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Whitewashing: the disappearance of race and ethnicity from YA covers

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This is my final week on Inside a Dog, and I wanted to kick it off by talking about something that I feel strongly about – the ‘whitewashing’ of covers of books in YA fiction. What exactly is this, you might ask? ‘Whitewashing’, in this context, describes what happens when the diversity contained within a story disappears from the cover of the book. So, for example, a book about a black-haired, black-skinned girl features a pale-skinned blonde on the cover. Or, a book about a brown-skinned boy features a pale-skinned boy on the cover. Or a book about an olive-skinned girl – well, you get the picture. 

My own book features a girl described as brown skinned, and I do indeed have a brown skinned girl on my cover. File 15330
I would have been extremely upset if I didn’t, although I doubt it would ever have occurred to my wonderful publishers to suggest that I should.

But unfortunately, authors sometimes don’t get any control over, or say in, what goes on the cover of their books.

A few years ago, a publisher wanted to put a fair skinned girl on the cover of the US edition of Liar, written by Aussie author Justine Larbalestier. The main character of that book, Micah, is black, and you can read Justine Larbalestier’s post about what happened and how she felt about it here. And a later post by her on the topic of race and representation here

There have been a number of instances of whitewashing in YA fiction over the past few years, and the phenomenon itself is far from a new one. That it isn’t new does not surprise me – it should be old, because any thinking that the world (or a story) should be inaccurately represented as being only about persons of one colour surely belongs to a different era (the 1950s called…they’d like their covers back, please). So why do publishers persist in doing this? One of the motivations appears to be that some publishers feel that teenagers won’t buy a book with a person of colour on the cover, although there doesn’t seem to be any actual evidence that this is true. 

As a YA author, I find an assumption that teenagers are only interested in a narrow category of stories about people who look exactly like them to be insulting to teenagers everywhere. Teenagers, at least in my experience, have all the curiousity about other peoples and places that some of us sadly seem to lose as we get older. What’s more, when I was writing a novel about a girl who would change the world, there was a reason that I wrote about a teenager. My teenager is Indigenous, but many of her qualities are the qualities I see in teenagers everywhere, of all races and cultures – including flexibility of thought; reckless courage; stubborn defiance; and an absolute refusal to accept that injustice cannot be changed or should not be challenged. 

Beyond this, what about all the teens out there who are not fair skinned? How are they to feel when they walk into bookstore and are unable to find a single cover image that looks anything like them? What are they to think when race and ethnicity is allowed to appear in the content of a story but not on the cover of a story, when who they are is something that must be hidden away? As an Indigenous author, this is obviously something close to my heart. I spoke about how difficult it can be to never see images of yourself in (or on) books in an interview last year, where I said: 

“Imagine a world where no mirror ever shows you your own reflection. You search in vain for a glimpse of your face, your eyes, your existence. Instead you are met again and again with blank glass that shows a world without you in it. There are images enough, of other people, of faces and voices and peoples unlike your own. But never of you, never of your face and what it reveals about your hopes and dreams and fears. It is as if you make no impact on the world and have no importance to it. And it leaves you feeling lost. Bewildered. Alone.”

(you can find that interview here.) 

So, to all the teenagers out there, whoever you are and from wherever you come, I say this – you deserve all the stories: the ones about people like you, and the ones about people unlike you. You deserve to be intrigued and surprised and bewildered by glimpses into worlds not your own, and find not only the points of divergence but the points of connection with people of other races and cultures. You deserve stories that make your existence larger, not smaller; stories that expand rather than limit your reality. And when you walk into a bookstore, you deserve to be surrounded by a crowd of faces, of all colours and cultures and races, and to know that behind every one of those faces is a new world waiting to be discovered…and all it takes to experience it is the turn of a page.

 What else, after all, are stories for?


Jun 28,2013

I must say I've never noticed that about book covers, but then, I've never looked for it either. Or maybe like ambivalence said, it's just a matter of not caring about something that should ideally be completely irrelevant. I guess if you are part of a majority, it would never stand out quite so much. But I am curious now and will investigate next time I'm in the library. x)

And your quote is so beautiful and powerful. x) I love it.

Jun 28,2013
anonymous's picture

You'd be proud of me, Ambelin, if you saw my cover. My Aboriginal boy Billy is in a loincloth, bare bummed! Can you imagine a traditional publisher allowing that? Check it out here I don’t hold back in the slightest in my story. I lay it all out bare and teenagers are loving it. I self-published to do it of course, but I haven’t looked back.

Gary Taaffe

Jun 25,2013


Wonderful and insightful article on this disturbing 'trend'. I can't wait to hear you speak at Melbourne Writers Festival :)

Jun 24,2013

How do you always come up with such powerful statements? ^_^

Well, truthfully, I think the idea that teenagers wouldn't feel inclined to buy/read a book that has a coloured person on it is kinda... stupid? I think we're beyond that point where we even consider the colour of a person on the cover a book to be significant in our decision of whether we're going to read it or not. I, for one, only really consider the person on the cover after I read the book, before trying to make up my mind as to whether I think if the model is how I imagined he/she to be. But colour, COLOUR.... just seems so outdated.

But it's interesting you make this point now - on Saturday, at the Amnesty International/Welcome to Australia's 'Walk Together' event, there was this actress who was saying the same thing about being in the entertainment industry. I forgot her name, but she was saying how much it affected her, growing up, to never ever see a girl like her on TV or in the movies that was the love interest of her celebrity crushes - it's not something I'd personally be concerned about, but you know, I understand it.

At least we've made some progress, right? I think, I hope, it can only get better :)

Jun 24,2013
anonymous's picture

Great article. Really got me thinking. Got a few of my books out and scrounged for misnomers. One series I love - The Kane Chronicles - featured two Egyptian teenagers in the series and had two Arabic children on all of the covers - You go Rick Riordan!

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