Every writer of color and most readers of color know the jolt of seeing a name like yours in print. It's a facsimile of the nod, the silent acknowledgment of a face like yours in a crowd.
Usually the nod loses power over time because one of two things happens: we move, by osmosis, to more diverse rooms and cities, and those faces become more commonplace, or we don't, so we make real friends with our superficial allies. In terms of writing, though, the feeling never really fades. The publishing industry literalizes, in its pages and screens, Zora Neale Hurston's epigrammatic line, "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background." Every fresh byline attributed to, or even suggestive of, a person of color is still uncommon enough in media circles that it leaves an impression.
Seriously, why are bylines still so white? That's a question four New York writers asked each other so often that they decided to do something about it. This past April, they launched Writers of Color, a searchable online database of writers of color organized by location and topic. Their goal is to serve as a resource for editors to easily find and publish more writers of color, no matter the outlet or subject.
Jazmine Hughes, 24, an associate digital editor at The New York Times, and Durga Chew-Bose, 29, a freelance writer, were complaining about the homogeneity of the publications they loved over brunch, but, as Hughes told The Huffington Post, "instead of just stopping when the check came, we mobilized." They put together a memo and Google Doc to send out to their networks, and when the responses shaped up to more than just a side project, Hughes called in her colleague, "tech wiz" Vijith Assar, a software engineer at the Times and sometime freelancer himself.
Assar initially signed up to be listed in the database, but the project excited him into a self-professed "nerd blackout," and he soon turned their spreadsheet into a full-fledged web site. He also brought in Buster Bylander, a college friend turned fellow freelancer, to handle the site's design and visuals.
The prototype of Writers of Color, the email and submission form, launched in April and became a full site in June; Fast Company featured it in its "Today in Tabs" newsletter. So far there are about 750 writers listed along with their location, Twitter handle, and email address. The project has been well-received in publishing circles, and "a few places have gone as far as adding us to their recruitment process and listing us on internal human resources documents," says Assar.
Writers who have found work through the site include Washington, D.C.-based essayist Nneka M. Okona and Evette Dionne, who now writes for Refinery 29.
Still, on the flip side of any diversity effort is the specter of tokenism. The project founders feel this acutely, despite a climate of best intentions from both editors and publications. Chew-Bose said, "I can usually tell when I'm being pitched an assignment or when an editor is reaching out to me as means to diversify his or her publication." Assar says, "It has been strange to realize that my demographic qualities are valued by some publications but a barrier at others. Both positions are uncomfortable."
To be sure, the landscape is improving for writers of color on many counts. Even literal ones, like in the first annual VIDA Women in Literary Arts "Women of Color" count, which tallies those bylines in 12 publications including the New Republic and Harper's. Yet, this is the same year in which a white poet donned textual yellowface (by adopting a Chinese pen name) to publish a poem - pretending to be us while pretending we don't exist, as Jenny Zhang wrote incisively. Given such context, a byline is rather more political than it seems.
VIDA acknowledges that a difficulty in its survey was the impossibility of "assign[ing] race to any writer," which meant it had to rely on self-reports. In contrast, an advantage of the Writers of Color project is that its participants have already identified themselves.
Ultimately, the luxuries afforded to white writers are negative: the freedom from having to represent, the freedom from setting a precedent, the freedom from speaking on behalf of.
Chew-Bose, who has previously written on identity and race for publications including BuzzFeed and the Guardian, said, "I'd love the luxury of nuance afforded to white writers without feeling like I'm betraying who I am." But she adds, "I can no longer simply write about race... the personal essay with regards to me being brown has exhausted me."
Her sentiment brings up questions on the demand side of the writers' market. That is, do we also need an "Editors of Color" database? As Assar put it, "Publications often promote writers into editing positions," so Writers of Color likely helps both sides. But the founders have open-sourced the site code. In case anyone cares to pick up where they left off.