As we settle into a slightly more racially conscious America, we are treated to what can only be called the next Great Awokening.
Brands are currently tripping over themselves to prove that they are anti-racist, releasing statements and committing to donating to causes that fight racism. But all the carefully worded statements — undoubtedly crafted by some bewildered publicists — are met with not-so-subtle callouts of hypocrisy that are finally leading to overdue reckonings. This is exemplified in the recent rumblings in the publishing industry that have exploded on Twitter and have led to resignations and promises to “do better.”
But let’s face it: publishing is a largely segregated industry that is a breeding ground of subtle bias. In some ways, this can seem relatively benign because publications now cater specifically to niche audiences. However, specific groups (*cough* white people *cough*) are held up as the purveyors of culture and the most prestigious magazines, books, and newspapers are always white ones. White authors routinely dominate the NY Times bestseller list and Vogue, aka “The Fashion Bible”, is Anna Wintour‘s vision of fashion, beauty, and style. Magazines like Ebony and Essence have the pressure of encompassing every aspect of black women, yet their editors aren’t mainstream names with obscene clothing allowances.
This trickles into every type of publication: online brands like Man Repeller and The Cut that present themselves as progressive and feminist are dominated by privileged white women who sprinkle in black voices to talk about “black things.” They rarely have diverse editorial boards that can build a lasting inclusive culture because BIPOC writers are pigeonholed into being tokens. Even worse, black employees at these companies report cliquishness and, at times, hostile management. Just look up #BlackAtR29 for a catalog of overt racism and microaggressions that young black journalists have all faced. It’s evidence that their actual organizations do little to reflect the intersectionality that they supposedly champion.
For glossies, it’s unpaid internships and notoriously impenetrable hierarchies that contribute to the problem. You have to rely on both luck and leveraging your personal network to rise to a position of power and are typically rewarded for maintaining the status quo. It’s currently in vogue to proclaim inclusivity and positivity, but it’s obvious that it’s more a reflection of what is considered socially acceptable than a real cultural shift. “Diversity” has become a tired buzzword that forces white editors to avoid obvious bias and has them routinely defending themselves from inevitable cries of cultural appropriation, without fostering real respect.
In book publishing, the latest trending hashtag #PublishingPaidMe shows that the largely white book publishing industry unfairly compensates minority authors who already struggle to find a publisher. This comes months after American Dirt made it glaringly obvious that white voices are amplified even when the stories are about other identities. According to self-reported numbers, 64% of the authors who received more than $100,000 book advances were white.
As someone who has worked at a literary book agency, a major publishing house, a travel magazine, and as a freelancer, I am still enamored by the stunning visuals and well-crafted writing. But I have also talked myself out of directly addressing microaggressions and felt tinges of familiarity as I read the stories pouring out on Twitter. It has been heartening to watch Leandra Medine and Adam Rapoport step aside because their past behavior makes it doubtful that they will make any real change. Don’t be fooled into thinking the wave of resignations is just “cancel culture” rearing its ugly head; it’s the necessary step towards substantive change.
But frankly, we should all be skeptical of whether we will see long term change. Realistically, the majority of people currently in power in publishing will stay where they are. For every Christene Barberich there is an Anna Wintour who is probably swept up in the emotion of the moment and, as Andre Leon Talley will tell you, has a long history of mistreating people. It would be insane to believe that the people who have been perpetuating diversity issues in their workplaces are truly the best suited to effectively dismantle them. But we have to hope that enough people will stay engaged to force them to.