July 02, 2012

The white world of literary journalism

According to The Rumpus, 88 per cent of all books reviewed by the New York Times Book Review are written by white authors. Amanda Hess from Poynter compares the discussion on racial representation in literary journalism with the recent focus on the gender disparities in the genre.
Most bylines can be instantly sifted by gender, but race is more difficult to parse. The 50-50 gender ratio is easy to quantify, but the racial breakdown of the U.S. population is complex. It took Gay, an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University, 14 weeks to complete her research, employing a student for 16 hours a week to mine authors’ ethnic backgrounds. They couldn’t confirm the race of six authors. Gay plans to execute a similar count for the bylines of The Times’ book reviewers, when she gets the time. And that’s just one publication.
And here's the really key point:
The whiteness of The New York Times Book Review represents the structural inequality of elite journalism stacked on the structural inequality of elite publishing stacked on the structural inequality of income and education in this country. But for women, the system is breaking down at an advanced stage of the game. When female graduates don’t end up in newsrooms, female MFA program stars don’t get book deals, or female editors are not promoted up the chain, publications can be held accountable for that problem. When writers of color are disenfranchised at every stage of the process, everyone is to blame, so no one is.
You only have to look so far as the racial composition of student newsrooms, even at very diverse universities, to realize that the problem of representation for people-of-colour in journalism starts right at the beginning.

At the paper that I came from, our staff of volunteer writers were fairly representative, but the editorial staff rarely was. In conversations with many other people, we were never able to pin down any concrete answers as to why that was the case, but we tossed around a lot of possibilities.

A lot of the time, people immediately assumed that it had to with language ability and that a disproportionate number of people-of-colour on our campus spoke English as a second language. And yet we still had a strong cadre of non-white writers who had no trouble distinguishing between en- and em-dashes.

Was it because white people were more drawn to "softer" subject areas such as English and political science, the primordial ooze from where student journalists are created, with people of colour disproportionately represented in the sciences and engineering? That was certainly true to an extent amongst the faculties, but then why were non-white writers who were already interested in journalism less likely to stick around the paper long-term?

Another possible cultural explanation would be that even for those non-white writers who wanted to get into media, journalism school was seen as a better route, especially for people who come from a number of East and South Asian backgrounds that place enormous value on possessing credentials.

Or perhaps the time commitment involved with being an editor at the paper meant that people who still lived at home in the suburbs (which in Metro Vancouver tend to be less white than the cities) and had to commute long distances were less likely to take that sort of opportunity.

The final, and most disturbing idea, was that there was something inherit in the culture of the paper that either turned people of colour off from working there or else we actively and unconsciously created a hostile atmosphere. This could range from a collective love of booze that people from certain background might not share, or else a system where the people in charge would mentor people like them to take over their roles.

The likely answer is, as with all things, going to be more complicated than a single factor. But it does demonstrate that the problems with journalism starts at the beginning. And this of course isn't even getting into the many issues that writers of colour will face when they attempt to enter the workforce or try and move up the ladder.

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