Racism in Romance, or Why Is the Duke Always White

Photo by duluoz cats via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Alyssa Cole’s romance novel was widely recognized as being one of the best of the 2017, so why didn’t it get nominated for a Rita (aka the Academy Award of the romance industry, bestowed by the Romance Writers of America)? Surprise, the romance novel industry is just as racist as the rest of the world! In The Guardian, Lois Beckett takes a close, hard look at the history, ongoing struggles, and future of romance novelists of color — change seems imminent, but old (racist) habits die hard.

Last year, however, many observers felt that this was sure to change. One of the standout novels of 2017 had been Alyssa Cole’s An Extraordinary Union, an interracial romance set during the civil war. The book had already won a number of awards and made multiple best-of-the-year lists.

When the Rita awards finalists were announced in March 2018, An Extraordinary Union was nowhere to be seen. A novel rated exceptional by critics had been not even been deemed as noteworthy by an anonymous judging panel of Cole’s fellow romance writers. The books that had beat Cole as finalists in the best short historical romance category were all by white women, all but one set in 19th-century Britain, featuring white women who fall in love with aristocrats. The heroes were, respectively, one “rogue”, two dukes, two lords and an earl.

What followed, on Twitter, was an outpouring of grief and frustration from black authors and other authors of colour, describing the racism they had faced again and again in the romance industry. They talked about white editors assuming black writers were aspiring authors, even after they had published dozens of books; about white authors getting up from a table at the annual conference when a black author came to sit down; about constant questions from editors and agents about whether black or Asian or Spanish-speaking characters could really be “relatable” enough.

Then, of course, there were the readers. “People say: ‘Well, I can’t relate,’” Jenkins told NPR a few years ago, after watching white readers simply walk past her table at a book signing. “You can relate to shapeshifters, you can relate to vampires, you can relate to werewolves, but you can’t relate to a story written by and about black Americans?”

The answer, for some readers, is that it never occurred to them that they’d be able to relate.

A particularly infuriating comment, some black authors said, is when white women describe taking a chance on a romance with a black heroine, and then express surprise at how easily they were able to identify with the story. Shirley Hailstock, a black novelist and past president of RWA, told me about a fan letter she once received from a white romance author. She sent me a photograph of the letter, with the signature concealed.

“Dear Shirley,” the white author had written, in a neat cursive hand, “I’m writing to let you know how much I enjoyed Whispers of Love. It’s my first African American romance. I guess I might sound bigoted, but I never knew that black folks fall in love like white folks. I thought it was just all sex or jungle fever I think “they” call it. Silly of me. Love is love no matter what colour or religion or nationality, as sex is sex. I guess the media has a lot to do with it.”

The letter, dated 3 June 1999, was signed, “Sincerely, a fan”.

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