Concerns about being a "White" writer

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mccardey

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I write primarily what I know and have learned about the human condition, and research everything else. It's what writers do. From what I see here and on other writing forums, there's a great deal of angst and trepidation about crossing cultural and other lines.

I tackle characters outside my gender or sexuality or history or country or whatever in exactly the same way, by trying to find out what makes them tick, researching their experiences and attempting to portray them accurately an honestly.

If writers confined themselves to their own tiny range of experiences and were timid when writing outside their life-bubble, we would have missed out on some wonderful stories.
Hmmm...

Your last paragraph seems to suggest a dichotomy that no-one's promoting in this thread. It's fine to write outside of your own experience of course, but a bit of 'timidity' (or humility, or questioning and listening) when you're writing into somebody else's lived experience could be called research - and is not a bad thing, I think.

But -

If my research tells me that I'm overstepping by trying to write over voices that historically haven't been heard, I'll step away from that. It's an individual thing - not a blanket rule.
 
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I remember when we were encouraged each April to give our tuckshop-money to a religious program that took Language-speaking Aboriginal kids to stay at the beach, for a fortnight of stringently-English-speaking Christian evangelism. We glowed with goodness!
When I was a littlie, we were encouraged to save up our allowance, lemonade stand money, etc, and put it into (we each got one) these little brown and mustard coloured cardboard milk cartons. The nuns would tot up each month how much money each of us had collected, and on individually named streamers atop the classroom blackboard we'd get a gold star for every dollar. Those dollars went to the missionaries in Africa to baptise the 'pagan babies'. They'd pay the mother a dollar in return for baptising the kid. We'd go home in raptures, telling our parents how many pagan babies we'd saved that month.

Sheesh, if I could go back in time, I'd ..... kill somebody for that shite. Dunno who, but somebody.
 

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If writers confined themselves to their own tiny range of experiences and were timid when writing outside their life-bubble, we would have missed out on some wonderful stories.
Though to be honest we'd also have missed out on some pretty offensive crap! My adolescence/young adulthood was traumatised by Heinlein's portrayal of women, which in the ignorance of youth I took as gospel.
 

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When I was a littlie, we were encouraged to save up our allowance, lemonade stand money, etc, and put it into (we each got one) these little brown and mustard coloured cardboard milk cartons. The nuns would tot up each month how much money each of us had collected, and on individually named streamers atop the classroom blackboard we'd get a gold star for every dollar. Those dollars went to the missionaries in Africa to baptise the 'pagan babies'. They'd pay the mother a dollar in return for baptising the kid. We'd go home in raptures, telling our parents how many pagan babies we'd saved that month.

Sheesh, if I could go back in time, I'd ..... kill somebody for that shite. Dunno who, but somebody.
Ah yes - Project: Compassion.

:(


In better news, I did some research into Catholic charities once, for a film. There were some that were brilliantly subverted by some excellent nuns who used the funds primarily for womens health and family planning. I'll see if I can hunt the notes one day - it's worth a book on its own.
 

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Hmmm...

Your last paragraph seems to suggest a dichotomy that no-one's promoting in this thread. It's fine to write outside of your own experience of course, but a bit of 'timidity' (or humility, or questioning and listening) when you're writing into somebody else's lived experience could be called research - and is not a bad thing, I think.

But -

If my research tells me that I'm overstepping by trying to write over voices that historically haven't been heard, I'll step away from that. It's an individual thing - not a blanket rule.
I think it takes a little bit of thought to determine if it's better for an X person to write a story about X. Like I would not feel like there's any issue if I write about a Jewish character, but I would not be comfortable writing a story about some shenanigans that happen at a bat mitzvah, or the complex feelings a modern Jewish American would have regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have SOME idea since my roommate is Jewish, but there really isn't any amount of research I can do that would make a good enough story, which is why I wouldn't try doing something like that.

It really depends on the piece, too. Like I have half-wrote a very terrible fanfiction about getting Way Too High at Burning Man, which is an event I've never gone to, and I've never used the substances in question. But also it is a dumb fanfic that is going to be read by people who have probably never even touched a weed before, so getting something wrong isn't the end of the world. Also it's something I'm posting for free and not attached to my "professional" handles. But if I was going to write a professional piece that is about getting Way Too High at Burning Man, then I would talk to the people I know who actually did that and take lots of notes, have them read it, too. But also "guy who gets Way Too High at Burning Man" really isn't an oppressed minority nor is it something that a poor representation of it can really hurt someone.

Like I would love to write a story about a plural/system because there's a lot of interesting things you can do there and pretty much every fictional instance of it is Really Bad and actively harmful...but I'm really not sure if it's a good idea to do so, despite the research I've done and the people I've talked to and being careful to do things the right way. Maybe someday I'll feel prepared to do that. Or maybe I'll walk away from it from deciding that it's not my place to tell such a story. It's not easy.
 
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This is always one of those "fun" discussions. White writers are generally held to a much higher standard than any other group when it comes to expecting representation in a work, yet are frequently punished when it comes to the handling of that representation. And it's a moving bar where what's PC today can seem objectively horrible 20 years down the road and get your content pulled.

And there are really no right answers, although there seem to be no end of wrong ones. The "safe" route can be to just treat race like any other descriptive detail, although that can attract more scrutiny than any other descriptive detail. The deeper yet more potentially problematic approach is using race as a lens for their character's viewpoints, where -- even if the character is based on a real personal acquaintance -- you open yourself to criticism for the portrayal.

Most of my non-fantasy novels have at least one POC and, even when it makes sense for there to be less representation, I sometimes worry about being called out for it even when it would contradict the setting or general trends. And, honestly, diversity can vary wildly in the real world. There are towns that almost entirely consist of one race or another race.

And, for the most part, it's a largely American issue because we're more diverse than probably any other nation on the planet and our level of sensitivity is higher than most other places

I will say that the one big advantage for representation is that it's an easy shortcut for making characters seem more distinct. And, as a person who's pretty close to being face-blind, I've always liked tv shows and films which have a bit of diversity just because I'll otherwise struggle to tell people apart at times (although I have fewer problems when something is animated). So having different races, ages, facial hair, weight, height, etc, is a huge help for me.
 

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I am going to remind people one last time:

READ THE STICKIES

 

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I think this conversation between primarily white writers would probably happen better else-board. Hopefully that way we can spare our PoC members from having to deal with all this white fainting-couch angst yet again.

Fasten your seatbelts, folks, and keep your hands inside the vehicle -- porting.
 
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lizmonster

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White writers are generally held to a much higher standard than any other group when it comes to expecting representation in a work,

No we're not.

yet are frequently punished when it comes to the handling of that representation.

No we're not.

Publishing is shockingly racist.

And sexist. There are intersectional issues here. But all the crap that happened to me because I published under my real name would have been so much worse if I hadn't been white.

Fixing publishing is a good goal, but as writers, our influence isn't huge. I will say that if agents and acquiring editors were more diversified, "well-intentioned" white writers might end up learning useful lessons before their stuff gets out into the wide world.
 

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No we're not.

Yeah, we really are. This isn't even a discussion that comes up when writers from other groups have a cast exclusively consisting of their group (instead, those efforts are often praised). While you could argue that there are valid reasons for white content creators to be held to more scrutiny because white content creators are more prominent within the space (which is a separate discussion), the fact that the scrutiny isn't equal is pretty undeniable.

No we're not.

Offhand, I'm trying to think of even one example where a POC received widespread condemnation for a portrayal of another race in their work. It's possible that it happens, but it just doesn't attract the same level of attention.

Publishing is shockingly racist.

On the agent side, I've seen very heavy pushes on the #OwnVoices movement (to the extent that some agents all but suggest that they'll refuse to represent non-POC authors with POC protagonists) and very overt commitments towards representation placed very prominently in their submission process, including to the point where some have specified that they're only accepting submissions from those groups at the moment. I've seen that same commitment to diversity on a number of indie publishes as well.

In short, the front end of that system has made very strong commitments regarding representation. I can't speak to the backend of that system because I'm not agented so I haven't seen the traditional publishing side.

I will say that if agents and acquiring editors were more diversified,

I can't speak to acquiring editors because I'm still on the agent phase. However, having spent a lot of time looking through agencies in recent months, I've noticed that most seem relatively diverse. The cliche that agents are just a bunch of old white men doesn't seem to be the case at all, and many of the agencies I've looked at have featured a lot of representation (including quite a few where the POC outnumbered the non-POC, and the leadership positions were exclusively POC).
 

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And, for the most part, it's a largely American issue because we're more diverse than probably any other nation on the planet and our level of sensitivity is higher than most other places
:oops:🤣:Headbang:

imrs.php
 

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If you have something, I'm willing to listen, but I can't interpret your emojis.

If you're suggesting that the US isn't diverse, that's an odd claim. And if you're suggesting that the US doesn't pay more attention to sensitivity issues than other nations, I'd like some references.

EDIT: Since you edited in a map

You're looking at ethnic diversity, whereas I was talking more about racial diversity. And many of those nations are substantially smaller so it skews the numbers.
 
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If you have something, I'm willing to listen, but I can't interpret your emojis.

If you're suggesting that the US isn't diverse, that's an odd claim. And if you're suggesting that the US doesn't pay more attention to sensitivity issues than other nations, I'd like some references.

I'd like to see some evidence that it does pay more attention, since you're the one making the assertion.
 

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Yeah, we really are. This isn't even a discussion that comes up when writers from other groups have a cast exclusively consisting of their group (instead, those efforts are often praised). While you could argue that there are valid reasons for white content creators to be held to more scrutiny because white content creators are more prominent within the space (which is a separate discussion), the fact that the scrutiny isn't equal is pretty undeniable.

Could you define "scrutiny"? Because I'm not sure what you're talking about here.

You're also making blanket statements, and I'm curious about your sources.

Writers being worried about "scrutiny" and circle-jerking about how much they have to worry about isn't the same as actual scrutiny happening.

Offhand, I'm trying to think of even one example where a POC received widespread condemnation for a portrayal of another race in their work. It's possible that it happens, but it just doesn't attract the same level of attention.

a) I'm thinking you don't hang out in YA circles much.
b) The number of writers who've been seriously clobbered for representation issues is pretty damn small, the high profile of American Dirt notwithstanding.
c) Speaking of American Dirt - how well did that book sell? "Condemnation"? Please.

White writers' careers do not suffer when we get non-white people wrong.

On the agent side, I've seen very heavy pushes on the #OwnVoices movement (to the extent that some agents all but suggest that they'll refuse to represent non-POC authors with POC protagonists) and very overt commitments towards representation placed very prominently in their submission process, including to the point where some have specified that they're only accepting submissions from those groups at the moment. I've seen that same commitment to diversity on a number of indie publishes as well.

I promise you, despite all the hash tags and mswls out there, white people don't have any trouble finding agents. And they don't have publishers telling them "we already have one of those," which is a not-uncommon occurrence for non-white writers.

In short, the front end of that system has made very strong commitments regarding representation. I can't speak to the backend of that system because I'm not agented so I haven't seen the traditional publishing side.

The front end of the system is very good at looking like they're looking for diversity. Many of them are looking for diverse authors - I've spoken to some of them, and they always want to encourage subs from people who have been underrepresented, because they know they're missing good stuff. But trust me: they also rep white writers. Even (gasp!) white men.

I can't speak to acquiring editors because I'm still on the agent phase. However, having spent a lot of time looking through agencies in recent months, I've noticed that most seem relatively diverse. The cliche that agents are just a bunch of old white men doesn't seem to be the case at all, and many of the agencies I've looked at have featured a lot of representation (including quite a few where the POC outnumbered the non-POC, and the leadership positions were exclusively POC).

Agents aren't a bunch of old white men. The profession is dominated by white women. And yes, that's changing, which is all to the good.

Unless you're concerned non-white agents won't rep white writers? In which case I can set your mind at ease. During my last query run, I had a full request from a non-white agent. (Yes, only one, but she was 1/9th of my sample.)

White writers aren't discriminated against. We just aren't. If a particular writer is tying themselves up in knots because they're worried about "scrutiny," I'm guessing they already know they're ****ing something up.

People who tell themselves "I can't get an agent/sell this book because I'm white" are going to get the big giant side-eye from me.
 

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If you have something, I'm willing to listen, but I can't interpret your emojis.

If you're suggesting that the US isn't diverse, that's an odd claim. And if you're suggesting that the US doesn't pay more attention to sensitivity issues than other nations, I'd like some references.

EDIT: Since you edited in a map

You're looking at ethnic diversity, whereas I was talking more about racial diversity. And many of those nations are substantially smaller so it skews the numbers.
Is the US diverse? Yes. The most diverse nation on earth? Erm, no. It is also not the bigliest.

Racism in publishing, like in pretty much any other industry, isn't an American issue. It's a global issue.

If you are suggesting that the US pays more attention to sensitivity issues than all other nations, I'd like some references.
 

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Look, as an author who's a POC, this thread is super painful, and I'm not going to take the time to carefully reply to everything because there are better things to do with me time, and others have already taken the time to write thoughtful responses.

1) If you don't want to write POC, please don't. Honestly, I don't want to read about someone who looks like me, added by a writer who seems to see my existence in their fictional world to be the equivalent of "eating your broccoli"...something you don't want to do but feel like you should. There is so much downright terrible representation of POC in fiction; we don't need more.

2) There are still TONS of books being published by white writers containing all white characters. You can get published. It's fine. I come across these books on a regular basis. Of course, if your book is set in, say, NYC, don't be surprised if the occasional reader is upset that every person in the book is white. (Perhaps with the exception of the maid who's a POC and has two lines.) But really, much of your audience probably won't notice.

3) If you think non-white authors aren't subjected to the same levels of scrutiny...hahahahaha. Honestly, not sure what else to say. Our work is often picked apart. Also, many editors may prefer POC that are written by white authors, because the "white gaze" appeals to them and fits into their pre-conceived notions. My experience is that non-white authors frequently consider things (ie, representation issues) that white authors would never think to consider (and then complain when they're expected to think about them).

4) Yes, white writers don't have as many advantages over POC in publishing as they used to. They still have MANY advantages. I can't stand woe-is-me stories from white authors. It's very tiring.
 
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RIght. I can see some of our newer members can't be arsed to read the stickies, or post without having their heads up their ass.

Some members will no long be able to access the POC sub-forum.
 

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I'd like to see some evidence that it does pay more attention, since you're the one making the assertion.

The fact that these discussions are much more prominent in the US is a pretty solid indication.

a) I'm thinking you don't hang out in YA circles much.

There's only so much toxicity one person can take. I've seen a lot of the vitriolic attacks and harassment campaigns that have taken place there, and I'm just not sure I want to touch that space at all.

I used to love YA novels (albeit decades ago) and wanted to write in the space, but... it's too fucking crazy. I remember editorials from YA gatekeepers attacking this one author a few years ago and several of the critics were pointing out that their book took a spot that could have gone to a POC. And there's just a crazy amount of brigading there compared to other genres.

White writers' careers do not suffer when we get non-white people wrong.

You're making that argument on the high profile authors who can weather the storm, but a lot of other authors don't seem to have that luck (and likely wouldn't even get that far into the process).

I promise you, despite all the hash tags and mswls out there, white people don't have any trouble finding agents. And they don't have publishers telling them "we already have one of those," which is a not-uncommon occurrence for non-white writers.

The front end of the system is very good at looking like they're looking for diversity. Many of them are looking for diverse authors - I've spoken to some of them, and they always want to encourage subs from people who have been underrepresented, because they know they're missing good stuff. But trust me: they also rep white writers. Even (gasp!) white men.

And you criticize me for being anecdotal.

Unless you're concerned non-white agents won't rep white writers? In which case I can set your mind at ease. During my last query run, I had a full request from a non-white agent. (Yes, only one, but she was 1/9th of my sample.)

While that's not my concern (nor should a POC be worried that a non-POC wouldn't represent them), when I look at an agency's client list and see that it doesn't feature a single white author, I don't pin my hopes on that agency and I'm perfectly alright with that. However, that hasn't stopped me from querying an agent or agency. Who an agent chooses to represent is a personal choice. I don't presume to know what goes into their thought processes (unless they overtly state a preference towards certain kinds of materials or certain kinds of clients), let alone cast aspersions against them.
 

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The fact that these discussions are much more prominent in the US is a pretty solid indication.

How do you know? How closely have you followed the discussions in places other than the USA?

And you criticize me for being anecdotal.

Sure do.
 
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The fact that these discussions are much more prominent in the US is a pretty solid indication.
Are they, though?

And if they are...is it because white authors are loudly handwringing about having to think about what they're writing?

There's only so much toxicity one person can take. I've seen a lot of the vitriolic attacks and harassment campaigns that have taken place there, and I'm just not sure I want to touch that space at all.

If you've seen a lot of the attacks, you know some of them have involved non-white authors.

You're making that argument on the high profile authors who can weather the storm, but a lot of other authors don't seem to have that luck (and likely wouldn't even get that far into the process).

Which process?

Are you suggesting white authors are getting "scrutinized" out of the running before they even get agented?

This...sounds a lot like the "poor white me" argument.

And you criticize me for being anecdotal.

*shrug* Most books that come out are written by white writers. By white men, outside of Romance. It's not "anecdotal" to say that white people can get agents - it's the actual numbers.

While that's not my concern (nor should a POC be worried that a non-POC wouldn't represent them), when I look at an agency's client list and see that it doesn't feature a single white author, I don't pin my hopes on that agency and I'm perfectly alright with that.

I'm sure you're aware that agencies with all-white author lists are much more common, and were even more common in the past.

And I'm sure you're also aware that even if the agency explicitly goes after non-white authors, that's a teeny-tiny drop in the bucket attempt at balancing scales that are still wildly unbalanced. That's one agency out of hundreds off a white author's list. Boo hoo.
 

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If you've seen a lot of the attacks, you know some of them have involved non-white authors.

Not the ones I've seen.

When I was trying to google one example to get some idea of what you were talking about, I found the story about Zhao where supposedly she was canceled without people even reading the book (I just skimmed that article, so if there's more to the story, let me know and I'll circle back on it.


Which process?

Are you suggesting white authors are getting "scrutinized" out of the running before they even get agented?

Considering agents' commitments -- which you yourself seemingly acknowledged -- I imagine so, yes. However, it's impossible to quantify that number.

This...sounds a lot like the "poor white me" argument.

And that sounds like a personal attack.

*shrug* Most books that come out are written by white writers. By white men, outside of Romance. It's not "anecdotal" to say that white people can get agents - it's the actual numbers.

But how many white writers are entering the field compared to other groups? If you have the same number of people from each group going through the process, that would be a damning indictment. However, if the number submitting was representative of the population at large, there's going to be a natural skew before getting into other cultural trends.

I'm sure you're aware that agencies with all-white author lists are much more common, and were even more common in the past.

I don't remember seeing a single agency with an all-white author list, and that's something that would have stuck out in my mind. Are you basing this on what you experienced recently or ten or fifteen years ago?

Otherwise you might have a much more comprehensive list of agencies than I do. I'm sure AW has resources that I can't even dream about. I've barely been on the site so I haven't seen everything.

And I'm sure you're also aware that even if the agency explicitly goes after non-white authors, that's a teeny-tiny drop in the bucket attempt at balancing scales that are still wildly unbalanced. That's one agency out of hundreds off a white author's list. Boo hoo.

What are the actual statistics and where can I find them?
 

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The fact that these discussions are much more prominent in the US is a pretty solid indication.
Just as the US was the first country to give women the vote, the first country to legalise gay marriage, the first country to abolish slavery, the first country to legalise interracial marriage, and the first country to end school segregation. Totally!

Well, if you only count countries that are the US, anyhow.
 

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Not the ones I've seen.

When I was trying to google one example to get some idea of what you were talking about, I found the story about Zhao where supposedly she was canceled without people even reading the book (I just skimmed that article, so if there's more to the story, let me know and I'll circle back on it.

Since you can do research, keep reading.

The number of books that have been pulled and rewritten due to racist issues is tiny compared to the number of books out there. That tiny number of incidents has included non-white authors.

I'll repeat: if a white author is expending a whole lot of energy worrying about how their book is going to be received before they've even subbed it, they are telling on themselves.

White authors are not punished for writing non-white characters badly.

And that sounds like a personal attack.

I didn't get the part where you were saying you couldn't get an agent because you were white.

I'm suggesting white authors who claim they can't get agented because they're not representing non-white characters properly are...misguided.

Because fundamentally? Not representing non-white characters properly is indicative of a larger storytelling problem.

I don't remember seeing a single agency with an all-white author list, and that's something that would have stuck out in my mind. Are you basing this on what you experienced recently or ten or fifteen years ago?

Did you check?

Because most white folks, myself included, tend to see white as default. We don't notice when there's nothing else.

Otherwise you might have a much more comprehensive list of agencies than I do. I'm sure AW has resources that I can't even dream about. I've barely been on the site so I haven't seen everything.

I use QueryTracker, but I'm sure your list is just fine.

What are the actual statistics and where can I find them?

Here's a set of stats from 2019.

ETA: That's for the publishing industry. This set of stats about authors is on the NYTimes site and may be paywalled, but here's a pull quote:

Of the 7,124 books for which we identified the author's race, 95 percent were written by white people. ... Non-Hispanic white people account for 60 percent of the U.S. population; in 2018, they wrote 89 percent of the books in our sample.

So...yeah. Not balanced, not yet. Not even close.

White people are not discriminated against in publishing. We. Are. Just. Not. And I can't believe that statement is even a little tiny bit controversial.
 
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Nether

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I didn't get the part where you were saying you couldn't get an agent because you were white.

Probably because I've never once said that. And I'm still not even outside the response period for some of the agents I've queried, so it's a weird suggestion.

Did you check?

Because most white folks, myself included, tend to see white as default. We don't notice when there's nothing else.

Yes, at least whenever photos were available. It's possible (although unlikely) that some of the agencies that listed the names of 50 or 60 clients might have only included white writers, even though the last names suggested other groups.

I use QueryTracker, but I'm sure your list is just fine.

I *think* I only came up with about 100 agencies when I made my list, and from that I only queried 57 agencies (and so far one agent apiece at those agencies). I'm guessing that's on the lower end.


So publishing industry is 76% white when the US population is 73% white?


That seems just about balanced? idk.
 

lizmonster

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Probably because I've never once said that. And I'm still not even outside the response period for some of the agents I've queried, so it's a weird suggestion.

You suggested I'd made a personal attack. Since you weren't referring to yourself, I'm not sure how you could have interpreted it as a personal attack.

I *think* I only came up with about 100 agencies when I made my list, and from that I only queried 57 agencies (and so far one agent apiece at those agencies). I'm guessing that's on the lower end.

I had about 85 agencies on my last list, but I never made it to the end. Depending on genre, I think having 50-100 agents to query is normal.

So publishing industry is 76% white when the US population is 73% white?

Please see my amendment about authors.

Regarding the US population - This suggests in 2020 the non-hispanic white population was just over 60%. I believe the wikipedia article calculates things differently, but I'm happy to take that as gospel if you want.

Since we were discussing discrimination against authors, and not publishing professionals.

And as this threatens to become a pissing contest, I'm out. If you really think you're going to be discriminated against because you're white, best of luck to you.
 
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