Cultural Appropriation in Romance
Earlier in this year of 2009, there was a Great Cultural Appropriation Debate, dubbed racefail09, that centred mainly around the SF/F genres. If you clicked on that link, it leads to a set of many, many, many links about race, racism, cultural appropriation and white privilege. (If you’ve never heard of these terms before – or your knee jerk reaction is to say “I don’t have white privilege!” – this is a good place to start reading.)
Romance suffers from the same problem SF/F does. It’s very, very white. It would also seem that readers are far more okay with reading about vampires and werewolves and demons and angels than characters of colour. That is not okay. Think about what this means for a second. And imagine, if you will, being erased in stories or always in the background, a victim, evil, maybe the best friend or sidekick. . .but never the hero of your own story. This is what appropriation does to people of colour. It is not diversity to have white people running around in foreign lands without much thought to the people who are native to those lands. I can’t say I find it romantic when they’re in the middle of colonizing another country either; I’m not sure how I’m supposed to root for our heroes when they’re killing or enslaving other people, or condoning/profiting from it, even if they aren’t actively participating (this is an issue even when white characters don’t visit foreign lands, but it’s a bit harder to ignore, I think, when they’re in the middle of taking over another country).
Is it possible to write white people in foreign lands without it being appropriative? I don’t think I’ve seen this done in a historical. I hesitate to say never (it’s not like I’ve read every book in the romance genre), but at the same time, there’s also the issue of creating yet another story about white people. Even if this story were remarkably absent of exoticism and respectful of the other culture, it still features white people, which means the characters of colour are in the background somewhere; this is a problem in contemporary (and fantasy) settings, as well. The stories of white people are being privileged over the stories of people of colour. If you truly mean to be diverse, write and read about people of colour. Make them the main characters of your stories. Even – or especially – in a historical romance.
I admit to reading less and less romance novels as I’ve grown more aware of these issues. I’ve also fallen out of the fandom quite a bit because there seems to be an overwhelming pressure to keep things “nice” and “polite”; I can understand the need for civil discourse, but not when tone is used as a silencing tactic so these things don’t get discussed. So I read other genres, like YA, which is still mainly white, but seems to be a bit more open to diversity. There’s this YA book I read the other day, Justina Chen Headley’s Girl Overboard, that I fell in love with. It’s everything I mean and want to see in a book when I say there ought to be people of colour in the leading roles.
Girl Overboard is about a Chinese-American teenage girl, Syrah Cheng, whose story is one of growing up, finding herself, dealing with her parents, making friends, thinking about boys, thinking about her future… And snowboarding and drawing manga. I like to think some of Syrah’s emotions and experiences are universal enough that white people would be willing to read about them and perhaps even see themselves in this character; after all, it’s what many people of colour often (have to) do. I appreciate that this isn’t a book about race or racism; they are mentioned, but are not the main focus of the story (there’s a place for those books too, but not what I always want to read). For the most part, being Chinese simply is. And it’s integrated with the American culture of the Pacific Northwest because Syrah is a first generation citizen living in Seattle. This book stands out to me not only as a fabulous story, but also as a story about people of colour by a person of colour. [/plugging]
One way to combat appropriation is to let and encourage people (writers) of colour tell their own stories. I don’t see a reason why this couldn’t apply to romance as well. It already exists, though I’ve only read it in a contemporary setting with Marjorie Liu’s books (her supernatural people don’t bother me because she has actual characters of colour in her books. I mean, I like the X-Men. I see value in metaphors, but the metaphor of alienation, being different, being treated as sub-human, etc, only goes so far when there aren’t any characters of colour in your stories, which ends up perpetuating the problems the metaphors are attempting to address.)
As a romance reader, I’ve grown increasingly wary of books set in “exotic” locations. I never know, if I read that story, if it’s going to offend or hurt me in some way. It’s easier, for me, to suspend disbelief – pretend it’s a kind of fantasy or alternate history – if the story is about rich, upper-class white people doing rich, upper-class white people things. Although this is not to say it’s a good thing to have “wallpaper history” as the setting, or that writers should aim for such a low standard or write alternate histories in which people of colour are erased. I am saying, when writing people of colour or another person’s culture, take the time to know what you’re writing about. If I never see another non-white person described as “exotic” or with “almond shaped eyes“, it won’t be soon enough. If nothing else, I think these are very lazy terms to use to describe someone who isn’t white — it’s an extremely vague description and rather insulting to be lumped together in one or two tired phrases, like all people of colour (POC) look alike (and, for some reason, we always get compared to food. What’s up with that?). I would like to think it’s possible for historical romances about characters of colour, set somewhere that isn’t England or America, and that’s respectful of the culture to exist. And that white people could write these stories alongside writers of colour telling their own stories. I’m just not sure that I’ve seen it, or, actually, looked for it.
I’m not saying writing is easy to do. I’m not saying writers will get writing other people and their culture(s) right all the time. And it’s hard, as a reader, to come across beloved books or authors and find out their writing contains racist or white privileged ideas. I’m not saying you will cure racism. I’m not saying I want authors to defend their work; I’d like them not to continue to further get stuff wrong, though. I’m not even saying you’ll be praised for your efforts (especially if you get stuff wrong — your intentions are only as good as the outcome). I am saying you should try, regardless. And I think supporting or reading books by and about people of colour is one way to do this; as is being more aware of when cultural appropriation, racism and white privilege are occurring in your fiction and perhaps even talking and educating others about it.
Janine adds: Handy Hunter, our guest blogger, has requested that we add this video of a speech given by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie, titled “The Danger of a Single Story,” to the bottom of this opinion piece. You won’t regret watching it. It’s truly excellent!