Hello White Privilege. It's me, a Black romance writer?


White people need to understand that you guys know where you come from, you know your history, you know where you're going 'cause you know where you came from.  ...and how you're going to continue to grow.  That's the privilege you all [white Americans] have.  And we don't.  ~Tiffany Haddish 

 Open Mic: This is not a safe space, it's a brave space. ~Dr. Jody Armour 

"Where will I go, I'm not welcomed here?"  Chelsea Handler's Netflix documentary, Hello Privilege, it's me, Chelsea opened with a visit to an open mic at USC. The focus for the night was white privilege.  The first poet opened with that question.  Where will I go, I'm not welcomed here?  It's a simple question without a simple answer.

Photo courtesy of Eric Esma
During an open mic event, anyone can stand and share their words.  It's not for the faint of heart. If you need someone to stroke your ego, don't stand in the circle.  It's not safe, but if you're brave enough to stand on your words--the experience can be life-changing.  This is what I'm doing with this article.  I'm standing in the circle.  In the brave space, hoping to provide a life-changing experience.

Previously, I addressed the lack of diversity in the publishing industry on this blog before. There's an expectation of the type of romance that appeals to a universal audience.  A universal audience being white women, ages 18-44, educated, married or single, and middle-class.  Where will I go, I'm not welcomed here?

To fully understand the importance of the romance genre and the role white privilege plays in the disproportionate number of #OwnVoices novels read and supported by mainstream audiences, it's important to know why and how this genre rose in popularity.

According to Amanda Pagan of Mid-Manhattan Library, "Early romance novels featured heterosexual, white female [HWF] protagonists either defying social conventions or overcoming personal struggles in pursuit of their own happiness."  This was great for empowering white women to go after what they wanted--to go after who they wanted, but what about women who didn't fit into the little box of HWF?  Where will they go, they're not welcomed here?

The romance novel audiences are slowly demanding more realistic and inclusive representation in what's offered for their reading consumption, but the demands are really more like whimpers from a virginal heroine experiencing oral for the first time. I posted a question on my Instagram to get some feedback for this article and one author left the following comment.
And though I am a woman of color who writes out of the box—not urban fiction, I can say that I set out to be all-inclusive in terms of audience when I wrote my first book. My cast of characters are diverse. My audience is also diverse. Heck, my series is called “The Russian Engagement Series”! πŸ˜‚ Yes, the main male character is Russian (because I love gangsters 😁).
In many ways, her response makes the point I'm exploring in this article.  Although audiences are demanding more diversity in romance novels, they still have a hard time accepting a Black male lead.  I know the IR love story is gaining popularity and I guess that's something, but is it enough?  I have to say no.  No, it's not enough.

This same author did go on to say, " I honestly doubt the “Urban” market will ever cross over into [the] mainstream. But we can target more of a diverse audience with our marketing. 😊"  And maybe that's the key.  Learning how to effectively market romance novels with diverse male leads to mainstream audiences in a way that leads to a broader readership for romance writers of color.

Even as I acknowledge the need for better marketing, it does not remove the fact that white privilege plays a huge role in how the mainstream audience dictates what kind of characters deserve to be in leading roles in romance novels.

Unfortunately, most romance readers don't even recognize there's a problem because most don't even understand what white privilege is.  Handler spoke with author and activist, Tim Wise in her documentary and he stated, "You can't solve a problem that you won't acknowledge as real."  Where will I go, I'm not welcomed here?

No One Knows I Dated a Black Guy: "You had the complexion for the connection." ~Tyshawn (Handler's Black boyfriend when she was 16)


In one part of Handler's documentary, she visits an old boyfriend she dated when she was sixteen and "out of control".  She admitted to doing some illegal stuff while dating Tyshawn and was surprised she had never gotten in trouble for any of it.  Even when she got caught with drugs and driving under the influence.

Tyshawn explained to her, "You had the complexion for the connection."  Until then, Handler said she thought she'd gotten off because she was nice.

What really got me about this segment of the documentary, was the fact that she shared an entire relationship with this guy. Two pregnancies while she lived in his mother's house with them.  She and Tyshawn ran the streets together.  But when it was time to go back to her upper-middle-class home and destroy the evidence of her dalliance with a Black leading male, she straightened up and became a respectable white woman.  She didn't have to acknowledge her time living with her Black boyfriend in an all-Black community.  No one ever had to know she had dated and gotten pregnant, twice with her Black boyfriend when she was sixteen and running wild.

That snippet led me to the question I posted on Instagram and Twitter.  The mainstream audiences would enjoy reading romance novels with Black male leads, I honestly believe they're simply not comfortable with other people knowing they enjoy reading about powerful, Black men who fuck like beasts and are able to gentle themselves for the woman they love. Maybe it's because the target audience of romance novels are also beneficiaries of white privilege and are unaware of their own bias towards Black men, specifically.

I had another thought, one that harkens back to my first look at diversity in publishing.  If the majority of romance readers would be down to read more diverse romance leads, then is the machinations of the publishing industry driving the lack of mainstream sales for romances with Black male leads?

According to an article published in 2015 in Forbs, written by Jennifer Baker, the answer would appear to be yes.  The following charts are results from a diversity baseline survey and the numbers tell a story of their own.



The story I'm reading in this chart is a very simple one. The same women who make up the target audience for romance writers, are the very people who decide what gets published, promoted, and pushed into the market. And I repeat, maybe it's because the target audience of romance novels are also beneficiaries of white privilege and are unaware of their own bias towards Black men, specifically.

As a Black woman who writes romance, I kind of feel like Tyshawn. I don't have the complexion for the connection.  The industry leaders don't look like me.  Can't appreciate Black men the way I do; at least they don't do it in public. Won't promote romance about Black love, because they aren't aware it even exists.  

The Lynching of Black Romance Novels: "To step outside circumscribed spaces of what it means to be Black." ~Ruby Sales, Civil Rights Activist

I know... some will say this is a step too far.  Really, Ella?  The lynching of Black romance novels?!  Yes, I stand by my word choice.  Pay close attention. Another word for lynching is executing. When I took my word-nerd-girl search a little further, executing led me to administer.  As continued on my word journey, the next word in the list was apportioning and that finally got me to my buzz world--allotting.  I know, stay with me.  It'll make sense. Promise.



Allotting (v)
  1. to divide or distribute by share or portion; distribute or parcel out; apportion:
  2. to appropriate for a special purpose:
  3. to assign as a portion; set apart; dedicate.
Romance novels written by Black writers have been divided and appropriated for special purpose [Black audiences only] and set apart from romance novels written by white writers for whom the publishing industry has dedicated the lion's share of the market.

While reading an article titled, Fifty shades of white: the long fight against racism in romance novels written by Lois Beckett in The Guardian, I was screaming as I read the part where she was speaking with romance novelist, Kianna Alexander about the barriers facing writers of color in the romance genre.  They were in the local Wal-Mart and they witnessed the lynching of Black romance novels.
Alexander knows all about the barriers that make it more difficult for authors of colour to succeed. On the morning we met, we visited her local Walmart to look at the book section. Her latest Harlequin romance was on display, but it was not placed with the other romance novels. Instead, it was on a separate shelf marked with a neat label: African American. Alongside Alexander’s romance were assorted books with black people on the cover: a “spiritual guidebook” by film-maker Tyler Perry, the rapper Gucci Mane’s autobiography and “street lit” novels about black protagonists struggling to succeed in tough urban environments.
Why would Alexander's romance novel not be included in the romance section as opposed to the African American section?  What could cause the lynching of Black romance novels?  When Chelsea Handler asked Civil Rights activist, Ruby Sales the same question about Black people; the answer was as appropriate for Handler's question as it is for my question about Black romance novels. Anything did "to step outside of circumscribed spaces of what it means to be Black" places them at risk of being parceled out, set apart, and assigned back to those limiting restrictive spaces appropriated for Blacks [romance writers].

Hello White Privilege: It's me, a Black romance writer?




In the male protagonist role, does the cover on top create the kind of oh-my-god-he's-book-boyfriend material euphoria?  Can you see him in a steamy sex scene and put yourself in the role of the heroine? Would you show your friends at work the cover of this book and swoon over his dark and broody ways?  Does Mr. Dark and Sexy fit the iconic image of multi-billionaire-CEO-mogul who's achieved so much before the age of thirty? Would you dedicate a Pinterest board to this guy on the top with all your favorite quotes?  Or can romantic heroes only look like the guy on the bottom?

Remember, life is a journey and when the Universe sprinkles Her wisdom along your path, be grateful.  Every moment is enchanted, stay present.  Until next time; be brave, be beautiful, and be enchanting.

Ella






Comments

  1. You clearly put a lot of effort into writing this post and I’m proud of you. Yes, there is a huge gap in the way that black and white writers are promoted and published. Yes, it would be nice to have the same leg up’ as our counterparts do when it comes to a targeted audience, but we don’t. And because we aren’t considered the majority, probably never will. What we will do, is continue telling the stories in our hearts, allowing our writing to serve anyone who chooses to connect with it and we’ll keep growing in the craft. Keep writing, Mama...πŸ™πŸΎ

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    1. Thank you for your comment. I did put a lot of effort into writing this post, and I hope the more we're able to do than simply keep writing the stories and not being included. I appreciate the sentiment, and I will keep writing; but and also--I will continue to challenge a system designed to keep me from achieving at the level I know I'm capable of. Be brave, be beautiful, be enchanting.

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