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What Color Is Publishing?

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At a recent trade show, an executive from one of the major publishing companies upon seeing our Multicultural Exhibit was quick to say, “Oh no! Don’t you know the multicultural fad is over?”
For the past eight years, the Multicultural Publishing and Education Council’s (MPEC) vision has been to educate and bring about “authentic multicultural content.” Perhaps the “fad” is over and the hype labeled with different names every few years, but the issues remain the same. For us, political correctness has often robbed or silenced our stories.
Yes, multicultural publishers have the same problems that most small and big publishers have with marketing and distribution. People have said, “Quit the whining!” But the fact remains that much of what is labeled and sold as “multicultural and diversity” in the US is still pseudo versions which contain no historical or cultural accuracy.
For instance, last year at BookExpo when I walked the convention floor, I was amazed at how many exhibitors advertised diversity and inclusiveness with their booths displaying beautiful artwork and images of people from different ethnic backgrounds. The physical landscape sure was different from five years ago. But upon examining many of these companies’ list of publications, I discovered that many had almost no titles, no authors, nor any illustrators of color. Perhaps for them multiculturalism and cultural diversity is more a marketing plan than a reality.
I remember once when a PMA member questioned me about why does MPEC focus so much on “authenticity” and “color”? “Isn’t the world supposed to be color-blind?” Well, the only way I can explain our position is by using a metaphor of what I did when I was a camp director several decades ago. At a children’s camp one morning, I asked all the kids what their favorite cereal was. I said I would go out and purchase their recommendations and bring them back to camp. I went and purchased all their favorites: Sugar Smacks, Lucky Charms, Fruit Loops, Raisin Bran, Rice Krispies, etc. The next morning when they lined up for breakfast, they were so excited. On the serving table I had covered the large serving bowl. Upon taking off the cover, they were surprised and dismayed that I had mixed all their cereals together into one bowl. I said, “OK, I got everyone’s favorites and I mixed them together! Now you can’t complain that I didn’t include what you wanted.”
Every race and culture brings unique stories to share, but often when it is mixed together in the Western cultural paradigm it has a “bleaching effect” and much is lost. Many people of color have seen their stories lose their essence because of how materials are often edited for a certain audience or story endings changed to fit a perceived marketability. The person of color has a “fear of loss” which is almost the same “fear of loss” whites feel when confronted with having to diversify their publications and even perhaps their editorial and marketing departments. The “cereal bowl” mix is very much like the outdated “melting pot” definition that still permeates our media. No wonder there is so much fear! Who wants their culture or history robbed? Sometimes this “fear” sidetracks true diversity efforts in the schools and workplace and some have used this “fear” to debate rather than dialogue.
Rather than a “melting pot,” MPEC has utilized the metaphors of “salad bowl” and “stew pot” in which each ingredient keeps its unique identity and characteristics, but adds to the overall flavor. There is no “fear”-only partnership and equality.
I have heard from several publishers who said they have ceased multicultural titles because they didn’t sell well. I asked them, “How was it marketed? Did they only target ethnic audiences? Who was the author and how was he or she promoted? Were people of color involved in the process?” Often we will hear of ethnic authors marginalized and having to promote their own works. Or in the case of our consultants, we see that they may be listed in credits, but not heard.
Much of what is labeled “diversity dialogs” are really “diversity debates.” MPEC has chosen not to participate or engage in these talk-show debates which prove nothing and waste energy and fuel the “fear.”
Another metaphor I use in explaining the need for authenticity is the “sweet sour” effect. Often I will take my friends interested in multicultural publishing to a Chinese restaurant. But I will not order from the American menu, but the unprinted Chinese menu. When the food comes, they notice immediately that it looks and tastes different. They often say to me, “This Chinese food tastes great and unlike any Chinese food I have ever eaten.” And I will say its because they are eating the “real authentic” thing. They are not eating the red-dyed syrupy “sweet sour pork” or “egg foo youngs” or “chop sueys” which many Americans historically have perceived to be Chinese food. Many Chinese cooks in America have had to give up their best skills and pride to cook the ho-hum. If these cooks attempt to prepare something authentic, they are often told that their cooking doesn’t taste Chinese. In reality, these customers have their own preconceived notions of what and how Chinese foods should taste.
This is the similar response authors and publishers have when introducing authentic multicultural titles. There is often an anger that comes from certain camps because it is not “ethnic” the way they perceive it should be.
One of our Korean American members consulted last year for a major publisher on a historical story of a Korean family written by a non-Korean author. Upon studying the galleys, our member found many historical inaccuracies in the portrayals of Korean traditions, clothing, the ways in which family members related to each other, and even how the furniture was arranged in the home. But the publisher ignored our member’s notes and felt that the American public would not notice the difference. They said it would “cost too much” to change or delay the project.
This scenario is repeated over and over again in the industry. For instance, we might find story characters illustrated supposedly wearing everyday clothes instead wearing funeral clothing or characters eating foods not native to the culture portrayed in the stories.
MPEC intends not to be a “publisher watchdog,” rather we challenge and call for authenticity. No, we do not debate whether the person is one-fourth or one-sixteenth Native American or if the illustrated person is colored black or brown enough. Nor do we seek to debate if the person is of the same race or ethnicity he or she is writing about. Again, we seek authenticity and good research which reflects a culture and does not steal from it.
Some have lumped feminism and gay rights into the multicultural diversity cause. Although we believe in feminist and gay rights, it is not what we’re saying authentic multiculturalism is either.
We also realize that some publishers have had horrible experiences producing and marketing multicultural titles. And as an organization, we have even had to confront our own members to be more “business savvy.” We encourage the grassroots and family businesses, but many have had to learn to focus on industry standards in binding and printing. For many of our older multicultural publishers were often locked out of the traditional bookstore, school, and library markets and distribution systems, and we have learned to respect their tenacity and perseverance. Their books may not conform to industry standards and perhaps they may have had to sell their materials from their car trunks. Their legacy is not a fad, but a commitment.
The “Affirmative Action” debacle of the past decade has been more like “Affirmative Factions” pitting ethnic groups against each other to catch a piece of the pie. My sense is that the pie was just “dessert.” For the 21st Century, the world because of global technologies will be much more multicultural and diverse and guess what? We are not “dessert,” we are the MAIN DISH!
Yes, multicultural publishing perceived as a 90s fad for some has almost come and gone. But for us, the journey continues. We feel an educated public will be open and seeks the real thing! We are very excited about publishers who are participating in authenticity. We are excited about publishers who hire, develop, and mentor people of color-encouraging them to bring to the cultural “stew pot” their own strengths and respect of differences. We are excited by those who have included and sought equal partnership.
We thank Jan Nathan and her efforts to include MPEC as partners. As a PMA affiliate, we seek to work with all other affiliates and PMA members in bringing about authentic multicultural materials.
At the upcoming 1998 BookExpo America in Chicago, you will have two opportunities to exhibit your multicultural titles. MPEC again will co-sponsor with Reeds Exhibitions the Multicultural Showcase (booth #5075). PMA will also have an exhibit area. By displaying in both exhibits, you will have offered your voice to authenticity.Rennie Mau of Media Bridge in Auburn, California is a multimedia and e-book publisher and serves as Executive Director of MPEC. Phone 530/889-4438, e-mail mpec@aol.com, website www.mpec.org.

This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor March, 1998, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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