Toxic Romance: People of Color

The romance industry—otherwise known as Romancelandia—imploded late last year after author Courtney Milan was banned from the RWA (Romance Writers of America) following a series of tweets she made for calling out racism in another author’s book. What followed in the days and weeks to come was a series of missteps that revealed the poisoned core of America’s preeminent association for romance authors. There isn’t anything I can say about the revelations from last December that hasn’t already been said by others. So rather than rehash the whole debacle, I encourage you to read about it here and here

The RWA has since undergone an audit and elected a new president and board. On April 2nd, 2020, they issued an apology to their members and announced that they had expunged the complaints against Milan from their records. While this is a step forward, the organization’s handling of events shed a global spotlight on the internal workings of the industry.

The argument that romance is biased toward white authors and characters was certainly not new last December. It also wasn’t new in 2018 when The Guardian published the article, “Romance so White? Publishers grapple with race issues amid author protests.” However, we here at Three Houses Press firmly believe that the conversation about racism and lack of representation in romance can’t stop with what happened last year. We need to continue to push the conversation on why inclusivity in all literature is important. As publishers and gatekeepers of content, we must do our due diligence to serve all readers. It simply isn’t right or fair that large swaths of Americans are not seeing themselves in the books they read. 

In order to better understand the current state of the romance industry, we need to look back on its origins. As discussed in our “Toxic Romance: Consent” article, the modern romance novel was born in 1972 with the publication of The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss. The Flower and the Flame was an historical romance, but it paved the way for all future romance genres because it was the first to describe sex scenes in explicit detail. Prior to The Flame and the Flower, much of historical romance was in the vein of Georgette Hayer. 

Hayer was a successful early 20th century British novelist who built an empire on Austen-influenced novels set in the Regency era. In recent years Hayer has been criticized for anti-semitism and whitewashing 19th century London. Yet today, most Regency romance novels still follow the “Hayerverse” conventions: white, aristocratic characters living in a London devoid of people of color. The white, virginal characters that were popularized in Regency novels carried over into many other historical subgenres (Western, Medieval, Antebellum South, Victorian, etc.) throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. There have been outliers of course such as Beverly Jenkins, but overall, the mainstream historical romance community has remained white, white, white. 

What about contemporary romance? Honestly, it’s a lot of the same. Sadly, people of color have been relegated to the sidelines in all romance genres for a long time. Why? Basically, because the publishing industry is mostly white. According to the 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey by Lee & Low Books, 76% of respondents were white, 74% were cis women, 81% were heterosexual, and 89% were non-disabled. While this survey does not account for every individual currently working in the publishing industry, it does provide us with a clear picture of what the industry looks like at a glance. 

I’m not here to cast aspersions on the publishing industry, but rather point out an endemic issue that many within the industry are aware of and, happily, are working to fix. However, it’s no small task to fit a century of underrepresentation into current and future publishing schedules. The fact is, that while mainstream publishing has fallen short for decades when it comes to representation, self-publishing has made it easier for marginalized voices to share their own voices with audiences. Authors such as Kennedy Ryan and Courtney Milan have had major success without the help of a publishing house.  

Major publishers are starting to see the light and more authors of color are starting to see success in Romancelandia. Before their scandal in December of 2019, the RWA had made strides in recognizing people of color with their RITA© Awards–the highest award of distinction in romance fiction. In 2018, Latinx romance novelist Alexis Daria won the RITA© Award for Best First Book for her debut Take the Lead and in 2019, Kennedy Ryan became the first African American writer to win the RITA© Award for Contemporary Romance for her novel Long Shot.

I am not a woman of color. However, some of my favorite romances were written by women of color. If you love romance and haven’t read a book by Beverly Jenkins, rectify that mistake now. I read my first Beverly Jenkins novel at the age of 15 and was staggered by the richness of her worldbuilding and attention to detail, and I challenge you to find an historical romance author whose work is more heavily researched than hers. My favorite book by Jenkins is Forbidden. It’s positively swoon worthy and the heroine, Eddy, is who I want to be when I grow up. 

Here are some of my favorite romances by authors of color:

Please do yourselves a favor and check them out. We need these voices to be heard. We need these stories in our lives. We need good romance for everyone.