The question of whitewashing in publishing and the presence of people of color in fiction has been bubbling to the forefront of people’s minds within the last couple of years. Most recently, the debate has blazed up within the YA community, with several scandals involving white models on the covers of books with non-white protagonists.
In the romance genre, these arguments don’t even come up that often, and they should—because frankly, romance is whiter than sour cream. The vast majority of historicals take place in Europe or America. Ditto for contemporaries. You don’t see a lot of black vampires or Asian werewolves in paranormal romances. The fact that heroes who are Greek or Spanish or Mediterranean are considered “exotic” should really be a clue as to how romance has remained whiter than Bon Jovi’s teeth.
Actual heroines and heroes of color are the exception, not the rule, and they’re often used as examples of the otherworldly and exotic—the half-Roma hero. The half-Native-American shapeshifting heroine. A lot of halves, you’ll notice. Not a lot of wholes (minds out of the gutter, ladies).
The only explanation I can come up with is that white people (and I include myself in this category) have been subconsciously raised to believe that stories about white people can be about anything, but stories about people of color will always be about (or at least involve) race and racism. Stories about people of color have to be Big, Serious, Significant Stories that are Supportive of Their Respective Ethnic Communities, like Beloved or The Joy Luck Club. Great for high-minded book clubs and English literature classes, but too “heavy” for light, fluffy beach reads. I’m not stuffing The Book of Negroes into my purse for my flight to Cancun!
Heaven forbid an Asian heroine should worry about her stock portfolio or her sister’s upcoming wedding! We have to add a subplot about her idiotic boss assuming she’s good at math or about how her white boyfriend doesn’t understand—because if you weren’t planning on making the story about race, why didn’t you just write her as a white person?
See, even in this day and age, “white” is considered the default, the norm, from which any deviation needs to be explained in the narrative. If you have a non-white heroine, there has to be a particular reason. You can’t simply have a black hero or a Latina heroine or an East Indian hero simply for kicks. It’s confusing. Are we just supposed to relate to these characters like they have problems similar to ours?
In a word: yes. I’m especially confused as to why the romance genre hasn’t had more people of color in their novels, because what’s more universally desired and respected, across cultures and racial lines, than love?
From the perspective of historical romance readers, I’ve heard the argument that it’s too difficult to believe in a happily ever after for a person of color in an historical time period. It ruins the fantasy. Because as everyone knows, no-one who wasn’t a white person experienced any happiness, love, or success prior to 1960. You’ll happily swallow stories about Dukes who marry penniless street urchin prostitutes and maintain their social standing, and yet the idea of a Latina couple in 1942 finding love and happiness sticks in your historical-accuracy craw?
Another argument is that white authors have no authority to write about characters of color. In response to that, I’d love to point out the enormous number of tea-jettisoning, independence-declaring, 20th-century-born American authors who (authoritatively!) write stories exclusively set in Regency-era Britain. They do this because they research. I’m not talking about re-writing The Help. I’m talking about fantastically fizzy and heartbreaking romances where one of the protagonists happens to be Asian or Latino. How about more historicals that take place in feudal Japan? Brazil? India?
I’m just saying that we should think about adding a little more variety to our characters beyond whether they’re going to be dark and swarthy (for a white person), blond, or tempestuously red-headed (but only for the ladies). Let’s even think about interracial romances—the sitcom Happy Endings has spent two seasons with an interracial couple as main characters without once resorting to the “Very Special Episode” about how they don’t belong. If “Caucasian” is still the norm, it’s because we still make it the norm. Let’s test our boundaries and explore.
What romances come to mind when you think of people of color?
Elizabeth Vail hails from Alberta, Canada. A book reviewer and aspiring YA writer, she currently runs the review blog Gossamer Obsessions under the screenname AnimeJune.