We, the undersigned APIDA authors and publishing professionals, along with many others in the publishing community, were horrified to see the editorial and design choices made by School Library Journal for their February issue during Black History Month. Not only did the article and illustration center whiteness in a discussion about diverse books, but the illustration was blatant use of Blackface.
We understand the importance of books by and about BIPOC as a path to empathy; many of us have had the frustrating and humiliating experience of being told by librarians that they wouldn’t acquire our books because their clientele was largely white and wouldn’t be interested in our stories. However, the headline, “Why White Children Need Diverse Books” prioritizes white children who “need” to understand that people of color are fully human by reading about children of color. Meanwhile, it erases actual children of color who need to feel fully human.
As for the illustration, we find it impossible to see it as anything other than a white child smiling as she “tries on” the identity of a Black child—the very definition of Blackface. Yes, books allow readers to experience the world through the eyes of people different from us, and we acknowledge that the racist implications of the illustration were unintentional—but unintentional racism is still racism.
Like many others in the community, we hoped for a retraction and a clear apology from SLJ and the editorial staff. Instead, the Asian editor-in-chief, Kathy Ishizuka, issued a statement defending the editorial and design decisions. Ms. Ishizuka also posted tweets attacking those who brought up concerns and defending the article instead of addressing those concerns with the respect that they deserved.
The fact that this occurred during Black History Month, using an illustration that mirrors Blackface, is a huge red flag that should have been caught and addressed before this issue ever went to print. Black writers and activists have worked hard for change and equity that has benefited all BIPOC but they consistently bear the brunt of prejudiced actions and beliefs held by those in power in publishing. The Asian community has a long history of perpetuating anti-Blackness even though we benefit from their activism.
While Ms. Ishizuka has issued a formal apology via the SLJ site, we feel that this apology and the commitments promised therein are empty without actively listening to and engaging with the Black members of staff already at School Library Journal and prioritizing their needs. Furthermore, Ms. Ishizuka’s claims that she locked her public-facing Twitter account because she was targeted for being Asian American comes immediately after a number of Black and other Asian Americans openly criticized her– it reads as using an Asian American identity to avoid accountability, something that happens often when well-intentioned non-Black people of color have caused harm.
We urge Ms. Ishizuka to give further thought to the workplace policies and her own internal biases that directly caused this hurt and anger and, once again, to prioritize the needs and suggestions of Black staff already at School Library Journal.
The Asian Publishing Community
Debbi Michiko Florence
Gail D. Villanueva
Sarah Park Dahlen
Lori M. Lee
Jaime O. Mayer
Greg van Eekhout
Emily X.R. Pan
Diana M.Pho, Editor
Shing Yin Khor
Natali Cavanagh, Marketing Coordinator
June CL Tan