The Color of Love: Why We Need More Diversity in Romantic Literature

The issue of diversity in filmmaking and television has recently received a lot of attention. However, the underrepresentation of minorities and the lack of diversity is not just a problem in Hollywood but also in the Romance genre. One of the reasons I chose to write Romance, aside from empowering female characters,(1) was to bring color to the pages. My leading male characters have included a pair of Cuban-American brothers, a Brazilian billionaire and a South Asian business executive, while my leading women have included a mixed-race, Anglo-South Asian entrepreneur and a young Brazilian college student. They are each smart, sexy, talented, and in sharp contrast to Mr. Grey, colorful characters.

Bringing diversity to the genre holds special meaning for me because I’m the product of a biracial marriage (Filipina-Caucasian in my case). After all, romance is about love, not the color of one’s skin, and it is a beautiful thing to be able to capture interracial and multiethnic romances that can be incredibly passionate and complex. More than that, I firmly believe in the power of narratives to influence thought and bring about social change.

Romance, one of the best-selling genres in literature, can be yet another vehicle through which to tackle the highly charged issues of race and prejudice in our society. If we can create compelling interracial and multicultural romances in which love transcends, then perhaps it can open readers’ minds to different experiences and possibilities in how we choose to relate to one another.

My desire to bring color to the pages also comes from a childhood in which I lacked diverse role models in the children’s books that I read from Madeleine to Nancy Drew and on television shows from Dallas to the Brady Bunch (in my case reruns). On the pages, as well as on the screen, the lens through which I viewed society was invariably a “white” one. It’s this societal lens that has the insidious effect of negating the “other” while, subliminally, if not overtly, promoting conformity with the prevailing societal norms established by the majority. As the influential author and social activist James Baldwin wrote, “The American idea of racial progress is measured by how fast I become white.” By creating smart, sexy leading men and women of color in my stories, I wanted to establish them as characters in their own right — not just token minorities that serve as comic relief or exotic sidekicks — and to give them a strong voice and identity that has been lacking in the past.

As in Hollywood, the challenge of increasing diversity in Romance, both in terms of the number of diverse writers as well as characters, is a difficult one. In the 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, the authors concede that “there’s no magic bullet for Hollywood’s race and gender problem” and that “[i]t’s a multi-dimensional problem that requires innovative interventions on every front.”(2) Similarly, in the case of literature, the problem needs to be approached from all angles.

First is the issue of supply. With the advent of the various self-publishing platforms, most notably Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and iBooks, authors across all genres are now able to put their work out there for the world to read, bypassing the institutional barriers represented by literary agencies and publishing houses. And, unlike the cost of filmmaking, which can be prohibitive, the cost of self-publishing is for the most part negligible — leaving aside the marketing expenses. Now, more than ever, with these opportunities available, we need Romance authors to create and disseminate interracial and multicultural romance stories.

But it’s more than just increasing the number of writers of color. While I acknowledge that my own diversity as well as my experiences living abroad have hugely influenced my writing and my ability to give life to diverse characters, the beauty of writing lies in the fact that we are only limited by our imagination in terms of the stories that we can conceive. Of course, there’s the issue of authenticity to overcome and the serious risk of fetishizing the “other” (e.g., hot Latin lovers, well-endowed black men, or servile Asian women) but the talented author, whether diverse or not, need only tap into the essence that is romance, namely love, regardless of the fictional characters’ race or ethnicity.

That said, there’s the commercial reality of writing — at least for those of us trying to make a living in this profession — and an author sometimes feels constrained to write what she or he thinks will sell. Therein lies the challenge on the demand side, since it seems all that sells these days is “white” romance. Think 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight (I’m not counting vampires as a minority) or the many others that are currently on the bestseller list in Romance and women’s fiction. In fact, if you look across the covers of Romance books available on Amazon, you’ll see predominantly half-naked white men and women. We can hope that this will change over time with the nation’s changing demographics as minorities become a larger percentage of the population.(3) Here, however, is where the problem is perhaps more complex than in Hollywood in that the consumption of books is more tied to education than the consumption of film or TV. So, as with many of the challenges facing minorities, part of the solution starts with increased access to quality education and developing a generation of readers.

In the end, however, it’s not just about selling stories with minority characters to minority readers. It’s about opening up the minds of all readers to a world in which love — not race — matters, and in which the love story empowers people of difference races and ethnicities and gives a voice to their experiences. If we can imagine these relationships through fictional stories, then perhaps one day they’ll become a reality in a truly colorblind world.

Vivian Winslow is the pen name for Elizabeth A. Hayes. She is the author of The Gilded Flower Trilogies and the Wildflowers Series, contemporary, inclusive romance fiction with a strong female narrative. In addition to writing, Elizabeth is a spirtual teacher and healer.

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1 See my article, “Moving Beyond 50 Shades: Empowering Women in Erotic Fiction” (https://medium.com/@VivWinslow/moving-beyond-50-shades-empowering-women-in-erotic-fiction-581ef8d31250).
2 See 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report: Flipping the Script published by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. (http://www.bunchecenter.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/2015-Hollywood-Diversity-Report-2-25-15.pdf).
3 The 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report notes that “evidence . . . shows clearly that America’s increasingly diverse audiences prefer diverse content created with the input of diverse talent.”