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Does Christian Fiction Have a Race Problem?

white-egg-brown-eggAfter returning from the Realm Makers (RM) 2015 conference last weekend, I posted several random observations. One was about the refreshingly even ratio of men to women (which I’m guessing was about 50/50). I say this was “refreshing” because one of my complaints about the ACFW conferences has always been the large disparity of women to men (usually about an 80/20 split). Why that disparity was not evident at RM, even though the group was culled from ACFW, is another story. However, during the ensuing conversation on that post, another glaring inequality was pointed out about the RM demographics — the lack of people of color.

What followed was pretty typical: Theories were offered about why this is and theories were offered about how to make it right. But there were no definitive answers.

I suppose the admission that diversity is an issue for RM is a good thing. The same admission is made by most in the Christian publishing industry, of which RM is still a part, for all practical purposes. I mean, I haven’t talked to anyone who flippantly dismissed the subject as irrelevant or overblown. We all seem to acknowledge that more ethnic diversity would be a good, not a bad thing.  But, as with so many similar issues, the problem is more complex and much bigger than any single silver bullet can drop.

I wanted to take a few minutes to try to look at the bigger picture, what factors may be at work, and then make a couple suggestions for Realm Makers as it considers addressing the diversity issue.

For starters, lack of racial diversity is not just a problem for the Christian publishing community. It extends into many avenues of society, pop culture, business, academia, and politics. For example, some have long suggested that minorities are underrepresented in Hollywood. And when they are represented in film or TV, they are often portrayed as stereotypes. Money magazine recently reported that out of 500 biggest US companies, only five CEOs are black. In sports, Major League Baseball has had to address a decline in black athletes and made a concerted effort to attract more African Americans to the game. The NFL instituted the Rooney Rule which requires that NFL teams interview more minority candidates for coaching positions. In the writing/publishing community, the issue has become downright volatile, but people can learn about any subject they want, from fitness and diets, to how to dominate the law of attraction, which you can find articles in the web about it, as http://www.whatisdestinytuningtechnique.com/ and more. While some point out race and gender disparities at sci-fi cons, others ask Where are the Black Women in Science Fiction?, while still others go to ludicrous lengths challenging readers to stop reading white, straight, cis, male authors for one year in order to bring more diversity to the genre. Point being, what RM experienced this year was simply the tip of a very big iceberg.

Racial_and_Ethnic_Composition_by_Religious_Group_(2014) (1)Secondly, racial diversity is an issue that Evangelicals have been wrestling with (or evading!) for decades. As far back as the 1950’s Billy Graham noted that “eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.” Christian publishing is an evangelical creation. Some trace evangelical fiction’s inception as far back as the late 1700’s (see my essay Evangelical Culture and the Horror Genre), eventually giving rise to tales of hardworking prairie life and pioneers with strong values, devout faith, and chastity. Such stories were typically written about, by and for whites, a reflection of American Evangelicalism and its roots. As this recent Pew poll reveals, only 6% of black church-goers label themselves as Evangelical. So in many ways, Realm Makers is simply a reflection of the larger Evangelical church in America — mostly white. This isn’t an excuse or a trump card. It’s simply stating the obvious — there’s a lot bigger spiritual and social dynamics going on here.

Underlying this, and to our credit I think, is the relatively common shared belief that diversity SHOULD exist in the Church. One of the fantastical visions of heaven offered by the Apostle John is a throne surrounded by “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev. 7:9 NIV), all worshiping their God. The New Testament epistles often addressed the acceptance and integration of different classes and ethnicities into the Body, whether they be poor or non-Jewish. So it’s clear, biblically speaking, that socio-economic and multicultural diversity should be a hallmark of the Church. In this sense, the lack of diversity at RM (and I assume other Christian writers organizations) is something most want to address and correct.

The problem is always, How?

As part of contemplating this subject, I contacted some friends in the Christian publishing industry — a mix of editors, agents, publishers, etc. — in hopes of getting a bigger picture of this dilemma from the inside. I received honest, enthusiastic response from half-a-dozen folks. I’m leaving the quotes that follow without attribution, not because anything said is inappropriate in any way. Rather, knowing the potential volatility of this issue, I felt that anonymity would be best. Furthermore, I don’t want the inclusion of specific industry reps to be confused as their endorsement of anything I personally put forth in this post.

The consensus among the industry reps who responded to me is clearly that the lack of diversity is an issue in Christian publishing. (From this point, everything in blockquotes is a quote from an CBA industry respondent.)

Basically, I think the lack of diversity in both Christian publishing and ALL publishing is an issue we should all be working to correct.

This was a shared sentiment by every respondent. No one appears to be ducking or explaining away the lack of diversity in Christian fiction. Why this lack of diversity exists is a lot more sticky. Some suggested that the demographic tilt is a natural representation of Evangelical culture and the publishing industry it spawned.

The lack of diversity in evangelical fiction, specifically, is a function of two things: 1. Most of CBA publishing is run by white folks. And 2. A high percentage of Evangelicals are white, with people of color more concentrated in other non-ev circles.

I’m assuming those two are connected. In other words, most CBA publishing is run by whites because most Evangelicals, which the CBA largely represents, ARE white. I suppose that one could assume latent institutional racism in the non-hiring of more people of color at CBA publishers. Personally, I think such accusations are forced and impossible to prove. Nevertheless, one respondent definitely sees a “genteel racism” at work in Evangelical publishing.

People of color make up a 37.4 per cent of the US population (that includes Hispanics, blacks, native Americans, and Asians). So let’s make it easy and say one third of the country is a person of color. The number of authors of color in evangelical fiction would be about 2%. (To be fair, that number is a guess. It might be less. There are only a handful of authors of color in CBA fiction circles.)

Does that matter? I think it does, because it suggests that the evangelical church is predominantly white, the books they’re having made available to them are almost strictly from white authors, and there is very little opportunity for authors of color.

It means the church is ignoring blacks and Hispanics and Asians… by using genteel racism. It means the church is missing any opportunity to hear from people of color, share their experience, or make an effort to have them feel part of the greater family. Everyone loses.

Whether or not “soft” racism is at work in CBA circles, most respondents agreed that racial disparity is detrimental to Evangelicals and their connection to American culture.

…most of [Christian fiction stories] /still/ revolves primarily around Anglo-Saxon females with the occasional male protagonist. This is especially unfortunate because it puts yet another distancing step in what many perceive to be the utterly out-of-step Evangelical Movement. Not only is our culture vastly multicultural, so is humankind as a whole, and seeing that God created us, well, it seems his stamp of approval is upon many shades and varieties of people. I realize America was settled primarily by white Europeans (after the American Indians, that is), but we’ve grown and changed; shouldn’t our writing grow and change with us, especially as we make some small claim to be representatives of God? Shouldn’t the breadth of our wisdom and understanding speak to each current generation as it rises?

But while our writing should change to reflect “many shades and varieties of people,” such attempts are not without “awkwardness.”

As I see it, this issue is an outgrowth of a bigger long term challenge among Evangelicals—the general segregation of races in the church.  Christian fiction reflects the reality of the environment from which it grew. There have been great strides in this regard.  In large part because of the generational shift (both in bookstore ownership and in church membership composition) that has brought much less baggage and expectation and old experience into their faith environment.  But there are also churches like Willow Creek in Barrington who have made racial reconciliation and engagement a significant part of their mission.  There is an awkwardness there that they’ve been willing to step into and name and wrestle with.

Indeed, taking the issue head-on, despite its “awkwardness,” is a solution some respondents favor.

I do see racial diversity as a big issue, yes.

How should publisher’s address it? By telling writers they want books with characters of varying colors and cultures… make a concerted effort to include authors of color in their lines. Starting with a digital-only line is an obvious, easy way to start. And nobody is doing it. (To be fair, Moody and Whitaker House have made an attempt in the past.) To me, this is part of the way the dominant white evangelical culture. marginalizes people of color.

But is the answer as simple as publishers contracting authors of color and/or seeking stories with more diverse casts? Apparently, publishing more books for people of color has not always met with great success. One respondent wrote,

I’m aware of a few attempts by major CBA publishers to publish non-white fiction, and the books sold so poorly they were scared away from trying it again.

Some speculated that this is simply the result of the lack of readers and writers of color. When I asked if agents are actively seeking to agent writers of color for the CBA, the response was typically, “There’s not that many out there!” An overstatement? Perhaps. But it does highlight the complexity of the problem and the solution. Is this a “chicken & egg scenario”?

the biggest change will come when non-white authors rise in presence and prominence within the overall author mix.

And I think there can be a bit of a chicken & egg scenario in place…  Do we not see proposals from non-white authors because we don’t acquire authors of other races?  Or, are non-white authors not submitting to us because we don’t acquire books by anyone but white evangelicals?”

A third possibility is that there just aren’t that many people of color reading or writing Christian fiction. (As a sidenote, most of the non-white Christian authors I interact with on Facebook do not write for the CBA audience, but for the general market.)

Others noted that white authors writing people of color is a potential minefield.

There is incredible avoidance of the label or suggestion of racism and good people choose to avoid rather than risk it, I think.  Authors and publishers (who are primarily white in today’s Christian publishing space) are editorially sensitive about portraying characters of other races in ways that might be perceived as inauthentic or stereotyped. Honestly, I think there is a lot of avoidance for fear of offense as much as anything.  So, there has been a concentration in time periods and settings (historicals, Amish) that have no natural reason for the issue to be raised.

Then there is the ever-sticky suggestion that white readers simply don’t gravitate toward black characters.

I read years ago that white readers won’t buy books with characters of color on the cover. There was a big dustup when Liar was released with a light-skinned, light-haired girl on the cover [while the character was actually black]. Bloomsbury did redo the cover after angry fans took to Twitter.

But during the discussions over that issue, I heard that publishers say white readers won’t buy books with people of color on the cover. That seems ridiculous to me. We go to see Denzel Washington and Will Smith movies. I don’t believe the majority of the people in the US have anything against characters of color. I believe we’d all buy books with main characters of color if the books were available.

This is an observation repeated several times by industry reps: While covers with mixed casts are usually a plus, a lead cover image containing a person of color often doesn’t connect that well with CBA readers. In other words, CBA readers are okay with a person of color in the lineup, as long as they’re not playing lead. Make of that what you will.

But despite the difficulties and perplexities of the issue, some suggested that we are seeing slow growth:

We see a variety of ethnicities in most of our contemporary suspense — particularly when the storylines comes out of military, government, legal, or other environments that are naturally diverse.  The only exception in this regard would be romantic suspense. Though there is often a variety of ethnicities in the storyline, the  hero and heroine are usually white. I think in this case, it is because the idea of interracial romance was a taboo subject for many years.  I honestly don’t know if any of the publishers in this industry have had an interracial romance in their novels.  I don’t think it would be an issue in principal. Again, it was reflective of the church at that time.  Now, I would say that interracial marriage is normalized in most of today’s contemporary congregations. Still, I suppose it would be a bit of a breakthrough in terms of cover treatment.

As you can see, this is a huge, complex issue. Frankly, it’s encouraging to see the subject being addressed. Even though people disagree on different aspects and solutions, most of the Christian writers and industry reps I’ve spoken to see diversity as a legitimate issue needing to be addressed. This is a good thing.

So let me bring it back to Realm Makers. RM is a microcosm of the bigger issue. Obviously, there are many factors outside of RM’s immediate control that potentially speak to this issue.

  • The demographics of the Evangelical community as a whole.
  • RM’s proximity to ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers, the conference from which RM spun off of).
  • The lack of racial and gender diversity at many sci-fi / fantasy / tech cons.

Point being, again, this is a multi-tiered problem with multiple possible causes and potential solutions. Some may have to do with Evangelicals intentionally moving outside of their ingrown white religious and socio-economic enclaves. Some may have to do with a simple acknowledgement that certain people groups don’t gravitate towards the same things. Some may have to do with the possibility that Evangelicals are cultivating “genteel racism.” Which brings me to the question: So how should RM address the issue of lack of diversity?

For the record, I’m not an official rep for Realm Makers. I was on staff for the 2015 conference and have followed the group’s growth. That’s all. But my response to this issue is usually the same — You can’t force diversity. It must happen at the grassroots, as a result of genuine brotherly love, acceptance, shared interests and values, etc. Meaning, in this case, there’s little that one conference can do to affect long-term change. This isn’t to say that nothing can be done. But many other factors must be addressed before the CBA, ACFW, or groups like RM will ever see significant, long-term change.

I realize that this answer won’t satisfy everyone. Some will see it as toothless, as skirting the issue or, even worse, an extension of the “genteel racism” already at work in Evangelical publishing. My dilemma is that “quota” solutions — which are typically the most commonly offered solutions — seldom address the real issue. If racism is really at the root of the CBA’s diversity problem, then the problem isn’t solved by introducing more people of color into our stories or contracting more black authors. It’s addressed through repentance and reconciliation.

One conferee wrote about another spec conference she was on staff with that began correcting the diversity disparity by simply soliciting, recruiting, and sponsoring people of color. Should RM do something similar? Should RM begin actively targeting authors and speakers of color to attend the next conference? My bottom line answer would be… yes. But it’s a “yes” with lots of reservations and questions.

One of the industry insiders I questioned perceptively wrote,

My opinion is that there is a tension between natural inclusion of ethnic characters in contemporary storylines and what is perceived a “token” characterization.

Like it or not, targeting people of color can appear “token.” As if we’re buying our way to diversity credibility. Not to mention what a “token” person of color must feel like in a conference targeting persons of of color in order to right their diversity wrongs. But there’s other downsides to quotas. For example, although the Rooney Rule has indeed played a part in the increased representation of minorities in lead coaching staff in the NFL, many suggest it falls short, that it’s simple a way to fill quota expectations without addressing larger issues of racism. For racism is a heart issue that no amount of affirmative action can cure. Of course, the issue for Christian publishing is much less meeting a quota as simply challenging a lily white status quo. And in that sense, I think an effort to reach and target more people of color would be a good thing.

Listen, I know enough Christian writers, agents, editors, and readers to confidently say that lack of diversity is an issue we genuinely want to deal with. It’s just such a huge, complicated issue, and the subject is so volatile, that making headway seems to be getting harder and harder to do. But I’m encouraged. Probably because their are Christian publishers out there that say things like this:

…I admonish Evangelicals, especially, to open their Facebook doors, open their hearts, and learn to be as inclusive as God is inclusive. It means toning down our preachy ways; it means foregoing our reactionary ways; it means listening longer than we talk; it means loving so deeply and realistically that we could never be accused of being “one of those Bible bangers,” but merely “a friend who believes.” It means writing like we believe all that. I can’t wait to see fresh new work from the Evangelical realm that is inclusive of people as a whole, that tackles big ideas, and that is honest to the point of shaking us up substantially more than we’re accustomed to. This, I believe, is the thing that will finally put “Christian fiction” on the map in a positive way, and appeal to the largest group of readers out there: our mission field, so to speak.

Amen and amen.

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{ 49 comments… add one }
  • Nickolaus Pacione January 5, 2018, 4:52 PM

    The thing with Christian Fiction is many of the writers (before Coach’s Midnight Diner, Tabloid Purposes, The Ethereal Gazette or my website Writings From The Grave) is that they were stuck in the Independent Baptist mode with literature. Where the discussion of evolution in a positive light from Christians is controversial or discussing race is another — I had a hard time portraying African-Americans in fiction because I didn’t want them looking like a stereotype. Legend Keeper I portrayed one as a self-racist as the real person the character was based upon singled out Pastor Bob Beeman and shoved white haired blab-it-and-grab-it ministers down my throat. She claimed we had “nothing in common.” When I pointed out we had a classmate behind bars for murder one which I wrote the story about the case — it was a much harder successor to The Tell-Tale Heart as the piece came out of very chilling conversation I had with one of the murderer’s would be victims. From the story “Door to Door” in Coach’s Midnight Diner I asked her would she evangelize at gunpoint.

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