Diversity problems in publishing are multiple and far-reaching. One such issue is the whitewashing of protagonists on book covers. Whitewashing is frequently discussed in connection to film and is often called out publicly. Prominent examples of whitewashing in movies include films like Aloha, The Lone Ranger, and Doctor Strange. Whitewashing and public backlash over it also occurs in book to movie adaptations like The Hunger Games. However, book publishing also has rampant issues with whitewashing, even if its material never makes it to the screen. Although the practice is becoming more and more infrequent, when it comes to cover design, there is a good chance that main characters of color might get whitewashed.
What is whitewashing?
There is no formal definition of whitewashing, at least in regards to race. The Oxford English Dictionary offers this definition: “To cover (the face, etc.) with make-up or a similar substance intended to make the skin look lighter.” The Cambridge Dictionary offers a different definition, defining whitewashing as “the practice of using only white actors, models, or performers; especially the practice of using a white actor to play a character who is not white.” These definitions together make up the essence of what whitewashing is and looks like in action – especially in movies.
What does whitewashing look like in book publishing?
Whitewashing in book publishing happens almost exclusively in cover design. Cover design is based on what publishers think will sell, and most authors have little control over what the physical copies of their books look like. Whitewashing on covers occurs in a few different ways. Most recognizably, it is when a main character of color is represented as a white person on the cover of the book. Another way it takes place is when the main character of color is simply given more eurocentric features in their portrayal on the cover than what matches their in-text description. However, in books, whitewashing can also take the form of leaving characters completely off the cover. For example, rather than having a Black character on the cover of a book, publishers might design covers that don’t include character depictions at all.
The most prominent case of whitewashing in the book publishing industry was Liar by Justine Larbalestier. Liar is a story about a girl named Micah. In the book, Micah is self-described as “black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short.” However, the initial U.S. cover of Liar featured a white woman with long, straight hair. Immediately, readers began questioning the mismatch between the description of Micah and the cover art, and the story eventually reached national news. Public pressure and Larbalestier, who’d objected to the cover design in the first place, pushed Bloomsbury Publishing to change the cover. However, the damage had been done.
Book Covers Affect How We Read Stories
Readers project themselves onto characters, often irregardless of how those characters are described. This can be seen in the way that readers react to character depictions in book to movie adaptations. For example, when The Hunger Games was released to theaters, fans of the book were surprised and outraged the character Rue was going to be played by a Black actress. They had seemingly missed the fact that Rue was described as dark-skinned in the novel.
In her own blog post in 2009, Larbalestier explained how the whitewashing of the Liar cover changed the way readers understood her book. Not only did readers believe that Micah was white (despite in-text descriptions), many readers questioned everything about Micah, believing that she was an unreliable narrator intentionally lying about her own appearance.
I experienced the impact of whitewashing in book covers firsthand. I read Liar when I was in eighth grade. I read the copy with the white character on the cover. I don’t remember the descriptions of Micah as a Black woman, and I did not know the character was not actually white until I began researching for this blog post.
Representation within literature matters, and it starts with covers. Although we’re always taught not to judge a book by its cover, we do so anyway. Covers form our first impressions, and they inform the way we remember the story long after we’ve finished it. In the past three years, the presence of racially accurate book covers has increased significantly but only because readers have demanded it.