AI & Diversity: What Could Go Wrong?
February 5, 2020 8:08 AM   Subscribe

Diverse Editions: Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue has partnered with Penguin Random House to release a new collection of classic novels with "culturally diverse" covers. But as Elizabeth Minkel notes on Twitter, they appear to have chosen the titles by applying machine learning to "scour a corpus of 100+ books to determine whether or not the protagonist was explicitly described as white, and if they weren't, they went to town!"

The novels being released are:
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Three Musketeers
  • Moby Dick
  • The Secret Garden
  • The Count of Monte Cristo
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  • Emma
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Peter Pan
  • Treasure Island
  • Frankenstein
Apropos of nothing, both The Secret Garden and Peter Pan have been criticized for, respectively, having characters espouse racist views and racist portrayals of Native Americans. The creature in Frankenstein, meanwhile, appears to have been based on contemporary descriptions of African slaves. And I'm only scratching the surface here.
posted by Cash4Lead (61 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
This just stinks of so much tokenism and an attempt to grab some quick cash. Rather than hire, encourage, & foster writing/editing/publishing from people of color within the industry, it's much easier to just slap an image on a cover and then wait for the $$ to come in. Fuck this entire program.
posted by Fizz at 8:13 AM on February 5 [42 favorites]


they appear to have chosen the titles by applying machine learning to "scour a corpus of 100+ books to determine whether or not the protagonist was explicitly described as white, and if they weren't, they went to town!"

Good thing the programming for this AI isn't susceptible to racial profiling, discrimination, or bias. Oh wait...
posted by Fizz at 8:22 AM on February 5 [5 favorites]


In addition to the racism/ tokenism , this is also just so weird. Like why would you go about this in the weirdest way possible
posted by Think_Long at 8:25 AM on February 5 [15 favorites]


Currently diverseeditions.com is taking me to a very intentionally-empty-looking page:
<!DOCTYPE html>
  <head>
    <style>
      body{
        background-color:black;
      }
    </style>
  </head>
  <body>
  </body>
 </html>
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:26 AM on February 5 [9 favorites]


That Minkel thread is great. This is such a misleading way for publishers to attract young readers of color:

Everyone is rightly talking about The Secret Garden, a novel explicitly about colonialist racism, but *many* of those books are subtextually or textually racialized. I think it's important to study them that way—and these covers are setting up one hell of a bait and switch.
posted by mediareport at 8:27 AM on February 5 [5 favorites]


Mixed emotions. Yes, the tokenism and stupid use of AI is really awful.

On the other hand, some of those covers might cause a few people to think about how whiteness is 'default', which seems like a good thing.
posted by Ickster at 8:30 AM on February 5 [3 favorites]


but *many* of those books are subtextually or textually racialized. I think it's important to study them that way—

From a comment I read on black twitter a long while ago.
“You can keep it, but keep it in context.”
posted by Fizz at 8:30 AM on February 5 [22 favorites]


I am just baffled as to the purpose of these.

Let's take Emma, for instance. If I had never read it and I picked it up believing that the protagonist was a BIPOC, I would be totally disappointed except in the most banal "I guess I can imagine that the protagonist's skin is not white-person-colored and this affects nothing in the book" way. Nothing in Emma would be remotely the same if Emma herself were a woman of color - there were some wealthy English WOC in this period, but it wouldn't have just been totally unremarked. It would have shaped every aspect of her life and outlook, and every aspect of how she was treated by her neighbors (and family, if she were an adopted child like Dido Elizabeth Bell).

It's just staggeringly inappropriate - as if to suggest that the life experience of every character in the book isn't already profoundly shaped by race.

I would totally, absolutely read a novel about an Emma who was modeled on Dido Elizabeth Bell - I would buy the heck out of that book. Or I would read an "England somehow isn't racist or maybe this is a fantasy 19th century so Emma is a BIPOC and it's of little consequence" book too. But this is not it. It's just insulting and upsetting.
posted by Frowner at 8:34 AM on February 5 [48 favorites]


The thing that tips me over from resigned but pissed to straight fuckin furious is Dorothy's red kicks. In the books, they're silver - they were changed to ruby slippers in the classic movie to capitalize on the spectacle of color film. These not only stubbornly refute context but have used AI to avoid content entirely. I know plenty of book covers are redone to coordinate with movie releases, leading to ridiculous misrepresentation. But this collection appears to be the worst of that plus the worst of everything else.
posted by Mizu at 8:36 AM on February 5 [9 favorites]


This is not a task appropriate for delegating to an AI, because of, among a number of other things, the desirability of not having black characters drop the kinds of racist comments you will often find just tucked into the background of novels written before about 1970, but "why couldn't this character be a person of color? Why must we default to assuming they are white?" is a question often asked. A Wrinkle in Time could easily have been in this group; maybe there were complaints about casting the Murrys as a racially-mixed family (without any plot changes specific to the casting itself) in the recent movie, but I didn't hear them. Meanwhile, while my Internet is currently glitching and slowing me down, I'm pretty sure that The Count of Monte Cristo was written by a man of color who was the grandson of an enslaved person, and the plot, of a man unjustly accused and imprisoned by a corrupt system, seems like one that might adapt well to making Dantes a black man. Seems like the problem here is trying to do this en masse instead of more thoughtfully and selectively.
posted by praemunire at 8:39 AM on February 5 [26 favorites]


It's just staggeringly inappropriate - as if to suggest that the life experience of every character in the book isn't already profoundly shaped by race.

I just watched Rozema's Mansfield Park, where she explicitly introduces a plotline centered around slavery and the fact that all of these gentry lead comfortable lives due to the very concurrent slave economy. It made me think about any of my favorite costume dramas from the Georgian period. There is another adaptation of Emma coming this year, and it looks to be of the period with a bit of a modern perspective on romance. Fun, but is it still okay to portray this society without acknowledging the violence that made it possible?
posted by Think_Long at 8:41 AM on February 5 [6 favorites]


Moby Dick with a black Ahab on the cover is... kind of interesting, actually.
posted by phooky at 8:41 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


Well, at least Alexandre Dumas père was mixed race, so good job, one of the authors featured wasn't white.
posted by sukeban at 8:41 AM on February 5 [7 favorites]


(Sorry, in case it wasn't clear, since they did do it en masse, it's still bad!)
posted by praemunire at 8:41 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


Nothing about this is a good idea, but I will point out that Alexandre Dumas was not white.

But there are lots of authors of colour around now! I'd ask why they are just putting new covers on old books instead of publishing new books about actual non white characters by authors of colour but the answer is so obviously money there is nothing to say. I'm glad this is blowing up on them.

It also appears they have multiple versions of each cover, so they didn't even, like, thoughtfully decide that Alice is Indian, they have one where she's Chinese, etc. (The images are pretty blurry so I am making up nationalities here.)
posted by jeather at 8:43 AM on February 5 [11 favorites]


But they have to pay authors for new books while you can slap a new cover on a public domain book for nothing.
posted by sukeban at 8:44 AM on February 5 [19 favorites]


(and now I've just learned about the actual Black Ahab, so that's neat.)
posted by phooky at 8:45 AM on February 5 [6 favorites]


On non preview I'm glad that everyone knows about Dumas here.
posted by jeather at 8:45 AM on February 5 [5 favorites]


I'd ask why they are just putting new covers on old books instead of publishing new books about actual non white characters by authors of colour but the answer is so obviously money there is nothing to say.

We really need to burn down the western literary canon. But then when you think about it, that canon is being reintroduced into colleges and universities by predominantly white faculties/administrators, so we need to burn that down too, because unless you have diverse people who are empowered to make new decisions that shake up the old standards, none of this shit is ever going to change. It's all about the gate-keeping that is done to keep POC out of certain rooms and unable to make certain decisions that shape the culture.
posted by Fizz at 8:46 AM on February 5 [5 favorites]


Moby Dick with a black Ahab on the cover is... kind of interesting, actually.

This was the first title my eyes hit when I saw the list, and... that first interaction between Ishmael and Queequeg is kind of giveaway, you know? Also they spelled the title of the book wrong.

Nothing about this is good, and unfortunately I can absolutely see how this would have come about.
posted by Fish Sauce at 8:49 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


I mean, there's a lot of books that respond to "classics" already - Victor LaValle's Destroyer is a continuation of Frankenstein set in the present, and although I can't pull up the review, I remember there was novel set in present-day Iraq with a Frankenstein monster built out of people who had been killed in the US invasion.

And of course there's The Wiz. And I'm sure there are Regency romances with BIPOC leads, and there's Zen Cho's Sorcerer To The Crown, which of course isn't actually set in Real World Regency England but has a Regency fantasy adventure quality. And of course there's Wide Sargasso Sea. I just feel like if you want to read books or see media by and about BIPOC which chime with the "classics" of English-language literature, there's lots to choose from.

Just as important, white-dominated publishers and schools need to teach how to read for the already-existing presence of race. In Mansfield Park, for instance, Jane Austen writes about slavery and abolitionism. Moby Dick is very substantially about race - about slavery, about free Black sailors, about imperialism and about the whaling ship as a multiracial society. Etc etc etc. These are important ideas that were, like, put in the books by the authors with actual intent. Because of the way the "canon" evolves and is narrated, even canonical books get whitewashed. And that's just what's explicitly in the text, not what the reader would have inferred based on what they knew about actually-existing society at the time.
posted by Frowner at 8:58 AM on February 5 [24 favorites]


The thing that tips me over from resigned but pissed to straight fuckin furious is Dorothy's red kicks.

I hope this is sarcastic or tongue in cheek or something because otherwise it basically reads as "Who cares if POC feel tokenized or that this is a shitty attempt at "diversity" or that publishing should be putting out more books by POC, not slapping a new cover on a book about white people - THEY GOT THE SHOES WRONG!"
posted by primalux at 9:01 AM on February 5 [9 favorites]


Disgusting and we should all be disgusted, POC especially but everyone should see the problem(s) with this.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:01 AM on February 5


I hope this is sarcastic or tongue in cheek or something

It's just the straw that broke my particular back, that's all. It tipped me over from generalized anger at everything you bring up, which are all the actually important things, to specific searing rage, in the way tiny things can often do to me. Like, I would be over in the corner of people cringing but trying maybe to at least find some links to discuss of publishers doing actual good work in this arena, because I love physical books and book design and binding? But that one thing just... I am honestly so fucking mad I need to go be elsewhere, sorry.
posted by Mizu at 9:06 AM on February 5 [3 favorites]


Oof. Lazy to the point that it comes across as deliberate.

I remember there was novel set in present-day Iraq with a Frankenstein monster built out of people who had been killed in the US invasion.

Ahmed Saadawi's Frankenstein in Baghdad, I think (not actually read it but it looks great).
posted by inire at 9:08 AM on February 5 [3 favorites]


Mikki Kendall has been really sharp on this:

I keep coming back to this & the decision to erase Black classic lit from a Black history month celebration. In New York. Where the Harlem Renaissance happened. Fun fact they could have rereleased a bunch of those books with new covers & gotten excellent sales & press.

They could have Googled, chosen a dozen books by actual Black authors that are classics & sent those out with fresh covers & a big event. Add in bringing in contemporary Black authors to discuss these works & the whole thing is a win. They didn't do the easy or logical thing.


And here's N. K. Jemisin, in response to "Did they talk to any people of color before they did this?":

I'm sure there was some low-level employee in the room whose opinion they asked -- with the unspoken threat of unemployment looming overhead. And I'm sure The Black Employee smiled awkwardly and suggested a better way to do this, which got ignored, her smile taken for approval.
posted by mediareport at 9:12 AM on February 5 [38 favorites]


And there are 19th and early 20th century BIPOC novelists (besides Dumas) for that matter, many out of print or not widely available. Why not Charles Chestnutt, for instance?
posted by Frowner at 9:12 AM on February 5 [4 favorites]


I can excuse racism, but I draw the line at animal cruelty
posted by arabidopsis at 9:17 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]


this is baffling and stupid. I would so love to have the opportunity to read the works of young writers around the world, who struggle to get published or promoted while these old books, which so many of us already know, get this lame retread that manages to add insult to injury. just no.
posted by supermedusa at 9:20 AM on February 5


The first link isn't loading for me, anyone else?

Don't forget that Penguin Random House was also behind the rerelease of Asian American classic No-No Boy without paying royalties to the author's estate, claiming that the copyright form was filled out incorrectly and the book is therefore in the public domain. They REALLY want the publicity and the praise and the kudos that come with diversity, but they DO NOT WANT TO PAY AUTHORS OF COLOR FOR IT. They don't care what people of color want. They don't care about elevating (or PAYING) actual people of color. They want the applause of fellow white people.

I'm sure there was some low-level employee in the room whose opinion they asked -- with the unspoken threat of unemployment looming overhead. And I'm sure The Black Employee smiled awkwardly and suggested a better way to do this, which got ignored, her smile taken for approval.

This makes me absolutely sick with recognition. I saw it play out over and over again when I was in publishing.
posted by sunset in snow country at 9:21 AM on February 5 [30 favorites]


So many different dimensions of fail going on here make it hard to figure out where to start.

This makes me absolutely sick with recognition. I saw it play out over and over again when I was in publishing.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.

They REALLY want the publicity and the praise and the kudos that come with diversity, but they DO NOT WANT TO PAY AUTHORS OF COLOR FOR IT. They don't care what people of color want. They don't care about elevating (or PAYING) actual people of color. They want the applause of fellow white people.

Change one or two words, and this could apply to politicians, media producers, businesspeople, and so on.
posted by ZeusHumms at 9:25 AM on February 5 [4 favorites]


Aren't all the listed works in the public domain?
posted by ZeusHumms at 9:26 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


Had they really wanted to do this, there are ways it could have been done thoughtfully. For instance, as someone I know suggested, a Native American Dorothy could be intereting, but then you'd have to actually hire people (not white people!) to write introductions for each book instead of just slapping a new cover on with slightly colour-swapped versions for each cover option (Wizard of Oz set of 3).

They should ALSO have paired these with books by and about BIPOC, but this is just the laziest, most racist way.
posted by jeather at 9:32 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]


Speaking of Austen, there's a continuation/completion of Sanditon currently airing on PBS, which includes the character of Georgina Lambe (freed daughter of a slave from the Caribbean) in a fairly prominent role, along with, like in the version of Mansfield Park mentioned above, explicit discussions of the role of slavery in the fortunes of the gentry.
posted by damayanti at 9:50 AM on February 5 [3 favorites]


As a self-aware art project and commentary on the whiteness of the western canon, this could have been worthwhile. In this form. . . cripes.

I hope someone reasonable attends the launch party panel discussion and tells us about it.

If you are going to do this, surely science fiction set in the distant future is the obvious place where it might actually make sense.
posted by eotvos at 9:52 AM on February 5 [3 favorites]


They should ALSO have paired these with books by and about BIPOC, but this is just the laziest, most racist way.

Yep. There were so *many* ways to do this right. Hiring artists of color to do the artwork would be nice as well but since none of the artists are mentioned in any coverage or the press release, it's unclear if they did hire artists of color for this gig (each title got 5 different "culturally diverse custom covers").

It'll be interesting to see how the panel goes at 6pm this evening:

The panel, which will be moderated by TBWA North America’s Chief Diversity Officer Doug Melville, will feature key opinion leaders within the industry including bestselling author MK Asante, literary agent Nena Madonia Oshman (Dupree Miller), Cal Hunter of Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue, and more.

For what it's worth, from TBWA's about page:: "We develop business-changing, culture-defining and award-winning ideas for brands." It also touts the company as Adweek's global ad agency of the year in 2018.
posted by mediareport at 10:08 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]


The first link isn't loading for me, anyone else?

It's been a completely black page for me for an hour now. They are perhaps rethinking.
posted by mediareport at 10:12 AM on February 5


As a self-aware art project and commentary on the whiteness of the western canon, this could have been worthwhile. In this form. . . cripes.

Yeah, I was just thinking, if you just did this as an image of the covers only, it could be a reasonably provocative act, inviting you to consider how different all these books would be, and hence the Western literary canon, if the cover characters were POC. But, because they're publishing the books otherwise unaltered, they're...doing the opposite of that. In other words, the problem isn't so much race-swapping as race-swapping and pretending it makes no difference (to the point of undoubtedly having some "POC" characters now speaking racist lines, which, while historically might actually be possible, would have different meaning).

Hamilton took some flak for casting essentially all POC for white historical figures, including enslavers, but having the text nowhere acknowledge this. I think people thought this was acceptable because it was specifically appropriating the story of the Founding as a story for all the people excluded from the story, inviting everyone to make use of that narrative, but I know not everyone was happy with it.
posted by praemunire at 10:16 AM on February 5 [10 favorites]


Aren't all the listed works in the public domain?

The comment that brought copyright not the discussion was talking about a book not on this list that Penguin has recently published, claiming it’s in the public domain due to some kind of filing error. It’s in the relevant link.

Edit: in this comment
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:22 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


All the novels in the list in the post are pre-WWI and therefore public domain, so yes, this looks like the cheapest possible shovelware play.

Imagine a consultancy of temporarily underemployed literary scholars, who could pair the famous public-domain novels with public-domain works that showed where the money came from. Or some kind of app that used the public-domain works as scaffolding for fix-it fics or counternarratives or *something* that uses their nature as free literature.
posted by clew at 10:53 AM on February 5 [5 favorites]


"People are really into diversity these days! It's the hot new trend! We need to find a way to tap into that and profit from it."

"What if we made a big marketing effort to push the best and most interesting literature from non-white authors? Updated editions of well-known writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Kahlil Gibran, and Gabriel García Márquez, mixed with new voices like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Kiese Laymon, Mai Der Vang, and Carmen Maria Machado? We could create study guides and lesson plans--"

"No, we don't have that kind of budget. We need to stick to things in the public domain."

"Okay, so we get the best older literature from a variety of writers and make a big point about it holds up against anything in the traditional Western canon but has been neglected. We could call find some clever marketing angle about making room for excellence, or an image of a bookshelf with gaps that need to be filled. Maybe lead with Solomon Northrup, since the movie made everyone aware of Twelve Years a Slave. Throw in Rabindranath Tagore and--"

"I'm talking quick profit here. Stuff everyone already knows. I don't want to have to convince them to buy a book. I want them to just see it and want it immediately."

"Okay, so the traditional western canon, but let's get diverse authors and critics to write new introductions. Surely someone has something interesting to say about how the Wizard of Oz has been read and reimagined by minority audiences, or the inherent critique of colonialism found in--"

"Look, man. We're not paying anyone anything. No budget for essayists, and I'm not interested in re-evaluations. Our readers don't want to hear about how Dorothy completely failed to support the Munchkin uprising or some lefty crap like that. We're just pushing books here."

"I think I'm our of ideas. You're asking me to sell the traditional Western canon, which is like 85% English-speaking white people and another 10% French and Spanish-speaking white people as some kind of diversity initiative when it's exactly the polar opposite of that. It's inherently contradictory. I can't draw a square circle."

"Okay, just do this--famous public domain books about white people but with new cover art that makes the characters black, brown, or Asian. Black Dorothy, Chinese Dr. Jekyll, Mexican Emma. That kind of thing. We can do it all in house with the same style and sell them as reimagined classics. People will eat it up."

"So, instead of actually marketing diverse stories, or getting new angles on the traditional canon, you want to republish the same stuff we've been printing for 200 years, but pretend that these very, very white, usually highly privileged characters are actually people of color?"

"Can't miss. Send a memo. I want a poster ready to go in time for black history month."
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:07 AM on February 5 [55 favorites]


The "AI" angle sure is something else. No way was it easier or cheaper or more effective to screw around with ML than, like, pay half a dozen interns to read the popular PD canon and take notes on mentions of race. Literally the only reason to do that (if they even did? it's not like other AI systems haven't been secretly HI) was because they thought it would make good PR. Well we're talking about it, so.
posted by skymt at 11:18 AM on February 5 [5 favorites]


posted by Pater Aletheias

Alas that I have but one favorite to give.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:21 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]


Or I would read an "England somehow isn't racist or maybe this is a fantasy 19th century so Emma is a BIPOC and it's of little consequence" book too. But this is not it. It's just insulting and upsetting.

I, too, would love to read a book about Dido Elizabeth Belle - or any other woman of colour in the period. I find the 'colour-blind' adaptations more difficult, because I feel like it erases the very real experiences of people of colour in Britain at the time. Books that don't do this include the above mentioned Sorcerer to the Crown, which is set in a world which is fantasy (due to the use of magic) but otherwise historic (in dealing with slavery and colonialism).

I know this is just me, as Shonda Rimes is making a tv series of Julia Quinn's regency romance novels with diverse casting, and there's Hamilton - though that that has critics as well.
posted by jb at 11:44 AM on February 5 [3 favorites]


REPORT: Barnes & Noble canceled tonight's panel. the books were not on display, but they will be behind the cash wrap at 6 p.m. Had a great conversation in the store with Sanyu Dillon, who oversees corporate marketing at Penguin Random House. She gave me more backstory.

Idea came from @TBWAChiatNY - without knowing the titles that would be chosen or what the covers would look like, POC leaders at PRH decided to support Barnes & Noble in this campaign.

----
I think the Jekyll & Hyde cover was the worst, with Frankenstein being second: "Hey, let's take monster stories and re-imagine the monsters as POC." (Yes, Frankenstein's monster - Adam, technically - is not actually a monster. But we don't need more depictions of "Monstrous, not-quite-human black man" in our literature.)

I suspect someone in marketing heard about Black Hermione, thought that was interesting, and said, "hey, we could do something like that! Encourage people to rethink how they imagine the classics!" ...not a horrible thought on its own, but they put approximately zero thought into picking the classics (almost literally; they used AI to find classics that "didn't specify race or ethnicity"), and no consideration at all of the contents of those classics - not whether they contained racist themes already (Secret Garden, Peter Pan), nor how the story would change with a protagonist of color.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:31 PM on February 5 [6 favorites]




I suspect someone in marketing heard about Black Hermione, thought that was interesting, and said, "hey, we could do something like that! Encourage people to rethink how they imagine the classics!" ...not a horrible thought on its own, but they put approximately zero thought

And the thing is, either a critical mass of BIPOC staff or at least listening to whatever BIPOC staff they have or even at worst, you know, hiring white people who had a somewhat developed understanding of how race comes into being would have prevented this.

Like, this is absolutely not rocket surgery - "Race is not literally just skin color, it's actually about context and family and culture and it shapes how you experience the world" is immediately apparent to anyone who is even sorta-kinda familiar with conversations about race in literature.

Honestly, this is bugging me more than the election right now. Nineteenth and early 20th century literature and literary culture are interesting and important, and it's worthwhile to study them in some depth. This type of exercise flattens the whole literary world, simplifying our read of the books that get labeled "canon" and obscuring non-canon books.

It's feel-good nonsense. Instead of actual justice - honest discussion of "canonical" books by white writers and increased awareness of books by writers of color who were excluded from the canon - we have a self-serving pretense that it was just some weird coincidence that Emma Woodhouse, a rich young English woman, was white and not BIPOC, and that the only reason JM Barrie wrote white protagonists and Indigenous villains was because it never occurred to him to do it the other way.
posted by Frowner at 12:58 PM on February 5 [11 favorites]


The description of the “AI” has just enough substance to make me wonder if they repurposed some more reasonable bit of digital-humanities work. Just as a casual reader of 18th-19th plays and prose, I catch some variances in what’s assumed about social relations that would be pretty interesting if systematic. If machine scanning was a tenth as good as, say, the Webbs’ distributed scholars, it could sieve out some great stuff.

But if this *was* borrowed from someone’s not-stupid research, I hope we never know.
posted by clew at 1:48 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]


A marketing company wrote that. In all likelihood they just Ctrl+F'd the texts for keywords and called it "AI" to sound buzzier.
posted by oulipian at 4:30 PM on February 5


Wooooooooooow what?? ...whose idea was this?

I love how they walked it all back so so so immediately
posted by captain afab at 5:40 PM on February 5


What's funny about this is I'm sure most of the originators of this didn't even think about how whiteness is mentioned or implied in other ways**:

*She blushed bright pink
*He ran his fingers through his straight blond hair
*She voted with no problems (before the 1960s)
*He knows the names of most his recent ancestors
*He looks down on tanned laborers
*She asked to see a manager, apropo of nothing


It is an interesting thought experiment in a thesis, but is a super lazy, "I'm not racist but don't want to make an effort" way to engage with diverse readers.


**Also, I hope my new game The Whiteness Jumped Out becomes the Charades of 2020.
posted by Freecola at 5:40 PM on February 5 [11 favorites]


The thing that tips me over from resigned but pissed to straight fuckin furious is Dorothy's red kicks.

I hope this is sarcastic or tongue in cheek or something because otherwise it basically reads as "Who cares if POC feel tokenized or that this is a shitty attempt at "diversity" or that publishing should be putting out more books by POC, not slapping a new cover on a book about white people - THEY GOT THE SHOES WRONG!"


I think this shoes comment was referring to this response in the Twitter thread:

"I’m also not a fan of the wizard of oz cover... why does she have red sneaks? A black Dorothy can’t have fancy ruby slippers?? Because if you haven’t changed the story where do the sneakers come in?"
And its reply:
"Native and Asian Dorothy also get sneakers because apparently only white girls wear pumps".

The bit about the silver > red was presumably a "yes and" to those bits of the link?

Anyway, next time I get to teach a Digital Humanities class about AI and text analysis, or AI and race, or Digital Humanities and whiteness or... anything really, this (the whole post, not the shoes thing) is going to be my go-to example.
posted by lollusc at 6:10 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


This has seriously brought me so much joy today because it's just such an obviously avoided disaster, but... B&N forged right ahead, during Black History Month of all things! And I love the replies to their attempt to walk back their event that pointed out that they haven't actually apologized for such an offensive idea.

Place me in the camp that the best way to rethink "default whiteness" is to... actually diversify the canon. It was heartbreaking to see POC authors tweeting B&N to be all, "hey maybe you could just stock my book and put it on display?"

As for those talking about Dido Elizabeth Bell, there's a film version, Belle by Amma Assante, which I thought was solid-if-not-great, and Paula Byrne has a couple of history/film tie-ins.
posted by TwoStride at 6:58 PM on February 5 [4 favorites]


And as always, The Root gets the point with their headline: Books in Blackface: Barnes and Noble Celebrates Black History Month by Showcasing White Books.
posted by TwoStride at 7:02 PM on February 5 [9 favorites]


The bit about the silver > red was presumably a "yes and" to those bits of the link?

I mean...the commenter followed up and did not give any indication that they were referring to that comment you linked to or anything related to what you said but instead said "It's just the straw that broke my particular back, that's all" in response to my comment so I don't think I got it wrong.
posted by primalux at 7:48 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]


Yeah that's fair. In which case, yes, such a bizarre and off-topic thing for them to focus on
posted by lollusc at 7:52 PM on February 5


Latinx author David Bowles, who was in town meeting about American Dirt with Macmillan/Flatiron Books and then went to have a word with B&N and Penguin Random House as soon as this story broke, has a short thread about internalized racism and the fact that multiple people of color were involved in approving this decision.
posted by mediareport at 5:46 AM on February 6 [5 favorites]


Yes, this is stupid, for all the reasons stated above, and the should-be-obvious fact that you don't honor black history by showcasing white authors.

The pity is that some of these covers are actually pretty cool. Would love to see them or something similar on new books by BIPOC authors.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 9:23 AM on February 6


I always find it bemusing when something manages to piss off everyone on all sides of the political spectrum. Half of the Twitter responses are people making arguments like the ones we're making here--I found this handy list of 100 classic books by POC in those tweets--but the other half are Nazis screaming WHAT ABOUT OUR CULTURE.
posted by zeusianfog at 9:33 AM on February 6


but the other half are Nazis screaming WHAT ABOUT OUR CULTURE.

I mean, those were the ones already screaming WHY ISN'T THERE A WHITE HISTORY MONTH so this doesn't really change February noise very much.
posted by TwoStride at 9:36 AM on February 6 [2 favorites]


I remember there was novel set in present-day Iraq with a Frankenstein monster built out of people who had been killed in the US invasion.

Ahmed Saadawi's Frankenstein in Baghdad


Yup. Good and interesting book.
posted by doctornemo at 3:20 PM on February 6


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