Thursday, July 23, 2009

Geography of Racial Demographics

Today I was reading a few articles dealing with how book covers are often "whitewashed,"which means the cover is race neutral or depicts a white person even when the main character is a person of color, as in the case of Liar by Justine Larbalestier (thanks for the link, Adri!) It's one of those things that just makes sense, another media thing that unconsciously panders to what is familiar and appealing to the majority. I like to think that people just aren't aware when they do these things, that it's unconscious--images that have been imbedded into our brains are not there because we absolutely dislike other images but just because that's how it is. We have to form an awareness to recognize this. I don't think people are inherently evil, and I don't think most intend to be overtly racist. That's why the quiet, covert things slip through without permission. Plus, I know ALL about the power of ignorance! (See life story.)

Here's the thing that bothered me about one of the articles entitled "Straight Talk about Race: Challenging the Stereotype in Kids' Books": early on the writer begins laying out the current racial landscape of America, stating that
"Today’s teens are more diverse than we were at their age. The New York Times recently reported that the “enrollment of Hispanic and Asian students in American schools has increased by more than 5 million since the 1990s.” In 1993, there was a 52 percent chance that two students selected at random would be members of a different ethnic group. By 2006, that likelihood had risen to 61 percent."

These statistics seem surprising to me, not because of number, but because geography is not discussed. My immediate thoughts were, "Where are these increases happening? Cities, of course." The actual NYT article does cite a few surprising examples of rural-ish areas that have seen an increase in immigration, but although they get attention in the article, it's clear to me they are exceptions. You can link to a map of the U.S. and click on various counties to see the population percentages of foreign-born residents. Want to know the stats for my home Knox County, Illinois?

A total of 902/55, 836 = 1.6%.

Wonder what the percentage difference in a book's sales would be if the cover depicted a dark-skinned person versus a light-skinned one, a person with nappy hair or a person with familiar straight locks.

I ever get my book published, will people there buy it? If a picture of my face and hair are on the cover, will they recognize me as one of their own? Will they recognize me at all?


Nell said...

I'd like to read the sources you referred to. I'm doing a study of the demographics of children's picture book covers for the past decade. You can reach me at Thanks!

Liberty said...

@Nell: Thanks for reading. Here's a link to Justine's comments about how her publisher changed her cover to make one of her story's main characters look more "white":

The story also links to this article: