People of Color in Publishing and Latinx in Publishing collaborated on an online survey in summer and fall 2018, reaching out to current and former BIPOC industry members about the extent to which they’ve experienced racism on the job. The results of the survey are now being released in a report, “Workplace Racism Survey,” that documents the ways racism manifests itself at publishing houses. (Organizers delayed the release of the findings because of the pandemic and the uncertainty it created about the future of the industry.)
Of those who responded, 72.9% reported experiencing microaggressions—brief, commonplace encounters that communicate racial prejudice or cultural diminishment. And the survey chronicles numerous instances in which junior and midlevel BIPOC professionals encountered half-hearted or poorly managed efforts at diversity where they work. Of the people of color who responded, 86% cited unfair or extra workloads placed on them in order to educate their colleagues about racism, while 47.4% said they had been asked to act as ad hoc sensitivity readers without compensation.
“The burden on BIPOC to educate white colleagues is an onerous task that contributes to burnout,” according to the report. “Not only does this unpaid labor take time away from BIPOC employees’ own pursuits and career advancement, but it sometimes results in repercussions.”
The report also offers specific guidelines to white colleagues, encouraging them to support their BIPOC colleagues and avoid “bystander racism”—witnessing and recognizing a microaggression but not challenging it or providing support to the BIPOC staff forced to deal with it.
The “Workplace Racism Survey” is the latest in a series of strategic efforts by People of Color in Publishing and Latinx in Publishing—along with similar efforts aimed at children’s publishing organized by We Need Diverse Books—to expose and decry racism and microaggressions in publishing and offer pathways to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Survey participants responded anonymously and work at Big Five houses as well as small independent publishers, though no publishers are cited by name. There were 211 submissions (190 current and 21 former book workers), with answers to yes-or-no questions supported by written responses that describe respondents’ experiences. The report breaks down respondents by race or ethnic background, as well as job type: editorial (103), marketing/publicity (85), production (31), sales (24), and design (21).
Despite actions taken in the past year to bring more diversity into publishing, the survey’s findings remain relevant, those associated with the report said. The goal of the survey, according to Kait Feldmann, the director of special projects for People of Color in Publishing and a senior editor at HarperCollins, is to “start the conversation again.” She added, “Things have not improved in the workplace as much as we hoped: the issue of microaggressions goes unresolved, and we need to shake our white colleagues awake. “We worried about the survey being three years old, that maybe white colleagues would think things are different now—but they are not.”
Saraciea Fennell, who is a publicist and the founder of the Bronx Is Reading book festival, and also the board chair and communications director of Latinx in Publishing and the director of public relations and an advisory board member for People of Color in Publishing, said, “We’ve had conversations about how racist the publishing industry is, but the conversation has been about the books and not about the industry’s professionals. This takes the conversation to another, deeper level.”
Nancy Mercado, the board secretary and special events director at Latinx in Publishing and the associate publisher and editorial director at Dial Books for Young Readers, said, “Every institution in the U.S. is built on white supremacy, and book publishing is no different.” She added that the industry hasn’t changed much since 2018. “Liberals and left people in the industry may be congratulating themselves, but if you work at a toxic place, these are the answers you get from the people most affected.”
The report also offers specific information and comments on the ways microaggressions function in the workplace—from “showcasing” POC staff inappropriately to mistaking individuals of the same race for one another and making blanket statements about a given culture or race. The report also looks at the issues surrounding both staff- and company-led diversity committees, as well as problems with human resources departments (76% of respondents did not report racist behavior to HR, and of the 24% who did, most said it was ineffective).
And though the survey did not ask participants to discuss the content of the books their companies publish or their marketing efforts, most respondents brought the topic up. They offered numerous examples of ill-informed comments from coworkers—from claims that Black people don’t read, to an expressed assumption that every book must appeal to a white readership, or that racist historical figures in works should be tolerated.
Feldmann said the tumultuous nationwide protests in 2020 in response to the murder of George Floyd were a “wake-up call” for the book industry. But she also emphasized that the protests may have led to even more microaggressions, as publishers lean on their BIPOC staff to address the reality of racial inequity in the workplace.
The survey organizers interviewed acknowledged the strategic nature of the report and their organizations’ tactical approach to addressing the issue of racism in the workplace. “We wanted data to be accompanied by action points,” Feldmann said. “When people talk about microaggressions and our white colleagues ask, ‘What can we do?’ we didn’t want BIPOC staff to have to come up with the solutions.”
Mercado described the survey as “data plus storytelling, words of direct experience that were painful to read through.”
The report provides a detailed plan for “dismantling racism in publishing” that includes actions designed specifically for entry-level employees, management, and leaders. Talking about the issues outlined in the report, Feldmann said, is a start. “Amplify the dialogue, share this up the corporate ladder, even though it will make people uncomfortable,” she added. “If you see a POC addressing an issue around racism and it’s dismissed, jump in and talk about it. White allies want to help but don’t back their POC colleagues up.”
This dialogue, survey organizers emphasized, will encompass issues like how to improve retention rates. Among the factors prompting BIPOC employees to leave publishing, respondents said, are a lack of recognition, preferential treatment of white colleagues, and the struggle to live on entry-level salaries in one of the most expensive cities in the country. The report also noted the need for mentoring, especially given the lack of senior BIPOC staff. Thirty-one percent of BIPOC respondents who’ve been working in the industry for less than five years are already acting as mentors, “to support others despite not having that same support themselves,” the authors of the report noted.
And as publishing begins to emerge from the pandemic, the survey organizers see an opportunity for the industry to change its practices in a manner that will address racism and a range of issues related to staff equity, job satisfaction, and retention. “The pandemic has shown that the business of publishing is more flexible than the industry thought,” Feldmann said. “There are other ways to do our business. You don’t have to be in New York.”
She added, “The pandemic has also made publishers of every size evaluate where they spend money. How will we reevaluate how things are done, spending on buildings and real estate, the need for salary increases, finding out what employees need and investing in them, and reaching out to find diverse voices to publish?”
Mercado said, “All of this must come from the top down. Racial justice needs to be emphasized from the top and not be lip service or dumped on POC staff.”