Why You Aren’t Really Colorblind: Bookish Edition

Yesterday on Twitter I conducted a couple of highly unscientific surveys (which I’m using for a future Book Riot article).  First, I asked people to tell me who their favorite science fiction and fantasy author of color was and for folks to please retweet.  People happily replied and the tweet was retweeted pretty often.

Then, last night, I asked another question: name your favorite white science fiction and fantasy author.  And the response was…something I hadn’t really expected.

Some people thought I was being sarcastic. Others said that is was a terrible way to label an author. “I hope I’m never labeled that way,” one person tweeted to a friend who had retweeted my original tweet. By far the most popular responses I got (that weren’t answering the question) were along the lines of “I don’t see color.”

“I just read good books.”

“I don’t know what color my favorite authors are.”

“What does an author’s race have to do with anything?”

There’s a lot to unpack in the contrary responses I got.  For the most part about half the people who saw the second tweet (those who balked) hadn’t seen/answered the first tweet (Yes, I did this on purpose) so they didn’t know what I had asked previously in the day about authors of color.  But the overall response I got, and a couple long twitter convos I had, boiled down to the same issue: people either didn’t like me labeling white authors as white or they thought race was unimportant when discussing authors or they didn’t like having to admit that they had a favorite white author.

I think the last is a product of the deeply entrenched fear a lot of white folks have around identifying race.  Saying a person is black is not bad or racist.  Having a favorite white author is not racist, either.  Saying a person was on welfare and then saying “well, she was black” is racist.  Only reading white authors by choice? That’s also a bit racist.

But a lot of white folks have broken or completely missing racial compasses.  Meaning, they are so inoculated to the impact of race that they never learn to navigate the murky waters of race conversations.  When they do attempt to navigate those discussions, whether by choice or not, they are quickly dashed upon the rocks of their own ignorance and privilege.  And what happens then? Most never venture forth again.

Despite all that I think the real problem here, and the one that so heavily influences our current publishing climate, is the belief that by default an author is white unless otherwise specified.  I think this is the heart of the reason that book lists tend to be overwhelmingly white unless produced in February.  This is why authors of color are shunted off to imprints and shelves marked "Certain Marginalized Group" Literature and why discussions of “quality” and “taste” center around a white, masculine narrative.  This is the key to why representation within publishing is so dismal: there are (white) authors and then there are all of the other special categories. And when we’ve checked a box in one of those other special categories, we’re done.

To be colorblind at this moment means that you aren’t willing to take any of that background into account when choosing something to read.  At worst you are the final cog in a machine that privileges whiteness and you just don't care.  At best it means you are looking at your choices and thinking that you are being presented with a buffet when you’ve been given an appetizer sampler.

Either way, being "colorblind" doesn’t make you somehow more evolved.  It makes you selfish and sheltered and naïve.

White is not the default. And we all need to work better to make sure that is reflected in the media we consume.  Otherwise, we are complicit in the silencing of those lesser known narratives.

End of story.