Race, Romance and Representation

Having lived for six years each in New York City and London, I thought I was no stranger to diverse, urban environments. But when I moved to Johannesburg, South Africa almost seven months ago, race became a whole new – and much more significant – conversation. For the first time in my life I’m in the racial minority, yet my white skin broadcasts more privilege than it ever has before.

What "Big Brother" looks like in South Africa

What “Big Brother” looks like in South Africa

The in-your-face racial dynamics in South Africa have made me give new and weightier consideration to my responsibility as an author to represent diversity in my novels. I’ve always deliberately included POC characters in my novels: in my debut The Striker’s Chance the soccer-playing hero is close with a black teammate; my romantic suspense Secure Target sees a white Afrikaans-speaking cop looking up to his older, wiser, Xhosa partner; and in my upcoming Carina Press release Love in Straight Sets the hero runs into his black ex-girlfriend. The world isn’t all white, and so it’s important to me that the people in my books aren’t either. But does strictly casting POCs as secondary characters do more harm than good? When does “secondary” become “token”?

The last thing I want to do when I introduce secondary POC characters is to latch on to the “black best friend” trope. At the same time, however, as a white writer I would never consider writing a POC as a main character. I don’t inhabit that specific life experience, so don’t feel I could ever bring authenticity to that fictional point of view. That may sound silly considering I’ve “inhabited” characters ranging from a professional tennis player to a woman on the run from a serial killer, but race strikes me as a unique, complex set of experiences that I wouldn’t dare try to interpret.

So, faithful readers, what do you think? As a white writer, do I cheapen the presence of POC characters by perpetually giving them a peripheral role? Or is secondary visibility better than none?


Race, Romance and Representation — 11 Comments

  1. A good question, and one I’m anxious to hear answers to. I don’t have any to offer, although the black people in my stories (and in my life) aren’t “token” in any way–they’re just people I know.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Liz! I would imaging a lot of writers feel the same way. They don’t consciously register their friends’ races in real life, and that transfers to their characters.

      I’m not one of those writers who has characters insisting upon themselves in her imagination – they’re all very deliberate, conscious choices. That particular way of writing almost certainly makes me extra sensitive to these kinds of details, and is an interesting reminder that every writer is awfully different. :-)

  2. Fascinating questions, Rebecca.

    The story I’m currently working on has a mixed race hero who feels he doesn’t belong on either side of the race divide. I’ve loved writing his story but I am nervous since I’m a white woman and this is very far outside anything I’ve experienced. But I’m doing it anyway and I guess the readers will let me know whether I get it right or not!

    PS: and welcome again to South Africa.

    • Thanks for commenting, Romy! Writing a mixed-race hero is so brave and admirable, and as much as I wouldn’t rate myself capable of doing the same (not yet, anyway), I also feel super confident that he’ll be outstandingly portrayed in your hands. :-)

  3. A very thought provoking question, Rebecca. I’ve wondered myself. What do I as a middle-aged, middle class white woman know about the lives of people of color, or people from other cultures?

    But as writers isn’t our job to inhabit the lives of other people, to imagine what it feels like to be them? I believe that with research and empathy and respect it can be done well.

    • I think you hit the nail on the head by identifying the need for empathy and respect, Jana. As long as characters of color are being included with consideration for their unique experience and not because their ethnic background is “exotic”, I totally believe white authors can successfully portray non-white characters. I’d love to gain enough confidence in my writing to try it myself one day. :-)

  4. Excellent post, Rebecca! As a POC author my stories always include diversity, not as a message, simply as a fact. For me, that doesn’t always mean that the hero and heroine’s skin color reflects mine. However, it does mean that a variety of ethnicities are represented in the story. I do write characters of other races–both as secondary and main characters. If you can write a character of another race well enough to authentically reflect a meaningful secondary character, writing a POC main character isn’t a huge stretch.

    Another issue that is part of this conversation of diversity is opening doors for POC authors and books with POC main characters to be marketed more broadly than they are currently. Thanks again for an excellent topic, Rebecca.

    • Reese, you raise such an essential point about what often feels like the ‘othering’ of multicultural romance. I’ve never worked in marketing, and while I understand that such niche categorization might help connect the books to the readers looking specifically for POC main characters, it does feel to me like it narrows the potential audience.

  5. Interesting post, Rebecca. Glad to hear you’re so mindful when you write. You are a sensitive writer as I can tell from your books. I have always been nervous to write POC myself even when considering a South African print publisher who only publishes those types of books. I just didn’t feel I knew enough about the culture even though I live in South Africa. My book coming out in September has a mixed race heroine (Zambian actually) and that was a very scary step for me. I do feel better having sent it to a mixed-race Zambian friend to read through. Even though she’s not a writer, just to have her check that it’s all right makes me feel better. Maybe a beta read of the specific race you’ve written from would help.

  6. As a white woman, I’ve struggled with the same issue. I’ve featured diverse characters in secondary roles, and have had a mixed-race main character, but most of my heroes are white — as are most in the m/m romance genre. Since I write about gay men and I’m not one, I realized I was just letting fear of getting it wrong hold me back from writing about more diverse characters. So in my new book I wrote about a South Asian hero, and really it was no different than writing about any of my characters. His ethnicity was just another facet of him. My best friend is from India, and I was sure to double check the details with her. As long as we do the research, I see no problem in authors writing about characters of a different race (or gender, for that matter). Why should it be any different than writing about any experience that’s not our own? If I only wrote about my own life my books would be exceptionally boring! That’s my two cents, anyway. :)

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