Publishing House Implements Lazy Black-Washing for Black History Month?

There’s no better way to celebrate another #BlackHistoryMonth than with a full dose of… superficial black washing of classic novels? This past week, publisher Penguin Random House announced its new editions of “literary classics”, but with a twist: they feature black characters on the covers of the novels. You might be quick to say, “oh, woah! We love #Inclusion“, unfortunately, in this case it would be more of a #Illusion with another lazy attempt to market to an underserved demographic.

This collection of “Diverse Editions” of classic novels, was AI curated. Yeah, meaning some computer scanned through a big database of 100s of texts and tried to pick the ones that featured less obvious mentions of race.

From this obviously thorough & carefully thoughtful process of curation, 12 books were chosen to represent this next generation of classic editions:

  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
  • The Count of Monte Cristo
  • Emma
  • Frankenstein
  • Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde
  • Moby Dick
  • Peter Pan
  • The Secret Garden
  • The Three Musketeers
  • Treasure Island
  • Romeo & Juliet
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Each of these great titles were then commissioned to artist to provide covers featuring non-white illustrations, and there we go! Diverse Editions complete!

…Weak, dude. It’s so weak. There’s so many problems with this fundamentally lazy approach that my little brown fingers don’t even know where to begin with unpacking this. Actually, let’s start there: brown fingers!

@PenguinRandomHouse, how about instead of superficially black-washing canon stories that are written by white authors about white experiences for white audiences, you actually take the opportunity to simply highlight black authors and black stories!

This list is filled with British and American authors whose stories (while total classics and absolutely sick in their own right) cannot be simply converted to colored narratives with the simple change of cover art. When actually reading these books, there are some very clear contextual clues that these characters are white and can only be white and are no less so for a lacking mention of race.

For instance, The Secret Garden. Gr8 book, but is very, very obviously about a little white girl born to British colonialists in India. Although the book never directly describes the color of the protagonist’s skin. It is hard to read the character say things like: “You thought I was a native! You dared! You don’t know anything about natives! They are not people—they’re servants who must salaam to you. You know nothing about India. You know nothing about anything!” and think that little Mary Lennox was down with the brown. #SorryNotSorry #ThatsTheTea

The unfortunate tea is that characters in “classics” are assumed to be white because we live in a culture where white is the default, and these books are filled with problematic depictions of race that don’t suddenly disappear if you change the race of the protagonist on the cover.

It’s insanely naive to believe that an algorithm can smooth over the racial bias that’s baked into reality, especially when these algorithms are like, dripping in racial bias themselves. Industries are staring to get a bit too optimistic with tech. Often it ignores or reinforces the existing inequalities regarding things from housing loans to police surveillance, and now I guess it’s representation

This approach does nothing about the real material and ideological reasons why every character is read as white and presents a superficial fix, meanwhile there are classic stories that totally center non-white characters, explore non-white experiences, and are written by non-white authors. So lets get their voices heard! Meanwhile, this lazy attempt at representation can literally lose my number… the art is dope though.

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