There have been a number of interesting discussions lately about the prevalence of white, straight, able-bodied and otherwise privileged characters in romance. This is a complicated topic and I don’t know if I can do it justice with a short comment. I also feel weird about entering a thread for readers and giving my life story, going on and on about my books etc. So I’ll do it here, where I’m expected to talk about myself! I’ve been neglecting my blog anyway.
The first thing I’d like to address is privilege. When white authors like me write characters of color, they get things wrong. The same idea can be applied to men writing women. Men don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. They don’t have to worry about their physical safety as much as women do. They make more money for the same job. They have male privilege, and any man who denies that is deluding himself.
White privilege is also undeniable. As a white author with a white name (Jill Sorenson, Whitest Name Ever), white people are more likely to read my books than those by non-white authors. This is my privilege. Even if I write about people of color, white people will assume that I’m doing it in a way that doesn’t upset them or make them feel racist.
What I don’t do, or try not to do, is exoticize or fetishize people of color. Some romance novels featuring POC are sweeping fantasies about dark sheikhs who overpower fainting white women. I’m not going to look down on that, but nor would I dismiss the complaints of POC about this stereotypical representation. Do real sheiks mind? I don’t know. It seems fairly harmless to me, but I’m a white person with a white perspective. Whether I approve of sheikh fantasies or not, I don’t write books in that style.
In the discussion I linked above, someone said that white people don’t have to think about race unless they want to. I’m going to disagree. I think about race every day. When I watch a movie without people of color, I notice. Race isn’t something I compartmentalize and ponder about when I’m feeling philosophical. It’s part of who I am.
I live in a diverse community and I’m part of a diverse family. Multiculturalism is important to me as a mother, a wife, and a resident of San Diego. I walk my daughters to school every day, and I run in my neighborhood. I don’t insulate myself inside an air-conditioned SUV. I don’t even own an air-conditioned SUV! If you can live in a border town without being confronted by race and culture, maybe your head is buried in the sand. Or, you are very rich.
What I don’t have to think about on a daily basis is prejudice. I’ve never felt snubbed because of my skin color. No one assumes I don’t speak English. The only time I have to deal with prejudice is when other white people make racist comments in my company, thinking I’ll be receptive to this because I’m Very White Looking. They are wrong.
Here are a few more ideas I’d like to respond to.
Some readers have said that half-white characters or mixed couples are more palatable to a white audience. This is not my motivation for writing characters like this at all. My husband is half-Mexican. Intercultural couples are the norm in my family and circle of friends. Almost everyone I know is mixed-race or in a mixed marriage/relationship.
Another comment was made about a “built-in” readership for multicultural authors. Asian authors have a built in readership of Asians, in theory. For Kimani Romance, most readers will be African-American. White people will read mostly white characters. I don’t feel that I have an additional or automatic reader base with Latinas. I wish I did. The reality is probably that my audience is made up of readers who normally read white characters, and the multicultural aspect narrows that base.
I can’t speak for other authors, but that is my feeling about my audience. Readers have said that they don’t look for authentic depictions of culture in romance. Too often, they are disappointed by stereotypes.
Two personal examples. My husband has a lot of female cousins in their teens and twenties. They read exactly what other girls their age read: Twilight. The Hunger Games. Harry Potter. If they’re looking for better representation, I don’t know about it. They do tease me about the sexual content in my books, which they approve of.
When I was at the RT Convention last year, I signed books next to Kerrelyn Sparks. She had so many fans, many of them young Latinas. I sat there, unnoticed, with my gritty romantic suspense featuring a twenty-something Latina heroine. What could I do? Those girls wanted fun paranormals. They didn’t even glance at me. *weeps*
I didn’t know how to reach that demographic. I still don’t.
What I do know is that my readers have begged for stories featuring Eric Hernandez from The Edge of Night and Maria Santos from Caught in the Act. But those books haven’t sold like hotcakes, so I’m on the fence about writing sequels. I feel like I need a breakout hit first.
My next two books, Aftershock and Freefall, both feature white couples, but there are secondary characters of color. Actually, there’s a skinhead sort of guy in Aftershock and I’m nervous about how he will be received. I’m hoping to write a third book in that series, Badlands, with a Mexican-American heroine. I haven’t abandoned my interest in multicultural characters or race issues, although I’m trying a different tack. Wish me luck!
Sorry for such a long post. Did you make it to the end? You are awesome.
Thanks so much for the support so far, Dear Readers. It means everything to me.