A Question for BIPOC Illustrators
Catherine last edited by Catherine
Representation. This question is specifically for the lovely BIPOC illustrators on this forum. Maybe a sensitive one but I'm not sure if I've personally seen it addressed anywhere, and it feels like an important conversation to have.
What are your thoughts on non-BIPOC people illustrating black, indigenous, people-of-color characters? I've had a couple conversations with my BIPOC, non-illustrator friends, but would love your perspective on it being in the field.
The feedback I've had is that for general characters or for stories that speak about universal experiences, representation in children's books matters regardless of who is doing the illustrating. But for cultural or experience-specific books, it's kind of inappropriate for a white person to be illustrating that story because not only was that a job that could have gone to an equally qualified BIPOC illustrator, but also to someone who could more intuitively/accurately depict the story. In essence, representation should matter behind-the-scenes as well as what is on the page. It would be better to refer that client to an illustrator more suited to the project in this instance.
What is your perspective on this if you agree or disagree? What has your experience been like in this field? Thank you in advance for sharing!
@catherine I’m not pro yet so I can’t speak to that side of things but here’s my two cents. Full disclosure: I’m Latina.
I don’t think it’s inappropriate for a white person to illustrate a story about bipoc folk, though I suppose it may depend on the subject matter but in general I’d say there are few circumstances where I would find it inappropriate. However I do think that we should still seek to improve representation in the illustration community overall but i believe that the majority of the responsibility should fall on the art director or studio or whoever is doing the hiring. Knowing how tough it is to even get paid sometimes in the field I would never begrudge any illustrator for taking an assignment that was offered to them like that.
High profile illustrators who have the luxury of saying no to work could certainly pass on the job to a “better suited” illustrator but again that really takes a level of awareness that I’m not sure everyone has and I don’t think it should be obligatory or someone should feel guilty for taking on a project that is not in line with their own background.
Again, I do think the majority of this responsibility should be put on those who are making the hiring decisions. As an illustrator, it never hurts to be more educated and informed on these kinds of issues however. And I think that if you or someone you know wants to make a difference then this could definitely be an approach they could take and more power to them for doing it.
Hope that wasn’t too long or convoluted, would love to hear more thoughts on the matter. Thanks for bringing it up as I do agree that it’s not really a topic of discussion around here
EDIT: I do want to add that while you shouldn’t feel pressured to turn down a job if it’s a story that does not align with your racial/ethnic background you should absolutely do as much research as you can to really treat the subject matter with care and respect.
stayhomejoe last edited by stayhomejoe
@catherine This is a great question. My wife and I have had this discussion many times. Of course I’m huge fan of stories told from all sorts of points of view. She felt it is highly unlikely that a male could get a female perspective correctly. We talked about use of animals or fantasy characters to be more sensitive, if someone else comes down on a issue we are not fond of, and how not to be inclusive and appropriate others stories/history.
Thank you for the question. Awesome!
@B-Rex Ah yes! I really appreciate your perspective! I hadn't thought about the bulk of the responsibility falling on the art director/person hiring — that makes a lot of sense.
One board-book series that I thought did an excellent job of this was Chloe Perkins' "Once Upon A World" series (retold fairy tales set in different places). Each book has a different illustrator that shares the same background as the main character so each book looks different but somehow still works as a collection.
@Catherine that sounds like an awesome idea, I’ll have to check that book out!
Asyas_illos last edited by Asyas_illos
In my opinion it shouldn’t matter what color your skin is or what you identify as, we all bleed red, illustrate what you want, that being said do your research before illustrating something you’re not familiar with, to do your best not to offend anybody, the guys did a podcast about this I’ll try and find the episode.
@Asyas_illos Yes, I do remember something being in an episode with the guys. And absolutely no shade to them at all as I'm a huge fan of them and the podcast, but I think their perspectives are all limited by being white men in this industry and I was more curious to hear a wider range of perspectives so I wrote my question here. Although I would love it if they asked it to BIPOC illustrators during their interview episodes. I've personally loved those episodes for the very reason of hearing from different people.
And I totally agree with you that sensitivity and research is crucial. But I also think it's good to be self aware enough to pause ask if I'm the best person to tell a certain story. Maybe I am! And maybe it doesn't always matter what colour my skin is, but maybe in certain situations that's that most important thing. That by being a white person telling someone else's story, I'm a contributing factor that is shaping the industry of who gets work as illustrators. I guess I'm just saying that it's not always simple and clear.
Asyas_illos last edited by Asyas_illos
@Catherine right, well it’s up to you and how comfortable I guess you are with whatever it is you are working on. I am primarily Asian and South American so I don’t where that puts me, however with a grandmother who crossed into South Korea during the war, I wouldn’t be offended if someone who wasn’t Korean illustrated a story about it so long as they did well by the author and story.
@Asyas_illos That’s completely fair. And you’ve highlighted something I haven’t really been focusing on which is the author themself and their story. If I’m thinking about them (which, in my visually-focused brain, I often forget to) it does seem true that any good illustrator can honor a person’s story regardless of the illustrators background.
TessaW last edited by
I'm interested to know what people think about this topic too. I come from a liminal place, racially and culturally speaking, and I sometimes question if it's appropriate for me to be illustrating certain things, even things fall within my own experiences. I grew up in Hawaii with it's own unique racial dynamics and norms that sometimes align and sometimes clash with general American racial dynamics. I'm also an older millennial, so I may be behind on the times in general.
I'm not very up to date with all the happenings of kidlit, but are white illustrators being chosen for a lot of BIPOC stories? From my limited experience with the books my kids are interested in and things I've seen at the library or within my critique group, I am seeing a lot of alignment between BIPOC stories and the background/racial identity of their illustrators. I'm genuinely curious if it's a problem, and not trying to brush off the issue.
I do have an instance where I saw this kind of consideration playing out. The illustrator wasn't white in this case, but they were given a story that didn't specify the race of the characters. They chose to represent the characters as a race that was different from their own and that of the author. The character designs were really well done imo, and even though the characters where depicted as BIPOC, the story was pretty general. The author and publisher advised them to change the race of the family, because they wanted to be sensitive to representation issues within the subject matter of the story. At first I thought they were maybe being racist and was bummed that it was missed opportunity for representation for BIPOC characters, but maybe they had a point and it wasn't appropriate considering the background of the author and illustrator? In the end, I have mixed feelings about it because the character designs were so well done and I want to see BIPOC characters in kidlit.
To address your specific question of appropriateness, I can see a lot of instances where I might find it inappropriate for a white illustrator to illustrate a specifically BIPOC story, just because I know of some of the historical and current issues involved and I do care about opportunities, inclusion, and authentic representation. For some subject matters and some racial/social groups, I think they are best served by an illustrator from that group.
With other BIPOC stories, it's not as clear cut to me, and I can justify having an illustrator from a different racial or social background. An example that comes to me off the top of my head is, 'Ohana Means Family. It's set in the modern era, in rural Hawaii and has to do with growing taro, making poi, and having a family luau. Who is the illustrator that's a good racial/cultural match for this story? An illustrator from Hawaii, with Hawaiian ancestry, that can pull off emotive landscapes, has a style that marries well with the story, and is available for work. How many illustrators check all these boxes? I don't know, but I imagine it's a fairly small pool. In this case I can see where the decision makers would prioritize an illustrator with Hawaiian ancestry over other considerations. I can see them going with someone who's from Hawaii, but not Hawaiian. I can see them prioritizing a stylistic match. I can see them going with an illustrator who's from a racial group commonly seen in Hawaii, and doesn't have as much association with colonialism. I don't think I'd fault them for any of those prioritizations. The illustrator they went with is Kenard Park, who's Asian and grew up in Maryland. It would have been so lovely to see a Hawaiian illustrator, but the work he did felt authentic and he made choices that I think were unexpected but worked so beautifully. I think he was an excellent choice as an illustrator for this specific story, but I can see where maybe some would disagree.
Anyway, those were my rambling thoughts. As sensitive as these topics can be, I appreciate that we are having these convos. I craved representation growing up, so it's an exciting time to see diversity and inclusion being thought about and put into action.
moonlie last edited by
I hope it is okay to chip in. I usually read the posts on this forum but never commented on them before
@Catherine, first of all, thank you for sharing that question openly. I know it comes from a place of discomfort and caution but well done on biting the bullet and keep asking those questions.
A bit of my background, I am Chinese-Malaysian, born in the Netherlands, raised in Belgium and now living in the UK, so my life has always been...for the lack of better word 'multicultural'. In my professional daytime job, I am also very much involved with topics like equality, diversity and inclusion and trying to embed it in organisations. Seeing how it plays out in the publishing world really intrigues me.
From my observation, it really depends on the school of thought. Some ppl would think it should be by BIPOC or other minortised groups (e.g. people with disability or from the LGBTQ+, or class), some ppl are okay with it, some people also don't want to be pigeon-holed and be knowm to illustrate certain type of stories too. I would be a bit frustrated if I were to illustrate just Chinese stories.
So here are my observations:
a) Research, research, research! (Doing Due Diligence)
Whatever story or subject you do, my opinion is that illustrators or writers should do their due diligence and research on their subject. Whether it is a BIPOC character or animals or space ships, good illustrators always do their research and use references of real life. That is what set them apart!
It frustrates me when people would, for example, create an 'African' pattern/illustration, but Africa is a heterogenous continent with diverse population and rich flora and fauna, so which part of Africa are we talking about? I also cringe when I see people mix with 'Chinese', 'Japanese' or other Asian visual elements like landscapes, traditional wear, (e.g. putting chopsticks in their hair, wearing a Vietnamese conical hats on a Chinese character who carries a Japanese katana, bad calligraphy,...). If they did proper research (and not let their biased imagination lead their work), you dont need BIPOC people to do this.
References and research shouldn't just include visual reference of the subject (like if you never draw kangeroos before, now is it the time to look into it), but also including interviewing people of the minoritised communities and consulting with them regularly. Asking about their lived experience is a must. Like how they navigate through stereotypes or a system that is not built for them? And how does it translate in everyday life (like not getting certain hair products or glasses not fitting on my nose... a real struggle for me !) Really seek out those people who can share their experience with you and give you honest feedback.
I think it is the lack of research and involving the right people where most people fail.
Having said that, if I were asked to work on a Chinese fairy tale (like based in Mainland China), I would still have to do research and I cant go on the assumption that I 'know' and rely on my visual library I have stored in my head, because my version of 'Chineseness' comes from me being Chinese-Malaysian living in Europe (and Chinese is a very heterogeneous community).
@B-rex hit the nail with this one. It is not just about what is on paper, but also who is holding the pencil drawing it on the paper.
In the UK, there aren't enough Black, Asian and Miniority Ethnic (BAME) illustrators (BAME is the UK 'version'). Not because they aren't around or have good skills, but they are not given the opportunity to illustrate, while this piece of work could earn them a commission or could be included in the portfolio to attract future clients. It could be an important stepping stone in their career.
Illustrating is a hard and competitive business for sure and it is challenging to make ends meet if you are just relying on illustrations, but people from minoritised communities are most likely to come from a disadvantegeous background, have less access to support and are therefore more likely to have additional challenges and are likely to give up on their illustration career.
Anyway, just sharing my two cents here
PS first time posting, really confusing format to submit replies