5 Steps Freelance Book Editors Can Take to Combat Racism

by | Jun 12, 2020 | Business Talk, Inspiration | 12 comments

Freelance book editors have a place in the fight against racism. First, we’re human, and all humans must participate. Second, we are uniquely suited to recognize the influence words have on readers, populations, and entire societies. This gives us additional responsibility.

Here are five ways I think book editors can assume an active role in the Black Lives Matter movement.

1. Read Actively

Reading can be a form of activism, especially when you push yourself to pick up books with unfamiliar voices that make you uncomfortable. Reading helps us confront racist views we might harbor without realizing it, and to face these shadowy parts through one of the most powerful forms of communication: the book.

You could start (or continue) by taking part in Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge. For the sixth year, Book Riot is curating books that push us out of our comfort zone and generate shifts in perspective.

For a specific reading list about the Black experience, see this one from the Cut and this one from New York MagazineWhile you’re at it, support a Black-owned independent bookstore.

2. Edit Better

It’s our job as editors to be exquisitely attuned to the ways words matter – what messages they send, what biases they betray, and what systems of power they uphold. This is sometimes far harder than it might seem. Recently, a thread on Facebook’s Editors’ Association of Earth about whether to capitalize “black/Black” and “white/White” became contentious as editors of varying perspectives shared their reactions to the capitalization question. Although capitalizing a word might seem trivial, it isn’t. Our job as editors is important.

Take a look at the Conscious Style Guide, a website that gathers various style preferences of sidelined communities – for example, guides for socioeconomic status, age, and ethnicity, race, and nationality.

If you’re working on a book that represents a marginalized population, particularly when the author is not a member of that community, consider suggesting a sensitivity reader, aka diversity reader. Sensitivity readers, a subset of beta readers, review manuscripts to flag instances when groups of people – races, ethnicities, genders, differently abled, and so on – are portrayed inaccurately or one-dimensionally.

3. Seek Out Diversity

We all live in bubbles. In Vermont, where Nancy and I live, the bubble is primarily white. As two white women, we need to actively search for BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) in our small, nondiverse town if we want to expand our horizons locally. Maybe you’re in the same boat.

But even if you live in a metropolitan area, you might still have to push yourself to grapple with racism. For those of us who are white, we can do this by attending conference presentations about race. We can reflect on the conversations on social media and in newsletters about issues like when to capitalize racial groups and how to help editors of color. We can listen to BIPOC when they talk about their experiences as authors, editors, and publishing professionals. Then we can share what we’ve learned, and take action when it’s called for.

To learn more about diversity and how it intersects with editing, Google “book editors and diversity.” You’ll find hundreds of articles about the whiteness of the publishing industry, where to find BIPOC editors, and fiascos like the publication of American Dirt. Or start here: We Need Diverse Books, the Twitter feed for Editors of Color, and People of Color in Publishing.

4. Talk About Money

Nancy and I believe that talking about money is crucial. It can be daunting to engage in these discussions; we’ve learned that “polite” people aren’t supposed to talk about how much they make. But if we want to fight against inequality in our profession – in this case, what a BIPOC editor is paid versus a white editor – we need to start with transparency.

In the publishing world, this conversation is happening around the advances given to writers of color. Google #publishingpaidme to find out more.

5. Volunteer for BIPOC-run Organizations

You can find plenty of lists of companies and nonprofits helmed by people of color from an Internet search. (You could begin with Support Black Owned and this list of 181 Places to Start Online.) Protest with them. Donate to them. Sign their petitions. Raise awareness about them. As an editor, you can also offer your services to them free of charge – perhaps offering to edit their newsletters, websites, or emails. If you’re a white editor and you do decide to volunteer your editing, though, be cautious about taking away a paying job from a person of color.

There is so much more we can do, but this is a start.

As we plod forward one tiny, excruciating step at a time, remember: listen, stand up, and pay attention to the power of words.