Cast your minds back to last year and the beginnings of BookCon. Created by Book Expo America (BEA) to be a coinciding reader focused event (with all the added revenue that brings), the con featured a plethora of big name authors and celebrities to entice visitors, who did indeed come in droves. The big problem with this guest list was that it was entirely white. Indeed, there were more cats there than people of colour. You can see the problem here.
While this glaring error was rectified, and this year We Need Diverse Books will be partnering with BookCon, it would be wrong to overlook one increasingly large elephant in the room with regards to the convention’s 2015 announcements.
This year, BookCon will feature a panel of YouTube celebrities who are all publishing their respective books through Atria Books’ Keyword Press. On that list is Shane Dawson, who is described as being a comedian by some. Dawson is a big fan of blackface, having used it several times in his videos to ‘portray’ women of colour such as Nicki Minaj and Wendy Williams, and has used the N word on more than one occasion. He has been called out on this bigotry numerous times, notably by Franchesca Ramsey, better known as Chescaleigh, which led to her receiving death threats and continued harassment. Dawson apologised (in the most pathetic way possible) , but not until he had been on the receiving end of years of criticism from people of colour like Chescaleigh and his career seemed to be in trouble. Of course, he’s only gone from strength to strength since then.
It shouldn’t need saying that blackface is racist, despite Dawson’s claims that he was just acting. The practice has a long and harrowing history and was used repeatedly to perpetuate damaging racist stereotypes. It’s not a positive thing. It’s not acting or comedy and it’s certainly not about keeping the “integrity” of the characters; it’s abuse. I repeat – this shouldn’t need sending.
So why is Dawson’s racism not only being ignored and excused but indirectly rewarded through book deals and a contract with United Talent? Sadly, as with most things like this, it comes down to money. Dawson makes money, not just for himself but for his team, and Atria Books are clearly betting big that his massive online audience will turn out to the bookshops in droves as they did with Zoe Sugg.
Like the majority of big stars on the site, Dawson’s fans are primarily young teenagers, the kind of impressionable base that will shell out a lot of (their parents’) disposable income for their idols. Atria Books and United Talent know this, and they know of his racism, and they’ve made it very clear that profit matters more than people. Creating a hostile environment for people of colour by rewarding a racist is not a big deal because there’s money in the bank. Taking a racist to BookCon to be sold not just as a product but as an idol matters more than tackling systemic racism (he’s also a pretty big misogynist – because of course).
YouTube celebrities will feature heavily in publishing in 2015 because they, like other celebrities, come with a built-in fanbase and a hefty dose of idolisation, but that doesn’t mean that publishers have a get-out-of-basic-human-decency card to play here. This is a conversation that has been going on for a long time; not just about Dawson’s racism but the increasingly toxicity of YouTube culture, the lack of diversity in publishing and the systemic racism that plagues our society. Dropping the racist from BookCon would be a great start, but action needs to be taken from Atria too. There’s no excuse for rewarding and normalising this racism, and no matter what way they try to spin it, that’s exactly what Atria are doing. This is not okay.