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Cringeworthy: A 4-Step Solution for Barnes & Noble’s Diversity Gaffe

By Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker and Dr. Lauren Wadsworth

Barnes and Noble

Cringeworthy. Adjective: causing feelings of embarrassment or awkwardness. “The Barnes and Noble launch of classic novels with covers promoting diversity is cringeworthy.” 

On February 5, Penguin Random House and Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue announced a bold plan to “kick off Black History Month” by giving “twelve classic young adult novels new covers, known as Diverse Editions.” The reimagined classics would include Alice in Wonderland, Moby Dick, Romeo and Juliet, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Treasure Island, Emma . . . well, you get the idea. Incredibly, “each title would have five culturally diverse custom covers designed to ensure the recognition, representation, and inclusion of various multiethnic backgrounds reflected across the country . . . as part of a new initiative to champion diversity in literature.” They created the diverse custom covers by darkening the complexions of these iconic literary figures. Yes, it gets worse. Imagine Frankenstein and Peter Pan in blackface. The public backlash was swift and fierce, garnering more than two thousand comments in twenty-four hours. 

Borrowing from another classic: What’s wrong with the Barnes & Noble effort? Let me count the ways. Recurring themes among the comments included but were not limited to: “Why not just promote diverse authors?” ; “Blackface is racist”; “These stories are not representative of the African American nor other people of color’s experience.” And a personal favorite, “Who actually signed off on such a bad idea?

Finally, notice that Black voices have been historically underrepresented in our bookstores? Why not cover it up? (Pun intended.) Really, what could be more insulting than an erasure of the issue? Literature goes colorblind. Paint the roses red.

What should Barnes and Noble do next?

  1. Re-tract. Apologize, quickly and non-defensively. They did this, quickly withdrawing the campaign. The Barnes & Noble retraction noted, “The booksellers who championed this initiative did so convinced it would help drive engagement with these classic titles.” Really? Why not first acknowledge the colossal failure to truly value Black History Month?
  2. Reflect. It is pivotal that Barnes & Noble take time to understand how this mistake was born. The answer is whiteness—a history of white CEOs and leaders who are not forced to think about race on a daily basis. Because of that, they did not anticipate how this could be so hurtful. We are so accustomed to the dominance of white voices (white authors) writing what we come to understand as ‘‘normal” and universally true. It’s not. 
  3. Re-train. While we may know the answer, the ways that whiteness infiltrates Barnes & Noble specifically must be addressed. This is an excellent time to hire an external diversity expert. This is not the time to ask the people of color at the company to explain why this is wrong and how it happened. A painful start to Black History Month is not the time to heap the emotional burden of explaining and teaching on the staff of color. (Bonus tip: there’s never a good time for that.) Take a lesson from the American Dirt debacle and ensure that a full range of diverse voices are at the table. 
  4. Re-approach. Make an informed attempt to address the issue they originally sought to highlight. Barnes & Noble has a gargantuan platform that could elevate and amplify the countless talented Black authors who have been waiting too long to be recognized. 

Lest we think this is an isolated instance of a good idea gone bad within the publishing industry, consider that the American Dirt dustup is still swirling. Sadly, this isn’t the first, nor will it be the last attempt to “promote diversity” that misses the mark—and here’s why. Toni Morrison famously said, “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” In other words, the most effective, authentic, and sincere way of promoting diversity is to actually have diverse decision-makers and authors sitting at the publishing boardroom table and in critical leadership positions throughout the industry. When that happens, the concepts that were abundantly obvious to people of color and to the hundreds of white people who felt compelled to post their dissenting comments will become intuitive. Strategies like promote Black writers or feature classics about diverse experiences will simply roll off the tongue, and companies like Barnes & Noble won’t have to suspend their cringeworthy initiatives. 


About the Authors 

Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker and Dr. Lauren Wadsworth are psychologists, co-owners of Twin Star Diversity Trainers, and coauthors of Did That Just Happen?!, a forthcoming book on cultural humility in the workplace from Beacon Press.