The Race Problem With ARCs

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that I made a couple of Tweets yesterday regarding ARCs—specifically ARCs for books written by/for people of color and the disproportionate number of white ARC reviewers for these books vs. reviews by people of color.

I was finalizing the list of books I wanted to include on my BHM Anticipated Releases Tour (shameless plug for the fun happening next week) and skimming the reviews because I like looking through reviews of books I want to read because I like to get a feel for how a book has been received or perceived; I find it makes me think more when I read through a book.

In browsing the Goodreads pages for the authors/books I’d be including, I noticed a pattern that was mildly annoying until I came across a review on New Kid that solidified the source of my agitation. New Kid is a middle-grade graphic novel written by Jerry Craft with the following blurb:

Seventh grader Jordan Banks loves nothing more than drawing cartoons about his life. But instead of sending him to the art school of his dreams, his parents enroll him in a prestigious private school known for its academics, where Jordan is one of the few kids of color in his entire grade.

As he makes the daily trip from his Washington Heights apartment to the upscale Riverdale Academy Day School, Jordan soon finds himself torn between two worlds—and not really fitting into either one. Can Jordan learn to navigate his new school culture while keeping his neighborhood friends and staying true to himself? 

New Kid, Jerry Craft

And yet so many reviews, including the one in question, entirely stripped New Kid of its racial context, hailing it as a universal story about what it means to be a new kid in a strange environment. As I started to pay more attention to who was reviewing the ARCs of this book, I realized the sheer number of the reviewers weren’t black or even biracial reviewers, but white ones.

I’m going to disclaim here that no, I don’t think white people can’t read black books, nor do I think they can’t review them.

That said, there is a real problem when books written by and for black people are given to a largely white reviewer group who then either ignore the racial context or ding the book for being ‘too racial’ (a phenomenon we will get to in a second.) White people can 100% relate to aspects of black books. They are also 100% allowed to not like a black book. But let’s not pretend like there isn’t something inherently insidious in the revoking of racial context by white reviewers or the outright penalization of racial context and themes by the same reviewers. White reviewers who make up the bulk of those who obtain ARC copies of books written by black authors ultimately lead the narrative surrounding these books, and for some reason, this is the norm.

This was exemplified by a review I found while looking up We Cast a Shadow (a book that is not on my BHM Release tour, if only because it was released three days too soon for February.) We Cast a Shadow is a satire written by Maurice Carlos Ruffin, centering around a man seeking a demelanization procedure for his biracial son to turn him white in a not-so-distant-future dystopian.

We Cast a Shadow is front and center as a book about race in America; its blurb (the entirety of which you can read here) doesn’t mince the fact this book is a commentary on race: This electrifying, suspenseful novel is at once a razor-sharp satire of surviving racism in America and a profoundly moving family story. Writing in the tradition of Ralph Ellison and Franz Kafka, Maurice Carlos Ruffin fearlessly shines a light on the violence we inherit, and on the desperate things we do for the ones we love.

Here was one of the ARC reviews of this book:

Well, I really disliked this book. The premise is so ridiculous that I couldn’t even take it seriously. There is enough racial tension in the world. Why write a book that will make this situation worse? I don’t respect the author in this context. It’s an unnecessary plague of ideas.

When a book whose premise is so blatantly about race receives a review like this from a white woman who got her hands on an ARC copy (meaning that barring a strange set of inexplicable circumstances leading her to pick up a book she knew nothing about, knew exactly what she was getting with this book) it’s a problem. It’s a problem when I’ve seen so many black reviewers speak out about them not being able to get copies of ARCs for black books that white reviewers get in droves. It’s a problem when this happens and even in our own spaces white readers are the preferred readers and their voices are the loudest—sometimes to the detriment and meaning of a book.

I think I would feel less irritated if there weren’t so many of these reviews by white reviewers that talk about the books in racially sanitized terms as if they can somehow speak on a book about black experiences from a ‘color blind’ perspective and still give an accurate, comprehensive review. I would be less utterly frustrated if there weren’t reviews like the one I found on We Cast a Shadow that knocked the book for being too much about race when you as a reader intentionally inserted yourself into a space that was taken up by a conversation about race.

Meanwhile, black reviewers get dinged for speaking up about feeling left out of the book community because they’re ‘always making everything about race’ while the collective reviewer population likes to talk a big game about being diverse as they actively silence diverse voices in the way they handle ARCs featuring people of color. When a black person goes to look up a book’s reviews, particularly on a book supposedly about them, and they see nothing but a sea of white voices weighing in their opinion on a book for and about their community, exactly what message is that sending?

As publishers, is that message one you should be sending?

It would be easy to say that there’s no quick fix, that the publishing industry is a rough sea to swim through, but when publishers have control over the people who receive their ARCs, it’s not a case of an issue that just simply is. When there are people of color backing your industry, it speaks when they’re shafted in favor of voices that aren’t even the demographics of the books in question that you’re pushing. It says a lot as a reader when the commentary about race in books is still first and foremost controlled by white people and actively facilitated by publishers.

It’s 2019. Do better.

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