Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Book Industry Racism...Where is Oprah?

With the news that Oprah’s latest book club selection will be announced on September 18th, the question of where she stands on the indisputable practice of racism in the publishing industry remains outstanding. Her announcements are major events, and play a significant role in the landscape of the book industry and marketplace.

In December of 2006, The Wall Street Journal published an article entitled, “Why book industry sees the world split still by race.” Considering the fact that Oprah Winfrey is the publishing industry’s greatest marketing tool, it isn’t unreasonable, in my view, to wonder why she hasn't addressed the sustained system of racial marginalizing in which, even as I type this, most publishing houses are engaged. Oprah's selections help to line the pockets of these corporations, while they consistently - and unapologetically - treat acquisitions according to the author's race vs. the manuscript's content. And in many cases, expect and force non-white authors to write their manuscripts according to their race so the publisher can limit the author's marketability to his/her own race of readers, and not to the much larger, universal marketplace.

Why haven’t we heard from Oprah on this issue?

Here's my view. She’s likely not really aware of it. Unless an issue reaches her directly, it must go through the Oprah Show’s “producer mill.” If they decide an issue isn’t important or have reasons for not wanting certain things made public, it never gets through to Oprah herself. On the issue of racism in an industry Oprah has such a powerful influence on, many of her producers work and have formed relationships with the major publishing houses – they are not interested in disrupting their cushy acquaintances, and the advantages they may provide. So they turn a blind eye to the blatant racism their “buddies” are engaged in, even tipping them off about efforts to call Oprah's attention to the matter. Like most of white America, the producers are invested in ignoring it. It’s not their problem, and most of them cringe when Oprah does shows about racism, anyway.

I submit that due to her attained significance in the industry, Oprah, herself, is the only one who can have a significant impact on this issue, and put it to bed once and for all. If she speaks out against some of the proven, racially discriminatory practices, the publishing houses will listen. They will have to stop seeing the world split still by race, hence stopping the perpetuating of the split itself. They will have to stop justifying racially-based marketing and internal business practices. They will have to think twice about angering the biggest marketing tool they have ever had, and maybe ever will have.

How can she not talk about this?

The recent issue with author Justine Larbalestier’s book, Liar, shows that such incidents aren’t going anywhere, as the real dirt has yet to be cleaned up. Publishers continue to maintain (despite their vehement denials) a very racist mindset, culture, and business model, and it’s reflected in their most consistent practices. The fact that this white author sees a need for greater inclusion and commercializing of non-white characters/story/plot, etc., into the “mainstream” shows that clearly non-white authors are marginalized, even to the disturbance of fellow white authors, who are feeling urged to do something about it.

Who has noticed this about most books by white authors? That the use of racial identifiers is reserved for the non-white characters in the stories. I have noticed this for years. It’s an easy place to see the deeply ingrained racist conditioning that still plagues this entire society, and will continue to do so until it is acknowledged by those who perpetuate and sustain it, and is finally honestly addressed. Most white authors don’t even realize they are subconsciously marginalizing “others” who are not of their own race. Think about it. What is a non-white reader to think as they read these books? Books that are clearly being written with a white audience in the subconscious mind. Why doesn't the author have to tell the reader that all the white characters are white? But they feel compelled to tell the reader when a character(s) is Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, etc. Why is that? What does this reflect?

So why wouldn’t Oprah – the most prominent figure in publishing – want to talk about this?

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  1. Rebecca TricolliAugust 26, 2009 5:54 PM

    Great to see a new post from you, Millenia!

    This is a good point. Oprah's producers know that her audience is mostly white. They are about ratings, and a show to a bunch of white people about racism against black writers probably is what they think will fly.

    It's a tough issue, but I do agree that Oprah will inevitably have to address it. Otherwise she looks out of touch...almost uncaring.

  2. I agree, Oprah is more influential than the publishers, she could make a huge difference on this issue. Look what happened to you? This needs to come to an end for sure and all writers need be treated equally. Oprah can help usher that in for sure.

    Great post.

    Gina in DC

  3. Oprah could help, but will she? it remains to be seen. Accusations of everyday racism will NOT work with her white supporters and she'd have to be very, very careful. After all, this much time has gone by without her giving a peep over the issue.

    A white person would be safer doing this. See how whites minding the publishing industry paid attention and supported Justine Larbalestier compared to you over essentially the same complaint?

    I remember you got slammed by some for daring to speak out on the issue along with getting charged with being uppity and not grateful enough. Larbalestier got none of that because she's white.

    Oprah is still a black woman in American too. As Chris Rock said, Bill Gates would jump out a window if he woke up with [only] her money.

  4. it's really a touchy situation. Whites hate when blacks bitch about racism. No doubt Oprah is aware of that. and no doubt lots of money gets spread around to buy the loyalty of producers who can influence her decisions.....tis a dicey one.

    as for monica's comment, remember Oprah's the one who confronted that racist town in....georgia? she's done tons of shows about race/class relations, i think it makes sense that the people who work for her may be on the take because people with stuff to sell....well you can figure it out. --- JJ

  5. Looking at the flip side (not nec my point of view, but a pov nonetheless) - There is the possibility she holds the opposing view, and believes the AA section is a form of (bad choice of word coming) elitism?

    No fading into the background of the masses if the many great black authors are grouped together?

  6. Rebecca TricolliAugust 28, 2009 3:36 PM

    They are about ratings, and a show to a bunch of white people about racism against black writers probably is what they think will fly.

    That should be ISN'T what they think will fly. I just noticed my typo. Sorry!

  7. I don't think so little of Oprah that I believe she would consciously support -any- form of racial discrimination. I believe it's a simple matter of awareness. How aware is she? I know that producers are aware of it, but the question remains: is Oprah? And if so, what is her position on these practices?

    Oprah could found her own publishing house and effectively bury the competition - no current house has the ability to sell books the way she does. Not even close. I don't believe she's afraid of any backlash. I think she's just very insulated, and there are a plethora of issues vying for her attention, this among them. But given the weight she carries in the industry, I think Rebecca may be it possible she's just out of touch with the issue?

    M :)

  8. I see no reason to question the validity of the damning allegation that some of Oprah's producers are engaging in self-aggrandizement and being enablers to the big publisher's perpetual racism. What does it portend to the credibility of the Oprah Show operation? It's unthinkable Oprah would in anyway be insensitive or uncaring over such behavior by her producers.

  9. This post assumes Oprah is simply ignorant of this situation, but I think you might be a little naive. Oprah's probably just as corrupt as anyone else. Plus, of all the unknowns she's brought overnight success to with her club, how many were black??

  10. Anon #2: Now you've just raised the spectrum on this. But since more white people have benefited from her selections than black, does that mean she is hiding a pro-racial bias? Give me more reason than that, because I still believe Lady Oprah will be cleared of any wrong doing. This is the first of such allegations and she may well have been oblivious to it. I think she's entitled to the benefit of that doubt. Anon #1

  11. Great post! As an aspiring writer and woc, I find it interesting how the "default" race for characters in literature is white - and when race is mentioned it is done so in minimalizing terms. We need to expand our language in terms of how to describe, visualize and meaningfully portray identity.

    There are some great books out there where the racism is intentionally ignored, or a poc is intentionally white washed to a point where future readers do not know if the character is a poc or white (i.e. Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights; white supremacy in The Great Gatsby, etc).

    If Oprah started a publishing house with the niche of publishing for/by pocs.. I'd actually have some authentic respect for her character.

  12. Millenia - it is so true what you say about white writers. If they can't even see their characters equally, what does that say for how they see real people? White characters get described to the reader: face features, hair color, eye color, etc. but when the character is not white, they get treated differently. They can't just be described to the reader like the white characters are, the reader is told first off that this is not "one of us". It's really sad. I always noticed it, but never thought of it in terms of how it exposes the way most whites (even when they don't consider themselves racist) view non-whites and how that results in subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) acts of discrimination.

    Can Oprah do anything about this? Hell yes! Oprah is one of the most influential people in the world. She commands attention and respect. Nobody preaches finding your "authentic self" and living your "best life" like Oprah. Is it just a sham brand, or does she really mean it? She could make a huge difference by talking consistently about these types of ways that racial division rears its head and hurts people, cripples many lives and family potential.

    It is not so hidden after all, is it? Walk into any bookstore and crack open a bestseller--race division screaming at you. So true. This is no doubt a hard post to read for white authors and white persons in general, but it is still the truth, and somebody needs to have the courage to say it.

  13. Millenia's point about how racism rears its ugly head even in the works of who do not consider themselves racist is a good one. As an editor, it's something I often encounter in manuscripts. Writers really don't seem to notice when they describe a white character by the color of their hair, eyes, hands, etc. and then toss off a one liner specifying that another character is black, as if that said it all. I always call my writers on it, and they're always shocked, and I do mean shocked, but they have to admit that I'm right.

    As for Oprah, I love her, but I noticed years ago how few of the authors she backed were not white. In other words, we're talking not only black writers, but Asian, Indian, etc. I also don't see Oprah as the answer. She could use her power to highlight something so blatant and yet so insidious, but I don't think she will. I just don't.

  14. Persia Walker said: "She could use her power to highlight something so blatant and yet so insidious, but I don't think she will."

    The United States is some three hundred years old, and emancipation of slaves ended two hundred years ago. It shouldn't be the case that in every governmental and big highfalutin corporation there still remains procedural practices of racism. Persia makes me take a second thought, because who knows? Inequality in publishing has been public knowledge for some time now, Re: the Wall Street Journal article of 2006 on the subject. Could there be political reasons that keep Oprah from denouncing big publishers' obvious, racially biased practices?

    It's really unfortunate as you can see. Just a handful of non-white people are willing to show muscle by demonstrating real intellect in a roaring shout--I'm no slavish imbecile and I know equality when I see it. This is an appalling national shame which should be denounced by all people.

    Anon #1

  15. Great post, but does anyone think for one minute that Oprah's the one who really runs that show?? She's probably just the name on the package at this point. Her team of handlers are no doubt in charge of things, with Oprah SO far removed from the ground that by the time she thinks she's made a decision, it's likely already been made for her!!

    I've worked in organizations like that over the years, and the people at the top aren't doing the grunt work. They rely on their staff to do it for them, so the staff is EMPOWERED to tell her what's coming in and what's going out. They give her most of her choices, very likely knowing what she'll choose before she does! Heh. It's very easy for the person at the top to develop a FALSE sense of control, because they fail to realize they'd basically delegated most of it away, and left themselves with only the illusion of control, for the most part.

    So I agree with Millenia. Oprah is VERY likely to be well-insulated, a habitual pattern, with the people around her making most of the decisions for her..before she even knows it! Heh.

    Why would those producers want to touch this VERY sticky race issue involving their Fortune 500 pals? They wouldn't. Period.

    What can be done about it? I'm not sure. It's a REALLY long shot to get any serious media outlet to pick this up and do the problem justice. None of them are interested to touch the very real and RAW realities of EVERYDAY racism. It's much easier for them to pretend it doesn't exist. They can then comfortably decry the inevitable eruptions (a la the Justine Larbalstier cover incident) and feel that's enough.

    Jennifer Slater

  16. Good points made here, and I have enjoyed reading through the comments.

    Has anybody noticed that most of Oprah's producers are white? It makes sense to see that they would not be predisposed to doing anything about the everyday marginalizing and unfair treatment of black writers.

    As Chris Rock said: it's all right because it's all WHITE!

    Don P.

  17. Oprah should have been in the conversation 2 years ago when you first came out and fought discrimination.


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