11 November 2012

How Quickly We Forget

A while back, I remarked on an author's bad experience with whitewashing of her YA covers, and followed it up with some "polling" data validating her concerns on a much broader level. In the aftermath of the demographic causes of Tuesday's events — and in need of copy of a friend's new book — I took a side trip to a trade bookstore on the Peninsula.

I really didn't like what I found. Nothing much has changed.

Keep in mind that this particular chain has a monopoly on trade books on the Peninsula, measured by floor space, by revenues, by foot traffic, by items sold, by anything. There is almost no discernable competition for this chain between the Mission District and Palo Alto, and what competition there is does not carry much in the way of either YA or speculative fiction. Thus, if one wants to see Justine Larbalestier's latest (not what I was shopping for, but I did want to see the display) — or even a Mormon-tinged vampire novel or James Bond fantasy — there's no choice.

Due to other errands, I ended up at Chain Store #2936 in San Mateo — one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the nation. That was reflected in the foot traffic in the store, which was slightly and visibly majority-minority even among the teenaged girls (and there's a mall right there, too, so that doesn't mean "two out of three"). The YA setup in that store is slightly unusual, in that there are no feature tables with stacks of books; there are, instead, three feature endcaps spread against the barrier to the children's section (really? yes), each of which has 25 face-out slots for current/featured/new trade-paperback titles.

Of the 75 titles displayed, there was one discernable non-Caucasian depicted. Probably not coincidentally, none of the non-Caucasian teenaged girls was spending time in that part of the store during the 45 minutes or so that I was there.

I then went downstairs to make my purchase, and was assisted by a pleasant-enough, non-Caucasian young lady who had earlier been upstairs helping a customer. I informed her that there are non-Caucasian teenaged girls who read, but that one would never know it by looking at the YA displays... and she was surprised. This is even more oblivious than Fox News's attempts to pander to the angry-old-white-men demographic; it's the equivalent of not even allowing female nonheterosexual Rachel Maddow on the air at all. So, management of the chain (and of the commercial publishing conglomerates in New York): Congratulations — you've succeeded in reviving Jim Crow in the face of demographics. You've brainwashed your employees while you've been whitewashing your covers. In this instance, I don't know whether management of Store #2936, of the chain, or of the commercial publishing establishment is more to blame; on the other hand, I don't care, because even simple awareness of demographics at any one of those levels could break the cycle.

Ironically enough, the cover of the book I actually bought — from an adjacent part of the store — depicts a Caucasian blonde... but she's got a lot of non-Caucasian help, and she's a usually-recovering alcoholic; one of the subtexts in that series is "one cannot determine who one's friends are by appearances."