Public Diversity Editor Report #1, September 2016

Almost half a year ago, we put out an open call for a Public Diversity Editor. After fielding many responses, Vanessa Willoughby accepted our offer to take the role. This is her first report.

The demand for diversity in the publishing world has always been a priority for writers and readers of color. In the past few years, such misrepresentation has become a favorite talking point of media and industry figureheads alike without active solutions. According to a 2015 diversity baseline survey conducted by children’s book publisher Lee and Low, “the number of diverse books published each year over the past twenty years has been stuck in neutral, never exceeding, on average, 10 percent.” The majority of the conversation seems to focus on why books and publishing are so white, and not ways to change the monolithic status quo.

The imbalance in representation cannot change if the parties that consciously or unconsciously enable it never claim accountability. The representation on the Seattle Review of Books website does not overtly perpetuate the industry’s lack of diversity, nor does it maintain an above average level of diversity. This is not to say that SRoB never features authors and/or bylines from people of color. The Portrait Gallery column is not a devotional shrine to the expected cannon: old, dead, white guys. Saturday’s Kickstarter Fund has backed projects by underrepresented groups specifically looking to preserve pieces of their culture and/or make their voices heard above the white noise. For example, I was delighted to see that SRoB had backed the New Poets Project helmed by Copper Canyon Press. Funding is certainly one of the obstacles that blocks writers of color from gaining the same visibility as their white, well-connected peers.

Additionally, SRoB is open to admitting when mistakes or oversights are made. In an industry where many influential players respond to the call for diversity with silence, SRoB is open to criticism. This is apparent in decisions such as publishing Donna Miscolta’s essay about minority representation in the Seattle: City of Literature anthology. Co-founder Paul Constant confessed, “But the truth is, I’m writing this Note because I’m a contributor to Seattle: City of Literature, and I have to acknowledge my part in the book’s failure to represent minorities.” The conversation was continued with the publishing of a letter to the editor from author Kathleen Alcalá that responded to Miscolta’s essay.

On the other hand, both of the aforementioned groups could expand beyond their current demographics. On staff, the split between identified genders seems to fall in line with assessments from Lee and Low: at 71 percent (59 tallied), the majority of editorial staffs are women. Men account for 28 percent (23 tallied). In terms of race, the majority of the staff identified as White or Caucasian. Groups that accounted for one writer, as self-identified, were the following: Native American, Filipino, Chinese, and Latino. Although some responded as biracial or multiracial, non-white groups typically had, at the most, two people and contained less than 10.

Of the writers featured on the site, around 68 percent were white. The overwhelmingly majority of writers were also American. In terms of gender, the difference between the number of men and women writers was small. There were 426 writers total; 211 were male and 215 were female.

In a recent Hollywood Reporter interview with Ava DuVernay and Oprah, the women discussed the downside of aiming solely for “diversity.” DuVernay prefers the word “inclusive,” and explained, “Forward-thinking people and allies of this cause within the industry have the common sense to know that this is systemic…There needs to be more done than applauding one or two people who make it through your door.” Whether it be diverse representation in film or a diverse workplace, sometimes diversity doesn’t necessarily mean equality. A company could mistakenly believe that they’re diverse because they have a few people of color in an otherwise very white staff.

It would be inaccurate to say that SRoB is devoid of any writers who do not identify as white. Yet if publications want to get better about representation of non-white people, the goal needs to be elevated from meeting a low-stakes diversity quota. The writer coverage on SRoB has a few people of marginalized groups, such as Dinaw Mengestu (Ethiopian American), N.K. Jemisin (African American), Victoria Chang (Asian American), and Junot Díaz (Dominican American). However, there’s a danger in settling on the bare minimum qualifications to be deemed “diverse.” The systemic racism that DuVarney mentions in her HR interview can only be dismantled by disavowing a publishing culture that favors a white majority.

Unlike other publications, SRoB has taken the first step forward in discouraging a dominantly white publication. The way in which individuals define their identities does present the reality that representation will always be imbalanced to a certain degree. SRoB’s inclusiveness could be expanded to not just race, but sexuality and those who identify as disabled.

Inclusiveness means that whiteness cannot claim overwhelming dominance and that voices of marginalized groups are not forced to be happy with representation that amounts to the appointment of designated spokespeople. Honesty and self-awareness are necessary requirements of editors who want to end the institution of whiteness within publishing. It’s not enough that publishers put out a handful of diverse books; the people behind the decision making process must be held accountable. Speaking to Broadly about publishing’s diversity problems, Sulay Hernandez, owner of Unveiled Book Development, pointed out: “the majority of books that are published in the US are not by people of color. The majority of high-profile authors are not people of color. So what we want is more voices of color being published and more voices of color being published well. And, very importantly, selling well.”

In the original call for a Public Diversity Editor, SRoB stated, “We thought one way to guard against us succumbing to our own unconscious biases would be to hire an outside person to check our work and report back to our readers.” When author Alexander Chee participated in a virtual roundtable conducted by Antonio Aiello on behalf of PEN America, he asked important questions in relation to diversity. He asked publishers, “What rooms are you in? What conversations? Who are the people in your social media feeds? When you go home, is your family all white? When you go to a party, are your friends all white? When you look down your bookshelf, are all your books by white authors?” I hope that SRoB considers these questions when assessing and retooling their representation of minority and marginalized literature, writers, and industry figures.