Description: In 2017, what message does an all-white masthead send to writers of color? Beyond the content of their work, what issues must these writers contend with in publishing? Four writers of color and one white editor explore real and perceived tokenism, the pressure to change a story or voice to fit an editor’s racialized assumptions, the continued erasure of writers of color in the canon and awards systems, and the highs and lows of working with editors in the face of these and other challenges.
Panelists: Deesha Philyaw, Dennis Norris II, Patrice Gopo, Lisa Factora-Borchers, Jennifer Niesslein
In 2017, we’re all working together to become a more unified, supportive world. So when I saw that AWP was hosting a panel entitled “What Writers of Color Want White Editors To Know”, I knew it was something I needed to hear. The result was a candid, frank, and necessary discussion that gave some insight to this young, white aspiring editor as to how to cultivate not just diversity for diversity’s sake, but how to work to create an industry where the marginalized are made central and mastery of voice is paramount.
The panel was made up of four writers of color, one of whom is also an editor. These are people who know what they’re talking about, who have experiences that they draw from in dealing with the mostly-white world of publishing.
The panel was proposed and intended to be moderated by Jennifer Niesslein, editor of the web magazine Full Grown People, who unfortunately was unable to attend. The idea for the panel came out of Jennifer’s desire to better understand the needs of writers of color. She could see that writers of color are often tokenized and marginalized, and she wanted to amplify their voices. In Jennifer’s absence, one of the panelists, Deesha Philyaw, stepped up to moderate.
Deesha is a freelance writer; her book, Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, was co-authored with her ex-husband. She is a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and contributes to The Rumpus. Her co-panelists were Patrice Gopo, whose work can be seen in The New York Times and The Washington Post, Dennis Norris II, whose fiction has been published in Smokelong Quarterly and Apogee Journal, and Lisa Factora-Borchers, a writer and editor of the anthology Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Assault and has written for Refinery 29, The Feminist Wire, and Bitch Media.
In light of the subject of the panel and subsequently this article, I feel I should also identify myself. I am a white woman in my mid-twenties. I was born and raised in Mississippi before moving to London to get an MA in Publishing. I now live in Pittsburgh and intern for the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction. I feel the need to explain my background in order to expose and acknowledge my own biases and privilege. It’s the reason I attended this panel: I am aware of my privilege and I want to understand ways in which I can use it to amplify the voices that aren’t always heard.
The panel opened with a question that white writers don’t often have to consider when submitting their work to a publisher: What message does an all-white masthead send to you?
Dennis was the first to answer. When he sees that a magazine, journal, or publishing house’s leadership is mostly or entirely white, he’s “going to take a long pause” and consider whether he wants to send his work there. He feels that it signals that there is less space for his work at these publications and doesn’t want to waste time and energy by sending his writing to them.
Patrice agreed. When she sees that the leadership for a publication is all white, or even that they’re just a list of unidentifiable names on the publication’s website, she feels it’s likely the submission won’t be successful and that she won’t have anyone on her side, especially in a large company.
Lisa has sat on both sides of the desk, as a writer and as an editor. When she is looking for somewhere to submit, she is “strategic and protective” of her work. “It’s a form of self-care and pride,” she said. Lisa asserts that the writer has to believe in their work and find an editor and publisher who believes in it too, so the writer knows they’re making every effort for them.
As an editor, Lisa understands that an all-white masthead does send a message, even if it’s unintentional. If a company doesn’t make it clear that part of their vision is promoting diversity and equality, then they are “missing out on complex writing” and their talent will be “watered down”.
Fortunately, there is a way to communicate to writers shopping for places to submit their work that your publication is on their team. On your website, you should be intentional in your mission to inclusion and equality. Craft your mission statement to reflect this. If you do have people of color on your leadership team but the page introducing your masthead is a list of names, include head shots next to everyone’s name and title. And, especially, highlight your writers of color and what they bring to your publication.
As one might imagine, the writers on the panel all had experiences to share in which race came to bear, and most of the anecdotes were not particularly positive. Each writer agreed that often they were called on to be the “black perspective” on a subject, or that their work was chosen to be published merely to fulfill a quota for diversity in a publisher’s list. But they also had positive experiences to share.
Patrice gave us three characteristics that are helpful for a white editor to have.
- A willingness to collaborate. She said that she has had authors push their perspectives on her work and attempt to change her writing to fit the narrative they want to portray. This is not helpful to the writer, nor is it helpful to the reader, who won’t be getting an honest representation if the editor has his or her way. Being willing to truly listen, collaborate, and provide a platform for the writer is imperative to being a good editor.
- A sense of humility. White editors should acknowledge their bias and the fact that they won’t always understand the perspective of the writer.
- Show that you value the work. Whether with monetary compensation (equal, of course, to the amount paid to white writers), or with nominations for awards and distinctions, show that you didn’t publish the work because the writer isn’t white, but that you truly find their work inspiring, exemplary, and worthy of recognition.
Lisa suggested that, when working with white editors, writers of color try to work exclusively with intentional editors who will be helpful in guiding them through the editorial and publishing process. Her experiences with editors such as these were positive because they “payed attention to the promise of [her] work” and gave her “thoughtful comments” and constructive critiques to help really improve her work. On the flip side of this, she’s had experiences where the editor gave her almost no feedback, simply telling her, “This is great”. Lisa noted that not only did this not help her hone her craft, but it made her feel like she was ticking a “diversity” box on their list and that her work wasn’t really valuable to the publication for anything other than that.
Another suggestion from Patrice, which all the panelists agreed with, was to read broadly. Step outside of your comfort zone with books. Dennis brought up the many reading challenges that have been circulating daring readers to read books that push their boundaries and broaden their understandings. Reading is known to increase empathy, and reading about experiences that differ from your own helps you better understand someone else’s worldview.
A question came from a writer of color who has become frustrated with all of the time and energy she has spent explaining privilege and prejudice to white people, in particular to publications with white leadership and white editors. She wanted to know how to handle these questions in the future and, half-jokingly, asked if she should start charging for the service. The answer from the panel was simple and unanimous: Just stop. It should not fall to people of color to constantly explain white privilege and the systems that keep it in place. In 2017, white people have white people for that. If the questions are coming from a sincere place, it is likely that the questioner has white friends who can answer them and guide them through their privilege—and there is always Google. There are multitudes of articles and think pieces like this one, this one, and this one, that can help you understand your own privilege, what to do about it, and what to do with it.
The overall lesson from the panel was this: Try. Try sincerely. Make an sincere and open effort to seek not only diversity, but strong voices to tell a strong story. At any publication, it’s the editor’s job to curate and cultivate the list they publish. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the editor more than anyone else to be intentional about finding writers of color with honest, powerful voices that deserve to be heard.
Katie Hatcher is an avid reader, somewhat reluctant writer, and aspiring editor. She currently interns for Creative Nonfiction Magazine and has an MA in Publishing from Kingston University.