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Navigating academic publishing as a racialized person, be it Black, Indigenous, or from another racialized group, can be a very challenging experience.

Published onSep 12, 2022

Navigating academic publishing as a racialized person, be it Black, Indigenous, or from another racialized group, can be a very challenging experience. The Scholarly Kitchen articles, “On Being Excluded: Testimonies by People of Color in Scholarly Publishing,” and “On Being Excluded: Testimonies by People of Color in Scholarly Publishing, Part II” showcased brave, personal testimonies from Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) across different organizations. Published in 2018, they were the first of their kind to elevate the voices of directly affected scholarly publishing staff for whom navigating the predominantly white academic publishing industry had been difficult and often painful. The conversations those articles sparked have been instructive for many in the industry and, since their publication, many exciting new initiatives have begun to spring up; however, there is still much that can be done to support BIPOC staff.

Since the Scholarly Kitchen articles revealed critical problems within the academic publishing industry and due to the exacerbated effects of racial capitalism in our society—from the murders of Black people at the hands of police in the United States to the continued ravaging of impoverished nations in the Southern Hemisphere  for profit—the scholarly publishing industry has renewed its commitment to addressing the issues endemic to its structure. The Toolkits for Equity project emerges as one such mechanism to work toward a more equitable, affirming, and just industry. In the larger scope of an increasingly unequal world where racialized people suffer in many different ways, this particular toolkit, the Antiracism Toolkit for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), is a small yet specific contribution, and one that we hope will be meaningful and useful to BIPOC-identifying individuals navigating an industry that can be wonderful, but also hostile. 

The two previous toolkits, the Antiracism Toolkit for Allies and the Antiracism Toolkit for Organizations, serve as wonderful resources to understand the structural problems that exist within the industry, to gain a working analysis of antiracism, and to access resources for individuals and institutions looking to be more inclusive. The contributors of this toolkit have felt the ways in which the opportunity to confide securely with other BIPOC staff in our careers helped validate our experiences, gain new perspectives, and brought comfort in knowing that we are not alone in our struggles and joys as we do our work. But we also know that sometimes it is not easy or indeed, possible, to confide in someone at our own workplaces and we have had to find networks and ways to meet other BIPOC editors, designers, marketing, and business staff at other organizations to talk to. In other words, the contributors of this toolkit, BIPOC-identifying publishing professionals of all levels from across the United States and Canada, envision it to be a conversation between us, as well as a resource for future generations of BIPOC workers who will enter the academic publishing industry. With that in mind, the toolkit will reflect our positionality and limitations as individuals whose experiences have been shaped by navigating North American organizations. We hope that BIPOC publishing staff from across the world will feel encouraged to share their perspectives here. This toolkit is intentionally designed as a living document that will give BIPOC readers with different experiences the opportunity to contribute to this ever-changing conversation. It draws largely from personal experience as a legitimate and generative source of knowledge. 

Though grounded in personal experience, most of the contributions in this toolkit are anonymous. This Toolkit is authored by Nobody, speaking on behalf of everybody who can only share their stories by remaining nameless, camouflaged in the shadows of anonymity to protect themselves from professional retaliation and persecution. We share the anxieties of being outed, identified by the way in which we structure our sentences, frame our position, articulate dissent, illustrate objections, and justify our right to sit at the table. We bear the burdens of finding nooses in the restroom or banana peels on our desks. “Don’t let them change you,” said Bob Marley, “or even rearrange you.” We are invisible, unseen, except as targets of off-color jokes embedded with microaggressions, strategically designed to trigger reactions and to provoke responses to justify our classification as “Other.” So, we choose to be Nobody. Nobody connected to everybody who is a Nobody at the table, in a room of few.

As BIPOC, we are not a monolith—we share diverse perspectives, intersectional identities, and experiences that are impacted differently by systems of oppression. Our goal with this toolkit is not to paint our perspectives broadly, but rather, to draw from personal experiences so that other BIPOC might be seen, to provide practical advice, and to share resources that we hope will help BIPOC staff not just survive but thrive in academic publishing.

In this toolkit, the contributors discuss issues BIPOC individuals commonly face while navigating the scholarly publishing industry, provide critical reflections on building solidarity between BIPOC, and offer practical advice and resources for networking, navigating careers, building a support system, and prioritizing self-care.

We offer this as a gift to you, our fellow BIPOC colleagues.

Notes from the Co-Leads of this Toolkit

As co-leads of this toolkit, we have had the great pleasure of collaborating with so many amazing and courageous contributors who are passionately committed to making the scholarly publishing industry more just and welcoming. Because the toolkit draws largely on the power and knowledge embedded within lived experiences, we have decided to briefly share our testimonies as women of color publishing in the hope that others might resonate and/or feel empowered to share their own stories. Our working relationship as co-leads has been especially generative because we have been able to learn from each other, particularly because Kerry has been in the industry for long and holds a senior position, and because Ale is just starting her journey in academic publishing. 

Kerry Webb, Senior Acquisitions Editor at the University of Texas Press, and Alejandra Mejía, Assistant Acquisitions Editor at Duke University Press

A personal narrative: Kerry Webb

I began my career in publishing nearly seventeen years ago at two university presses in the South. I’d already moved from California to Austin, Texas for grad school, so I already had some experience with the culture shock of leaving a very ethnically and racially diverse place to suddenly finding myself at a school with statues of Jefferson Davis and confederate generals which were prominently placed in the center of campus (thankfully, no longer) and trying to figure out my place. I guess as a Bi-racial and Black woman, I’ve constantly had to mediate where and how I fit in, but moving away from family to a place that straddles both the West and the South was strange. I made the decision to look for a job in scholarly publishing at a time when transitioning from grad school to a job that wasn’t teaching at a Research One school was common. This paradox was not really discussed openly; you were left to figure out how to gain enough experience to get a foot in the door and secure an actual job. It isn’t the easiest thing to do when you lived far from cities that are publishing centers like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, were not plugged into a network of folks in publishing (online resources were almost unheard of outside of information on trade publishing), or if you did not have parents who could financially support you in the meantime. But like many of us who are refugees from graduate programs, I found that scholarly publishing was the kind of work that was most exciting and closest to my heart. The scope of scholarly publishing, in which publishers are spread throughout the country, inherently made it more accessible than the large trade houses from a practical and financial viewpoint for many of us at that time.

I learned so much from all of my colleagues at these presses, but it was still difficult to adjust to living in small southern cities and adapting to the local culture. Still, it made a huge difference to me that I was lucky enough to work closely with and become friends with staff members at each press who were African American women like me. Our shared life experiences gave me a special sense of comfort knowing that I had people that I could talk to and rely on, and in moments where I experienced micro (and more rarely, macro) aggressions in professional settings, I knew that I wasn’t imagining things, that there were people that would “get it.” In particular, being able to discuss these experiences with my late friend and publicist at Tennessee, Cheryl White Carson, really helped. Her warmth, wicked sense of humor, and ability to get to the heart of an issue were a balm for my many anxieties. Her advice helped in a time when there wasn’t much structural support for the issues we sometimes face within academic settings. She was a guide for me to negotiate how to make myself seen and heard, but also in how to support and empathize with potential authors whose work was meaningful, but also sometimes ignored. I think that a mechanism that a lot of BIPOC people in publishing have found is that in feeling excluded ourselves, it informs our work within our presses and also amplifies the need to recognize scholars and writers who are also excluded, or lack access to the usual channels of mentorship, and ability to make sure their work is published and supported. Now that I am back in Austin and working at the University of Texas Press, I have taken those experiences and have known that in working with my colleague Angelica Lopez-Torres, I have been able to confide in with trust when I am thinking through an issue or work experience that troubles me. It underscores a key theme that the volunteers on the BIPOC Toolkit wanted to stress–how do we find ways to support each other, while also acknowledging our different experiences and identities as BIPOC people.

We’ve seen a lot of really encouraging change, especially in recent years by scholarly publishing to recognize the need to think about how we do our work, how it affects all of us, and to more purposefully reach out to and support these authors, as well as staff in important ways. But generationally it does feel like this work has been done quietly, but with great purpose by BIPOC staff for decades to create a space for our authors and ourselves. I think of these friends who were so vital to me early in my career (and still are); and when I remember Cheryl, I see my model of how I strive to be as a friend, a colleague, and hopefully, a source support to younger BIPOC staff that I’m so happy to see being hired now–I hope I can live up to her example.   

Another lived experience: Alejandra Mejía

My story is about how I have relied on support networks and collective action to thrive in predominantly white spaces. I first joined the academic publishing industry in 2018, shortly after graduating from Williams College. As a Central American immigrant raised in the racially diverse city of Atlanta, attending a secluded, predominantly white school in Western Massachusetts was one of the biggest culture shocks I have experienced in my life, second only to migrating from my home country of Panama. My involvement with BIPOC affinity groups at Williams, which included the Latinx student association and the first-generation student organization (made up largely of racialized students from working-class backgrounds), allowed me to build support networks and survive an elite institution where I often felt deeply alienated due to my racial and socioeconomic background. When I began working as an Editorial Associate at Duke University Press, I found that joining our in-house antiracist task force similarly helped me navigate an industry that shared some of the same structural issues as my undergraduate institution and academia more broadly.

Not only was the academic publishing world predominantly white, but I learned that it often relied on the underpaid or sometimes unpaid labor of students and entry-level staffers. Moreover, through working in Acquisitions specifically, I learned that choosing who and what to publish could significantly impact the diversity of entire fields of study. Our Acquisitions editors taught me about the importance of including the voices of scholars from underrepresented backgrounds, including BIPOC, queer, undocumented or previously undocumented, and first-generation scholars, who were challenging the bounds of traditional disciplines via critical scholarly interventions and inclusive citational and methodological practices. And I was lucky enough to work at a press where important anti-racist work was already taking place within and outside the Acquisitions department. Part of this work was spearheaded by my supervisor and mentor Gisela Fosado, a Chicana editor and one of the initial founders of the Toolkits for Equity Project, and by Cathy Rimer-Surles, a white colleague who taught me many valuable lessons about white supremacy and allyship. Their work included founding a press-wide Equity and Inclusion taskforce composed of several working groups. These working groups are dedicated to various projects like organizing reading circles and hosting trainings to raise consciousness about racial (in)justice in our society and in our workplace. I am deeply grateful for this important work and to Gisela specifically for modeling courage, thoughtfulness, and leadership. She encouraged me to attend meetings and step up into leadership roles, including as a contributing writer for the Antiracism Toolkit for Allies, an experience which paved the way for me to become one of the co-leads for this new toolkit.

While so much great work has been done, as a junior-level staffer and a woman of color, I remain affected by issues systemic to the industry. As you’ll read later in the toolkit, publishing salaries are notoriously low, especially for entry-level staff. I have had many conversations with colleagues both at my own press and at other presses across the country about how difficult it is to make publishing a viable career when you live paycheck to paycheck. These conversations at Duke University Press have materialized into us organizing as the Duke University Press Workers Union (DUPWU). While there is still a long road ahead, our union will allow staff, including BIPOC, to have a seat at the table and negotiate for better benefits and working conditions with management. Moreover, I hope we can work in tandem with already existing Equity and Inclusion initiatives to continue to make our workplace more equitable and anti-racist. From my experiences with the affinity groups at Williams, the Equity and Inclusion task force, DUPWU, and working on this toolkit, it has become crystal clear to me that collective action is essential for BIPOC to thrive in spaces in which we are traditionally alienated.

If anyone reading is curious to learn more about unionized academic presses, the Resources Working Group of the AUPresses' Equity, Justice, and Inclusion Group has generously shared a table they created with us, and it can be found in the “Further Guidance and Support” section of this toolkit.

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