Browse through your bookshelf at home, or your Kindle app, and give it a really good look. Pay special attention to the book covers. What images are used? What drew you to buy those books? Was it the images? The author? The typography?
Books are sold, in large part, by their cover design. Books do not have trailers like movies, and most are not written by famous authors. So how do the publishers get us to even notice their books? It’s the cover design.
For those of you who don’t know, I am a book cover designer. Recently in a book cover design Facebook group that I’m in, an author left a comment stating that she was searching for designs featuring black women. I was ashamed that I hadn’t made any. When I started designing covers, I specifically looked for images of people of color. But the public domain image site that I used lacked quality stock images of black women. I should have put more effort into finding them, but I didn’t at that time. This issue has been stewing in my head ever since.
My family was on a long car drive one day and both my kids were asleep. My husband and I, like we often do, were discussing ideas that we find interesting. I didn’t even know that this particular idea had been weighing on my mind until I started explaining it to him. That’s when I mentioned the new Jodi Picoult book cover. I have read many Picoult novels and I had been particularly excited to hear that she was specifically writing a book to address modern-day racism in America. Picoult writes vivid characters and has beautiful, thought-provoking prose. If anyone could address the issue of racism in America, I thought she would do it justice. But I was disturbed when the cover for her new book was revealed. Despite being a book about a black woman, there was not a black woman on the cover! In fact, there wasn’t an image of people at all.
Picoult (or more likely her publisher) decided to use a geometric design with colored squares. To my knowledge, this was the first time that Picoult wrote a book with a black main character. It was also her first book written to address racism. For a book dealing with something so deeply human, it seems odd that there would not be any people on the cover. Almost all of Picoult’s other books have had images of people on the covers—and all of those people have been white.
I discussed this issue further with some friends and found there was a mixture of responses that mostly fell into two categories: there should have been a black woman on the cover, and justifications for why there wasn’t. It boiled down to the idea that publishers could sell more books without a black woman on the cover. Some of my friends thought this was OK because the people who needed to read the message might have been turned away by the face of a black woman, but maybe they would be changed when they read the book.
However, I don’t believe that getting this message out was the publisher’s motivation. The publisher’s job is to sell books. They are a business and their job is to make money, not spread a message. They publish all sorts of books and this one is not the exception to the rule. So the question is, why would they be able to sell more books without a black woman on the cover?
As a designer, I have always been interested in book covers. I could peruse the shelves for hours in my teen and college years (that was when I actually had free time). I would marvel at the swirly typography. I would ooh and aah over the photography. And as a designer I would look at the image from several angles guessing how many stock photos they used to compile such an interesting cover image. But my favorite thing to do was run my hand along the raised lettering or the combinations of glossy and matte finishes. I would hold the books up to my nose and smell the new paper and new adventures. But one thing that I didn’t notice back then was the lack of people of color on my beautiful books!
How could I not notice this? I didn’t notice because I was raised with white privilege. What is white privilege? It’s the ability to grow up in the world thinking that my experience as a white person is normal. It’s taking for granted that almost everyone I see in movies and TV, on billboards and book covers, looks like me. It’s being blissfully unaware that millions of other people have an entirely different experience.
Whether we like to admit it or not, white privilege is the result of systemic racism in our society. Racism is our legacy. Our country ripped millions of Africans away from their families and homes in Africa, transported them across the Atlantic, and used them as slaves to build this country. We sold them. We beat them. We raped them. We lynched them. We treated them worse than animals. And even when slavery finally ended in this country, black Americans were still not free. They didn’t enjoy the same rights as white Americans. They were intentionally held back financially, socially, politically, and educationally. This was not as long ago as we would like to think. There are black Americans alive today who were born into a world where they couldn’t vote, or go to school with white kids, or drink out of the same drinking fountain as white people. If they violated these rules, they faced threats, beatings, and even lynchings. Our white society denied them basic human rights that we take for granted.
The scope of the injustice is immense and can’t be fully addressed in one blog. I don’t want to trivialize or gloss over any of these enormous issues. I want address this problem with an example we can easily see and understand: book covers. Have we made progress as a society? Yes. Thankfully we no longer have segregated schools or laws against interracial marriage. Have we solved the problem of racism in our society? Far from it. In America, being white is still preferred to being black or brown. Ask any black person who’s been pulled over by the police. Ask any black parent who has to tell their kids that they can’t play hide-and-seek outside because seeing black people (even children) hiding terrifies the average white person. Even something that seems benign, like our standard of beauty, is shaped by racism. White facial features, body shapes, hair textures—these are how we define what is beautiful. Even from a young age children learn to associate whiteness with being pretty, and blackness with being ugly. This is why publishers sell more books with white people on the covers. We want the people on our book covers to be attractive, interesting, and relatable—and black people don’t measure up to our standard. (See the Doll Test.)
You don’t believe me that it’s that big of an issue? Consider this: “Last year U.S. publishers released an estimated 5,000 books for children and teens. Now, here’s a quick quiz. How many were written or illustrated by African-Americans or were about black people or other non-whites? 400? 500? Guess again. A mere 63 books were by black authors, and just 93 were about African-Americans[!]” (From the Baltimore Sun.)
How can we move past these problems? First, we must become aware of them. We cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend that if we don’t see racism it no longer exists. Just because you don’t see racism doesn’t mean people of color aren’t suffering from it. It is our white privilege that allows us to ignore what people of color cannot, because it’s their daily experience. This is a powerful quote from a black photojournalist: “This blatant dishonesty towards the state of nonwhites in America, serves as a new and improved white hood or mask to shield responsibility and accountability of the State of race relations. The common German is more accountable and observant of their collective crimes against Jews than the white American is towards their crimes against black and native peoples.” (Johnny Silvercloud.)
Ignoring the problem is not an option. Our apathy toward racism allows it to continue harming people of color. To be neutral is to uphold the status quo, and the status quo is racism. James 4:17 says, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”
What can you do personally to address this problem? I challenge you to surrender your own defensiveness and learn about the experiences of people of color in America. Listen to your black neighbors, coworkers, and friends—and don’t try to minimize or justify the mistreatment they have suffered. Believe their stories, and learn to empathize with them.
Learn to recognize your own bias. Most of us were born into this society. We didn’t create these problems, but we have still been shaped by them. Our consumerist market is founded on racism. Acknowledge it! Fight against it! In the context of book cover design, I challenge you to intentionally buy your next book with a person of color on the cover. Better yet, buy a book written by a person of color. You may end up discovering a new perspective on life that enriches and transforms the way you think.