone who has come from a different background. It's interesting that you feel you've missed out on 'white' literature, where everyone else seems to have the opposite experience. I am beginning to feel that I need to fill in my reading gaps and start exploring the classics of other cultures.

  10. Thanks for a great post–and for your comments over at Eva's. It is such a complex topic, and I'm not sure it can be detangled easily. So many things factor in: economics, education, societal attitudes, publisher and reader preconceptions. I am a white, middle-class woman and most of the authors I read are white middle-class people. But that's because those are the authors I know. They're more heavily marketed, and I'm much more likely to run across their books in the library and on bookstores. And some of them are downright brilliant.But I also *love* reading books by people who are from different backgrounds to me. And I don't have trouble finding books by people from diverse backgrounds, but I know that are many more that I don't know about because they aren't being brought to my attention, and I'm not making a deliberate effort. I don't want to choose to read an author's books just because that author is from a minority group–I want to choose to read those books because I've heard they're brilliant. But if they aren't marketed effectively (or even published at all), how can I find out about them?I'm not interested in setting a quota or choosing minority authors over white authors, but I do want to read more authors from a wider variety of backgrounds–beyond the usual writers we all know. I'm pondering ways to make that happen (and maybe make it easier for others with similar goals).

  11. This is a fascinating and frequently rather sad discussion. But kudos to you for bringing it up, because it's also an important one. I remember being surprised in grad school that we had to prove we could read in a foreign language to get accepted, but, unless one was actually researching/writing on an international author, there was never any expectation that we would read literature in a different language. I once brought up the fact that the minority authors we did read, while amazing, were generally authors writing about the experience of being a minority. So we read Richard Wright or Charles Chestnut for the African-American male experience, or Zora Neale Hurston or Toni Morrison for the Af-Amer female experience, Sandra Cisneros for the Latina experience, etc. Some of that may simply be because they are classics in their field, of course, but it does feel like there's this huge empty space where Western literature leaves off.

  12. I feel like everything I have to say has either already been said by others in the comments or in my post!I will say that I'm very happy you posted about this Rachel, because I think your writing here has a different flavour than the comments you left on my post, and it helps me to understand your viewpoint much better. :)I will say that, assuming there should be a proportional level of representation, then you would expect about 8%, or roughly 4 authors, of those top 50 UK bestsellers to be non-white people. So I think there is a problem, and that the US isn't the only one with race issues! ;)I can't wait to see what you decide to do in response to the white privilege problems!

  13. Teresa – I agree with everything you said. You put it much better than me! Thank you.Makedo – Thank you. Yes, I do think there is a big empty space too, and it's so hard to fill it unless you speak another language or have been submerged in the culture of another country sufficiently to be aware of their national literature – I know my Portuguese friend at work is shocked I've never heard of their famous authors, but why would I? They're not translated and I don't read Portuguese so I'd never have access to them!Eva – Thank you – I'm glad! I don't think I expressed myself particulatly well on your post so I'm glad this has made my thinking come across clearer. I do think that coming at it from a totally different culture doesn't help either. Yes, you're right – so where are those 4 authors? I definitely agree that we have race problems too, and I never meant to imply on your post that we don't at all – clearly I was not choosing my words adequately.I will let you know how I get on!

  14. I left quite a long comment on Eva's post about this as I think its a really important topiuc but also in a way a can of worms. In terms of reading I really don't care (not in a horrid way in an open minded way) whi wrote the book as long as its good for me its about the writing and I dont tend to think of the authors colour just like I dont tend to think what colour my friends are. They are just my friends, authors are just authors the fact something in them appeals to me is what makes them special Plus some white authors have written fantastic books where the lead characters are coloured and these should be mention too. Like Memoirs of a Geisha or The Other Hand.

  15. Simon – I am the same – I don't choose books based on the colour of the skin of the author; it's not a conscious choice of mine to favour a predominantly white, female, middle class genre of fiction, I just do. It doesn't mean that I think black, asian, chinese, hispanic, etc authors are rubbish, I just don't come into contact with them as much. And I think that's the point Eva and Aarti have been trying to make – our reading choices are dictated by what is available to us. If literature produced by ethnic minorities is not published or marketed as widely as literature by white people, we never get to even have the option of choosing those books. And you're right – there are plenty of books by white people that are not about white people. And the wide readership of those books suggests that people ARE interested in reading about other cultures…but they apparently need a white name on the cover in order to read about them…which is another issue! A can of worms indeed! Thanks for commenting!

  16. I absolutely agree with Teresa! I am not sure how I will change my own reading, but hopefully just being more cognizant of the issue will make me a better reader? I can always dream!And Simon, I agree with Rachel- if you like books by white people about people of color… then why not try a book about people of color BY a person of color?

  17. Aarti – Yay! We agree on something!Eva's post is getting clogged up so it's not easy to continue a conversation over there – but I just read your reply to my response to you and your point about colonialism is a fair and true one, though as it didn't happen on our own soil (England) I think it's not as much in the public consciousness as perhaps segregation is in the US. Plus – colonialism was as much about gaining an Empire and additional land as it was about imposing 'Englishness' on other nations so I'm not sure if it's an easy or fair comparison to segregation and slavery. I do think your point about there actually being something tangible to fight against is very valid, too – perhaps if racism was more blatantly obvious in the UK, rather than being something that has never really been addressed because we all like to pretend it's never been there, we would have a more active community of ethnic minorities fighting against racism. As we've never had laws to prevent ethnic minorities from gaining access to things there is nothing really concrete for them to make a stand against – they can't protest against people's attitudes in the way they can about being denied jobs, education, etc, so it just remains the elephant in the room and we all turn a blind eye to it. I know that I like to think I'm totally not racist but Eva's post showed me that I am – in my lack of concern that I wasn't reading any books by ethnic minorities I was revealing that I felt no need to know anything about those cultures, and no concern that those cultures weren't being adequately represented – that's white superiority – and it makes me feel ashamed.

  18. I've been mulling this one over since I read your post yesterday. Last Saturday, a man with a physicality that had me thinking he could lift my car, signed out a copy of Mansfield Park. He was also black. I looked at him with a smile and asked if he liked Austen as a way to initiate conversation. He was most happy to discuss her books with me declaring that Pride and Prejudice was his favourite! This experience, and your post, has had me thinking about the way we're conditioned to think of certain people reading certain books. My perception of what black men read is also based on twenty years of experience working at the circulation desk of a library, not racial stereotyping. I love that my conversation with that man has turned a perception around in my head.People will find a way of locating the books that they want to read, that speak to them. I've been searching for what Persephone Books offer for years! But I hate to think that there are wonderful books, lying unpublished, based on someone else's bias of what will sell and to whom.

  19. Darlene, thank you for such an interesting response. What a perfect example of how we stereotype – it just goes to show that people cannot be pigeon holed, as much as we might try to do so. And how fantastic that that man was so willing to push against the grain and unashamedly check out a Jane Austen from the library.Yes, me too – so many of the decisions we make are actually based on decisions someone else has already made for us – it's quite frightening when you think of it. How free is freedom of choice, really?

  20. One of my masters coursemates did an interesting presentation called 'The New Zadie Smith' – which seemed to be the label attached to any new young female novelist if they had any non-caucasian blood in them at all. Strange.I must confess I tend to read mostly books by white women – but that's mostly because I choose books from the 1920s and '30s, and white authors seem to dominate. When I read about a foreign country, though, I always make sure that I'm reading a book by someone from that country – I want firsthand perspective, not travel lit.As a white, middle-class male I suppose I also tick all the 'privileged' boxes – if I weren't a Christian, I'd have nothing to be discriminated against for…(!) I suppose that's more true in the UK than the US.Hope your camera behaves itself soon, looking forward to your go at the meme!

    1. That is so true about non caucasian novelists, Simon – I bet that was a fascinating presentation. I am the same as you – I choose authors from certain periods, and that was when white authors dominated the market – but I suppose that was also largely because black/asian/other minority authors weren’t getting published, especially in America.

      Being discriminated against for being a Christian is definitely more of a problem in the UK – over 90% I believe of Americans claim to be Christians and it seems to be much more a badge of honour and a definition of being an ‘upstanding’ citizen in the US than it is here. If our Prime Minister said he had asked God for advice on something, all hell would break loose, but the President saying that always seems to be applauded. In the UK if you say you’re a Christian, you’re branded as a nutter. Which I am anyway, so I don’t really mind.😉

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