In a series of Tuesday tweets, Binti author Nnedi Okorafor reveals how whitewashing in publishing works. The Hugo and Nebula Award-winning writer shares two cover images for her 2007 afrofuturist YA novel, The Shadow Speaker, which centers on a 15-year-old girl who sets off on a journey across the Sahara to find her father's killer in the year 2070. The original cover treatment proposed by publisher Hyperion shows a young woman with European features walking in the desert, completely ignoring the fact that Okorafor's protagonist is a Nigerian Muslim, and is described as "black skinned."
"As a black woman writing a black female main character in a scifi novel," Okorafor tweets, "seeing my character whitewashed on the cover felt-like-erasure [sic]." The author says she "threw a sh*t fit (tapered by my agent)" to have the cover changed to reflect Ejii's ethnic identity.
Whitewashing in publishing, particularly in the young adult market, is a systemic problem. The theory behind it appears to be that anyone will read a book with a white person on the cover, but that books featuring cover models of color are "black," "Asian," or "Arab" books. Which — just like the assumption that boys won't read books by and/or about girls — is complete and utter BS.
Okorafor isn't alone in having her main character's race changed in the name of market appeal. Percy Jackson author Rick Riordan's Kane Chronicles follow the adventures of an African-American kid named Carter, whose ancestors were Ancient Egyptian magicians. But until late 2015, many European versions of the books portrayed Carter as a white teen, something Riordan and his U.S. publisher weren't happy about.
As a black woman writing a black female main character in a scifi novel, seeing my character whitewashed on the cover felt-like-erasure: pic.twitter.com/h5Nlhp8DHe— Nnedi Okorafor, PhD (@Nnedi) March 14, 2017
I believe they photoshopped her hair (&my character was BALD!). The designer claimed that there were too few stock images of black girls. 🙄😒 https://t.co/XAZwDMX0PL— Nnedi Okorafor, PhD (@Nnedi) March 15, 2017
ACTUALLY, the designer knew what the book was about. He just said that it was too hard to find stock footage of black girls. Next excuse? https://t.co/h4WFP0ORbD— Nnedi Okorafor, PhD (@Nnedi) March 15, 2017
Yes, I know the same was done to Octavia Butler. I own one of the whitewashed copies. Let's hope the next generation doesn't deal with this: pic.twitter.com/cwGUSRoGbM— Nnedi Okorafor, PhD (@Nnedi) March 15, 2017
Okorafor goes on to talk about a different kind of whitewashing, "one that turns characters white upon reading them so the reader is more comfortable." She also calls out readers who almost exclusively read white writers — the "I don't look at names/author headshots" crowd — and those who are upset when people of color are cast in fantasy.
By now, the most famous example of this is the outcry over the first Hunger Games film, when so-called readers took to Twitter to express their disappointment with Amandla Stenberg's casting as Rue, saying that making the character black "ruined the movie" for them. I say "so-called readers," because anyone who actually paid attention to Suzanne Collins' YA novel would have noted that Rue had "dark brown skin and eyes."
A similar situation popped up in 2016, when black actress Noma Dumezweni landed the role of Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. J.K. Rowling herself came out to remind Potterheads that there is no suggestion in the books that Hermione is white, regardless of Harry Potter film actress Emma Watson's race.
Representation matters, and we need diverse books. At a time when only 22 percent of children's books are about characters of color, it's even more important that books featuring non-white main characters display accurate portraits of those protagonists on their covers. As Inclusive Minds co-founder Alexandra Strick tells The Guardian, the problem goes deeper than casting a white model to portray a non-white protagonist:
Check out the rest of Nnedi Okorafor's tweets on whitewashing in publishing below, and share your thoughts on Twitter!
I talked about a whitewashing battle I won years ago & people are outraged. Great. Good. Keep it coming. 👍🏾! But...— Nnedi Okorafor, PhD (@Nnedi) March 15, 2017
...But what I really want to discuss is the whitewashing battle in many readers' minds.— Nnedi Okorafor, PhD (@Nnedi) March 15, 2017
The one that turns characters white upon reading them so the reader is more comfortable.— Nnedi Okorafor, PhD (@Nnedi) March 15, 2017
A reader once emailed me that she was glad I kept reminding her Zahrah in Zahrah the Windseeker was black b/c she kept imagining her white.— Nnedi Okorafor, PhD (@Nnedi) March 15, 2017
😳 Seriously?? There isn't one white person in the entire novel. That's Zahrah in hardcover and paperback. I still think about this. pic.twitter.com/WBx2Y7ZfVQ— Nnedi Okorafor, PhD (@Nnedi) March 15, 2017
Let's talk about readers who are more comfortable reading about POC when they are presented by white writers.— Nnedi Okorafor, PhD (@Nnedi) March 15, 2017
Or the ones who unknowingly whitewash their reading selection, or r ok w/made-up alien names but not names from unfamiliar real cultures.— Nnedi Okorafor, PhD (@Nnedi) March 15, 2017
Yeah. All that. None of this influences what I write. I write what I want. Boldly. Always. I march forth, against that wind.— Nnedi Okorafor, PhD (@Nnedi) March 15, 2017