“You’re black. Why do you write about white people?” I’ve been asked this question in one form or another by several people, both white and black. I can answer that question in photographic form.
Let me break down my photographic evidence. When you go into Barnes and Noble and head to the romance section, the vast majority of the books feature Caucasian characters. But wait, who’s that down there in the bottom of the last picture?
Oh hi, Ms. Beverly Jenkins! I’m so glad she’s there. And a few spaces over is Brenda Jackson. Both wonderful authors who are responsible for giving me hope for myself and my characters. But yikes, out of all those rows of books only two authors of color featuring main characters of color. Apparently, that’s B&N’s quota. That pretty much answers the “why do you write about white people?” question. But keep reading, because change is a comin’.
Romance has always been my favorite genre. I’d go to the library, thrift shops, and later when I had my own money, to the bookstore, always looking for new romance titles to read. And those titles nearly always featured Caucasian characters. As an adolescent reading romance, I just assumed those were the only characters that were published.
I remember the first time I came across a romance with a black hero and heroine. I was in high school, and it was one of those contemporary Harlequin type books, maybe Kimani or Arabesque. I immediately checked it out and was excited to read. But boy was I disappointed when I got to the end. The main characters both ended up scarred and paralyzed because of a horrible car accident.
I didn’t get it. All the romances I’d read up to that point ended with the scrappy village girl married to the duke and she gave him adorable babies and became a well-loved chatelaine of the manor or whatever. Not once did any of them have something so harsh happen to them. At that young age, I thought the book was saying that black heroines didn’t get the perfect happy ending. It hurt, and it turned me off from reading any more from that line for a long time.
That’s not to say there weren’t any books by black authors and featuring black characters. There are. But in book stores, books featuring African American characters are usually African American lit, which isn’t romance. And even if they aren’t AA lit, they are all lumped together in the African American section by themselves away from romance.
That’s not what I wanted. I wanted to read romance. When I started writing, I wanted to write romance. And I wanted my books to be grouped with all the rest of the romance novels. So when I wrote my first little novella, I wrote white characters. Based off what I’d seen of publishing so far, I assumed that’s what I had to do in order to be published where I wanted to be published.
When I wrote my second book, I was still in that mind-set even though I was self-publishing. Why? Swing by Amazon’s best seller page for romance and check it out. Or I can just tell you. The majority of the books feature white cover models. You have to specifically type in African American romance in order to get black characters. Am I wrong for just wanting to be in the freaking general romance category?
I got away from that mind-set a little bit when I wrote the Bad Boys series. Each of those books features a POC hero. Joseph is Persian, Kevin is biracial (with black and white parents) and Max is black. Each of those books features the “bad boy” of the pairing on the cover. Of the three bad boys, Max is the only one of color. And let me tell you, there was some fear that Max wouldn’t sell as well because there was a black man on the front of the book.
Why did I have that fear? Well, let’s just say I have seen on more than one occasion, a reader saying something along the lines of “I can’t relate to a black character.” Also, whether consciously or not, readers sometimes pass over books that feature a non-white character on the cover. And again, I’ll refer you back to the Barnes & Noble shelves and Amazon Best Seller pages.
Thankfully, my fear was unfounded. Readers loved Max. And he made it to the Best Seller page for his category on his release day. Yay! That proved to me that many readers are happy to read a story that interests them, regardless of the race of the character. Double yay!
Now that I’ve been doing this for a couple of years, I’ve gotten over those fears. And to be honest I don’t care anymore. I’m not going to erase my own ethnicity and ignore others because people might not buy my books. If someone chooses not to read a story because of the race of the character, that’s their issue. Not mine. And I know that regardless of what the Barnes and Noble shelves show, there IS a market for romance novels featuring every kind of race or ethnicity. But that was something that I had to learn and accept on my own.
Going forward, I have two Mexican American heroes, Hector and Miguel, in my next book. And the majority of the books that I have planned after that feature at least one main character who is a person of color. My characters will be black, Latino, white, Pacific Islander and more. And they’ll be chosen based on the story that needs to be told, not on an out of date system set up by the Big Five Publishers.
Publishing needs to change. It’s starting now, with authors and readers alike pushing for more diversity. And in m/m there are some great books featuring POC characters that readers are happily devouring. It’s wonderful that it’s begun, but the change won’t happen overnight. We all – and yes, I include myself in this – need to realize why it’s important to have a multitude of races and ethnicities in our books. Think of pre-teen me, a scrawny little dark-skin girl loving to read romance, but assuming that she could never be the girl who got the HEA because she never saw herself represented.
So maybe next time you’re scrolling through Amazon looking for a new read, type multicultural romance or African American romance into the search bar and try out whatever catches your eye. Your sale just might be the one that helps an author get her multicultural book pushed into a slot where more readers can see it.
Need help finding multicultural romance? Try these great resources!
Women of Color In Romance
Romance Novels in Color
Multicultural M/M Romance List
Want to read more on this topic? Check out this beautifully written post and excellent discussion thread from 2013: An Open Letter to Harlequin.
You can also read my post on Writing POC Characters without using stereotypes.
Thanks for reading!
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My rambling and not at all edited thoughts on romance novels, writing, and pop culture.