Saturday 9 February 2019

Check Your Privilege Before Changing Lanes - A White Author Reflects on Diversity

By Nick Cross

Photo by Gerry Machen

Diversity. Inclusion. #OwnVoices.

Terms like these seem ubiquitous in publishing at the moment. I’ve been spending a lot of time researching and submitting to US agents, and nearly every one has a prominent statement about how they’re keenly looking for diverse writers, characters or themes. Simultaneously, white writers are told to “stay in their lane” and not attempt to cross cultural boundaries by writing about non-white characters. Faced with this kind of evidence, some white writers may freak out, imagining that minority groups are coming to take away their opportunities and livelihood.

Some of this overreaction is ignorance or racism, pure and simple. But there’s also a lot of misunderstanding involved. We writers tend to be emotionally fragile types, whose earning opportunities have been continually eroded. Getting a foothold in the publishing market is extremely difficult, and staying there is harder still. Very high quality writing can fall by the wayside, while opportunistic celebrity-fronted filler rushes up the sales charts. So, after a while, every new change to the market can feel like a threat, even when it's something absolutely vital like increasing diversity.

Let’s be honest though, we are way overdue a change, particularly in the UK market. The CLPE Reflecting Realities report, published last year, uncovered the following statistics:
  • Only 4% of the children’s books published in 2017 featured BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) characters
  • Only 1% of the children’s books published in the UK in 2017 had a BAME main character

As someone working in publishing, these statistics make me feel genuinely ashamed. If you consider that the Department of Education reported in 2017 that 32% of school-age children were of minority ethnic origins, the stats look even more appalling. We are failing a huge number of children here.

Why has this happened? A lot of people have pointed their finger at the composition of the UK publishing industry itself. I’m a white, middle class person employed by a medium-sized publisher (with a small children’s list), and we absolutely have a diversity problem. Rather than just be part of that problem, though, I’ve spent the last year trying to figure out how to be part of the solution.

Photo by Lydia

The external impetus for change in publishing has mostly focused on ethnic and LGBT diversity. Readers and writers from marginalised groups have been lobbying for representation for many years, but the advent of social media has meant that their voices have begun to be heard. Within publishing however, this external pressure doesn't seem to have had anywhere near as much impact as the publication of the gender pay gap data. Publishing is a heavily female-dominated environment, which has meant that employees who are already inside the industry have been able to quickly put pressure on upper management.

From these small beginnings, I've found it fascinating to watch how anger over the gender pay gap has catalysed into a broader movement for good. In my company, awareness of the gender pay gap led to a discussion of other pay gaps: between white and BAME workers, or between employees of different class backgrounds. A colleague set up a diversity and inclusion (D&I) group in our department and I joined in. In a few short months, we've tackled subjects such as unconscious bias in recruitment processes, improving outreach to minority groups and making sure the employees we already have feel included. Company-wide D&I groups have since followed, and I’m involved in those as well.

I certainly wouldn’t claim to be a D&I expert, and I’ve got used to sometimes being the only white guy in the room. But that’s fine - my role is to listen and learn, not to talk over everyone else. My years spent being the token male in a room full of female writers were obviously training me up for exactly this task...

My most important takeaway so far is that most white non-diverse people (myself included) have a LOT to learn. We have all sorts of ingrained privilege and unconscious bias to work through, a process that’s bound to throw up some very uncomfortable realisations about ourselves. We must confront the fact that we didn’t reach our station in life through personal merit alone, but that the scales were always tipped in our favour.

All this soul-searching might sound terrible, but I’m here today to tell you that it’s great. Really great. Because, as a writer, a large part of our success comes from the ability to empathise. And like charity, empathy begins at home. The better you know yourself, the better you can know others.

Understanding your blind spots is an essential prerequisite to moving out of your lane. How can you hope to write truthfully about people from other cultures, unless you can override the unconscious assumptions you make about them? It’s not enough to just flip a character in your story from white to black and assume everything will just work out. Because that character carries your unconscious biases onto the page with them. Know thyself and then do thy research. A lot of research.

The diversity debate is, I sincerely hope, not going away. Certainly, it’s going to take publishing quite a while to change its ways. Which means there’s going to be plenty of opportunity for all of us to learn and grow and become better writers in the process. One thing I’ve found is that the deeper you get into D&I issues, the more overlooked groups you find. What about the physically disabled? Or those with mental health issues? Or those with autism, Asperger’s or other non-neurotypical conditions? There is enough human variety to keep any writer busy for a lifetime.

After all, how many more books about white middle-class children does the world need?


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.


  1. Thanks for having the courage to blog about this, Nick. I think more reflection and more discussion can only be a good thing.

  2. Great blog on a difficult subject, Nick. Thank you. With my economics journalist hat on, can I add that I always feel one elephant in this room is the issue of author pay. How can people of any persuasion afford the time/effort it takes to become publishable unless they or their family have money to spare?

  3. Thanks, Nick. I've been trying to understand more about my own unconscious biases. I participated in a half-day session on this very topic, so your article is very timely. It's made me rethink a story I wanted to write based on a great-aunt who taught on a Fist Nations reserve back in the previous century. It only took a little research to see my ignorance and how much more I need to understand before I can attempt that story. I see this as a positive though and a challenge I want to face.

  4. I have a fantasy story, aimed at children, and with a black protagonist, which I'm now reluctant to send out. The story is pure fantasy and doesn't appropriate anyone's culture - I emphasise, it's FANTASY, along the lines of H C Andersen who is one of my heroes, although it does owe something to the Cornish legend which inspired it, and also to Jamaica (I am neither Cornish nor Jamaican, but I did my research, and stories don't come out of a void.)

  5. A very interesting post, Nick. It's great that you work in a learning environment where it's possible to educate yourself. I'm finding it difficult as I live in a mostly white area and the only contact I have with people from other cultures is through SCBWI. But, having done a few school visits I am really conscious that my audience is diverse and I need to reflect that. So, I've tapped into my time in Derby where I taught children from Asian backgrounds. It's not perfect because I didn't have experience of their home lives but it's a start.

  6. Great post, Nick. I had a picture book published with Tamarind under Verna Wilkins. It was about an immigrant child and his new school in his new country. It was based on my experience working with EASL children in primary school but it was also about myself as a kid and the strangeness of a new school (I was a child of RAF parents) and finding friendship. I always felt slightly guilty about using the EASL experience but at the same time felt that it was a universal experience.


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