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The Race We Run: An Open Letter
Major corporations across America are running a race towards an imaginary finish line. Seemingly every company is running it, no matter the industry, though at different paces and on uneven terrain. It’s an important race, an essential one, fueled by good-minded people who desire change. Many companies are celebrating the passing of each mile marker, and sometimes passing certain mile markers indeed feels like a big moment. Yet at times the outward appearance that companies project conveys a desire to reach an imaginary finish line when they can claim the moment that racism, prejudice, and bias no longer influence the products they create, the people they hire, or the culture of their workplace.
Macmillan Learning has been running this race for the last few years. To some of our employees the pace has felt feverish, to others looking for change to come faster it has appeared more like a jog, a feeling we were too focused on the marathon ahead. This week at Macmillan Learning has felt more like a sprint. And if we are running fast it is because we have to, because in a particular incident that emerged in the last month, we missed the starter’s gun entirely.
For the last three years, in various formats and detail, Macmillan Learning has been reviewing our course materials with a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. One tool at our disposal are audits of our published material. These audits identify inappropriate or outdated uses of language, underrepresentation and overrepresentation of people and perspectives, and subjects that require additional context to increase their pedagogical value. They aren’t employed to remove coverage of controversial subjects, instead they are used to enhance the likelihood of productive discussions about them. Nor do they attempt to impose an ideological point-of-view or a pedagogical norm on our authors, editors, or in the classrooms we support. These audits, and other elements of our editorial guidelines for diversity, equity, and inclusion, provide discipline and structure -- and demand a more diverse outlook as well as the inclusion and participation of broader perspectives to an editorial practice that has been too often informed by a homogenous group - authors, editors, reviewers, and instructors that too commonly can be identified as Western (and predominately White), Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, as has so frequently been articulated in higher ed research.
Our efforts over the last three years have been forward-looking, but we have learned that sometimes when you concentrate on creating a better future you can fail to stop to take care of the present. In February, a school district notified us that a passage in one of our publications was offensive and risked negatively affecting students in their classroom. The passage had already been removed from the forthcoming edition of the book due to be published in late 2021. At issue? An edition of our world history textbook, Ways of the World, included a racial epithet employed in the running narrative of a chapter on British colonialism in India. The epithet was used to demonstrate the depth of racist attitudes that fueled British ideology in India. The epithet included an offensive, contemptuous term historically used to describe a Black person. To the reader, be they Indian, Indian American, Black, or White, the offensive phrase is encountered in the passage without warning or precondition. Its use lacked necessary context and historical reference and appeared more for effect than substance.
The authors’ intent was to demonstrate the far reach of European racism and to expose the largely American audience reading the book to how much racism has shaped the world outside our borders -- how personal it can be felt by people in countries beyond our own. It is a pedagogical goal that I can understand and appreciate. Yet the manner in which this reality was conveyed was unacceptable and carried too much educational risk for its intended benefit. Evaluating pedagogical value is part of our responsibility as a publisher. As editors we are the stewards of our publications, and our stewardship is foundational to the partnership and bond we have with our authors and those that use the educational resources we produce. Our authors are not to blame in this situation. We are. I am. This was an error in judgment exacerbated by publishing processes that did not empower our editors to root out a use of language that is not just disagreeable but which offends and potentially harms. The steps our authors and editors had taken with the upcoming edition corrected the error and recast the entire narrative in this area -- but we cannot miss this opportunity to correct it in the present. Addressing this case only in future printings and editions is not enough.
And so in the last weeks we began this sprint. A sprint to update the language in these titles and ensure that classrooms using our books have access to new versions that reflect our commitment to supporting a pedagogically sound educational environment -- admittedly, a sprint in which we felt like we were chasing the field every day. But we are making progress. By publication of this post, adopters of every edition of Ways of the World in which the offensive reference appears will have been notified and we will have revised the language in all our e-books and online learning platforms. Any student, teacher, or instructor who logs into their e-book or online learning platform will see an updated passage. For schools that purchased print editions of our book, we are providing updated pages and access to the revised chapter and we will work to accommodate school-specific needs as they are identified. No more copies of this book will leave our warehouse or be offered online that include the offensive reference.
What does this mean for Macmillan Learning? It means not pausing to congratulate ourselves for fixing something that should not have occurred. It means continuing to look not only at the products that we produce but the people and culture that produces them. Numerous stories have been published in recent years detailing the lack of racial diversity in the publishing industry and our leadership team and employees at Macmillan Learning have taken them to heart. But what we take to heart requires commensurate action. Events like this one put these facts into starker relief as our leadership team continues to prioritize actions that will create an environment that supports an increasingly diverse workforce so that we can continue to create products and services that better reach an already diverse educational audience, now and in the future. In this specific incident, it has included taking care of our employees who both questioned how this occurred and who were affected by it, no matter their background or position on the issue, though taking greater care to speak to individuals and groups historically targeted by the reference. And we are taking steps to ensure what we learn is carried forward in our products, through an editorial process that emphasizes the inclusion of more voices from differing perspectives, and through a cultural and editorial philosophy that insists we question the status quo and invites people to engage in difficult conversations. There is no finish line to this marathon, but that fact does not make the necessity to pick up our pace any less urgent. And with that effort, each day we can become a better publisher.
Executive Vice President, General Manager