Color-blind Romance

By Poison Ivy,

Several months ago, someone praised us on this blog for publishing romances between characters who are not merely blandly typical white Americans. The praise was a little more than we deserve, perhaps. We haven’t gone out of our way to produce edgy romantic pairings, for instance. But it’s true that we’ve featured a number of romances with African-American lead characters, not all of whom are Denzel Washington or Halle Berry physical types with white facial features (“Love Potion II,” “Love’s Redemption”).We’ve also done a story with Asian-American characters (“Beloved Rivals”). We’ve even done a story with Asian-Canadian characters, “Trust in Me.” (I’m not claiming any credit for our romances between Americans and foreign nationals, such as “Broken Enchantment,” since those already are common in all romances.) Race and ethnicity have not been major issues in these stories, just facts like other physical details. Although they could have been. But men and women in love have pretty much the same feelings no matter what they look like or where they hail from. And they always have plenty of potential for conflict without bringing race or ethnicity into it.

Last night, when Barack Obama accepted the Democratic presidential nomination, I watched his speech and thought, “This guy thinks he can make this country’s future better.” It was a good speech and it left me with a hopeful feeling. Only later, when other people commented on the historic nature of an African-American man being nominated to run for president by a major national political party, did I think about how much the country has changed. Growing up in an international city like Washington, DC, and then living in New York City for a decade, with its massively diverse racial and ethnic population, has made me comfortable with differentness in a way that many others in America perhaps still are not. Hence my concentration on Barack Obama’s message rather than on who he is historically. Yet, things have changed.

Today, we have another historic nomination: John McCain has chosen a woman governor, Sarah Palin, to be his vice presidential running mate. This is the first time a woman has had this role in the Republican party. And considering Senator McCain’s age versus her age (72 to 44), it’s proof that an old dog can learn new tricks. Which is good news for our country, because it means we don’t have to stay mired in out-dated attitudes that don’t serve our nation well.

And there is even better news about the younger generations who will eventually dominate this country. More and more, people’s outlooks are not so dependent on where they were born and into what social setting. This is another byproduct of the Internet, of course. The Way We’ll Be, a new book by John Zogby, details the results of extensive surveys from all ages and demographic groups. He specifically cites 18- to 29-year-olds as “the most outward-looking and accepting generation in American history.” That’s what we need, what he calls “the first color-blind Americans.”

What all this has to do with romance is simple enough. There was a time when most of the romances published in this country were written by white citizens of the British Commonwealth. There was plenty of racial and ethnic bias in those books, mostly implicit rather than explicit. (And there still is. How else can an entire story take place in Africa but feature only white people?) Then American authors took back romance. Uniquely American situations and solutions began to permeate romance. These included men being willing to change jobs to accommodate the careers of the women they loved (Jayne Krentz’s innovation), open discussion of sexuality and of female sexual response (fewer deflowerings and more women who knew what they wanted in bed), and stories about women who survived sexual abuse (rape survivors, spousal abuse victims who escaped, and more). We also started to see, slowly, stories about characters of mixed ethnic background. Yes, stories about American Indians, but modern ones, about reality-based conflicts. And we began to read about Italian-American and Latino characters with strong family ties and their struggles to honor such ties even as they fell in love with people of different ethnic backgrounds. And we saw entire publishing programs of romances written by African-American writers about African-American characters. Of all sorts of types and backgrounds. Asian characters have very slowly crossed into romances, too. Gay and lesbian characters are finally beginning to show up, although mostly as secondary characters so far.

Epublishing has opened the doors to stories that conventional publishers seldom have dared take a risk on in the past and still are hesitant about today. Since the young generation is the most Internet linked, it’s not surprising that we’re seeing the edgy plots and situations from online publications. The audience is out there, and it is color blind.

Even though we don’t have a truly color-blind society yet, our recent political events are clearly signaling that we are heading in that direction. Fiction mirrors that fact. In our story, “Trust in Me,” there’s obviously some racial difference between the hero and the heroine, and nobody notices. It’s just there, a non-issue. I think that’s what color-blind romances should be. Stories in which the differences make no difference. We will be nominating more African-Americans and more women in presidential campaigns. And we will be writing more color-blind romances. Good for us.