Magic Under Glass controversy and some thoughts on whitewashing and diversity in a broader arena

So, it's happened again. Many of you've heard about the controversy surrounding the cover of Magic Under Glass. It was first brought to my attention on Saturday after an eye-opening post by Ah Yuan of Gal Novelty. A flurry of posts around the blogosphere followed; and I attempted to read all the ones I came across. Other bloggers have been more articulate and passionate with their posts than I ever could be. Some bloggers were outraged, some much calmer. There have been wonderful posts with many different viewpoints on the subject by Reading in Color , I was a teenage book geek, Black-Eyed Susan's, Good Books & Good Wine, The Story Siren, The Bloody Bookaholic, and many others.

I haven't read the book; Magic Under Glass was one of my WoWs and I'd still love to read it, despite the cover. The cover is not something an author gets any say in, and no matter how angry you are, I AM URGING YOU TO NOT boycott this book. An author works so hard to publish a novel; Ms. Dolamore is a debut novelist and after working towards this moment for a long time it must not be pleasant to have Magic Under Glass embroiled in a controversy.Here's the cover that started it all:

Although the main character Nimira is loosely described as "dark-skinned", which can be interpreted in a variety of ways, the book trailer clearly shows she is black. Compare the girl in the book trailer to the one of the cover, and there's a noticeable disparity. The girl on the cover of Magic Under Glass, although cleverly concealed in shadow, seems white to me. I know this is all relative; but for someone who lives in a very diverse community where over 80-90% of the students I go to school with are NOT white, she is not dark-skinned in the least. If she went to my school, she'd be one of the lightest skinned people there. So for me, the girl in the cover isn't be any stretch of imagination dark-skinned. You may disagree with me, but that's my interpretation. This cover is whitewashing, pure and simple.

Ah, whitewashing.

What a terrible thing.

This controversy has brought other, more troubling thoughts to mind. While the YA genre is doing well in diversifying it's characters, there is still a noticeable lack of diversity in books.

Even more troubling to me is the psychology of a reader. I don't know about you, but if the race of the main character is not specified, what do you automatically imagine them as?

Let's do a test run. Brief description without any allusion to race, try to picture the character and what race immediately jumps to mind?

"He was a brown haired-kid, skinny, and his glasses were always sliding down his nose."

Be honest.

I'm ashamed to say that I imagine the characters are white, unless the author describes them otherwise.

Did I just say that?


I don't know why. As I mentioned before, I live in a diverse community. There are barely any white people here. Heck, I'm half Asian, half white. But why is it that my subconscious dreams up unspecified characters as white?

It's not just the readers who face this; chats with some unpublished writers reveal that many of them did NOT envision there character cast as diverse. It's certainly nothing to be proud of, but it's there. There's a reason for it, as the old "write what you know," applies. Writers who live in predominantly white communities may have trouble incorporating characters of different ethnicities. And there is also the fear of getting it wrong, of giving into stereotypes. Many writers don't want to risk getting race wrong; if it's done incorrectly and with blatant generalizations, it can be the end of a career. Even with books that have a minority character or two, it's not convincing some of the time. One of the top YA cliches is the "token minority character." Joelle Anthony included it on her list of Top 25 most overused things in YA:

"A token black friend among a group of white friends - usually it’s a girl, and she’s always gorgeous."

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? It's not only books that have this cliche; TV shows and movies do as well.

Also, to think of it in terms of main characters, how many minority main characters can you think of for bestselling YA books? Maybe I've been reading the wrong books, I don't know. But it seems to me that minor characters are much more likely to be minorities; it's much easier pen this cliche-ridden description:

"A girl next to me has almond eyes and coffee-colored skin,"

Then it is to set up a whole family dynamic for a main character that isn't white and who's parents put a lot of stock in cultural values. It would be more difficult for me to write a book with a main character that's say--Indian, rather than white. I don't know enough about Indian culture; I would have to do research, while white is something that is readily available.

The thing about having a diverse cast is that it's the author's responsibility to portray it accurately. Many minorities don't give up their cultural values and assimilate into American culture; thus the values of a minority main character and their family life will be different than that of a white character and their family.

So it's easier to assign a unspecified character who's just plain "American" as white. Without the culture of minorities fully described, I envision unspecified characters as white.

It's my default. And I'm definitely not proud of it.

This is definitely something I'm aware of now, and is something I'm trying to change about myself as both a reader and an aspiring writer.

What do you think of this whole cover controversy? About whitewashing in general and it's broader implications? What do you envision unspecified characters as?


Emma Michaels said...

Enjoyed this post but to be honest when I am reading a book I don't even think about it. Then again that is how I tend to be in person. My father had never taught me that there was a difference and I only realized when I got older that others thought so but I still think the same way. There are some characters though where you can't help but imagine them a certain way once they have bee described but overall I tend not to notice. Even in the novels I have written it doesn't come up until one of the characters is running and goes to another part of the world. With this cover though... seriously the character is supposed to be dark and the woman on the cover... is... well I will just say not. Great post... I think I just went off on a mini comment tangent. Sorry.

Vee said...

There are SOME character that others have envisioned as white that definitely had a black or asian feel to me. But most of the time my default is white too, and that's quite sad.

But I do sympathise with writers who may feel afraid to attempt writing characters who are not white. Despite the fact that I'm not white, I find it hard to write minority characters. There's a lot of expectation, if you write about minor racial groups, on books dealing with "issues" of race. And while I sort of naturally did that with my last novel, a lot of the others have depicted what I perceive to be the honest truth of the situation: in diverse suburbs/cities, most teens don't give too much thought to the race of their peers.

I think there needs to be room in the market for books about characters of colour that aren't about them being of colour.

/ends-rant in choco's blog. Sorry, lol.

Also, I totally agree about not boycotting books. Authors work so hard and to get punished because of a cover they have no choice in is NOT at all good.

Great post on an important issue!

Bidisha said...

I feel bad for Ms. Dolamore and I would urge readers to not boycott the book. A lot of sweat goes into writing a book and it's terrible if it's boycotted on the basis of something the author does not have a hand in.

Besides, this is a fantastic post, Choco. Mostly I try not to picture a character a specific way. even if a race is mentioned, instead of a physical picture of the character, it's just his/her emotions that flow through my mind. However, even though I'm not white, at times I do take an unspecified character to be white. so yes, I'm as much guilty of it as you are. I blame the lack of non-white characters in main stream YA fiction for it. Where non-white characters are concerned the book takes a cultural turn, but like Ink, I'd like to see characters of colour in books which are not about them being of colour.

I'm trying to write one such book.

in which a girl reads said...

@Emma: That's great that you don't notice! It's just hard for me, because for characters I have to picture the whole appearance in my head.And skin color, whether I like it or not, is part of that appearance, just as eye color or hair color of height is. I just wish I wouldn't automatically jump to white as my default.

@ink: Me too, it's hard for me to write minorities. I don't know why that is-- again, this is where the white default comes in. If I come up with a character on the spur of a moment, they're almost always white. Arghhh.

And I agree, I don't think any of the teens around where I live care what race anyone is.

So it makes sense about what you said about characters. Why can't the book have a Asian or a black or a Hispanic main character, but it doesn't have to be about them being that race? Sigghhhhh...

And yep, definitely no boycotting. DOWN WITH BOYCOTTING BOOKS. Boycotting of books is just...terrible for an author. :(

in which a girl reads said...


Ooh, that's an awesome way to picture characters...emotions :) I think maybe I assign too much care to the physical appearance of a character, even if it doesn't matter. But at the same time, I can't help it when books go on about "the long dark eyelashes" and "brown hair" and "brown eyes" and every inch of a character's appearance (this is especially true of love interests).

And I agree too. I really like that line, " characters of colour in books which are not about them being of colour".


Jessica said...

I definitely see why many readers would be offended by the "whitewashing" of this and other book covers.

For myself, I don't pay any particular attention to the accuracy of the book covers, simply because I have spoken with enough authors to know that often times the cover artists have no idea what the book is actually about when creating the cover.

So yes...I think it would be awful to boycott a book because of the inaccuracy of the cover. I would, however, think that it would be in the publishers best interest to inform the cover artists what the book is actually about and giving them a better description of the main characters, to deter such indescretions from occuring.

In terms of how I tend to view characters that are not well described, I don't necessarily automatically think "white". It really depends on their personality and minor descriptions. If they have dark hair, I tend to think along the lines of Indian, Asian or African.

But this has a lot to do with the fact that I grew up on what is essentially considered an Indian reserve (native, not aboriginal) and pretty much anyone in my hometown with dark hair was native. Blonde, white girls were few and far between. Lol.

Jessica said...

Good grief...when I mentioned growing up on an Indian reserve, I mean Native...not East Indian.

Native, not aboriginal...pfft. Lol.

Unknown said...

A really interesting post and yes I agree with your comments. It pains me to say it to but my mind "reads" characters as white unless the author specifies otherwise. Why? I think it is because I am white. Thus I read with my eyes. My community is growing more diverse. Certainly the children I work with are from a huge range of ethnicities. I know they would like to see themselves more in books. Changes are happening but they are slow. I annoy myself with my perceptions. I think the first step is to recognise that you have a perception then you can make an effort to change it. There is a great YA series by Malorie Blackman. The first book is Noughts and Crosses. This book really opened my eyes to my own perceptions and has helped me start to change them. I recommend it to everyone.

Kirthi said...

I'm ashamed to say that I think that way too, I read a character description and automatically think of the character as white.
I think that Bloomsbury made a big mistake trying to change the color of Nimira on the cover, they didn't think we'd notice, huh? It's the same with the cover of Liar!
I made a post about this too :D

Hannah said...

You know, after reading all of the comments above me I feel like I should lie and say that I am also ashamed to imagine characters as white, but I'm not. I will not apologize for being proud to be white. I have nothing against any ethniticities or other races, I mean, I grew up surround by black families. We were friends, but of COURSE my default imagination is white. I AM white. and I'm NOT ashamed to be that way. That said, I DO think that the artists of book covers should be required to read the manuscript so as to have as accurate a cover as possible.

Unknown said...

Even if the character were described as white in the book, I'd still be offended by that cover: it looks like it was made at Kinko's.

Reading said...

The cover of the book has one purpose and that is to get people to buy it. This is all about marketking. If they feel that they will sell more books with a white girl on the cover, then thats what will go on the cover. They don't do this without research to back this up. People tend to connect with chvaracters most like themselves. There are more white people than black, hence the term minority. Unfortunately literacy rates are far higher among whites than blacks. THAT is the factor that needs to be addressed. In my opinion those who are boycotting this book should redirect their energy into raising the literacy rates among minorities. I heard a startling statistic the other day. The literacy rate in the city of Detroit for adults (over 15) is 50%!! This is what needs to be addressed. Not the cover a YA novel.

Nicole Settle said...

I have yet to read Magic Under Glass and I plan to despite the cover controversy because the book is most importantly about what's on the inside of it--the writing. Yes, I think people should be made aware of the issue but we shouldn't punish the authors who are caught in the problem and most likely the victims.

And I must say I don't mind unspecified characters. They give an opportunity to project my own image onto the character and I don't try to pin them down to a specific "race." I think maybe since I'm part of a younger generation and currently surrounded by diversity, I never had the problem of race being clear cut. And since I'm well educated, I know race is just a social construct. If you tell me about a person's race, it doesn't mean much to me if they live in America. Your culture traditions and identity get so convoluted that most people find themselves a multiple of "races" and sometimes you don't even have to be a certain nationality or race to be influenced by it. For example, I'm sure there are people in California that are not Hispanic but there is an influence of that ethnicity in their life simply by their location and surroundings.

Reading a book is a reflection of self and if you often see white then try to find some more diversity, I guess. I, of course, don't know how this problem can be solved but I think this post is helping in that direction. Awareness is always a good start.

Sorry about the long post.

Dreamybee said...

I agree that the whitewashing needs to stop. I understand the point Bethie makes above, but it's sort of a catch-22. "Minorities don't read, so why should we market to minorities?" Well, maybe there would be more interest in reading if they felt like they were being represented. The change has to start somewhere, and it's sad that in this day and age, publishers feel like they have to put a white girl on the cover to "trick" people into reading about a dark-skinned girl. If I think a story sounds compelling, I will pick it up whether the girl on the front is white, black, Asian, or other.

Interesting comments about people's default mental image of characters. I never really thought about it, but I suppose I do it too. I don't know if we really need to be ashamed of defaulting to white. As I was reading your post, I was thinking that people in India probably default to imagining characters as Indian, people in China probably default to imagining characters as Chinese, etc. I mean, I don't know, but that would be my guess. America, while diverse, is still largely white, so I don't think it's necessarily shameful to default to a white character in your mind's eye. What I would start to worry about is if all the good guys are automatically white and the bad guys are black in your imagination or if you wouldn't enjoy a story as much if you had to imagine the characters as something other than white.

Just my $.02. :)

Becca Cooper said...

I feel sorry for the author. The inaccuracy of the book cover probably bothered her to no end. But on that note, there's no guarantee that the cover artist had read the book. I don't quite know how many people are involved with the cover art or who gives the cover art the OK, but I wonder if that person might not have been aware of what they were doing.

(On the other hand, they might have been completely aware and did it for all of these marketing reasons people have been mentioning.)

But myehh. I read a book for the words inside it, not for the cover. There have been times I've gotten books from the library, read the back, and not even looked at the cover. It confused me to see them sitting cover-up. I was like, "I don't remember getting this book..." XD

*stops babbling*

And on the subject of default mental images, I could count the number of non-white students in my elementary school on my fingers. Then I moved to northern Ontario and was able to count the number of non-white students in my high school on one hand. So yep, my default mental image is most definitely white. C'est la vie. :)

yuan said...

Huh, I linked to your post and came here, only to realize that I totally forgot to leave a comment. (I'm a sucky follower. *ashamed of self*) So here I am, to rectify this error of mine. =D

I'll be honest: if Bloomsbury didn't change the cover, I wouldn't have bought it. I just, thinking of owning a book with a cover that lies to me AND is racist burns my eyes. I'll consider buying it after seeing the new cover shoot, but Bloomsbury books at large are still on probation for me.

Your posts on white-as-default has me thinking about the unequal representation of race in media. (I feel a post on this coming up on my part...) But, just to say something quick, I think the whole predominance of English-written novels having white-as-default is because a large base of English-written novels assume a white audience before Multiculturalism became accepted, and writers are influenced by what they read. I too, usually assume a white default, and yes this is my problem, but I think it is also a problem with writers who choose to have a white default in their story. We read what's available and are influenced by what we read, so if the reading material assumes whiteness, it'll affect our imagination.

And AD;LFKJDAS;KLJDF DOWN WITH STEREOTYPED MINORITY CHARACTERS. Oh man, that quote you gave got to me 'cause it's so frickin common. What's with the food analogy, really?! Sooooooo creepy and disturbing. Almond eyes INDEED. My eyes are not frickin edible, damnit *kicks* [/rage]

Also, I have a lack of empathy towards author claims of excluding diversity because they don't want to offend. You don't think diversity is important enough to put in your novel? Fine, whatever. But to make excuses and say that they don't want to "offend" just reads to me like justification for their complicity in systematic racism (i.e. continuing the tradition of writing novels that have white as default) masked as "politeness". Sooooo many books get race wrong, but do their books flop? None that I've seen. We're still buying The Secret Garden, and the author of that particular novel is dead. (Don't get me wrong, I love Secret Garden, but that book's got some sketch race issues.)

But yes, I do think we should continue discussion on the white-as-default setting in fiction. Change doesn't happen until more people speak up, and discussions can help facilitate the change that we want.

yuan said...

... Holy shit I talk too much. *DIES*

MissA said...

Great post! You make some really good points to get people thinking. Honestly, I don't know if I would have picked up Magic Under Glass before this. Maybe, maybe not. The premise sounds interesting but I try to get books I plan on reviewing first so I owuld have gotten around to this obok eventually. I remember seeing it and liking th ecover but if it had had a POC on the cover, I would have stopped and bought it. Not kidding. I really like this cover so a POC on it would have made me so happy. Bloomsbury needs to apologzie for buying into the ridiculous notion that white people will only read books about white people. I want to see the 'evidence' that proves that. And even if there is, so what. Publishers should publish the best books out there and have covers that accurately represent them (talk to the authors, actually let them have a say! gah).

And I thought of the kid with brown hair and glasses as white too, it's the culture we grow up in.I almost always assume a character of unspecified race is white (example: I've never read Poison Study but I really want to. And then yesterday I learned the mc is a POC. I always assumed she was white).
And I'm so sick of the "sassy gorgeous black friend." ugh. or the "elusive, secretvie gorgeous, smart Asian girl." Can we please get some originality?! On TV and in books. This is sort of random but I'm wondering how do people feel about skin being described as the color of chocolate or coffee, etc. I don't totally mind it because it helps me visualize but it can be way over used.

Thanks for linking to my letter :) sorry for such a long comment. I really enjoy reading your blog

in which a girl reads said...

Thanks for all the responses everyone! Great discussion, it really got me thinking :)

Dreamybee said...

So, interesting observation-After I left my earlier comment I went and curled up with the book I had been reading, "The Moon in the Water: Reflections on an Aging Parent" by Kathy Phillips. It talks about the author's relationship with her elderly father after he moved into her home in Hawaii. With this post in mind, I realized that despite the author's name, and the fact that I've looked at her picture on the dust jacket a couple of times AND the fact that she had described her tall haole (white) father, I was still imagining both of them as Asian. I'm not sure if this is because they were in Hawaii (where I live) and people here are predominantly Asian or if it was because of the heavy references to Kuan Yin, an enlightened Buddhist soul, who is usually depicted surrounded by water and the moon; either way, I had to laugh a little.

I guess for me the subject matter and setting determines a lot of how I imagine characters. Also, maybe white isn't my default mode as much as I thought it was.

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