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A Special Guest Post on Cultural Appropriation By Handy Hunter

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!

Guest Reviewer

338 Comments

  1. Jane
    Oct 27, 2009 @ 21:51:47

    @Seressia Glass: I’m actually very excited about your book. I think I mentioned it either here or on Twitter. I hope that there is romance in it (that’s my biggest fear).

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  2. Sunita
    Oct 27, 2009 @ 21:58:45

    @GrowlyCub:

    We have a setting: India, and protagonists: Indian, but who are they? Are they a prince and his favorite concubine/wife, a street vendor and his beloved, a high caste male and a low caste female or vice versa or same caste; are they Muslim, Hindu, Christian? What are the expectations for such a story, where would the conflict be, what kind of story development would we have?

    To start with, let’s *not* set the romance novel during the uprising of 1857. Yes, it’s a hugely important event, but not really romantic, especially for north Indians. Duran barely made it work, and then only because the uprising was something the (half-white aristocratic) hero survived rather than something he was transformed by (at least that’s my recollection).

    There are any number of settings that will work: (1) how about between a Brahmin hero and heroine, where the Brahmin hero has risked his caste status to go across the ocean and study law in England? The heroine has to decide whether she’ll accept him given that he could turn into a pariah. Of course, then he turns out to be one of the first Indian lawyers on a par with the Brits. This would be 1860s, complete with interlude in England.

    (2) The independence movement era is great for romance. Anywhere from the early 1900s through to 1947. 1920s: the hero and heroine meet when the hero comes to the heroine’s town with a Gandhi visit. Or the heroine joins the Gandhian movement, against her family’s wishes, and meets a different-caste Indian.

    (3) The hero and heroine risk their lives during the Quit India movement in the 1940s.

    (4) Pretty much any Brahmin heroine and high-but-not-Brahmin hero. The family hates it, but it’s okay by the Laws of Manu (Hindu rulebook). Time period can be between the 1890s and at least the 1960s.

    (5) Rich merchant-caste Indian meets either (a) Brahmin but not rich heroine, or (b) rich non-Indian heroine while on a business trip outside India (white or not, take your pick). The ethnicity of the heroine you would choose would depend on your time period, but you’ve got any number of settings and times to choose from.

    (6) High-caste Gandhian hero meets rich but low-caste Hindu heroine during the 1930s Harijan Uplift movement to allow Dalit (untouchable) Hindus into temples where they were forbidden.

    You’ve got forbidden love, lots of historical context, conflict of every variety, and people who fought social odds to live HEA. And not a Maharajah (half-white or not) in sight.
    @brooksse:

    I'm pretty sure if you were to travel to India and browse bookstores there you would find stories written by Indians featuring Indian characters falling in love in India. They have a very successful film industry featuring Indian romances, so I'm guessing there are also romance books being published.

    Um, no. Yes, people in India fall in love just like anyone else, but there is no romance novel tradition. Indians who can read English read Mills & Boon when they want romance, historically, and now you can read Nora and other such single-title authors. I know of nothing in the vernacular languages (as they are quaintly called) that would parallel our romances. Until recently, the low level of literacy meant that written materials were less common than oral stories, which partly explains Bollywood (and other Indian film traditions). Even today, books are extremely expensive.

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  3. Sick
    Oct 27, 2009 @ 22:01:31

    I can’t agree with everything the author said in this post. But what I do know is there are two types of racism and prejudice. Intentional and unintentional. The intentional is so much easier to spot. People who have intentional racism or prejudice don’t make a mystery of it. After a few, maybe even one, conversation with them you can ask in a sarcastic manner “Tell me what you are really thinking?”

    Intentional is harder to spot therefore harder to cure because on a conscious level the person would be appalled they hold such prejudice. To me I think this is what the poster was trying to get at, though it came across in a much harsher way because it accused of racism along with a solution. And unintentional racism and prejudice is everything the “white privilege” speaks to. That white is somehow superior, more trustworthy.

    Before anyone jumps down my throat understand that the idea of “white privilege” crosses barriers. I’ve met non-white people who buy into this theory without truly knowing they do. You hear a story on the news about a robbery, deep down even if you don’t intend to, you MIGHT attribute a race to the crime. Same if you hear someone has blown up a building or shot all their co-workers.

    One might have two individuals, both qualified to do the job, but 9 times out of 10 the non-white person is hired. You hear the name Kendra, Jessica, Li what is the knee-jerk reaction–the one you have to kick in the teeth because it’s not PC or even close to accurate now and days–you get? Did you attribute White or Black or Asian to that name?

    IMHO, that’s what the post was getting. Sometimes you HAVE to make the effort to break down this racial barrier. (Though while I read this post I was completely offended. Chalk it up to bad writing) But the issue, the solution–sometimes going out of your way to read or write the non-white characters, breaking a preference–is completely valid.

    I’ve said all this to say, I’m tired, just bone tired of being asked why my characters don’t sound black. This being asked from the nicest people. People who might have an inkling what they are asking is implied (and unintentional) prejudice, but not sure, because society–books, magazines, t.v–keeps reassuring the misguided notion color makes a person 100 percent different. I’m tired of having to explain why I was upset Justine’s cover had a white girl on the cover. How can I really explain that this prejudice, this racism is more likely to happen to me because of my color? It’s a fear and it’s not unfounded. It’s not something in my head that I’ve made up to explain poor sales, lack of marketing, rejections veiled in “not sure how to market”?

    I think the bottom line is don’t buy an author out of guilt, but because the story sounds right up your alley. But if your alley is a certain ‘color’ try for someone outside your preference.

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  4. Seressia Glass
    Oct 27, 2009 @ 22:17:17

    @Jane:

    I hope that there is romance in it (that's my biggest fear).

    There’s romance but it’s downplayed. So you’re probably gonna hate it.

    I think my pair just shriveled up. :-)

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  5. Xica
    Oct 27, 2009 @ 22:59:35

    It’s late, and time for me to retire, but I jotted down the possible reasons given for the exclusion or underuse of minority characters so far:

    Didn’t know they were doing it, hadn’t really been something of concern but will now, since its been debatedly on here.

    Okay, sometimes unless its brought up, people just don’t know. It’s like when I would see reruns of the old show Mayberry and it was set in the south but I never saw anyone of color and when I’d ask I was told that’s just how things are. Or more recently Friends, because I really thought NYC was a pretty diverse place, especially when you hang out in a coffee shop.

    Fear of getting it wrong.

    Okay, Though many authors can and do research complex subjects like the military, medicine, ancient cultures for plotlines, different dialects, the customs of different timeperiods, contemporary YA slang and norms, religious rites, mythology, animal breeds, etc.

    Free will, or I should be able to write and create characters that I want without undue influence or feeling pressure. And the same goes for being able to read characters that I gravitate to, who happen to look like me.

    Okay. But does every heroine who looks like you have to be drop dead gorgeous, have great hair, a small waistline, perfect teeth, creamy flawless skin, long legs, and every male in the book wants her, even aliens who’ve never seen a female before and small animals?

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  6. Sherry Thomas
    Oct 27, 2009 @ 23:01:45

    @brooksse:

    So the main problem here seems to be that these types of romances are not being written in English for English-speaking audiences.

    I think you are right about that. Because I know Jane and Jia are always enthused about Asian characters, I’ve at times wondered why I don’t give a hoot whether there are Asian characters in the books I read.

    Is because I read and speak Chinese, there is a whole world of entertainment choices out there, should I seek it, wherein every last single person in it–from hero to villain to best friend to comedy relief–is Chinese? [No diversity there, that's for sure.]

    Or is because I’m an immigrant, and did not expect to see Asians in American media because America–to me at the time of my arrival–was a country of whites and blacks?

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  7. Sherry Thomas
    Oct 27, 2009 @ 23:05:39

    @Oyce:

    My comment is #28.

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  8. Alisha Rai
    Oct 27, 2009 @ 23:35:31

    I’ve been trying not to post all day, since these kinds of discussions take up more time than I have right now, but Sunita, holy moly, you wrote my heart’s wish list.

    Um, no. Yes, people in India fall in love just like anyone else, but there is no romance novel tradition.

    Once again, you’re right. When I was in India, romances weren’t something I could waltz into a market and pick up. The ones we did get were usually written by British authors, with white characters. I believe Mills and Boon actually had a bit of to-do recently because they had signed an Indian author (or had a novel with Indian protags? A line with Indian authors? Something like that. Correct me if I’m wrong). Even if India had a mass amount of romances written about Indian characters, I was born and raised primarily in America.

    I wrote my debut novel because I was a voracious romance reader who rarely saw anyone who looked like me in romance, unless we were the token cabbie or hotel desk clerk or half Indian “exotic” secondary character. Even then, I almost didn’t bother submitting it when a (white) critique partner, who traditionally loved to read menages, told me she couldn’t get past my heroine’s race to actually read the story–that in her view, since Indians “prized purity,” an Indian-American female would NEVER consider a little kinkiness.

    White people have cornered the market on being freaky? Didn’t get that memo.

    I know I’m luckier than other authors, because my readers seem to be extremely diverse (or so it seems). I don’t know if it’s because I started with a menage, which is traditionally a hot seller, because India is a trendy topic for Westerners, or because I went e-pub, where readers might be more willing to take a chance. In any case, I’m grateful, since I know that’s not usually the case. I hope they read me no matter what color my hero or heroine’s skin might be.

    Oh, and Jade Lee, not tainted at all. Put your picture up! I’ll keep an eye out for your next books.

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  9. Zealot
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 00:11:06

    For a counterpoint to this discussion, consider the internet storm raging over Disney’s upcoming animated film “The Frog and the Princess”.

    The film is featuring Disney’s first Black princess in a story filled with politically correct multiracial characters in perhaps the most fascinatingly diverse and schizophrenic place and period in US history, turn of the century New Orleans.

    There are endless protests that Disney is racist due to tokenism, due to the fact that the princess is turned into a toad, due to the fact that the cast is not all black, due to the fact many have french accents, due to the fact Disney has yet to include Pocahantas in their “Princess” line even though she is the only real princess amongst them, due to the fact this is Disney’s first major Black character since Song of the South (never seeing the direct to DVD sequel to that one are we…What would it be? “Song of the South II: Uncle Remus an’ the Night Riders”?) due to the fact that the film does not directly relate to racial relations at the turn of the century, or the infamous “paper bag tests” of New Orleans, or….it is endless.

    Whatever the medium, saying “race” in America is still like yelling FIRE at a Firing Squad reunion dinner…someone, likely everyone, is going to get their ass blown off.

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  10. Zealot
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 00:30:52

    @Janine:

    And at the same time I also believe that a work of fiction dealing with the Holocaust (or any other genocide) must ultimately be true to that reality, which IMO means that it ought to be completely devastating. If we read about the Holocaust and close the book feeling uplifted -’ if we read about it and we close the book feeling anything other than heartbroken and devastated -’ then that book has not been truthful, and has not done its job. Just IMO.

    I understand completely. There was a period around 2000 when the acclaim for the Italian comedy “Life is Beautiful” started a wave of books and films with descriptions like “A heartwarming story set against the horrific backdrop of the Nazi deathcamps…” or “A zany celebration of the unquenchability of life in Dachau”. These included many “Jewish girl/guilt stricken Nazi” romances which even now piss me off.

    While people did indeed fall in love in the camps (I know several who did) and there were stories that could be called “heartwarming” (I have heard them from the actual survivors), most of these stories that were being published revolved around trying to focus on the little bits of goodness, or human compassion that were seen even at the worst moments. While such things can be applauded, sometimes focusing so desperately on them tends to mitigate or lessen the impact of the horror going on around the one merciful act, which in normal life would be quite insignificant.

    Does one glorify a small incident because it shows that not everything is ever totally black, at the risk of distracting people from the darker truths of the story? A hard balance, and no easy answer.

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  11. Angela
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 00:58:50

    @Janine: I get the Holocaust thing, as I don’t feel even Roots is as accurate a portrayal of slavery as it could be. However, Anglo-Jews abound in English history and the 19th century was a pretty interesting time for them–and Zionism doesn’t have to be this 400 lb gorilla hovering in the background. Nita Abrams wrote a really great trilogy with Jewish characters, and Carola Dunn–I don’t know if she’s Jewish–wrote one of my favorite traditional Regencies.

    @Sunita: I LOVE this. Granted, brainstorming these ideas does require intimate knowledge of India outside of the aspects of British colonialism, but those suggestions listed could be the starting point of a myriad of plots.

    Ultimately, I want my romances to reflect the real world–past or present or future. The bane of my existence is the tried and true contemporary romance plot of the hero or heroine returning to a small town from the big city–and not noticing how whitebread his/her town is! I mean, after living in a place like NYC or Chicago for a decade, how can someone fail to experience culture shock despite growing up in the town? /endrant

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  12. Karen Scott
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 01:12:01

    What's at issue is whether readers are too racist (lets stop with the euphemisms) to read a romance that feature heroes and heroines of color. I don't happen to think so.

    I think most white romance readers would be offended at being labelled racist, but I definitely think that there’s a subconscious aversion to romance books with black protags. It would be interesting to note how many of the denyers on here have read one or more romance books with black people as the principle characters. Actually, it would be interesting to note how many of the white people on here have read more than three books featuring a black/mixed race couple.

    I’m willing to stake my house that if there were 5 romance books with a white couple on the front, and another 5 books with a black couple on the front, and all the readers in the store were white, 98% of those readers would subconsciously dismiss the books with the black protags on the cover. I would love to be proved otherwise, but I fear that deep down this would be the case with Average Jane Reader. Whereas those numbers would probably level out more if all the readers in the shop were black, purely because we’ve been reading and supporting authors who only ever write white protags for the longest time.

    I can't imagine that the race of the character would really make a difference. Thinking about the success of Nalini Singh's books, who bloody cares what race these characters are?

    To all the white people who either deny that there’s really a problem in the first place, or feel that they shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about reading books that they’re comfortable with, how would you feel if 95% of all published romance books featured black couples? JoanneF? Caligi?

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  13. Karen Scott
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 01:22:38

    @Alisha Rai

    I know I'm luckier than other authors, because my readers seem to be extremely diverse (or so it seems). I don't know if it's because I started with a menage, which is traditionally a hot seller, because India is a trendy topic for Westerners, or because I went e-pub, where readers might be more willing to take a chance.

    First and foremost, you went to an e-pub, where readers are more willing to take a chance I believe, then the book was menage which seems to sell amazingly well, and lastly, the two males were white. Had they been Indian and the heroine white, I’m willing to bet that the books wouldn’t have sold as well.

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  14. Janine
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 01:49:59

    @Angela:

    I have been wanting to read the Nita Abrams books, so thanks for the reminder.

    and Zionism doesn't have to be this 400 lb gorilla hovering in the background.

    I wasn’t referencing the entire 19th century but rather the era I was researching — around the time of the Dreyfus Affair in France. From what I’ve explored of European Jewish history, the Dreyfus Affair, and the pogroms in Eastern Europe, and the resultant arrival of refugees in Britain, raised the consciousness of a lot of Jews. In Britain, I think they lobbied hard for years before 1917 for something like the first Balfour Declaration.

    Now you are perfectly right that there were also many Jews who didn’t focus on these injustices, and who were busy doing other things, trying to integrate and make a good living and to avoid making waves so they would not be on the receiving end of anti-Semitism.

    But I personally don’t think I could make this second type of character a satisfying (to myself) protagonist. I would not want to write from the POV of a Jew in 1890s Europe and ignore the pogroms, the refugees, and the Dreyfus Affair. I think a character with a Jewish background who was perceptive and bright would care about these issues and would have them on his mind. And therefore would want to do something about them.

    Now if you want to write about a different type of Jewish character in the 1890s by all means go for it. I respect that you feel differently than I do. It may come down to the types of characters that attract each of us. I’m not, however, just using this is an excuse because I want to make a lot of money in romance writing.

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  15. Karen Scott
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 01:52:40

    @Marga

    however i really enjoyed ‘Milk in my coffee' by Eric Jerome Dickey.

    Hmm, me too, but I couldn’t love it because I felt he copped out at the end, and thus made the whole story seem somewhat pointless.

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  16. Janine
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 01:56:05

    @Karen Scott:

    I can't imagine that the race of the character would really make a difference. Thinking about the success of Nalini Singh's books, who bloody cares what race these characters are?

    To all the white people who either deny that there's really a problem in the first place, or feel that they shouldn't be made to feel guilty about reading books that they're comfortable with, how would you feel if 95% of all published romance books featured black couples? JoanneF? Caligi?

    It’s crazy late and I must go to bed, but Karen, while I agree that there is a real problem, I just wanted to point out that CD, whose comment you quoted, isn’t white.

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  17. Ros
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 02:07:51

    @joannef:

    Fair enough. Thanks for clarifying.

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  18. Zealot
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 02:14:07

    @Janine:

    I think a character with a Jewish background who was perceptive and bright would care about these issues and would have them on his mind. And therefore would want to do something about them.

    I completely agree any fictional Jewish character living in the 1890s would be aware of the Dreyfus affair and the surrounding situation and anti-semitism. However, not all real people chose to do anything about it, so it follows that neither would all fictional characters. That choice (to hide, to deny, to assimilate deeper, what have you) would certainly be a part of their character and be relevant to their story.

    At least the awareness of his ethnicity never leaves a Jew, or perhaps that is the work of society. We never stop being Jews, even when we choose to be inactive in the community. Groucho Marx (a great personal hero) used to relate an anecdote that went…

    ‘In the 1920s two friends of mine were walking along 5th Avenue. The first was Otto Kahn, a patron of the Metropolitan Opera. The second was Marshall B. Wilder, a hunch-backed script writer. As they walked past a synagogue Kahn turned to Wilder and said, “You know I used to be a Jew”. And Wilder said, “Yeah and I used to be a hunchback”

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  19. Alisha Rai
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 02:16:53

    @Karen Scott:

    As I wrote in my initial post, I completely agree with the first two, but I’m not sure why flipping the races would result in lower sales or less white readers. There are gobs of romance novels that include the “other” hero, whether he be authentic or not (usually not), the exotic sheik/native american/hispanic man whisking the white heroine away. I figured this was because, in general, the majority like to read a heroine who is white and identifiable, while the hero might have more leeway.

    Personally, I like to discover brown heroines because I am one (er, a brown woman, not a heroine). The hero, nice, but meh.

    Let me also add, I’m not saying that novel is selling the same as if I had just made all the characters white: I’m sure it’s not. I knew that going in. My expectations were so low, I’m pleasantly surprised with how diverse the readership seems to be.

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  20. Janine
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 02:23:15

    @Zealot:

    However, that choice (to hide, to deny, to assimilate deeper, what have you) would certainly be a part of their character and be relevant to their story.

    Exactly. And I personally would not be drawn to writing about someone who chose to hide, deny, or assimilate deeper (at least, not with the Holocaust only fifty years away) unless that was the beginning of an arc and the character emerged with a very different position and outlook on the other end. So for me, it would be very hard to avoid giving Zionism a presence in the story.

    Okay, really going to sleep now. I have really enjoyed today’s discussion and the food for thought it has given me. See you guys tomorrow.

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  21. Sylvia
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 03:43:09

    Wow, this was quite read. Well I have read AA romance and a lot I did not like, not because they were African American but the simple fact that I came across the term sister and brother when referring to the opposite sex. For me it is that simple I think this slang term for someone your sexually attracted to is disgusting and will immediately put me off. Whoops, guess I’m an awful person for that, huh. I don’t care if a lot use that slang I still think it’s nasty as heck. I recently watched Something New and while it was a wonderful movie the main character states that she wants a… brother, its a big pet peeve of mine. The two AA books that I loved where written by a black woman the first had a AA heroine and a Asian hero. Loved it. It was a story about two people falling in love and not so much about… your African American- I’m Asian stated over and over again. While the other was about a fantasy creature and a dark skinned woman, he had horns and was blue it was wonderful romance/fantasy.

    I never got why the AA have their own little section, I mean if you doing it for one then shouldn’t you do it for all I mean its a fact that they are getting a book about people who are AA and all marketing towards a certain group. HEY WHAT ABOUT ME I WANT A LITTLE SECTION FOR ME! HECK YEAH, IF YOU CAN FIND SOMETHING FOR MY MONGRUL SELF. O f course you could argue, and rightly so that romance is mostly white, but still you have other races mixed in there. Nothing is ever going to be fair.

    As for that “white privilege” I answered a lot of NO’S! Clearly we don’t see eye to eye on what it means to be white. I don’t deny that in many places being white is an instant advantage. But because I look white I can be harassed publicly and not be able to complain about racism. Since I am a “cracker” I’m not allowed to complain I must pay for people who are long dead and many who where nothing more than a product of their time. On my mothers side almost all my cousin are darker skinned, and one even thought it was funny to call me cracker. I put up with so much crap from them because I was white skinned I felt unwanted in that family circle. Because of this attitude I grew up identifying myself as white since it was what I look like. Yet once again since I look white a world culture teacher thought it was okay while talking about Native Americans to point to me in the middle of class with. ” Look at Sylvia, she’s white but if you really look at her you’ll notice she’s a little bit darker than the rest of you and you can see the Native American in her.” There were other students in that class who she knew for a fact were Native American but she didn’t want to stir the pot but it was okay with me since I was mostly white like her. It didn’t matter that she made me feel like a sideshow exhibit. That isn’t a privilege to me. I never felt safe in school or on the bus. Because I was the white girl I had to repeatedly physically fight back just to protect myself from attacks and gang jumping while being called white b&^*#!

    I know all about discrimination I grew up with my whiteness shoved in my face like it was something nasty. Yes, clearly I don’t agree about “white privilege.”

    When it comes to books I most likely won’t read if she a concubine, courtesan, harem girl, or mistress, and I won’t expect people to attack me if I won’t and clearly if some prefer NOT to read a romance with a African American h/h then it’s their choice. It doesn’t make them racist same goes if they prefer to write about white people. Though I do think it is awful that publishers prefer white characters and that their color is the reason there turned down. I’ve picked up books written by Asian, Indian, African American, and White. Write in a way that appeals to me and with character that I like along with a plot that I don’t have on my s*&# list and I’ll pay attention to your work. I don’t give a fart what you look like I’m not buying your book for your looks.

    I think that everyone has or will be racially discriminated against in their life. But you know what, just because someone has been more so than an other it doesn’t give them the right to look down their nose at the other with an attitude of you can never understand my position. Being white doesn’t mean my understanding of the world is lesser than yours because I refuse to accept that I am lesser than any other race or that any other race is lesser than me.

    PS This was a lot longer than I intended and probably has mistakes that I missed. It’s late, I rambled, and ranted a bit… oops. Read something good. Have fun with the comment sparring (I mean discussion) lol! I’m going to go snooze.

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  22. Shalanna Collins
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 04:28:12

    One of my books is an urban fantasy/romance (not category-style romance where there’s a happily-ever-after, but it has romance) in which my white (Irish) heroine’s boss is an African American woman. I don’t know whether I portray her sensitively, wrongly, or what. I just “saw” her the way I do all my characters and went with that. She often wears costumes and is kind of flamboyant. (She’s like a teacher I once had.) I would love to know whether what I wrote offends African Americans or is appropriation or anything . . . the character is also a Wiccan, and I would like to know if I have appropriated or whatnot. But of course when I get rejections or critiques, no one ever tells me this or broaches this topic. I never know whether I might do better writing all white people (who are German/English/Irish/1-16th Choctaw like me, Southern only and no Yankees, no Jews, no Catholics, no Pagans, only Baptists/Church of Christ members, nothing that’s not MY CULTURE Y’ALL) and nothing else. It’s tough when the topic is so taboo! I just don’t know if I am offending anyone, and I certainly don’t intend it that way.

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  23. Jayne
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 04:45:24

    There have been several comments asking about AA reviews at DA. Here are some links to the ones we’ve done.

    http://dearauthor.com/wordpress/tag/aa-romance/

    http://dearauthor.com/wordpress/tag/aa/

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  24. Jia
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 04:47:36

    @Seressia Glass: I’m excited for your book as well. It’s being published by Juno, right? If so, I think we’ll be getting a copy because I’m on their reviewer list.

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  25. Laura Vivanco
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 05:33:47

    I believe Mills and Boon actually had a bit of to-do recently because they had signed an Indian author (or had a novel with Indian protags? A line with Indian authors? Something like that. Correct me if I'm wrong).

    Mills & Boon India had a competition to find new writers:

    Mills & Boon launched the Passions Writing Contest, exclusive to India, in December 2008 inviting online story entries in their search for the ‘World’s Next Big Romance Author’ and provide aspiring Indian authors with a global platform. The results were announced in February 2009 and Milan Vohra secured first place among the four acknowledged winners. The Love Asana will be published in the Mills & Boon Modern Series in India (as a Special Bonus feature) and on the Mills & Boon website as well in May 2009. (Business World)

    I remember seeing a post recently at Word Wenches about

    Shobhan [Bantwal] [who] has had three books published by Kensington so far, and if I were to classify them, it would be as “contemporary romantic ethnic women's fiction.” That is to say, her subjects are modern India and Indians and her heroines live at the intersection of deeply rooted traditions and contemporary challenges. Or put another way, she tells great, accessible stories about Indian women, and she believes in happy endings.

    I haven’t read them myself, so I don’t know why they’re being described here as “women’s fiction” rather than “romance” if the author “believes in happy endings.” Maybe it’s just that they don’t have quite the same tight focus on the central relationship that romances do?

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  26. Anne Douglas
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 05:49:07

    @Alisha Rai: You have me curious now. I have a menage book with one hero as westernised Indian (pulled from the some of the Indian people I’d known in NZ). It’s the book people either loved to death or just plain disliked. I assumed it was because of the gradual discovery of a relationship between the men (started as a mfm ended mmf), but the comments here about your Indian heroine have me wondering now.

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  27. Sheryl Nantus
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 05:51:55

    @Jade Lee:

    This breaks my heart.

    I’ve loved ALL of your books BECAUSE of the Asian element; the intertwining of a culture I know little about but adore from a distance into a rocking good read.

    TPTB are idiots for forcing you into the same old groove.

    I shall still follow you and hope you get a chance to return to what you do best – telling vibrant tales of a culture the general public doesn’t know enough about.

    :(

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  28. roslynholcomb
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 06:04:51

    told me she couldn't get past my heroine's race to actually read the story-that in her view, since Indians “prized purity,” an Indian-American female would NEVER consider a little kinkiness.

    Yeah, I got the same thing about a Muslim character in one of my books. There are millions of Muslims on this planet, some of them HAVE to be having premarital sex. It defies reason to think otherwise. Unfortunately, I think the notion of a kick-ass Muslim woman was too un-stereotypical for many people to grasp.

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  29. joannef
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 06:17:56

    @Karen Scott:

    To all the white people who either deny that there's really a problem in the first place, or feel that they shouldn't be made to feel guilty about reading books that they're comfortable with, how would you feel if 95% of all published romance books featured black couples? JoanneF? Caligi?

    Once again, Karen Scott, who’s denying anything? Please don’t attribute words or thoughts to me that aren’t there (which seems to be a common theme here).

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  30. Ros
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 06:19:29

    I’ve just checked through some of the links in the OP (I followed some of the racefail debate earlier this year, so I had a good idea what would be there). There’s a LOT of stuff there and I can quite see why people new to the discussion wouldn’t bother reading it. So here I’m linking one page which explains clearly and concisely what the problem is with privilege (it is not specific to white privilege) and why it matters.

    In particular, I would like to draw attention to the section headed ‘Don’t Make It About You’. There have been a number of commenters on this thread whose responses are defensive and self-involved: ‘I don’t have privilege’; ‘Why are you making me feel guilty?’ etc. PLEASE read this and think about why, even if those are true statements, they are not useful contributions to the discussion. Let it be about other people, for once.

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  31. Jayne
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 06:19:34

    @Laura Vivanco:

    The results were announced in February 2009 and Milan Vohra secured first place among the four acknowledged winners. The Love Asana will be published in the Mills & Boon Modern Series in India (as a Special Bonus feature) and on the Mills & Boon website as well in May 2009. (Business World)

    I just looked for this at the M&B website and couldn’t find any information about it. Was it published?

    Shobhan [Bantwal] [who] has had three books published by Kensington so far,

    I remember a very strong review for one of her books at TRR. I wrote her name down but never followed up. Thanks for reminding me about her.

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  32. Estara
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 06:59:26

    Good afternoon from Germany!

    @joannef: If that’s your interpretation, that’s fine for you. I read the essay differently and where I live it’s the truth, so that’s fine for me. I thank you for actually addressing the list and having looked at it.

    @Caligi:

    Ugh, you would bring up the Gates incident. I don't think anything racist went down there. If a cop comes to your house, you butter his ego, you do not argue. When you argue, you get booked, no matter your race. I kiss cops' asses routinely, and I've been followed home by cops for no reason other than being out after midnight as an adult.

    The Gates incident probably wasn’t the best example, you’re right, since accounts of the provocations on both sides vary. I would like to know, why you need to use the tone “Ugh, you would bring up []” ? I am trying to address your concerns seriously and it’s obviously not coming across.

    As for your silly list, I can't get French Canadian grub around here, I've never seen indie rock in the grocery store, I bet my white kids would get picked on around here for being different had I any, I go to a specific salon that knows what to do with my curly hair so why can't anyone else and the only reason I don't worry about representing my race is because I don't care. Because people are paranoid does not make their concerns true.

    Same question: why is the list silly, why do you think people are paranoid just because your personal experience is different?

    Other than that, I guess you really can’t find yourself reflected in the list. This is statistically not the truth for the majority of the white people in the western world. It certainly holds true for the majority of the white people in my country.

    I've never seen myself or my life in any novel, and I don't expect to, ever. There's no market for white, crippled, working-class, unemployed forum trolls living in a lousy neighborhood in the best house she could afford and the web programmers who love them.

    Fair enough. Talking about the HEA requirement and the fact that many people read romance as an escape from reality that probably wouldn’t be a scenario that was easy to sell.

    Every book I read involves characters that don't resemble me. If good stories are getting turned down, though, I guess I have to admit that's bad.

    I think that is a large part of why people are taking the issue seriously this time.

    But if the issue is only that white romances grossly outnumber non-white protagonists, I don't know what to say. I've never seen a black woman on the T reading a romance not a black romance, so I can't fault people for not reading outside of what they're comfortable with and I can't fault publishers for being bound by trends.

    I read this post and the discussion in the comments as an attempt at finding some ideas of being more inclusive without making publishers and authors lose money on the books. It’s not as if any of the achievements that have been made in treading people equally were made from one day to the next.

    I guess that's what I've spent too many words and posts getting to. So romance is overwhelmingly pasty, what's to be done? Why bring it up if not to condemn people for not wanting to read characters that don't look like them? Obviously you don't want to either, or you wouldn't have mentioned it.

    I can’t follow again. How do you get from the second to last sentence to the last impression about me (what wouldn’t I have mentioned)? Being a mixed child, even though I look white actually made me fairly interested in other cultures (even in my Dad’s though I’ve always had a hard time with the emphasis on male dominance over women – I was lucky enough to be raised in Germany after all).

    For example, I would love to see historical Japanese, Chinese or Indian romances, or the South-American cultures (I do have a partiality to complex cultures, I admit) or contemporary non-white tycoons with their non-white women of power. But that’s just me.

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  33. Aoife
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 07:17:25

    @Laura Vivanco I’ve read all of Shobhan Bantwal”s books from Kensington and enjoyed them very much, but they aren’t strictly speaking Romance since they are as much-or more-about the heroine’s journey and self-actualization as they are about the HEA. And actually, it’s as likely to be a HFN as a HEA.

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  34. Estara
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 07:38:57

    @Seressia Glass: That sounds extremely tasty. Feeds into my fantasy obsession as well.

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  35. Laura Vivanco
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 07:50:01

    @Jayne: I looked for “The Love Asana,” and I couldn’t find it either. My suspicion is that if it was published “in the Mills & Boon Modern Series in India (as a Special Bonus feature)” then it wouldn’t be very easy to find because the book’s probably listed everywhere with the title of the main story, not the “special bonus” one. And if they also published it on their website “in May 2009″ then it’s probably been taken down by now, as it looks as though they only have one free read up at a time.

    @Aoife: Thanks for the clarification about Shobhan Bantwal’s books, Aoife!

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  36. Xica
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 08:15:58

    @Zealot,

    One major controversy you left out of the Disney piece was that they originally made the character a maid.
    Her original name was Maddie, which sounded too much like Mammy. And she worked for a spoiled Southern debutante, making the production sound too much like an animated Gone with the Wind.

    They’ve since changed her name to Tiana and she lives in New Orleans during the Jazz age. There’s much more debate about the film, like the fact that she’s not human for most of it, and her prince isn’t African American. There’s voodoo, jazz, and her sidekicks, a Cajun firefly and an alligator.

    Here’s a link to where I got the info:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/31/fashion/31disney.html
    http://jezebel.com/5026242/why-is-disneys-first-black-princess-such-a-challenge
    http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20259850,00.html

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  37. Estara
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 08:24:25

    @Ros: Thank you for highlighting that link.

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  38. CD
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 08:40:07

    @Karen Scott: Just to clarify – I’m not white: I’m mixed Vietnamese/Chinese/French who grew up in Britain but has spent most of my working life overseas – currently now in Haiti. So I get a bit confused as to what to say when people ask me where I’m from! However, there are so many posts here that it’s pretty difficult to keep track of just who said what and I didn’t make things easier by breaking up my extremely long comment into different posts. Apologies for that.

    I’m not saying that there isn’t a problem, but I also just wanted to inject a bit of optimism in this discussion in that I don’t believe that the majority of readers have an intentional bias against non-white characters. The majority of us, as mentioned in these posts, go for a story we like be it rock stars, friends to lovers, amnesia, enemies to lovers, vampires etc etc and would read these books whatever the colour of the protagonists. It’s more the case of getting the reviews out there on the quality of those books. I bought Holcomb’s ROCK STAR on the strength of Mrs Giggles’ review, Langhorne’s UNFINISHED BUSINESS due to AAR, and Jade Lee’s THE CONCUBINE due to the review on this site. And I don’t think I’m the only one. I could skim the Kimani section of Harlequin but then I have no idea which books have storylines I like and are, you know, good.

    As I mentioned on another post, I really feel that the whole fear of causing offense by writing characters of a different colour than your own is basically ridiculous when you are talking about contemporaries featuring “people of colour” who’ve lived in the same country as you since birth. There are definitely cultural differences but as long as you are not blind to that and as long as you can write well-rounded characters who make sense in the context of the story (which any good writer should do), then you’ll be fine. And for readers who don’t feel they can “relate”, then they’re basically just talking out of their arse. I mean, if we can relate to a mega rock star or an American football players’ familial and romantic problems (or even a vampire’s ;-), then we can probably just about relate to the bookstore owner whom he ends up dating, even if she does happen to be black.

    As I also mentioned further up, it gets more problematic when you are going back into history and/or setting your characters in another country – particuarly one that has been historically exploited. Living in Haiti, I really don’t think that you could responsibly set any kind of book in this country in whatever time period without making damn sure that you know what you’re doing. Yes, you could definitely set it amongst the “mulatto” elite or the expats/colonials/other “blancs” and there are definitely story potentials there, but you can’t just ignore the situation in the country and the history of (and even current) exploitation because it’s too raw and in your face. I’m not saying every book about Haiti has to be darkness and about suffering and the history of slavery, far from it when there’s SO much more to the country than that, but there needs to be an awareness of the issues and the author needs to have done her research.

    As I mentioned, maybe one day we will reach a stage where these events are so much in the past that you can write an Avon type “wallpaper” book set in Haiti and that could be just enjoyed for what it is without all the accompanying baggage. However that day is pretty damn far away.

    On a personal level – yes, I’d love to see more Far Eastern characters in romances. But then I’d love to find a romance with a heroine who is a real social activist (not one of those fake ones) and a real feminist. And a realistic depiction of inter-cultural/religious/ethnic dating. Or a romance with a francophone West African as a hero (yum yum). Or a romance that really takes music seriously and not just as background. I could go on…

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  39. Diane V
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 08:48:51

    I think the issue with why I haven’t bought more books from some of the authors of AA books that I’ve read is the language (as a previous poster mentioned) — sorry, but I don’t like slang or weird names or lots of swear words.

    But I also apply the same principal to “white” authors – I don’t buy books by Dean Koontz (porn IMHO) or JR Ward (shitkickers and pie-hole for cripes sake) or Vickie Lewis Stevenson (cajun accent/terms in one of her books drove me insane) or Diane Emery (uses last names for all her characters) or Lauren Dane (the absolute worst unpronouncable names for her paranormal characters) – to name just a few because of irritation with their use of language or character names.

    I read a lot of books every month so I do make a point of looking in the AA section at Borders/Waldenbooks when I’m there to see if anything strikes my interest — but just like books in the romance section I flip through the books to make sure there isn’t a bunch of slang (sistah, etc) or swear words that I’m not interested in reading. Does this make me a racist? I’d say no as I probably buy/read about 15 AA books a year, but as that’s only about 5% of the books I read each year I guess it could be considered to be out of proportion. But I never see African-American women shopping the AA section when I’m at Borders — they’re usually in the Romance section — which often makes me think that I’m buying more AA books than the AA women in my city.

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  40. Zealot
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 09:00:51

    @Xica: Thanks for all the background on the film, seems I only know the tip of the iceberg.

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  41. roslynholcomb
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 09:08:39

    @Diane V.

    I think the issue with why I haven't bought more books from some of the authors of AA books that I've read is the language (as a previous poster mentioned) -’ sorry, but I don't like slang or weird names or lots of swear words.

    If you’re seeing lots of slang and swear words you’re probably not looking at black romances, but street lit, an entirely different genre. Easy mistake to make since black books are typically all thrown together in one indecipherable mish-mash in bookstores. If you want to find out more about black romances and see some reviews, check out romanceincolor.com. If you like categories, the Kimani line is good. Brenda Jackson of course is a best-seller. Dee Savoy does really awesome romantic-suspense. Andrianne Byrd, Sandra Kitt and Donna Hill are also tremendous. I’d be very surprised if you found any slang or bad language in any of their books. Beverly Jenkins does historicals and some really awesome suspense books as well.

    Sistah is not slang, it’s a cultural affirmation derived primarily from African Americans strong affiliation with the black church. I don’t recall any black romances I’ve read that use the term, or at least not heavily.

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  42. hope
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 09:44:25

    I’ve been thinking about this since last nigh. Even longer, really, because I followed some of the racefail discussions. What is the problem with describing people in terms of food? Women have had peaches and cream complexions for forever. And milk white skin. Why shouldn’t they also have honey, coffee, chocolate, or cinnamon skin?

    I’ve heard the complaint before and I can’t make sense of it. I can understand why you might get tired of the same line over and over, but the suggestion I am seeing is that any use of food as a descriptor is offensive. We’ve been talking about people in terms of food forever, presumably because we LIKE food. My little cabbage, Honey, Sugar. We name girls Candy. True, Sugar Tits is NOT going to go over well with me, but I don’t understand why all descriptions of people that use food are inherently racist or demeaning. Can someone help me out with an explanation?

    Has anybody got a link to a list of good alternatives? Has anybody got any suggestions?

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  43. Zealot
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 09:57:34

    @hope:

    Women have had peaches and cream complexions for forever. And milk white skin. Why shouldn't they also have honey, coffee, chocolate, or cinnamon skin?

    Stop it, you’re making me hungry…

    As for an alternative, you could fall back on wine-tasting terms.

    However, would a woman like being called “fruity, bitter, with a hint of tar under the surface”?

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  44. Diane V
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 10:04:20

    Hi Roslyn,

    I’m going to look at the books I have at home to see who the authors were with the slang and the swear words — I thought some were from the Kimani line, but maybe they were more street lit.

    What’s funny is the authors you mentioned – Byrd, Jackson, Kitt and Hill are my repeat purchases.

    Diane

    P.S. “RockStar” remains one of my favorite romances (and book cover). I usually re-read it a couple times a year.

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  45. roslynholcomb
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 10:04:29

    @hope, I don’t get this one either, but I’ve heard enough complaints about it that I try to diversify as much as possible. I find it almost impossible to describe brown-skinned people without using food references, but I also use sienna, umber and other art colors. I actually keep a file of “brown words” that I can use. Which is why one of my recent characters had smoky topaz eyes. Takes a bit more work, but it can be done.

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  46. hope
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 10:19:36

    @roslynholcomb, In my experience, people don’t like sienna or umber either.

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  47. Anah Crow
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 10:23:01

    re: food references

    It’s never a good idea to refer to minorities in terms of consumption. I know that some women find the ‘food’ references to women questionable and even offensive. When you describe someone as a food item, you are not only objectifying them, you’re referring to them as something to be manufactured and consumed, usually for pleasure and not even in terms of survival. (“She was his water.” has something different to it than “She was his cookie.”)

    The way that characters of colour are distributed in novels is still, largely, “for flavour”. Even that is a direct reference to consumption. Characters of colour are not unique and vital elements, they do not have life of their own, they are not present because they are present in reality, they are only there to accentuate and decorate the white-populated milieu.

    As we live in a culture that once treated people of colour as objects to be produced, traded, and consumed, and as we are still in a culture that treats characters of colour as ‘seasonings’ to be added judiciously for best effect and not real, active agents with real world analogs, avoiding food references is not just the right thing to do, it’s part of a process of becoming fully aware of how we perceive and represent one another. What colour are people, really? Are you grabbing for a ‘flavourful’ word instead of actually thinking of the colour of a person’s skin? The fact that writers of colour may use those terms is not a pass to do so; people of colour are just as indoctrinated as white people, when it comes to how they should be represented. They may also be reclaiming formerly objectifying language, but that is their prerogative.

    Resources like Wikipedia and art books have extensive discussions of colour, including the historical references to origins and uses of colours. Teak, fallow, amber, ochre, chestnut, sienna, russet, sepia, bole, ecru, isabelline, buff, flax, fulvous… a small selection of words referencing browns and yellows. Why stop at a colour word, though? There are many ways to sketch out a character’s appearance without directly grabbing for a single, definable word.

    A writer can define and use a word in the same sentence, it’s a very small thing we do frequently. The fact that our cultural vocabulary is shrinking is no excuse. Writers can likewise create images in more elaborate terms than a simple colour. It is an exercise worth pursuing, looking at people of colour (and women, and queers, and ultimately everyone) and deciding how you would describe them through a newly focused lens of love or desire or compassion instead of the old glass of historical and modern objectification. The cultural shorthand is a very useful thing for a writer, but when that shorthand is based on dehumanizing, racist traditions, it is time to write in longhand.

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  48. hope
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 10:30:46

    @Anah Crow, thank you for answering and laying out your reasoning so clearly. I really appreciate it. I don’t agree with your argument, but it’s impossible for me to know if that’s just my white privilege talking. I’ll certainly think about it.

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  49. Zealot
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 10:41:20

    @Anah Crow: Ummm….Wow.

    What colour are people, really? Are you grabbing for a ‘flavourful' word instead of actually thinking of the colour of a person's skin?

    Isn’t good writing all about finding interesting, evocative, “flavourful” words to describe the mundane? I mean, if we were going for straight cold description, the colour of all of our skin would be “brownish” no matter our race…maybe “light brownish” or “dark brownish”.

    The fact that writers of colour may use those terms is not a pass to do so; people of colour are just as indoctrinated as white people, when it comes to how they should be represented.

    Right ON! Fight the power!

    Seriously, don’t you think that sounds a bit like looking for an issue? “You don’t know, realize or care that I think that this term you are using is making you into a condiment and you have been programmed into using it by the majority society, so I will attack it on your behalf.”

    Why stop at a colour word, though? There are many ways to sketch out a character's appearance without directly grabbing for a single, definable word.

    I believe the idea is that these words are just some of many used to describe a person’s entire look, manner or personality. Describing someone’s complexion is a normal way of telling us how they look or what sort of emotions they may be experiencing. As for avoiding the use of color words to describe someone’s skin, whenever I use “Juicy” someone slaps me, so I am running out of options.

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  50. Jane
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 10:45:16

    @Zealot I think it has to do with why mention the color in the first place? One thing I like about the Jo Goodman books is that the characters descriptions are provided with context. To merely describe the character by their skin color to provide “flavor” intimates that the color of the skin is what provides the depth of the person. One of the things I didn’t like about Suzanne Brockmann’s characterization of Alyssa, a black woman, was that Alyssa’s minority status was all superficial. The color of one’s skin can define them because of the way people interact with a person based on the color of the skin but I am not an olive colored girl.

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  51. Not That PC
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 10:45:28

    It’s never a good idea to refer to minorities in terms of consumption. I know that some women find the ‘food’ references to women questionable and even offensive. When you describe someone as a food item, you are not only objectifying them, you’re referring to them as something to be manufactured and consumed, usually for pleasure and not even in terms of survival.

    Back when I was in my mid twenties just out of college and refusing to let my daughters play with Barbies I would have said “Rock On! I completely agree with you!” But now I'm 40ish with a lot more life behind me and now it just seems like yet another example of taking political correctness too far.

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  52. Jane
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 10:47:15

    @Not That PC I always see the PC argument as a cop out. Is it really so hard not to refer to people as food?

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  53. Zealot
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 10:50:01

    @Jane:

    To merely describe the character by their skin color to provide “flavor” intimates that the color of the skin is what provides the depth of the person.

    Exactly…as I said, it can be one word of many used to describe a person. Alone it doesn’t mean much…but then neither does “Tall”, “Swedish” or “Double-Jointed”. However, when many meaningless words travel in packs, they can tell us a great deal. Why preclude certain words and not others?

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  54. Jane
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 10:52:44

    @Zealot The answer to the why was provided upthread – because comparing people to food is akin to objectification. I.e., I am highly offended if someone refers to me as Oriental and not Asian. Words have meaning other than what Meriam Webster has provided. Authors should know this. It is their business to know the effect and power of words. It is why they write, correct?

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  55. Not That PC
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 10:54:26

    @Jane

    I understand that the issue with food names is a valid argument but I still think life is too short , you have to pick you battles and I refuse to stop calling my child pumpkin butter. I’ve called her that for 18 years it’s too late to stop now.

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  56. Xica
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 10:54:48

    This conversation is so cool. I’m learning so much, even with the disagreements.

    I really want to do something positive to promote diversity in paranormal romance (thought I’d start there since its so popular). So I just put up a site called “Confessions of a Shapeshifter” at wordpress to house a graphic novel filled with diverse romances. I’d like to include more world mythology, so while I’m researching, if anyone can suggest shifters besides the norm (werewolves etc.) if would be appreciated. I promise all races will get exposure and a hot storyline.

    Thanks in advance.

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  57. Jane
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 10:55:53

    @Not That PC That’s certainly your choice but by saying that it is PC taken too far essentially is saying that it is unreasonable for people to care about the issue.

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  58. Zealot
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 10:59:13

    @Jane:

    Words have meaning other than what Meriam Webster has provided. Authors should know this. It is their business to know the effect and power of words. It is why they write, correct?

    Absolutely, and words also come in and out of style. Terms that were once acceptable become less so. I remember clearly my grandmother telling me how nice it was that I had little colored friends, even though they were goys.

    The avoidance of food terms is certainly something to be aware of, but I think more important is not to depend on a single trait, especially one as silly as color, to describe a character.

    Breakfast?

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  59. Jane
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 11:01:50

    @Zealot I don’t disagree with your assessment that focusing on a single trait to describe a character is not healthy as an author. But part of the conversation was why some readers dislike the food=color of skin references so I don’t really know how the two relate?

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  60. Barbara B.
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 11:02:15

    @ Hope
    I’m one of those readers annoyed by food references as skin color descriptors. I have no idea why it bothers me but it just does. People often call me chocolate and there’s nothing at all chocolate about me. I’m neither milk chocolate nor dark chocolate, and I’m definitely not sweet. My skin is dark brown and that’s good enough for me.

    I guess sometimes authors get too descriptive for me when it comes to describing physical characteristics. When I’m reading white romances I could just scream when the author CONSTANTLY refers to the heroine’s creamy, milky white, pearly, maganolia, alabaster or ivory skin. It’s supposed to emphasize to the reader how incredibly beautiful the heroine is but somehow I’m less than impressed. Particularly when the author goes on to describe “the faint tracery of blue veins” that can be seen on the heroine’s breasts because she’s so very pale.

    Question: why are the heroines so pale but the heroes who are usually the very same race, class, and ethnicity are rarely described as pale? I’ve noticed this in contemporaries as well as historicals. Paleness is feminine and darkness is masculine. Except the hero can’t be TOO dark if you know what I mean?

    Off topic:
    Speaking of darkness reading as masculine, I’m 5’9 and when I wear heels I look 6′ tall. I’m also dark-skinned with broad shoulders and long legs. I can’t count the times that I’ve been in the ladies room washing my hands when a white woman walks in and practically has a heart attack. It’s a pearl clutching moment! I wear my hair shoulder length but I always wear pants suits. My face is definitely feminine and I’ve got quite a rack, but I guess from the back I look like their worst nightmare: a big black guy! It kinda makes me nervous that I’m tall and dark because in a split second a cop could think I’m a black guy, freak out and blow me away.

    back on topic sorta:
    In black romances the skin is often described as cinnamon, chocolate, mocha, almond, honey, and a few others. What really gets me is that the eyes are invariably almond shaped and often honey or golden brown. I think that’s to impart a hint of exoticism. The heroine’s no ordinary Negro after all!

    Why do romance authors feel the need to describe their protags over and over again?
    Do they think readers have bad memories? I don’t much care how the protags look as long as they’re attracted to each other. Except…I do wish there were more tall heroines. I hate to read about heroes well over 6 feet and the heroine’s described as petite. That brings to mind a father/daughter relationship to me. I like the protags to be equal in all ways. If the dude is tall and physically imposing I’d love for the heroine to be that too, but of course the rules don’t allow for that. With short heroines I’d prefer to see average sized heroes.

    Sorry about all the detours but lately I’ve been in a venting, rambling mood.

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  61. Anah Crow
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 11:03:46

    @Jane:

    I always see the PC argument as a cop out. Is it really so hard not to refer to people as food?

    This. I feel as a writer that the ultimate question I have to ask myself about avoiding something that people of colour have directly and consistently said is offensive is not “are they right” but “why not?” Really. “Why not?”

    Am I not good enough as a writer? Does it mean that much to me to prove that I can ignore people of colour? Does having the privilege of not having to think about it mean that much to me? Am I really invested in writing in unconscious and outmoded ways?

    To answer those questions that would lead me to persist in thoughtlessly using words in ways that I’ve been told are offensive because I can afford to ignore the discomfort and distress of those speaking out would make me think really poorly of myself, as a person first and writer second.

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  62. Zealot
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 11:07:26

    @Jane: Referencing back to a comment by Anah Crow…

    There are many ways to sketch out a character's appearance without directly grabbing for a single, definable word.

    THAT I feel is the crux of things…the food/non-food question is more a question of current fashion than good or bad writing, I feel.

    Though next time I am describing a character, I will definitely look for other terms to describe appearance. Maybe “She had the look of a badger caught unexpectedly in the drive-through of a Dairy Queen in August…and I knew from that instant that she was the marsupial for me…”

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  63. Jane
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 11:07:38

    @Anah Crow I also see a point and time in which using food as a metaphorical descriptor is perfectly unobjectionable such as if the book is about food and the characters are foodies and their lives are focused around food. I.e. your body is a delicious meal, your lips like berries, your skin like chocolate, your limbs like long twizzlers, your belly button is full of sugar, etc etc. (of course, I’m not saying this is good writing, but I can’t see it as objectionable). It’s all context.

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  64. Julia Sullivan
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 11:09:10

    I feel as a writer that the ultimate question I have to ask myself about avoiding something that people of colour have directly and consistently said is offensive is not “are they right” but “why not?” Really. “Why not?”

    This.

    If one knew someone whose name was “Susan” and one called her “Sue” and she said “Please don’t call me ‘Sue’” one wouldn’t be all OHWHARGABLBLFF YOU’RE CHOKING ME WITH YOUR PC NONSENSE, one would just say, “Okay. Sorry, Susan.”

    Is there some nuance in “caramel-colored skin” that is SO AMAZING that it absolutely needs to be preserved at the expense of being incredibly rude to the many, many people of color who have registered their objections to this nonsense?

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  65. Not That PC
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 11:09:50

    @Jane

    Maybe in my haste to get my comment out I used the wrong choice of words. I apologize.

    I was just trying to say that things like food names, Barbies etc that in my twenties I would have spent lots of time and energy getting angry about don’t bother me as much now.

    What about writing in deep POV and you have another character’s thoughts when meeting a character of color would you not need to use terms that fit the scope of the vocabulary of that character and for some characters it natural for something they are familiar with to pop in their head and would sometimes food not be very familiar to most characters.
    Is some 18th or 19th century hero going to know it’s offensive to 21st century women so he can’t think her hair looks like caramel?

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  66. hope
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 11:12:03

    Barbara B. Oh, bad writing, it is bad in so many ways, isn’t it? I would like to talk more but I just got a sick kid call from the school.

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  67. Jane
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 11:13:00

    @Not That PC I suppose it depends on consistency. Is the 18th/19th C hero describing everyone in terms of confections? Does he describe his mother as buttercream frosting and his black horse as fudge?

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  68. Heather (errantdreams)
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 11:14:27

    @Anah Crow:

    re: food references

    It's never a good idea to refer to minorities in terms of consumption. I know that some women find the ‘food' references to women questionable and even offensive. When you describe someone as a food item, you are not only objectifying them, you're referring to them as something to be manufactured and consumed, usually for pleasure and not even in terms of survival. (”She was his water.” has something different to it than “She was his cookie.”)

    I’ve always seen flavor references as a sensuality thing. The physical senses are all heavily tied in to sensuality and sexuality, including taste. For me it isn’t that using “cinnamon” when describing a woman is objectifying her—it’s that cinnamon is a highly sensual flavor and lends that sensuality to the description. Pretty much all of the flavors I’ve seen used in descriptions are ones I think of as sensual—spices, fruits, coffee, cream, chocolate. (Oh god chocolate—sorry, just reviewed a chocolate cookbook, and dear lord were those pots de creme sensuality embodied.)

    I can definitely see where you’re coming from, and why some women would view the use of flavors in descriptions in a negative light. But I don’t think that objectification is the only purpose such words necessarily serve.

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  69. Barbara B.
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 11:21:00

    @Anah Crow
    Brava!

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  70. Not That PC
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 11:25:59

    @Jane

    I suppose it depends on consistency. Is the 18th/19th C hero describing everyone in terms of confections? Does he describe his mother as buttercream frosting and his black horse as fudge?

    Well no but he knows his mother and his horse. So he isn’t going to look at his own horse and suddenly remark on its color. But if he sees a beautiful woman he’s never met he’s going to remark on her physical appearance and use terms that are very familiar to him which could be food maybe.

    I tend agree with @Heather(errantdreams) I have always seen the use of food terms as sensual not objectifying. But will be more conscious that others see it differently now.

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  71. Anah Crow
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 11:34:14

    @Jane:

    I’m definitely never going to say “I won’t ever use those words.” I do use them, and I use them in context where the standard reason they’re offensive is blatantly mitigated (as in your example) or I use them knowing that they are offensive, and I use that as part of the deeper meaning, to reflect on a character or on a culture. It’s not like I don’t offend people. I burned that bridge back before I was in double-digits. :p

    I just plan to do it on purpose, with a larger reason than “you can’t tell me not to!” And, I should add, I never want to do it lightly (even though I may miss the mark at some point), because using something of offense to an already embattled minority just to make a point is something that should never be done lightly. Being a writer and artist doesn’t give me some kind of free pass there. I never want (and I know I may not always succeed, but I can always try) for someone to pick up my work and get a careless punch in the gut from me.

    I’m just really weary of people arguing why the use of those terms couldn’t possibly be offensive, and it’s all just about being “PC”. At some point just the use of the words/terms, the thoughtlessness and even pure disrespect in the way people persist simply on principle after others have spoken up, becomes a compounding offense.

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  72. Jackie Barbosa » Blog Archive » WTF Wednesday: Diversity, Where Art Thou?
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 11:41:11

    [...] Dear Author posted an anonymous guest post on the subject of cultural appropriation. In it, the writer lamented the dearth of non-white protagonists in romance, and the tendency for [...]

  73. Tatiana Caldwell
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 11:44:35

    It's never a good idea to refer to minorities in terms of consumption.

    I so don’t like the term “never”.

    One person’s offense is not necessarily another’s, even amongst people in the same group. For instance, Barbara B might take offense to it, but I for one often describe myself as “caramel” colored, and I constantly refer to my husband as “big, thick and chocolate”. Those descriptions are yummy and sexy to me, and I sometimes use them in my writing. I personally would miss it if the descriptions milky, creamy and chocolate suddenly disappeared from romances – but hey that’s just me.

    I’m sharing this viewpoint to point out to writers that you can’t please everybody all of the time, and so I wouldn’t fret *too* much over the smaller (food references are “smaller” concerns in my opinion when talking about cultural diversity in books) stuff like that, and to remind some readers that not everybody interprets everything the same way so please try to keep that in mind.

    But this is why discussions like this are great IMO.

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  74. Janine
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 11:52:09

    @Not That PC:

    Is some 18th or 19th century hero going to know it's offensive to 21st century women so he can't think her hair looks like caramel?

    This is a tricky thing about writing historicals. The writer has to find a balance between not being too off-putting to contemporary readers on the one hand and not being too anachronistic on the other. It isn’t easy. However since color words were in use in earlier centuries too, I think in this case it can be done.

    What I find harder is when it comes down to a choice between romanticizing bigotry (ex. Hero is a racist or anti-semite) and erasing a painful history (hero treats minorities as his equals and friends and all his friends are accepting of them). Neither one works for me and I think often the best option is to try to find something in the middle between the two extremes.

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  75. Chloe Harris (Noelle)
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 11:54:24

    Food terms are used sparingly in Secrets of Sin .

    I am a huge foodie so I do sometimes use food terms as descriptives . I never dreamed anyone would find them offensive. Like a couple of others have said, to me they’re passionate sexy words because they are part of something I’m passionate about.

    The book is past the page proof stage so there is nothing I can do about them being there now that I know some others don’t see food terms in the same way.

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  76. Lisa Paitz Spindler
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 11:59:20

    @Barbara B.

    Particularly when the author goes on to describe “the faint tracery of blue veins” that can be seen on the heroine's breast because she's so very pale.

    Speaking as someone who is translucently pale, veins do in fact show up as blue under the skin everywhere, not just on parts that have never seen the sun. Having said that, reading it knocks me right out of a narrative — unless I’m reading a vampire Romance.

    I think the origin of it is in the term “blue blood” denoting a person who supposedly has no admixture — which is bogus. In historicals, I imagine this is a reference to class differences since it’s only the white idle rich who sit inside all day and therefore are not tan. Ironically, many who are actually this pale are that way because of being a redhead incapable of tanning (as I was as a child) — a group who have historically been viewed as evil.

    I don’t know why today in books there is this pale ideal for women when in reality many whites are somewhat obsessed with tanning despite what the dermatologists say. My personal experience with such a fair complexion among other whites is being labeled as freakishly undead, vampiric, “OMG do you glow in the dark?”, and “Are you anemic?” This attribute inevitably warrants a disbelieving remark every few days from someone.

    why are the heroines so pale but the heroes who are usually the very same race, class, and ethnicity are rarely described as pale. I’ve noticed this in contemporaries as well as historicals. Paleness is feminine and darkness is masculine.

    I know it’s a generalization, but IMO, that’s because among whites pale men are generally not considered attractive. Also, it plays up the idea of the “other,” which is an important aspect of Romance no matter what ethnicity the characters are.

    Why do romance authors feel the need to describe their protags over and over again?

    I’m not published, but I have noticed that a subtle approach to description invariably means that alpha and beta readers assume by default that characters are white. This discussion has definitely given me some new approaches to try.

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  77. CrankyBeach
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 12:01:15

    The first time I tried to read an “African-American” romance, I only made it to chapter 2 before I returned it to the library. Why? Because on just about every page, the author (thinly disguised as the characters) beat me over the head with just how many wonderful, under-reported accomplishments people of African descent have made, and isn’t it just awful that more people aren’t aware of these things, which had nothing whatsoever to do with the story. Or even the characters, for that matter.

    I have since read a number of books, romances and otherwise, with interesting characters of various races and ethnicities, who just happen to be the protagonists in some pretty good stories.

    The same thing happened the first time I tried to read an “inspirational” romance. By the end of chapter 2, both hero and heroine had preached about 3 sermons apiece. When I want a sermon, I don’t pick up an alleged romance novel, I go park myself in a church seat. That book went right back to the library too.

    And since then, I have read a number of inspirationals with pretty good characters inhabiting pretty good stories. Their faith (or their journey toward faith) is an integral part of who they are, and they don’t go around thumping an invisible Bible at people.

    I think it’s safe to say that there are unfortunate cases in ALL genres, wherein an author uses the book as a thinly-disguised vehicle to push their agenda, whatever it may be. Even more unfortunate is that they actually get published and inflicted upon an unsuspecting public.

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  78. Estara
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 12:01:36

    @Xica: Japanese Kitsune are shifters – and I don’t think they’ve been done to death yet, although they show up now and again in fantasy

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitsune

    And wouldn’t Anansi
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anansi
    and probably Coyote, being tricksters, also be shifters?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coyote_(mythology)

    Charles de Lint uses Coyote in his Newport stories as far as I remember. Oh right, that’s a writer whose world isn’t completely white, although he loves his Celtic mythology too.

    JaneLindskold did a quite good story about old myths walking which had a shifter as the center of the story.
    http://www.amazon.com/Changer-Jane-Lindskold/dp/0380788497/

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  79. Lori
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 12:03:00

    This has been a fascinating conversation and I really thank everyone for their willingness to discuss and learn and disagree. I feel like I’m learning a lot reading all the comments.

    I find as a white, Jewish woman with a Chinese daughter that descriptors are almost impossible. My daughter’s skin is lighter than mine and according to her she’s white. How do I respond to that? She is whiter than I and yet Chinese. I find it offensive when she’s referred to as “a doll” since there’s nothing doll-like about my Batman-afficionado daughter.

    I read Jade Lee’s Harlequins because of the Asian Hero’s. I have had only 2 short stories published and both heroines were white but one hero was Chinese and one was black. My own preferences as a woman coming out with those.

    I try to remain aware because my daughter is growing up in a world where I know she’ll have to fight being pigeon-holed. I appreciate the conversation because more awareness is better than less.

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  80. Heather (errantdreams)
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 12:09:25

    I was thinking about the food descriptor thing some more, and realized, I don’t think I could give up flavor and food imagery and descriptors in sensual fiction. My husband and I had our first date over minty hot chocolates at our favorite cafe, and our first long talk over ice cream. We spent our first winter over steaming mugs of my special hot chocolate, and our relationship developed over my teaching him to cook. Our special occasions are marked by meals at favorite restaurants or wild cooking sprees. It has nothing to do with ethnicity or gender for us—food is, simply, a romantic and sensual thing. And I’ve gotten the impression it is for many others as well.

    This has certainly made me more aware of the issue, and I’m glad of that. But I also see a difference between “the only food reference in this book is used when describing the mixed-race/non-caucasian/etc. heroine, therefore it’s objectifying her race/gender/etc.,” and using flavor/food references in general. I can much more easily see the argument that the former is offensive; the latter seems like a matter of individual taste. I hope that makes sense.

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  81. Erastes
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 12:14:09

    Especially when writing about male characters travelling around the world, it would be very difficult to manage that without some kind of exploitation, because that’s exactly what they did. It’s ok to write characters with ideas ahead of their time, we all know they existed, such as William Wilberforce, but they weren’t the norm, and time and again I read about blue stocking women who are striding about, talking back to everyone, teaching the native populations to read, or the slaves. Generally when they did that kind of thing they were missionaries, and that was just another kind of corruption and exploitation, after all.

    I would hesitate hugely to write a main protagonist of colour, and I applaud the very few m/m writers who have done it and done it well. I don’t doubt I could do it, as anyone who knows me knows I’m research whore, but I’d upset one faction or the other by doing it. If I did it accurately people would complain that I was condoning slavery (as one m/m author was accused of lately because she wrote Age of Sail) and if I made things not as they were I’d get hit by the accuracy brigade and accused of changing history.

    I get enough stick simply writing men as protagonists. People would chuck things at me if I tried, as a white female, to write a black gay male.

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  82. Anah Crow
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 12:25:39

    @Heather (errantdreams):

    This has certainly made me more aware of the issue, and I'm glad of that. But I also see a difference between “the only food reference in this book is used when describing the mixed-race/non-caucasian/etc. heroine, therefore it's objectifying her race/gender/etc.,” and using flavor/food references in general. I can much more easily see the argument that the former is offensive; the latter seems like a matter of individual taste. I hope that makes sense.

    I think it makes perfect sense. I think I’d go nuts if I couldn’t describe a minty winter morning or a blanket so warm it’s like sliding into a mug of cocoa, a man’s vanilla (though some day I’ll get into the valuation of kink references) facade, a rebuke like lemon juice on a cut, a laugh like chocolate, a woman who leaves a man with his teeth stuck together like he was caught eating toffee. Food is immensely evocative. It’s being aware of the underlying meaning, built up by the past, that is important, and avoiding uses that we know come pre-loaded by the build up of past and present inequality/injustice.

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  83. Janine
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 12:47:15

    @Erastes:

    I would hesitate hugely to write a main protagonist of colour, and I applaud the very few m/m writers who have done it and done it well. I don't doubt I could do it, as anyone who knows me knows I'm research whore, but I'd upset one faction or the other by doing it. If I did it accurately people would complain that I was condoning slavery (as one m/m author was accused of lately because she wrote Age of Sail) and if I made things not as they were I'd get hit by the accuracy brigade and accused of changing history.

    Yes. I think this is more of a problem in this genre than in other genres, because it is impossible to write a romance without, well, romanticizing something.

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  84. Julia Sullivan
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 14:06:20

    Heather makes a good point. A character (or an author who was in tight POV with that character) might describe everyone in terms of food, and that would convey something about the character—their obsession with food—as much as it did about the other characters.

    But the rude AND bad-writing thing to me is “Joan had flawless skin and shiny blonde curls; Amy had deeply tanned skin and a Day-glo green buzz cut; Ann had rich chocolate skin and bourbon-dark eyes; Li had marzipan skin and almond-shaped eyes” where an entirely different linguistic register is used to describe white characters and characters of color.

    White characters may see characters of color as “other” and vice-versa (Walter Mosley’s Easy Rollins refers to a black man as “a man” and a white man as “a white man,” which was thought-provoking to me as a white reader), but since books are read by people of all self-identifications, I would hesitate, as a white writer, from enshrining the point of view in the meta-text.

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  85. handyhunter
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 14:08:54

    @Not That PC: I refuse to stop calling my child pumpkin butter. I've called her that for 18 years it's too late to stop now.

    There’s a difference between a term of endearment and using food to fetishize someone’s skin colour. That is what bothers me about it. And I think people use these descriptions simply because they’re in use, the same way people tell stories that were told to them, and the same way certain ideas/images get perpetuated.

    (I also don’t think comparing POC to animals is a very good idea either… At least without care because that also has quite a history behind it.)

    Is some 18th or 19th century hero going to know it's offensive to 21st century women so he can't think her hair looks like caramel?

    My question wouldn’t be so much if it’s “PC”, but if it’s an anachronism. Did people describe themselves like food in the 18th or 19th century? Was “caramel” (or whatever food descriptor) used then, and in the same context? Is using caramel imposing 21st century values onto historical characters?

    I came across this video yesterday. If I’d seen it before I wrote the OP, I might have saved myself a few words. The Danger of a Single Story.

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  86. Karen Scott
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 14:24:23

    @CD

    Your comment was randomly plucked out for the purpose of the comment I made below. It wasn’t actually aimed at you.

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  87. Janine
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 14:42:42

    @Zealot:

    I understand completely. There was a period around 2000 when the acclaim for the Italian comedy “Life is Beautiful” started a wave of books and films with descriptions like “A heartwarming story set against the horrific backdrop of the Nazi deathcamps…” or “A zany celebration of the unquenchability of life in Dachau”. These included many “Jewish girl/guilt stricken Nazi” romances which even now piss me off.

    While people did indeed fall in love in the camps (I know several who did) and there were stories that could be called “heartwarming” (I have heard them from the actual survivors), most of these stories that were being published revolved around trying to focus on the little bits of goodness, or human compassion that were seen even at the worst moments. While such things can be applauded, sometimes focusing so desperately on them tends to mitigate or lessen the impact of the horror going on around the one merciful act, which in normal life would be quite insignificant.

    Does one glorify a small incident because it shows that not everything is ever totally black, at the risk of distracting people from the darker truths of the story? A hard balance, and no easy answer.

    At one point, I was looking at a section of a branch of the public library that was devoted to the Holocaust, and was astonished at the number of books (nonfiction) that were focused on those people who had risked their lives to save the Jews. Now, I don’t deny that those people existed and that they deserve to have their stories told, but the proportion of these books in this section of the library was much higher than the proportion of such people in the European population during World War II.

    I understand why; I think reading about genoide is so painful and depressing that the only way many people can bear to explore the subject is if they focus on the good rather than on the evil. But there are a lot more evil deeds than good ones during genocide, and sometimes I think that most of us human beings are afraid to look that truth straight in the eye.

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  88. Janine
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 14:44:35

    @handyhunter:

    I came across this video yesterday. If I'd seen it before I wrote the OP, I might have saved myself a few words. The Danger of a Single Story.

    Wonderful video. Thanks so much for posting the link!

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  89. Xica
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 14:51:41

    @Estara

    Thanks so much for the suggestions! I’m going to work on getting a page up before Friday, but since so many have commented on the lack of a minority male heroes, I’ll have a teaser poster up of my Tyrese Gibson, Takeshi Kaneshiro and one other male yet to be chosen clones. I’ll have to look at my Kresley Cole and other paranormal romance covers to get this just right :)

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  90. Estara
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 15:58:06

    @Xica: Can I throw in a vote for Joe Cheng? So we have a Chinese/Taiwanese represented? I admit I’m just completely into him since seeing him in the Taiwanese dorama version of the Bara no Tameni manga “The Rose” (and I quite emphasized with Ella playing Bai He because I’m not that slim myself).

    I love the combination of almost androgynous beauty and that deep voice. But I’m also a manga fan, so androgynous beautiful men have never been a problem to me ^^.

    Music Video from scenes of the two (by the way, he isn’ t the hero in this one)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5d_jEqYJWA
    This is their first kiss scene and you can hear that is voice is fairly deep
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0kptQKBK5Q

    And because I can’t get enough of his face here is one with stills only
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3qObCALsQPE
    oops, there’s some actual video in there too (the m/m is canon, by the way, Kui/Joe Cheng is supposed to start out in love with his brother – nothing comes of it, not in the manga nor in the dorama I believe – you can hear his voice even better here, though)

    I’m shallow, I know.

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  91. Ros
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 16:23:00

    @handyhunter:

    Thank you for the link to that video. I think it should be compulsory viewing for all authors – and readers!

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  92. Caligi
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 17:03:53

    @Karen Scott:

    If 95% of all romances had black protagonists, because whites were the minority, I would not have an issue with it. I read AA romance on occasion as is, though I admit to being sick to death of freakin’ Westmorelands. I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of dick lit and old SF where the protagonist and tone is almost always male without issue. So long as it’s a good story, I’ll read it.

    I get that people want to see themselves in stories. I definitely seek out the very few romances featuring happy cripples. But I don’t blame others for not wanting to read about hobbled heroes and heroines and I’ve accepted market forces for what they are.

    I admit my logic and argument is sort of all over the place. I think I just object to the term “white privilege” since I have nearly nothing in common with the white culture considered the norm either. Maybe “majority privilege” would be more accurate and a realization that you really can’t take a national approach to it. Where I come from, race really isn’t an issue. YMMV.

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  93. Susan/DC
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 17:22:04

    @janine

    Except… do you ever see Jewish characters in all those books set in 19th century Europe?

    Try Carola Dunn’s Miss Jacobson’s Journey, a trad Regency. One of Carola Dunn’s ancestors was Jewish, although she herself is not. It’s about the only historical romance I’ve read with both a Jewish hero and heroine. It also has a third major character, a British aristocrat. It’s been a long time since I read it, but I have memories of a confrontation where the aristocrat claims his father was ruined by Jewish bankers, and the hero claims his father was ruined by aristocrats who’d rather pay their gambling debts than their tailors or their mortgage. I’ve read a few with Jewish secondary characters (e.g., Marjorie Farrell’s Lady Barbara’s Dilemma); in that book one potential hero’s not-so-subtle anti-semitism is what alerts the reader (and Lady Barbara) that he is not, in fact, true hero material.

    As for Adelia, in Arianna Franklin’s mystery series, I don’t think she is Jewish. She was a foundling adopted by a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother.

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  94. Janine
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 17:30:53

    @Susan/DC: Thanks! I will have to look up Miss Jacobson’s Journey.

    ETA: My main point with the comment you quoted was that I don’t think the historicals set in Europe and the United States are necessarily more sensitive to issues of race and culture than those set in other continents.

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  95. Jia
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 17:33:27

    @Julia Sullivan: Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys did a similar thing in which the only characters whose skin colors were described were that of the white folks. I personally liked the reversal. (The main characters were otherwise POC.)

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  96. Anon
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 17:42:15

    @Janine: I don’t know if you have it but Barbara Samual’s BED OF SPICES has a Jewish heroine, it’s a medieval. There seems to be quite a few in straight historicals though – I read one recently where Shakespeare’s Dark Lady was revealed to have been Jewish. The story was told from her point her view.

    Otherwise, you could always try IVANHOE, although I actually prefer the television series to the book to be honest…

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  97. Michelle
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 17:48:38

    About the food references, I kept thinking about how often the heroine’s breasts are described as apples.

    Also I think often a hero’s eyes are described as chocolate/melting chocolate. I wonder if people are as offended when a non poc, especially a male is described in food terms.

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  98. Janine
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 18:02:32

    @Anon: Yes, I have read Barbara Samuel’s Bed of Spices. I have it on my keeper shelf. It is actually the hero who is Jewish (something I really appreciated, since usually if a protagonist is Jewish, it is more likely to be the heroine). The heroine in Bed of Spices is German and Christian. I thought it was a very good book and a sensitive depiction and I especially liked the portrayal of the anti-Jewish violence that swept Europe in the wake of the plague. I also liked that they moved to Egypt at the end of the book as that was a more tolerant place than Europe during that time frame. However, I did feel the epilogue was something of a copout because it seemed like the heroine held on to her Christian faith yet was accepted by the hero’s Jewish community, something that did not seem likely to me although I’m the first to admit that I’m not an expert on the era.

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  99. Laura Vivanco
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 18:15:12

    It's about the only historical romance I've read with both a Jewish hero and heroine.

    I’ve come across one other: Claire Delacroix’s Honeyed Lies, which begins in “Toledo, Andalusia – June 1084.”

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  100. Miriam Pace
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 18:23:54

    @Jane:

    Jane, I don’t know what went amiss, but I would be happy to send you review copies. Please contact me to set this up.

    Miriam Pace
    Parker Publishing Inc

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  101. Edie
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 18:31:16

    That video posted in comment #285 is just made of all kinds of awesome..

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  102. Xica
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 18:33:25

    @Estara

    Then count me in as shallow too, cuz Joe’s hot. A friend of mine said she’d never talk to me if I don’t include a Michael Fassbender (300) clone. And I’ll never be able to give up on Russell Wong. I still dream of him.

    @Barbara B
    For you, a Valkyrie who’s six feet tall, deep brown with a short, pixie cut.

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  103. Xica
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 19:15:11

    @handyhunter

    I’m in agreement with everyone else who’s seen the video and posted.
    Thank you so much for that link. I think it adds to what you were saying, and if there’s a way to edit your original post to include it, I think that video is a so very necessary to your post.

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  104. handyhunter
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 20:28:33

    @Xica:

    I don’t have the ability to edit posts, but yeah, it should be unburied out of the comments and in the OP somewhere. Perhaps at the beginning or end with a TL;DR WATCH THIS attached to it. ;)

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  105. Farrah Rochon
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 21:03:50

    Thanks for that video in comment 285. Powerful, powerful words.

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  106. kaigou
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 21:36:23

    The question about skin colors as food… I think it’s an easy shorthand (and thus questionable, since easy becomes lazy) because to some degree we’re all pretty agreed, well, mostly, on what ‘caramel’ or ‘coffee’ or ‘cafe-au-lait’ generally looks like. I tried to use ‘mahogany’ once, and a beta reader protested on the grounds that mahogany is deep red, almost crimson. But it’s not, I wanted to say, and, what is this deep red you speak of?

    Then I realized that working with wood means I’m familiar with the coloration, which isn’t nearly as red-toned as the stain/toner you see on faux-mahogany furniture. Sigh. That relative obscurity also makes ‘ochre’ difficult, since most people I’ve asked aren’t sure exactly what ochre is: yellow-brown, red-brown, tan/taupe or is that burnt umber and what’s umber, then, or is it the red-brown that’s sienna? and so on.

    (This is why one of my favorite lines from Monsters, Inc is, “oh, so that’s chartreuse.”)

    I can’t recall now who did the study, but it focused on reader perceptions of character ethnicity, and found that white readers defaulted to assuming the character was white, and black readers… did the same. If the description contained any cultural markers, readers of that ethnicity would recognize/identify the character’s ethnicity, but white readers, on average, were still more likely to see that character as white (unless the ethnic markers were really strong, or were tapping a major stereotype).

    The upshot is that if an all-white cast isn’t intended, you can’t just leave it to readers’ imagination, because the chances are better than even that they’ll imagine everyone white, barring major signifiers like name or accent. But at the same time, when an author notes skin tone or ethnicity only for some characters, my reaction is, “why did she get that moniker, and not him?”. Seems like the only fair way to do it is for all characters, so no one gets “this is the oddball who must have skin color described so you know for certain she’s not white”. Much better to simply write with no default skin-tone or ethnicity — or language, or religion, or sexuality — at all.

    This is a descriptive element to a story that I feel pretty strongly about, and when I find authors who do this, I get an additional layer of enjoyment. It’s like, in some way, I feel like the author actually thought about this, yo, instead of defaulting to “this character is white so I don’t have to actually describe her all that much, since you already know how it works”. I suppose that’s the kissing cousin to caramel, in that it’s just another form of lazy.

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  107. LisaPS
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 21:47:51

    @kaigou:

    The upshot is that if an all-white cast isn’t intended, you can’t just leave it to readers’ imagination, because the chances are better than even that they’ll imagine everyone white, barring major signifiers like name or accent. But at the same time, when an author notes skin tone or ethnicity only for some characters, my reaction is, “why did she get that moniker, and not him?”. Seems like the only fair way to do it is for all characters, so no one gets “this is the oddball who must have skin color described so you know for certain she’s not white”. Much better to simply write with no default skin-tone or ethnicity — or language, or religion, or sexuality — at all.

    This is a descriptive element to a story that I feel pretty strongly about, and when I find authors who do this, I get an additional layer of enjoyment.

    I made this same point earlier. Could you name some of these authors who you feel meet this standard? I’m very, genuinely, interested in reading them.

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  108. kaigou
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 22:25:03

    @LisaPS: …and I’d bet pizza money you were far more succinct, eh? (heh) Sorry I missed it, hard to keep up with 300-and-going!

    Could you name some of these authors who you feel meet this standard?

    Yep, says I, they’re …. and my brain goes schzzfizzle. Can I get back to you on that? I’m still kinda loopy from a day of inhaling shellac and sawdust. *heddesk*

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  109. Roxie
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 22:40:12

    @Heather (errantdreams): Exactly. If someone told me my skin looked like coffee, I’d say thank you very much. Coffee is delicious. I have a hugely positive association to coffee, why wouldn’t one want to be similar to it? Instead, I get compared to a cracker. Boring and bland. Hmm… which would I prefer, coffee or a cracker? Not a difficult choice in my opinion. One persons compliment is another’s insult.

    I have to thank yall for this article. I hadn’t given it much thought, but the majority of romances that I’ve read have a white hero or heroine. While I was initially offended by the tone of some of the posts, once I stepped back I realized there were some valid points to be made.

    I actively seek out authors whose characters are Asian, Indian, American Indian, etc., simply because I enjoy reading about those cultures. I should have realized from the difficulty in finding these stories that there is a scarcity, and questioned why. Perhaps this is an example of my “white privilege”.

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  110. Robin
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 22:57:29

    It’s taken me a long time to get through the post and all of the comments. Add me to the list of folks who did not find anything angry about either Handy Hunter’s post or Barbara B.’s comments. In fact, I’m impressed that the thread has gone for more than 300 comments without a thread-derailing throw down.

    One of the reasons I think this is a tough issue is because we want there to be some clear explanation and reason. When in fact, it’s much more likely to be the accumulation of many different factors, developments, and interactions. Anyone who works in a large industry knows that a complex system can take a long time to change paradigm, even when most of the people actively want the change.

    I have to agree with those who have put more emphasis on the people buying and selling books, because I think that even under the very best circumstances the “science” involved in predicting books that will sell or trends is, well, pretty unscientific and not all that efficient or coherent. Also, I think there’s far more anecdotal evidence here (i.e. how many letters constitutes a “scad” and is a book published in a brand new line with a title that invokes some pretty ugly stereotypes not selling because the established author’s name is “tainted? — and as an aside, I’m flabbergasted that an editor would use such language about an author’s name, if, indeed, that was the wording used).

    So why do these problems in the genre persist? For many reasons, IMO. First I think we need to acknowledge, though, that the genre has historically been normed white. I don’t think this is an arguable point, actually, even with the presence of sheikhs, braves, and other non-white characters. Sheikhs used to be Europeans masquerading as Middle Eastern, while Native American heroes have often been merely “adopted” white men. Even when they are “authentic,” there is a good deal of exotic fetishization, a sexifying of the “other” in ways that are extremely problematic as a matter of cultural representation and racial norming. I don’t, though, want to say that these portrayals are all bad, because I think there are some subversive elements to these characters and the romantic relationships featured in some of these novels. For example, these heroes often represent some form of rebellion against mainstream social values, even if other social norms are being codified.

    Regardless, I don’t think we can escape the fact that the history of the genre is Anglicized, and especially in the case of US Romances, it is largely pitched at a certain class level, as well. While it is true that there are many contemps now published featuring working class protags, historicals have been largely focused on very wealthy and well positioned characters, especially the heroes. Even the impoverished ones are usually of noble birth. And while the class issue might be more directly connected to the “fantasy” element of the genre, I think we need to resist that logic when talking about the whitewashing in the genre, because IMO there are many complex reasons for the narrow racial focus, some of which have been talked about here (the horrors of the Holocaust, slavery, etc. don’t always make a particularly romantic setting).

    Still, it’s a problem, and I don’t think we should avoid admitting that. And with AA authored and populated Romance, there is overt segregation in lines and on shelves, which is yet another aspect of the problem. I do not believe that any one minority group is *more* discriminated against than another in the genre, even though the AA situation is more visible (is, for example, writing white because you’re afraid of selling any better, really?). And it’s been easy to blame the reader for this — publishers certainly want the blame there, and there are anecdotal examples we can each point to that would seem to sustain that argument. And there will, of course, always be those readers who insist that they do only want to read about white characters, and those comments continue to circulate as evidence of readers’ racial bias.

    But think about another norm in Romance — the norm toward the female author. We hardly question the fact that most Romance is written by women or by men bearing a woman’s pen name. I think the majority of Romance readers see it as natural, somehow. Now let’s say that a new line is formed made up solely of male Romance writers. And a big deal is made of this, from separate covers to separate shelving to promo focused on the authors’ gender. How do you think that line would sell? Instead, say a couple hundred men started writing genre Romance, and those books were sold right along side the rest of the genre books, with no special attention paid to the male author name. Would readers initially view the books with some suspicion, a concern that the men couldn’t write genre Romance with the same “relatability” as women? I think so. But I also think that if the genders were well integrated over time as authors of genre Romance, a new norm would be created and readers would no longer have all these relatability issues.

    And I think it’s the same with racial, cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity in the genre. That it’s a matter of creating a new norm, a new paradigm, which takes time, concentrated effort, the willingness to hang in there until it takes hold, and full integration without a lot of focus on differences. IMO whenever publishers call attention to a multicultural Romance they doubly otherize it, alerting readers to a new norm, telling readers that there’s something *different* about a genre that some readers value for a certain level of predictability. And because the difference is race, it’s doubly difficult, because there *are* racial biases that we all hold, and those are compounded with all these other things that make the norming issue one of pure racism or racial prejudice.

    But since anecdotal evidence seems to hold sway in these discussions, consider some on the other side. Authors who are writing multicultural characters, interracial romances, who are themselves AA or other POC without advertizing themselves as such or writing for segregated lines. And their books are selling. Do you really think that readers assume the authors are white, or are they just not thinking about it at all? And what about the sheikhs who really aren’t white? Sure they’ve been eroticized and exoticized, but think about how much RL suspicion there is toward Middle Eastern men in the US and then look at the incredible popularity of sheikh heroes. That has always fascinated me, and I cannot bring myself to see the phenomenon as wholly bad. In fact, I’d love to know how Kate Hardy’s Surrender to the Playboy Sheikh sold, since he’s a really progressive hero. I’d also love to know how multicultural Romance ebooks are selling — are the sales strong or weak there? And I’m curious about how Jade Lee’s Tigress books have been selling, since she was writing those long before the Blaze historical.

    In any case, I’m not denying that some readers might never be comfortable with non-white protags in their Romance. And I’m not denying that the racial tensions and biases in US society are absent from genre Romance. But I honestly don’t think discriminatory attitudes on the part of readers, editors, authors, and publishers are driving the historically shaped whitewash of the genre. And I think if publishers were willing to hold fast to diversifying their offerings, and if books currently shelves separately were, at the least, double shelved so they were integrated with the rest of the genre, and overall books authored by non-white authors and featuring non-white protags were not marked as *substantively* different (i.e. not Romance), then over time the norm will change and readers and our expectations will simply be conditioned differently (i.e. to expect diversity as “normal” in the genre).

    Will this happen? I don’t know, but I do think it would make for a very different cultural and racial landscape in the genre and a much less discriminatory effect in marketing and writing.

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  111. Robin
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 23:04:24

    Also, one point about cultural appropriation: I think it’s probably inevitable any time a person of one race/culture/ethnicity writes about a person from another race/culture/ethnicity, but I don’t think it’s always bad. Cultures appropriate from one another in real life all the time. Sometimes the effects are bad — colonialism, imperialism, assimilation, erasure, etc., but sometimes they are positive — adaptation, subversion, progression, diversification. When the point is for one culture to dominate over another or be shown as superior, of course it’s bad, but even then, there’s always an amazing amount of subversion of the dominant culture that can and does occur in these situations.

    So while I loved Handy Hunter’s post a lot and agreed with so much of what she had to say, I also think that we need to distinguish the perpetuation of demeaning stereotypes from the evolution of cultures through contact and engagement with other cultures. And I personally love it when Romance novels take on these issues with subtlety and courage (and yes, I think some have!). I’d rather read a book in which the author took a risk and did it thoughtfully but imperfectly than have the author be too afraid to try anything outside her own personal experience.

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  112. Janine
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 23:41:26

    @handyhunter:

    I don't have the ability to edit posts, but yeah, it should be unburied out of the comments and in the OP somewhere. Perhaps at the beginning or end with a TL;DR WATCH THIS attached to it. ;)

    Done.

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  113. handyhunter
    Oct 29, 2009 @ 01:29:42

    @Janine: Thank you!

    @Robin: Also, one point about cultural appropriation: I think it's probably inevitable any time a person of one race/culture/ethnicity writes about a person from another race/culture/ethnicity,

    I would probably find that less appropriative (depending on how it was written) than writing about white characters in non-western/foreign countries or white characters borrowing aspects of another culture because it’s “cool”, without much regard for the “uncool” parts or the people.

    the horrors of the Holocaust, slavery, etc. don't always make a particularly romantic setting

    But there’s more to POC than their suffering, which part of what Adichie talks about in the video I linked to. I think a reason why people automatically associate POC with hardship is because it’s the stories that have been told about them, and their other stories aren’t heard or told as much. Which then makes it more difficult to imagine POC in love stories, say, as the hero or main character.

    I think the analogy to male romance writers is a bit off because it doesn’t include men of colour who might write romance novels, as if gender were somehow more important than or replaced race (this is the same problem when talking about feminism, in that it tends to be about white women).

    Cultures appropriate from one another in real life all the time. Sometimes the effects are bad -’ colonialism, imperialism, assimilation, erasure, etc., but sometimes they are positive -’ adaptation, subversion, progression, diversification.

    I’m going to link to this post again because it explains so much better than I could what appropriation is (which is different from assimilation or even idea sharing between two similarly powered cultures — which is why a white main American character in Britain, for example, doesn’t have the same effect as a white main character in India or China). And why when writing about another (less dominant) culture, it’s important that it doesn’t stem from a place of entitlement, which is where appropriation stems from.

    I think looking at the positive and negative effects like that doesn’t take into account how or why they are connected. Of course less dominant cultures have to adapt (assimilate) in order to survive, due to colonialism and imperialism; it’s not just that one effect/action is bad and the other is good… I’m a little bit at a loss as to how to explain this.

    I'd rather read a book in which the author took a risk and did it thoughtfully but imperfectly than have the author be too afraid to try anything outside her own personal experience.

    So would I, but I also think the book should stand up to critical analysis* of race and appropriation. And should it come up short, I’d rather the author tried to fix this in their next book(s), instead of defending their work or contributing to racefail. But that tends to mean that they’re already aware of how racism and privilege works.

    *Even if it’s only for the people who say “it’s only fiction” or “I don’t want to think that hard about my escapist reading”. That way they don’t have to, if stories didn’t contain troublesome elements like appropriation.

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  114. Barbara B.
    Oct 29, 2009 @ 06:23:07

    handy hunter said-
    “But there's more to POC than their suffering, which part of what Adichie talks about in the video I linked to. I think a reason why people automatically associate POC with hardship is because it's the stories that have been told about them, and their other stories aren't heard or told as much. Which then makes it more difficult to imagine POC in love stories, say, as the hero or main character.”

    Very true. This reminds me of when I first went off to college. I’d be chatting with a white stranger or new acquaintance and they’d casually bring up my experiences of living in the ghetto and being on welfare. At first I’d think they were mistaking me for someone else. This happened over and over again and I finally realized that those people thought they knew my life story based on movies, the news, and TV shows. I grew up in a working class neighborhood that was mostly black due to white flight. My family wasn’t on welfare and we knew nothing about drug life or street culture.

    My boyfriend, a law student, had similar experiences. He grew up middle-classed with parents who were educators. He told me that no matter where he went white people would approach him looking for drugs. It was hilarious to me because a bigger nerd you will never meet. Hanging out with him I often witnessed young white men approach him for drugs. It was just a very odd thing. I also had a problem with older white men approaching me as a prostitute or dominatrix. I never understood why. I walked around with coke bottle thick glasses and dressed exactly the way most of the other female students did. It used to drive me crazy. It finally dawned on me that my double D breasts and race marked me as a prostitute to some men. And yet, I’ve had a breast reduction and still occasionally get approached in that way. Believe me I’m no great beauty, either.

    That one story theory has a lot of traction. It certainly has affected the way mainstream society looks at me.

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  115. Lisa Paitz Spindler (LisaPS)
    Oct 29, 2009 @ 07:47:39

    @handy hunter:

    “But there's more to POC than their suffering, which part of what Adichie talks about in the video I linked to. I think a reason why people automatically associate POC with hardship is because it's the stories that have been told about them, and their other stories aren't heard or told as much. Which then makes it more difficult to imagine POC in love stories, say, as the hero or main character.”

    Adichie’s speech made me feel like I had permission to write the story I want to write because it is just one story in many — and that we should have many. It released me from the fear of my story being taken as emblematic and the misconception that I had to write a certain kind of story if I was going to write about POC at all. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but I’m not sure how else to articulate the message I took from that powerful speech.

    @kaigou:

    …and I’d bet pizza money you were far more succinct, eh? (heh) Sorry I missed it, hard to keep up with 300-and-going!

    Could you name some of these authors who you feel meet this standard?

    Yep, says I, they’re …. and my brain goes schzzfizzle. Can I get back to you on that? I’m still kinda loopy from a day of inhaling shellac and sawdust. *heddesk*

    Hey, NP. This has indeed been a very long, educational thread. I’m just tallying up all the books people here have mentioned as positive examples.

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  116. handyhunter
    Oct 29, 2009 @ 07:51:39

    @Barbara B.: Yes, there’s something rather…extreme about how POC are looked at or written about, either asexual or hypersexualized (ok for sex, but not romantic relationships). Not whole people, just some version of someone else’s ideas of us. Not worth listening to until we tell stories that are incredibly personal, and even (especially) then I fear some clueless white person will find a way to dismiss it or shape it to their view of what POC are supposed to be like. I don’t know. It’s why when I come across characters of colour who I love that are written as people, I hold on hard. But it’s not quite enough.

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  117. Robin
    Oct 29, 2009 @ 11:25:55

    @handyhunter:

    But there's more to POC than their suffering

    Of course! But as you know, genre Romance is sustained by a certain idealization, which means that we’ve seen a lot of Romances set during the antebellum South that either whitewash, erase, or present a paternalistic image of blacks (slave and free) during the period. Thus you get reactions like that of the reader earlier in the thread who said she thinks it’s horrible when Romances are set in this period because of the erasure/whitewashing.

    By the same token, you have many Romances set in time periods in which horrific things were occurring but, because they’ve become popular eras to idealize, I suspect many readers aren’t even aware of all the stuff occurring during the set time/place.

    Romance has often relied on *invented history* that has, because of the way it’s been passed from book to book, author to author, reader to reader, has taken on an air of authenticity that is completely artificial (on Twitter I compared bad history to an STD in the genre, indiscriminately passed around).

    So the point I was trying to make isn’t that we should persist in stereotyping POC by staying away from certain settings in the genre; it’s that the pseudo history invented in Romance makes it difficult sometimes to write more authentic historical stories without running up against various resistances, including readers who insist that the author is *wrong wrong wrong* in her historical portrayal (even though her book is better researched than so many books before it). So not only does it take real sensitivity and awareness on the part of the author, but it requires a certain breaking through reader expectations set by the norms of the genre.

    I think the analogy to male romance writers is a bit off because it doesn't include men of colour who might write romance novels, as if gender were somehow more important than or replaced race (this is the same problem when talking about feminism, in that it tends to be about white women).

    I was not trying to create an equitable analogy at all there, Handy Hunter, but rather an illustration of a particular *norm* in the genre and the way readers often take that norm for granted as “natural,” more perhaps from conditioning than from any valid, logical rationale or conscious resistance to a different norm.

    I think looking at the positive and negative effects like that doesn't take into account how or why they are connected. Of course less dominant cultures have to adapt (assimilate) in order to survive, due to colonialism and imperialism; it's not just that one effect/action is bad and the other is good… I'm a little bit at a loss as to how to explain this.

    Well, it may have helped if I had been clear that I was talking about cultural appropriation in a broader sense. But also, as someone who works in the field of postcolonial theory, I’m working off multiple models of appropriation, not all of which conform to the definition in that post. That’s a tangent, so I won’t entertain it here, but I will just say that I once witnessed a very interesting debate between Leslie Marmon Silko and Maxine Hong Kingston, who were arguing about whether cultural symbols should/could be appropriated and re-signified by other cultures. Kingston’s position was yes, no symbol was “owned” by a culture and the fluidity of culture made such transformation inevitable, while Silko insisted that cultures should be able to retain the integrity of their symbols, that transfer was inseparable from domination, and that transformation should not be supported and viewed as positive (I’m *massively* paraphrasing and simplifying here). Obviously, it’s an ongoing debate.

    ITA with you, though, that it’s much more complicated than bad or good, and I should not have tried to simplify my point so much. All I was really trying to say was that even dominant cultures are altered in the context of cultural contact. And you often have dual narratives running simultaneously – the “official” narrative (often the national narrative, the governmental narrative) that the “mother” culture is pure and dominant and wholly noble, while the experiences of people and the casual cultures that evolve tell much different stories. I’m not saying that in an effort to explain, excuse or justify anything – just as a way to resist the model of colonialism/imperialism/domination/invasion that paints the invading culture as all powerful and the invaded culture as stripped of all power and cultural vitality (i.e. the failure of New Historicism). That is, I’ve seen very well-intentioned attempts to show cultural oppression that end up doubly disempowering the people of the oppressed culture, which I find just as problematic as attempts to justify the oppression.

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  118. Janine
    Oct 29, 2009 @ 12:48:27

    This reminds me of when I first went off to college. I'd be chatting with a white stranger or new acquaintance and they'd casually bring up my experiences of living in the ghetto and being on welfare. At first I'd think they were mistaking me for someone else. This happened over and over again and I finally realized that those people thought they knew my life story based on movies, the news, and TV shows.

    I had a similar experience when I emigrated to this country from Israel. I arrived in an Illinois town to realize have my fellow seventh graders tell me that in Israel “everyone wears sheets and rides on camels.”

    I also know an immigrant from Bosnia who told me that when he came to this country people tried to teach him how to use a toilet — as if he didn’t already know!

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  119. GrowlyCub
    Oct 29, 2009 @ 13:23:41

    @Janine:

    tried to teach him how to use a toilet -’ as if he didn't already know!

    As to the toilets and knowing how to use them, I’ll relate a story from my July trip to Germany. I and several of the American ladies who were on the plane with me sought out the bathrooms right after arrival.

    I overheard them saying that there was no way to flush and how gross that was. A couple left without even trying to figure it out. I was able to explain to the others how to use this particular system.

    I recently stayed at a 3 star hotel here in the U.S. If there hadn’t been instructions on how to use that particular shower (three different steps required to turn on and get warm water) I would have never figured it out on my own.

    I know your example was trying to show cultural insensitivity and assumed superiority, but as somebody who worked in international education for years, occasionally it’s indeed necessary to explain how modern conveniences work. If you have ever only seen a toilet with an overhead tank on which there’s a string you need to pull or a hole in the ground with no flushing mechanism at all, a lever or push button might stump you.

    Just as the small and large integrated push buttons built into the wall over the toilet bowl stumped those American ladies in Stuttgart (in case you are curious why there were two buttons – it’s for water saving; the small button releases a lesser amount of water).

    Sometimes assuming that people from other cultures will know exactly how things work can be as harmful as assuming they know nothing.

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  120. Janine
    Oct 29, 2009 @ 15:58:48

    @GrowlyCub: I understand, Growly. But perhaps there are sensitive and insensitive ways to teach this? This Bosnian immigrant was so offended, I can’t even tell you. He remembered it years later and got really upset while telling me the story.

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  121. liz m
    Oct 29, 2009 @ 16:15:38

    This thread makes me tired. I’m just not up for it today. And you know what? That is the ULTIMATE example of WP – that I consider it my right to decide if this topic is worthy of consideration or not, because what I think or feel about something is what’s correct to feel about something.

    But that’s never (or at least not today) going to get through to some. And I have a sick kid and no sleep, so how coherent would I be? Thank you for hosting this thread, and thank you Jade Lee for your honesty. I read very little HQN so I didn’t pay any attention to the promos I saw. Earlier this morning I bought a Carolyn Jewell novel as a result of one of her comments – I’m headed back to my e-book store of choice to pick up some Concubine and … wait…. I already have it!!! I bought it in a bundle (on someone’s suggestion) and didn’t read it yet.

    I’m buying something backlist. Because the way we vote is 20% with out words and 80% with our money. Change comes from breaking out of our patterns and putting our money where our mouth is.

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  122. Caligi
    Oct 29, 2009 @ 16:57:38

    I get people who speak to me slowly or try to do for me things I have well in hand because they see my walker and make assumptions.

    I really don’t see the problem. In a sentence or two they’re set straight. I can hardly fault them for trying to be helpful, even if they failed at it.

    We all make assumptions and have biases.

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  123. handyhunter
    Oct 29, 2009 @ 17:28:50

    @GrowlyCub: assumed superiority

    Why do people think this when POC ask to be taken seriously or like normal human beings? Or when POC assert that we might know our stories better than other people writing us?

    @Robin: Romance has often relied on *invented history* that has, because of the way it's been passed from book to book, author to author, reader to reader, has taken on an air of authenticity that is completely artificial (on Twitter I compared bad history to an STD in the genre, indiscriminately passed around).

    Heh. Relatedly, I wish more people would look at history as a living, breathing, evolving creature that changes as we find out more about it, sometimes by shifting perspective a little (away from the white male gaze).

    So not only does it take real sensitivity and awareness on the part of the author, but it requires a certain breaking through reader expectations set by the norms of the genre.

    Yes, it’s why I wish there were more awareness and discussion of race and appropriation.

    I will just say that I once witnessed a very interesting debate between Leslie Marmon Silko and Maxine Hong Kingston, who were arguing about whether cultural symbols should/could be appropriated and re-signified by other cultures. Kingston's position was yes, no symbol was “owned” by a culture and the fluidity of culture made such transformation inevitable, while Silko insisted that cultures should be able to retain the integrity of their symbols, that transfer was inseparable from domination, and that transformation should not be supported and viewed as positive (I'm *massively* paraphrasing and simplifying here). Obviously, it's an ongoing debate.

    Yes, POC have different opinions and different experiences, even within the same race and culture. I think context/history is an important factor; I understand you’re simplifying, but Silko is Native American and Kingston is Chinese-American — there are some shared issues, but it’s not all the same. The impact on Native Americans when European settlers migrated to the New World – the continuing erasure of them – is not the same as Chinese people migrating to America. But I think you know this?

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  124. Robin
    Oct 30, 2009 @ 00:30:32

    @handyhunter:

    I understand you're simplifying, but Silko is Native American and Kingston is Chinese-American -’ there are some shared issues, but it's not all the same. The impact on Native Americans when European settlers migrated to the New World – the continuing erasure of them – is not the same as Chinese people migrating to America. But I think you know this?

    Yup, but do you really think it’s as clear as part Native American v. child of Chinese immigrants? I’m very wary of making that leap, and not just because Silko is actually mixed heritage (Anglo, Mexican, and Laguna, IIRC). Gerald Vizenor, for example, would, I think, share Kingston’s POV. Both are very fond of the trickster figure, even though Vizenor, as Chippewa, might superficially be aligned more closely with Silko.

    There are so many issues here, as you know, from the nature of the sacred, the nature of culture (I keep thinking, too, of Homi Bhabha’s theories of cultural hybridity), the construction of race and ethnicity, the rhetoric of nationhood, matriarchal v. patriarchal societies (i.e. the Laguna are matriarchal), the substantive differences among indigenous nations (members of the Iroquois Confederacy, for example, controlled the Eastern part of what’s now the US through the reduction of Canada in 1763 and so had a very different experience of Anglo imposition than the Chippewa or the Pueblo or the Crow/Absarokee, etc.). Then there is the question of how each person identifies themselves as part of culture, how they represent that in their work, how that does and does not conform to the historical experiences that others in their general racial/cultural/ethnic cohort might define them, etc. Oy, just thinking about it is overwhelming, lol. In any case, it’s most definitely an amazing example of how difficult these questions of representation and appropriation are, which circles back to your original call for more awareness and understanding re. the Romance genre.

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  125. LisaPS
    Oct 30, 2009 @ 07:49:57

    @handyhunter:

    Or when POC assert that we might know our stories better than other people writing us?

    Does this mean that as a white writer I shouldn’t even try to tell stories with protagonists who are POC? I’m genuinely wondering, not trying to be confrontational. Would even my attempt be condescending no matter how good my intentions or in-depth my research because these aren’t my stories to tell? I ask because I know there’s no possible way I can get it 100% right no matter how hard I try. In most things it’s better to try and fail rather than to not try at all, but does that hold for this?

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  126. Ros
    Oct 30, 2009 @ 09:05:11

    @LisaPS: I have been wondering about this too, Lisa. I have heard some POC say one thing and some another, and I get that both are entitled to feel the way they do. I would be interested to hear what handyhunter thinks about it, too.

    At the moment, the conclusion I’ve come to – and I am not trying to suggest that this is the ‘right’ answer, or that every writer should do the same – is that I have to write the stories that I think I can tell, and if that includes characters from different ethnic and racial backgrounds from me, I have to do my best to write them well and to tell a range of different stories for them. I’m British and I write stories set in the UK, so there are a plethora of different non-white and non-English stories to be told.

    I have just submitted my first novel to M&B. It’s set mainly in London and in my mind one of the secondary characters was definitely a typical East-London black girl. She appears in the novel as a part-time cleaning lady, supplementing her funding for a PhD in bio-molecular physics. She also acts as the style-guru for my clueless MC. I thought really long and hard about whether I wanted to say explicitly that she was black – given that I didn’t make a point of saying any of my white characters were white – and in the end I didn’t. I know this means that many readers will default to the assumption that this character is white, too, and maybe another time I’d make a different choice. I’m also thinking about my next story and whether one of the protagonists – probably the hero would fit best – might work well as a non-white character. I’m a bit nervous, because the content of the story would play straight into the ‘black men can dance’ stereotype, so I’d like to try to find a way to subvert that somehow.

    Sorry, too rambling and off topic. I guess I’m just feeling that this whole area is always more complicated and maybe there aren’t ‘right’ choices (though there are certainly ‘wrong’ ones) – we just have to keep trying, failing, trying again and failing better.

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  127. LisaPS
    Oct 30, 2009 @ 09:35:17

    @Ros:

    I have to write the stories that I think I can tell, and if that includes characters from different ethnic and racial backgrounds from me, I have to do my best to write them well and to tell a range of different stories for them.

    I maintain the Danger Gal Blog where I profile female characters, usually in science fiction, who subvert common stereotypes. I’ve often made the point that if the gender of a character makes no difference in a story that I wish fewer stories defaulted to male — and the same idea holds true for characters of color. If we do our characterization homework, a character’s ethnicity should be examined and if the message of the story or the facet of life I’m picking apart has nothing to do with ethnicity then I should consider all possible ethnic backgrounds. This means that I have stories to tell with protagonists who are POC and their ethnicity is not the focus of the story, but certainly it will influence how they see their world. I hope that makes sense. So many stories with characters of color focus on ethnicity, so I have no idea if there’s a place for my approach. Maybe that’s just another example of my only experience being with a particular “single story?”

    She appears in the novel as a part-time cleaning lady, supplementing her funding for a PhD in bio-molecular physics.

    Please tell me that this character gets her own book next.

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  128. Xica
    Oct 30, 2009 @ 10:24:35

    @Ros

    “She appears in the novel as a part-time cleaning lady, supplementing her funding for a PhD in bio-molecular physics. She also acts as the style-guru for my clueless MC”

    Ros, I commend you for adding a character of color, but I kinda cringed at the second line. So often POC and gay and lesbian characters are thrust into the role of a sidekick, with no life of their own (not saying that’s what you’ve done, your character may have a very full life and you may have woven this into the story) save for being a style guru/jokester/confidant. And I might have to ask why someone going for their PHD would act as a style guru (I know individuals who’ve gotten their Bachelors while working as cooks and cleaners, but this is the first one going for a PHD. Not saying it isn’t done, but once you get your Masters over in the US, you should be able to get a higher paying job than cleaning lady). I guess I’m a bit sensitive to this because in the US, many books and movies have a POC acting as the “urban” style coach, while its basically all about the MC.

    Please don’t think I’m jumping on you, because that is not my intent and I would welcome a conversation on this. I just thought I’d point it out, and I’m only one opinion. What we are discussing is not an easy thing to do, so I commend you for putting it out here. When I began reading this thread, I started work on an on-line graphic novel that focuses on inter-racial couplings in a paranormal world. I state this because when it came time to assign attributes, I thought long and hard about whether I should make the African American male a werewolf or a warlock. Yeah, silly huh?

    While that may seem innocent at first glance, if not done right, it could offend. See, a werewolf in popular fiction is barechested and enraged most often, and I don’t want anyone to think that’s the default position for a black male. So I decided to make him more deliberately laid back, in possession of an ancient, cerebral wolf power.

    So I thought to change him to a wizard, until I realized I didn’t want to hear him described as a witch doctor, since I plan on adding a back story of his African roots (sorry, but I saw some protesters with Obama photoshopped as a witch doctor and that image galls me). Then I created an Asian character and made him a Gorgon. But after some research, I decided to make him the Wizard. Why? because I rarely read any fiction with Asian characters dealing with magic, though hopefully, someone on here can point me to some good paranormal romance where this is so. After reading Barbara’s comments, I decided to create a tall Valkyrie who’s African American. But I didn’t want her with long flowing hair. So for her backstory, I decided that even though she was on Chemo-therapy, she tried to stop a kid from being mugged and was almost killed. Because of her bravery she was made into a Valkyrie, because, after reading I think it was Angela’s comments, why do writers in paranormal act as if there would be no friction between races?
    I decided that since the Valkyries I read about are usually non-minority, her inclusion rubs some the wrong way, and it will make for a good storyline I believe. Anyway, I write this way too long insight into my own deliberations as a POC to say, I wish you well, and we all have reservations at some point. Oh, and the non-minority hunk just became the gorgon.

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  129. Ros
    Oct 30, 2009 @ 11:25:43

    @Xica: Thanks for the comment, and I get your point. I think this is a problem that I am always going to have – how to write POC in ways that don’t play into prevailing stereotypes – especially when it’s not always easy to see those stereotypes. I wasn’t giving my example as a suggestion of how to do it right – I’m sure that there are things I will have done that didn’t work. I was more trying to show how, even when it is an issue that an author is trying to think about, there are difficult choices to make. Your story shows that same process at work. It’s not easy, but I think the thing that I’ve learned most from this thread is that the more people who are telling these stories – even if they are sometimes reinforcing the same old story – the more likely we are to move towards a better, richer, stronger way of thinking, writing and reading about the mixed-up, complicated world we live in.

    Btw, PhD’s work differently in the UK – you might not have a Masters, you often won’t have full funding. Yes you can get teaching jobs, but they aren’t always worth the time for the money. I am partly-funding mine at the moment by doing some not-much-more-than-minimum-wage secretarial work. I hope it’s clear in the story why my character is doing this. She definitely gets (imo) the best line in the whole book! And yes, Lisa, I’d love to write her story one day. I’ll put that on the list!

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  130. Xica
    Oct 30, 2009 @ 11:50:24

    @Ros,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to explain the difference regarding PHD’s.
    I think cultural history plays into it more than not when writing a POC in fiction.
    I guess I just wondered why her job would be as a cleaning lady, instead of the example of yourself, a secretarial job perhaps. I don’t mean to imply that a cleaning lady isn’t a worthy profession, so I hope those reading this will forgive me. It could be the cultural history in the US I’m falling back on, in regarding POC and domestic positions, as many times in real life those are long, hard hours for little pay. However, many a child has been put through college or a home bought through those jobs, with the parents wanting a better life for their offspring. In the US, while a parent might be a custodian or domestic, once their child is in college they look for other occupations to suppliment their income. It’s the “wanting better for my child than I had.” Yet in these tough economic times, I could see where that could possibly be the only alternative to get ahead.

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  131. Ros
    Oct 30, 2009 @ 13:38:09

    @Xica: Oh yes, I see.

    I spent a couple of years living in the US recently and one of the things I was very struck by was just how differently the whole racial issue is configured there. Of course we have racial tensions and issues in the UK, but they are different from those in the US. Broadly speaking, our problems stem from large-scale, relatively recent (within the last 50 years) immigration – largely from India and Pakistan, from the Caribbean, and more recently from Eastern Europe. Though of course many immigrants will have worked the worst kinds of jobs, there isn’t a big history of immigrants in domestic service, largely because domestic service had all but died out by the 1950′s. Of course some will have been office cleaners and so on, but the majority will have been involved in industrial work – on the docks, in the factories and so on. It’s possible that I’m wrong about this, but I don’t think a British black person would respond in quite the same way to my character as you did.

    Which again illustrates some of the things that we have been talking about. The stories here are different from the stories in the US, and stories in other places around the world. It’s not that any one of these stories is right, and the others wrong, but it is that we need to hear – and therefore tell – all these stories.

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  132. handyhunter
    Oct 30, 2009 @ 15:19:10

    @LisaPS: I've often made the point that if the gender of a character makes no difference in a story that I wish fewer stories defaulted to male -’ and the same idea holds true for characters of color. If we do our characterization homework, a character's ethnicity should be examined and if the message of the story or the facet of life I'm picking apart has nothing to do with ethnicity then I should consider all possible ethnic backgrounds. This means that I have stories to tell with protagonists who are POC and their ethnicity is not the focus of the story, but certainly it will influence how they see their world.

    Yes, that’s it exactly. Thank you!

    (I don’t mean white people shouldn’t write POC – or POC of one culture shouldn’t write POC of other cultures – but if, say, criticism of the story comes up by a POC, I think it’s worth listening to because, well, maybe we know a little bit more about what it’s like to be a person of colour.)

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  133. A
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 06:16:22

    I am of multcultural background. My overall appearance is “white.” My birth certificate defines my race as “white.” If asked for my “race,” I respond “white” because it’s easier than trying to explain the artificial nuances of racial classifcation, who my grandmother was, who my great-grandfather was, etc.. I embrace my multicultural identity, but at the end of the day, if pressed to be “something,” I’m white.

    I’ve never faced racial prejudice from “white” people, I’ve experienced more than a little “colorism” prejudice from people identifying as another race.

    My perspective: “white” writers (whether ‘real white’ or ‘white enough to be considered a member of the dominant group’) cannot hope for a break when it comes to writing characters of alternative race and/or culture.

    If the “white” writer does a good job and gets it right, there’s praise, but there’s also an underlying resentment directed to the writer’s success, the idea that it would be more beneficial for a writer of color to succeed instead of the “white” writer.

    If a “white” writer does a lousy job, features unwholesome stereotypes, etc., s/he is mocked or attacked, is accused of “racism,” and faces all manner of criticism.

    If a “white” writer eschews characters of color, that’s put down as “white privilege” and “exclusion.”

    I, for one, enjoy developing characters of diverse backgrounds and experiences. I’ve faced my share of criticism for it. If I write about wealthy Black planters or tradesmen utilizing slave labor in the Antebellum era, I’m accused of dishonesty (if the reader is ignorant of the fact that Black planters/slaveowners thrived in the South) OR I’m “portraying (Blacks) in a negative light and ignoring the evils of slavery.”

    If I point out American Indians captured and enslaved European and Black people, sometimes torturing them to death, I am “corrected” by people who “know” that American Indians adopted captives into their tribes, the captives were all well-treated and lived happily with the Indians, etc.

    It seems like many people want stereotypes of the “white = greedy, saddistic, exploitative, opportunisitc” and “not white = spiritual, beautiful, non-violent, accepting all races/cultures, knowledgeable/in tune with Mother earth, morally superior to the white man…”

    Mostly, I write my characters as characters. It really doesn’t matter what one’s color/racial identity is. Humans have varying motives and their behavior has more to do with character than color. Regardless of race/cultural identity, a person can be a hero/ine or a villain/ess, good or evil, loving or abusive, scrupulous or unprincipled.

    I don’t feel I “owe” it to a particular race/culture to portray characters of their race/culture in the best possible light. I don’t “owe” it to minorities to portray whites in the worst possible light. I owe ALL readers a good story.

    Right now I’m “cooking” on a plotline of an Antebellum, biracial heroine who inherits a fortune from her white father. Impossible? Look up Amanda America Dickson’s bio. Truth is always stranger than fiction.

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  134. A
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 06:53:54

    @Ros:

    The point of ‘white privilege' is not that white people believe themselves more privileged but that by virtue of the way our society is, we are privileged in a whole host of ways we often do not even notice. Of course you are right to say that not all white people are the same and we do not all enjoy the same privileges. And yes, being poor will mean that there are many privileges you don't have.

    But – and this is the point of having the debate here – you do have, by virtue simply of your colour, the privilege of being able to pick up almost any romance novel and find a heroine who has the same skin tone as you, without need for any discussion or defence of that fact. You may not regard that as a privilege, but for those women who cannot do the same, you are unquestionably in a privileged position in this respect.

    I’m uninterested in entertaining lengthy debate on the subject, but it’s possible for ANY person or group to point at another person or group and cite that person/group enjoying advantage/privilege the other person/group doesn’t enjoy. “The grass always looks greener,” etc..

    That said, I’ve no intention of arm-wrestling the alleged unprivileged group/person out of its beliefs. Perception influences reality. If someone’s convinced the color of a band-aid demonstrates “unfair” or “unearned” advantage, so be it.

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  135. A
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 07:59:30

    I’d like to point out the inherent racism in Handy Hunter’s statement:

    Romance suffers from the same problem SF/F does. It's very, very white.

    I personally do not have a problem with white characters, nor do I view the presence of white characters in books as something “defective” or “problematic.”

    Ms. Hunter appears to take greater issue against white characters in romance than she does against the lack of POC in romance and SF/F.

    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.

    Why is it “not okay” for readers to prefer genres most appealing to readers? For that matter, comparison of paranormal characters to POC demonstrates poor logic. I and other authors have written paranormal characters of color. Paranormal characters are more a separate species (from human) than a separate race/color.

    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).

    1. Not every author writes a book with the intent of promoting diversity. Nor should they.

    2. I have no problem with accurate historical novels. I comprehend the concept “that was then, this is now.” As for the killing/enslaving/exploitation, Whites hardly hold a corner on that market. I don’t have a problem with historical fiction depicting “whites taking over another country” in instances where that is historical fact. For that matter, I have no problem with historical fiction demonstrating blacks taking over land/property that presumably belonged to someone else (check historical records of royal land grants, white people alone did not receive them.) People who have issues with history…don’t read historicals, I guess.

    Wow. This is such an anti-White hatefully charged post, it’s amazing to me this site permitted it.

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  136. handyhunter
    Nov 03, 2009 @ 22:28:24

    @A: Watch Chimamanda Adichie’s The danger of a single story. And if you still don’t get it after that, I have no idea what to say.

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  137. M
    Nov 05, 2009 @ 23:15:30

    Amen to A. Handyhunter’s column smacks of entitlement. And moreover, I’m not quite sure what the point of the column is, and the fact that it’s inspired a deluge of scattered “I too am a minority and this is my story” or “I am white and here is my story” posts definitely says something about the column’s self-importance and lack of focus. Handy–try a thesis statement. Try articulating an actual argument. It’s what I tell my students every day.

    First of all, I’m not quite sure what this column is trying to say–that whites need to write more people of color into their stories? Okay, but how would we minorities feel if whites dictated to us about the proper color balance of our stories? (Yes, for the record, I am a minority.) First of all, no one should EVER feel entitled to demand anything of a writer as far as subject-matter, racial make-up of characters, setting, tone, etc. etc. It’s your story–if you want to write about Appalachians, go for it. If you want to write about Africans, godspeed. If it is good, it will be believable. If your characters are well-drawn, your race won’t matter, and neither will the race of your characters.

    In fact, there’s no such thing as a racist text–just a bad text. Racial stereotypes are the fodder of bad writers. When I come across racist stereotypes in fiction, I dismiss the story as poorly written, badly conceived, and just a waste of time. Such stories are usually not propaganda, though they may reflect damaging cultural attitudes. Truly, these stories are told by uncreative, untalented minds, and they won’t last.

    Second of all, if we minorities want to see more minorities in stories, then we have to write them. We CANNOT blame white people for not wanting to write outside of their culture, just as they can’t blame us for not eagerly writing about suburban whites. It’s absurd! Novels aren’t affirmative action programs. You can’t employ some system of tokenism to try to even out the injustices of society. What an INSULT to the human imagination.

    There’s nothing wrong with stories about white people doing “white upper-class things.” Just as there’s nothing wrong with Puerto Ricans doing Puerto Rican things. The kind of attitude that Handyhunter is promoting–one that essentializes cultures and dismisses stories by certain groups of people simply because of who they are or where they grew up or what they like to do–is a dangerous one, one that would seem extreme, offensive, and downright hateful if directed toward non-whites.

    I encourage everyone to just calm down and walk away from this one. This column is not worth getting yourselves worked up about. It’s a poorly written and poorly crafted essay that seems little more than a straw-man argument that a college freshman might write to piss off his composition teacher. That’s all.

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  138. Kimberly Santoyo
    Mar 23, 2013 @ 22:59:19

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