A Lesson in Cultural Competency: How Penguin Random House and Barnes & Nobles Completely Missed the Mark on Diversity & Inclusion.

February 6, 2020 by Stacey S. Joseph, CDE, MBA



Earlier this week, Penguin Random House and Barnes & Noble announced that they would release a project in Honor of Black History Month called “Diverse Editions.” The announcement was met with excitement and great anticipation until the publishing house and bookseller announced that “Diverse Editions” would feature “Classic” books such as Peter Pan, Moby Dick, Alice in Wonderland, and Frankenstein.  After significant online backlash and protest,  the project was canceled.  For what was being hailed as “Diverse Editions,” were simply limited edition releases of “classic” titles with re-imaged characters as people of the Diaspora. While this may have seemed like a genuine effort to celebrate Black History Month through diversity, the project faltered much in the same way that many mis-informed and miseducated efforts to be inclusive misses the mark completely.

In making attempts to showcase “diversity,” misguided and harmful efforts can often lead to epic fails like this one.  Rather than truly celebrating and honoring the Black experience by spotlighting original, authentic stories of the Black experience, [or]  showcase and feature historical and emerging Black authors, Barnes and Nobles and Random House opted for not putting in the real work of diversity and inclusion by operating from the midpoint of the Cultural Continuum, with a common practice that feeds Cultural Blindness.  By placing Black faces on the covers of stories that are astoundingly white; some riddled with overwhelming literal and figurative “whiteness,” is essentially saying that it’s not only okay for differences to be ignored, but that the best way to honor and celebrate difference, is to pretend that the only thing that makes us different is something as minimal as color.

This is the irony of  Cultural Blindness.  Cultural Blindness is characterized by the belief that helping approaches traditionally utilized by the dominant culture are universally applicable.  It’s predicated on the fact if we tweak things just a bit (in this case faces and bodies on book covers), we’ll obtain equity.  It fails to recognize the fact that if our practices and systems were truly designed and actually functioned as they should, all of us – regardless of race or culture – would be served, remembered, accepted, and celebrated with equal effectiveness.  Instead, the practice of Cultural Blindness ignores cultural strengths, encourages assimilation, deems one culture better and another not enough, and often times serves to erase and/or otherize.* In this case, what the booksellers at Barnes and Nobles are saying with this initiative is that not only are white stories more “marketable”, they’re more valuable, more acceptable, and overall more palatable, even during a time set aside for the celebration of African Americans and their contributions.

The day that “Diverse Editions” was to be unveiled at the Fifth Avenue Barnes & Nobles in Manhattan, Barnes & Nobles released a statement via twitter  stating that they decided to suspend the initiative. They offered as an explanation of their original support of the initiative in stating that “the booksellers who championed the initiative were convinced that it would drive engagement with these titles.”  They’re not entirely wrong. And that’s exactly where the issue lies. The initiative very likely [would have] driven white consumer engagement with these titles.  After all, the exotification of black bodies on a backsplash of the white experience isn’t unheard of, and historically, has been a comfortable dwelling place for white people and practices that want to look and feel inclusive but really aren’t.  The initiative may even have driven engagement among a small amount of people of color who may be of the opinion that even ‘pretend inclusion’ is a form of inclusion.  Remember, even within a specific tradition, local and personal variations in belief and behavior exist. However, neither result would’ve exempted Random House nor Barnes & Nobles from what is apparent in the aftermath of the now suspended initiative.  The booksellers have to take an assessment of what motives were driving them, and in their attempt to celebrate Black History Month, who were they placing at the center.  Author L.L. McKinney responded to “Diverse Editions” saying,  “There are so many ways to get this right, they had to look for a way to get this wrong.” McKinney’s book “A Dream So Dark,” a dream so darkis a sequel to A Blade So Black, a contemporary retelling of Alice in Wonderland with a black female lead. The author, and both her books would’ve been a wonderful choice in a host of Black Authors both past and present to spotlight, celebrate, and drive engagement in honor of Black History Month.

In order to fully embrace and promote diversity and inclusion, create spaces of belonging, and celebrate all experiences, we ought to understand what it means to be Culturally Competent. In the context of cultural competency, “culture” is used because it implies the integrated pattern of human behavior that includes thoughts, actions, customs, beliefs, communication, values, and institutions of a racial, ethnic, religious, or social group. Competence would imply having the capacity to function effectively.  Like most things, cultural competence is measured in stages, and manifests on a continuum. To gauge how easily and/or authentically we embrace and promote diversity, inclusion, and belonging, we have to first ask ourselves this question: Where am I on the Cultural Continuum?** continuum-2 Some of us may know exactly our position, while others may need to spend some time assessing their personal values and beliefs so that their position on the continuum becomes evident.

As we work towards Cultural Proficiency while practicing Cultural Competence, we are conscious about how our thinking, our actions, our behaviors, decisions etc. serve to accept, respect, and embrace differences; we commit to a continued self-assessment regarding cultural differences and beliefs.  Not only do we understand that diverse beliefs can be, and oftentimes are deep and intense (hence the strong opposing responses by large and diverse communities to “Diverse Editions); we also understand and can easily describe why diversity is valuable on a personal level, a professional level, and an organizational level.  When we’re unbiased, we have forethought enough to seek advice from people of diverse cultures, especially if and when making decisions about their history, their experiences, and how to celebrate them.

The good news is – our level of cultural competence does not depend on any one factor.  It is dependent on our mindset, ability, and desire, to move beyond a limited belief system in order to understand others and serve as up-standers, allies, accomplices, and ultimately dismantlers.  To do this, we have to assess and uncover our own implicit biases ,the culture and climate biases that are held throughout our teams, communities, and organizations, and our attitudes of otherization. Remember, it’s holding onto our biases, and the practice of othering that cloud our judgements, inhibits diversity, and keeps us from including and truly celebrating our differences.


PNG image-FCE47D3E67EB-1  Stacey Joseph is the founder and Lead D&I Strategist of ImpactEDI™.  She writes, speaks, and teaches extensively on matters of diversity, inclusion, and belonging; and Inclusive Leadership.
* There are varying definitions of the term otherize/othering. Here is a working definition from Stacey S. Joseph and ImpactEDI™ : Otherize/Othering: To make or regard a person, social group, or culture etc. as alien or so different that the person, social group, or culture cannot be embraced or appreciated in the context of the collective.
**Learn more on The Cultural Continuum and how shifting mindsets can move us closer to cultural proficiency here.
Learn more about the life and work of L.L. McKinney here.







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