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Race, Publishing and Me

4 min read

Black, Brown, Asian and ethnic minority people and our communities often feature in literary works by white writers.

From travel writing glorifying the British Empire’s colonisation of the world, to postcolonial literature about how the British Empire failed their acquired dependencies, literature has often been a creative form where ethnic minorities are centred in stories we did not write. Sadly, the authors who have misrepresented and distorted the images of ethnic minority people in their stories have been supported in doing by the publishing industry.

I should know. As an ex-publishing professional, specialising in domestic and foreign rights, I have first-hand insight into the innerworkings of corporate publishing.

After entering the industry, a year after graduating with a degree in English and American Literature, I met a business where none of my colleagues looked or sounded like me and, despite the world’s efforts to move on from the horror of slavery, colonisation, and mass genocide, the industry was still comfortably profiting off the trauma of ethnic minority people and their stories.

My desire to work in publishing originated from my love for everything books and literature; I have an unwavering commitment to helping underrepresented readers navigate the literary sphere. Yet, the publishing industry’s commitment to excluding people who look, sound and share similar experiences to me seems just as unwavering.

Having left the industry a little over a year ago, I am now at a place where talking about my experiences no longer gives me crippling anxiety. However, these feelings reared up again when I saw the recent social media discussions about literature and racism.

Publishing culture holds up the white gaze as the correct lens to see the world through

Of particular note was the discussion of Kate Clanchy’s memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, published by Picador, MacMillan in 2019.

Like many other people of colour — such as Monisha Rajesh and Professor Sunny Singh who continue to be unjustly attacked by members of the press for speaking frankly about racism — I was disappointed that a book that won The Orwell Prize could be peppered with details that I saw to be clearly stereotypical and racially charged; describing a black child’s skin as “chocolate” and implying that students who live on council estates are to be feared.

While Clanchy apologised for her poor choice of words and offered to remove them from future editions, the publishers have chosen not to reprint the book. I think that the reason its problematic sections were not flagged in the first place was because many screening it were not of an ethnic minority background and had a severe lack of awareness of ethnic minority perspectives.  

Publishing culture holds up the white gaze as the correct lens to see the world through. During my time in publishing, particularly when in attendance at acquisition meetings – where book proposals are pitched and presented by editors to departments such as sales, marketing, and rights – the phrases “I don’t know who the target audience is" or “I didn’t relate to the story” were often used when finding reason to reject a book by an ethnic minority writer. Subsequently, the lack of diversity and inclusivity in these meetings led to a lack of diversity and inclusivity in the books that were published.

Efforts have been taken over the past few years to stamp racism out from the literary sphere. For example, in 2017 only one per cent of children’s books had ethnic minority protagonists while in 2018 this increased to four per cent. Yet, as publishing continues to be dominated by white people who do not know or what to understand our perspectives, it is clear that much more needs to be done to bring about true progress. I can only hope the industry starts working to get better.

Hena J. Bryan is a literary tastemaker, book & lifestyle content creator, writer and innovative entrepreneur

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