But before I start, I want to say this is not a rant--it's a brainstorm for productive change. I look forward to your thoughtful insights.
So I guess I'll start here. Racism sucks. It sucks even more in publishing, since mass media is basically the only "thing" with the power to reach lots of people fast, and instead, for the most part, media generators--book publishers among them--find that it is comfortable, happy, and money-padded to carry on with the status quo, give people what they're used to, and ignore the problems. But yes indeed, racism we have.
The thing about racism, particularly among well-meaning people, is that it's not overtly, deliberately malicious--most of it is just passivity, or, like I said, people doing again what made them money before. There are some (profound and terrifying) exceptions, examples of actively racist and/or bigoted publishing. But the majority of our sins are sins of omission--of failing to represent authors (and/or characters) of color the way we do white authors.
I'll borrow the words of Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, who writes that some examples of passive racism include "letting exclusionary hiring practices go unchallenged, of accepting as appropriate the omissions of people of color from the curriculum, and of avoiding difficult race-related issues... All that is required is to maintain business as usual" ("Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" 11).***
Dr. BDT is talking about life and the work force in general, but an awful lot of that applies freakishly to publishing. Publishers have a limited number of slots on a given list, so when a strong-selling (white) author comes back with a second book, it's hard to say no to it--you've already seen how it performs. Similarly, if a similar book appears by a new author, it's awful easy to say yes--seems like easy, sure money. Now round out your standard list-filling for financial security with some standard misunderstandings or platitudes about what readers want and expect, and boom! You have a top-down problem. Writers of color aren't disadvantaged, per se; it's just that white authors are very, very advantaged. You know. No one's trying to be mean. (Or, at least, most people aren't.)
Some of the unfortunate products of the time-honored establishments run like this:
-Lots and lots and lots of books by white authors! Like, most of the books that get major marketing billing from trade companies.
-"Pet project" or "ethnic" books by authors of color taken on to "diversify" a list! Only, you know--they should be "ethnic" in a way readers will understand. That's why you see one "ethnic" splash, and then lots and lots of kitten would-be splashes following. Sigh. This also leads to phenomenon like the racialized "Other" in mainstream fantasy--keeping the "ethnic" characters in an exoticized context that makes them easier to swallow for white readers (you've seen this in everything from Dune to The Wheel of Time). A whole other debate, but here's a taste over here at this blog, in which well-known fantasy writer Elizabeth Bear's blog hosted a long and hurtful debate (the whole blog fiasco is being called race!fail 09).
-A general perpetuation of a separate but equal publishing system--people acquiring what they know from agents they know, agents learning to specialize their pitches, and a widespread building of walls between separating communities who let one another specialize.
And more insidious consequences of those three central tenets. They get insidious quickly after that point; just imagine the damage privileged media does when it only represents one angle, or how the people profiting from that arrangement say hurtful things in an effort not to feel responsible.
The point is, we want our national literary culture to reflect our country--diverse, complex, and interesting in thousands and millions of ways, not on one very limited way. It's in everyone's interest to break down these accidental dumbnesses, and the first step is building awareness that there are problems.
What can I do to help this? Well, that's "easy." Obviously, I'm trying really, really hard to acquire books that represent overlooked perspectives of our beautiful, complicated populace, and I'm shying away from things that remind me too much of things I've already known and seen. But I need help--after all, I don't control the money, and I can't control the chains or their understanding of their markets. If I by a great book that the chains don't see a market for, it doesn't really matter how great the book is. The battle is for getting mainstream review coverage and national stocking on a much more diverse collection of books. And why should the chains take a chance and think outside the box (the box they've built themselves) when they're making (some) money the way they're going now?
So what you, personally, can do is kind of simple. Just *think* about this when you're buying, borrowing, and/or reviewing books. Take a little affirmative action in your TBR list. It sounds cheesy, but it's not as obvious as you'd think--most of what bookstores and reviewers are throwing in your face are going to be books that are part of that mainstream we're trying to get away from. You'll have to make a positive effort to look around for other suggestions than what you're getting from most venues. But if you buy books by authors of color, those authors will become more successful, and will get the chain's ($$$) attention. If you show up at your local library and request titles they're not used to carrying, they're going to have to start thinking about their stocking orders, too. If you blog about a book that hasn't gotten mainstream coverage, you're personally making a difference by making yourself a review venue.
Luckily, a lot of people are doing a lot of work on this already. Carleen Brice, for example, is one of the major reasons I've been thinking so much about this whole issue recently. Her blog's mission is to bridge the distance between the Fiction and the African American Fiction sections in the bookstore. Here's a fantastic recent post about memorable female characters--a perfect starting checklist. I hope people who read this will cough up other site or source recommendations.
I'm here to be proactive--that's my schtick. So please, everyone, help out with your ideas and suggestions.
***I do recommend that everyone read this book. It helped me understand and be much more aware of the world around me, and how to make a difference.