Whew! These past few weeks in the romance world – or #Romancelandia as we call it on Twitter – have been a doozy. Let’s recap.
With the Santino Hassell issue, the m/m community nearly caved in on itself.
After Cole McCade revealed Sarah Lyons’ comments about not putting black people on covers our community exploded with disbelief at the blatant racism.
The third issue is the fact that there hasn’t been a single Black winner of the RWA Rita awards in the entire existence of the organization. The RWA put out a statement on this, and it spawned lots of conversation on the difficulties authors of color face in publishing.
For this third issue, there hasn’t been much discussion in the m/m community. I’ll admit that I’m not on Facebook much – Twitter is more my jam. But when I logged on I expected to see a lot of discussion on the topic, just as I did with SH and Lyons. Instead, I’ve only seen a few posts from authors like Harper Miller, LaQuette, and Sharita Lira scattered about.
This concerns me. I wonder, does the m/m community think this issue doesn’t affect it, and that’s why there has been near silence on the topic? As we can see from the Sara Lyons emails it absolutely is a thing. Still not sure what that thing is? Let me state it plainly. Authors of Color (AOC) and especially authors of color writing characters of color are at a disadvantage in publishing.
1) We don’t win (often) awards.
2) We’re not heavily promoted. (A prime example is the way black people went bat shit over Black Panther. We don’t often get the chance to be the next Big Thing like Twilight, Fifty Shades and Game of Thrones)
3) We’re not squeeed over by readers and review blogs as much as white authors/characters.
4) Big Five publishers (and smaller pubs as well) don’t often publish us. The Ripped Bodice’s Diversity Report has the numbers on that.
5) We suffer from There Can Only Be One mentality. With this, readers think I already read a black historical I don’t need to read another because it will be the same. Or, all the visibility goes to a few authors of color, elevating them to great popularity while the majority of the rest are ignored.
How does this happen? Well, statements like the ones below are reasons why our genre is struggling with diversity.
“I can’t relate to those characters.”
This comment has been said so often that I’m just going to parrot back the same response that’s always given. If you can relate to vampires, meerkat shifters, omega men with slick butts, or hell even a SWAT team full of gay D/s dudes *cough-cough*, you can relate to people with skin that’s different from yours. I assure you, we’re not aliens. And even aliens are accepted by readers in sci-fi romance.
“I don’t want to read about race problems.”
Not every book featuring people of color (POC) is about race. Some are. But please don’t make that assumption just because there’s brown skin on the cover. And even if racism is mentioned what’s the big deal? We read about other unpleasant topics like domestic violence and gay youth being kicked out of the home, and (hopefully) learn from them. Why can’t racial issues receive that same consideration?
“It should be about the quality of the book. Not the race of the author or characters.”
This comment is like nails on a chalkboard to me. Or actually a big fat dog whistle. Because what it’s really saying is that diverse authors can’t bring the quality and therefore shouldn’t be put up for awards, promoted, etc. Otherwise, why mention quality whenever we discuss including books by authors of color?
The majority of us in the m/m community are women. I’m not saying it’s a good thing or a bad thing or ignoring the many transgender men and women and nonbinary people – it’s just a thing. So that means most of us are already reading and writing outside of ourselves. If we can all put ourselves in the headspace to read about two men falling in love, I don’t see why white readers can’t read about people of color – and why non-black people of color can’t read about black characters and so on. Because I, and pretty much every other person of color, have been reading white characters since we first picked up books.
I wrote in a previous blog post about how I didn’t see a black character in a romance novel until I was in high school. Not once have I ever said – I just can’t read this because I can’t relate to this blonde heroine and her blue-eyed lover. We’re expected to read outside of ourselves. All we’re asking is for everyone else to return the favor. How can you return that favor? I’ve got some action items!
Don’t say, “I don’t see color. I just want the story.” I know on the surface this seems like an open-minded way of thinking. But not seeing color erases us. We want to be seen and have our differences acknowledged, accepted and embraced!
And not seeing color often means that we just aren’t seen. Which means you’re going to have to look for us. Don't believe me? Go to Amazon and check out the Top 100 for Gay romance. In that entire bunch, there's one book with a black character on it. You get the same result just typing in gay romance or m/m romance into the search bar. If we’re not sought out, it’s easy to end up with a homogenous book shelf – even when you are open to reading diversely. So take a tiny step. When you type into the search bar on Amazon, add a word to your search. Instead of typing gay contemporary romance try multicultural gay contemporary romance.
Do rec us to your friends and bloggers and ask for us in libraries and bookstores.
Don’t go into our stories expecting to be taught about culture. A Chinese American author writing about a Chinese American hero doesn’t necessarily want to tell the story of their culture. They just might want to write about a Chinese American guy who is at the library, has a meet cute with a quiet, yet well-built branch manager and falls in love. And that’s okay. Our romance novels don’t have to be culture guides. There’s uh… culture guides for that.
Do use context or even hit up Google if there are mentions of things you’re not familiar with. For example, I used to read the heck out of Highland romances. But I had no clue what haggis was and I had to look it up. The word Sassenach drove me crazy because before Google, I couldn’t figure out exactly what it meant. I knew who it referred to, but I thought there might be more meaning behind it since it was always used as an insult.
I’m sure many of you had to look up facts about garderobes for historicals or pick up on the basics of game play for hockey romances. If we can do that for predominantly white stories, we can extend the same courtesy to diverse romance. For example, in my upcoming release In His Corner (hell yeah I’m self-promoting) I write about Brandon’s curly, easily tangled 4B hair. When you get to that scene, just roll with it. Don’t toss it aside because it’s different from your experience.
Don’t assume that there just aren’t any authors of color out there writing m/m romance. Me, my brown face, and the brown faces of many authors I’ve connected with assure you that this isn’t true.
Do use sources like Queer in Color and Women of Color in Romance to find new books to try.
Do ask for recs. The next time you’re in the MM Book Rec group looking for a hurt/comfort romance, ask if there are any featuring characters of color. Or maybe even say Hey, I really like Susan Author. Are there any Authors of Color who have books with tropes and settings like hers? The first couple of times you might get crickets for your response. But as we expand our reading horizons we’ll start having more recs to share.
Don’t refuse to pick up a book because the character’s name is unfamiliar to you, like D’Marcus or Takashi (sorry, my Voltron is showing). A lot of us learned to pronounce Daenerys Targaryen. We can give Rhashan a chance too.
Do show a little variety in the covers/models you promote. For example, if you’re a blogger and you’ve got a sweet header with multiple covers and/or couples but all of them are white? It makes me hesitate to submit a book with multicultural characters to you. Putting up a hot dude with brown skin is like rolling out the welcome mat to authors like me. It lets us know that our books will be welcome and won’t be discounted out of hand or unfairly judged because of the color of the characters’ skin.
In addition to that, if you have one of those shout out days going on like Sexy Saturday or Hot Guy Wednesday, mix it up and put some brown folks in there. If week after week, each of your hot guys is white, that tells me that you don’t find men of color attractive, deserving of love, or worthy of being your hero’s muse. That might not actually be true, but all I can go by is what you demonstrate to me.
Need some help finding Hot Guys of Color? Poke Atom Yang and ask if you can join his Atom’s Asian Hotties Facebook group. Cuz good lord there are some beautiful men posted in there. Or, go to Pinterest and type in sexy black men. You’ll get a plethora of gorgeous results. (Just uh… maybe try not to refer to them as chocolate or other foods. It’s kind of gross.)
Listen. I know this is hard. None of us wants to be the bad guy in our own story. And realizing that as either an author or a reader/reviewer/blogger you’ve had thoughts or actions or even inaction that have left authors and characters of color out in the cold can make you feel shitty – like you’re the bad guy. And no one likes that feeling. But we’ve got to suck it up and face what makes us uncomfortable.
For example, when I was younger, I was ignorant and held the belief that I wasn’t attracted to Asian men. Now that I’m older I know that was racist, and what I actually wasn’t attracted to was the media portrayal of Asian men: nerdy, sexless caricatures with over the top accents. Now that I’ve broadened my worldview, I’m looking at these guys and… *sweats* My old racist belief has definitely been kicked to the curb.
Hell, I’m a black woman and even I had thoughts that books by/about black people weren’t of good quality. Because that’s what I was taught – mostly indirectly by publishing. I had to unlearn that. It was mentally unpleasant to do, because I felt bad for the way I’d erroneously judged many authors.
Now this last step is expert level. I’m talking black belt in Being a Diversity Ally. If you’ve said hold my purse! and gone to bat to defend m/m romance from evil heterosexual bigots, or you’ve taken off your earrings and fought against literature snobs who dissed romance as a low brow genre, this final step is for you. Put some tape on your wrists, Vaseline on your face and (metaphorically) square up for us.
When you see someone spouting ignorance like black women don’t read/write romance, or all black romances are ghetto/poor quality, or whatever nonsense is being spewed – Say Something. Let them know their beliefs are baseless and ignorant. Authors of color fight for other causes all the time, do us a solid and help us with ours. We need the whole squad ready in order to embrace diversity in the m/m community.
TLDR: Buy, Promote, Read Books by Authors of Color Featuring Characters of Color. =)
Thanks for reading!
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My rambling and not at all edited thoughts on romance novels, writing, and pop culture.