Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Color-Aware Interracial Romance: Nina Perez's SHARING SPACE

On Interracial Romance Books, a website where romance readers can purchase print and e-book copies of romance novels with love stories featuring heroes and heroines who are of different races, the site's title is followed by this tagline: "Where love is colorblind..." Visitors are, presumably, meant to view this tagline in a positive way—when it comes to falling love, the color of a potential partner's skin should not, and does not, matter. Romance can and does blossom across the once taboo line of race, and interracial romance novels celebrate this.

Often, though, the idea of being racially colorblind can have negative, not just positive, connotations. As Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs' article, "Colorblindness: The New Racism?" which appeared in the 2009 edition of Teaching Tolerance points out, the idea that ignoring or overlooking racial or ethnic differences in an effort to promote racial harmony more often has the opposite effect. Being colorblind more often simply allows people with racial privilege (in the United States, people of European ancestry) to ignore or pretend that their racial privilege does not in fact exist. As Randy Ross, a senior equity specialist at the New England Equity Assistance Center, a program of Brown's University Education Alliance, is quoted as noting, "I have never heard a teacher of color say 'I don't see color'.... The core of 'I don't see color,' is 'I don't see my own color, I don't see difference because my race and culture is the center of the universe.'"

Is the same true of interracial romances that embrace a colorblind approach to race? I've been wondering about this question as I've been making an effort to search out and read more romances by authors of color. Most of the interracial romances I've read do not suggest that a cross-race romance is or would be problematic in any way; few feature a character who questions or is unsettled by his or her attraction to a potential partner of a different race. This is likely a reflection of the fantasy aspect of romance as a genre, at least for readers of color: escaping the burden of having to think about the difficulties cross-race romance might entail in real life might be a large part of the pleasure in reading interracial romances.

Yet is there no room in the genre for romances that gesture toward, or even confront, the difficulties that interracial couples might face in our purportedly post-racial society? Not only from social and institutional prejudices and stereotypes, but also from the different kinds of privilege that those from different races have been, through their own upbringings, taught to expect from life and love? Are there romances out there that draw attention to disparities of privilege, even while they celebrate couples that work to negotiate relationships in spite of them?

Commenter sonomalass didn't know that I was thinking about these issues when, in response to my posting about ideology and good/bad writing she recommended I take a look at Nina Perez's romance, Sharing Space. But her recommendation hit just the right spot.

When I downloaded a copy and saw the novel's cover, though (actually, its multiple covers, as it was originally published as a serial in six parts), I wondered if I was in for another interracial romance with racial blinders firmly in place. But Perez's Author's Note suggested that something a little more complicated might lie between these digital pages: "I was in an interracial relationship with my now husband and wanted to write about the complexities of such a relationship, but also about all the humor and love of one" (305). Would it be possible to do both?

Perez's first-person dual-narrated romance opens with African-American Chloe telling us about her week from hell: not only did she discover her long-term boyfriend in bed with another woman, but her actress/roommate decamped for LA, leaving Chloe with only two weeks to either find a replacement or come up with a way to pay said roommate's half of the rent on their midtown Manhattan rent-controlled apartment. From the start, Chloe makes readers aware that she is aware that both personal and societal racism exist in her world. Chloe's best friend Myra, also black, tends to blame anything that goes wrong in her life on racism: "If she didn't get the repair appointment she wanted from the cable company, it must be because she's black. If a vacation request at work was denied, gotta be The Man! Menstrual cramps? Well, you know how those white folks do." (29) Though Chloe "could see her point sometimes. We were both shocked by some of the attitudes expressed openly during the presidential election" (29), Chloe herself prefers to believe that simple jealousy is the cause of her lack of popularity with her less achievement-oriented white co-workers at the marketing consulting agency where she and Myra both work. Although to Chloe, the reason doesn't really matter: "Lila [Chloe's boss] knew what it was like to work harder just to get the same rewards given so easily to male executives. She didn't let the inequality stop her from getting what she wanted, and recognized that I didn't, either" (5). Two black women with two different attitudes to racism makes for a refreshing change from romances that more often are blind to racism's continuing existence in American society.

Chloe's life becomes even more complicated when the only suitable tenant who responds to her ad is Pat Murphy, a white, and very male, actor from Long Island. Chloe has reservations about allowing Patrick to move in, and openly questions herself about whether those reservations stem from his sex or from his race. After talking the situation over with both Myra and with her cousin Crystal, though, Chloe decides to take a risk and invites Patrick to move in.

Patrick, interestingly, spends far less time worrying about Chloe's race, and far more time worrying about how attractive he finds her: "I was less surprised that she was black—I hadn't given any thought to the race of the person placing the ad—and more surprised to discover that she was so good looking. It was like when you go on a blind date you expect the worst, or when you're on the Internet and some girl tells you how hot she is when in real life she's overweight and bucktoothed" (37). As a white man, Patrick has the privilege of being colorblind, of assuming that racial differences shouldn't matter. They haven't mattered too much in his own life; why should they matter in anyone else's? After he moves in, Patrick thinks "a man would have to be deaf, dumb, blind, gay, and racist to not be interested in Chloe," revealing his own white-centric world view (would a black man have to be racist to not be interested?) (53).

Yet in spite of their different understandings about the presence and workings of racism in their world, Chloe and Patrick gradually develop a friendship, and eventually, a romantic relationship. Their sexual relationship progresses quickly, although Chloe does wonder if she's feeling some reluctance to actually sleep with him because "maybe deep down there was some apprehension about  having sex with a white guy" and humorously goes on to laugh at the sexual stereotypes blacks have about white men and those that whites have about black women (137-38).

Chloe and Patrick, though, never discuss race, even after Patrick invites Chloe out to Long Island for Thanksgiving, to meet with his extended Irish family. Chloe tells her mother that Patrick is white before introducing them, and is dismayed to discover that Patrick hasn't done the same. Patrick tells her "I told them what you do, and that you're great, and that we're involved. And I told them that I'm happy. What else do they need to know?" but in fact admits to himself that:

I wasn't being completely honest with Chloe. The thought of telling my parents that she was black had crossed my mind and I'd decided not to. Of course I wondered how they'd react to Chloe being black, but it seemed to me that mentioning it beforehand would be like admitting there was something wrong with it. (171)

Patrick has been caught in the racist undertow of racial colorblindness: You're not supposed to notice race, because if you do, race becomes a problem: it feels like "there [is] something wrong with it." In the race-blind paradigm, race becomes an embarrassment, rather than something to celebrate. And despite Patrick's disbelief that any of his relatives could react poorly to Chloe because of her race, not every member of Patrick's family can maintain the pretense that race does not matter.

Interestingly, though, the difficulties that temporary break Chloe and Patrick apart during the latter part of the novel do not stem from the problems of race-blindness that the text identifies. Instead, the more traditional romance-novel relationship-breakers of career ambition, family tragedy, and bitchy-girl jealousy take on the job. And it's not Patrick, but Chloe, who has to make the big gesture in order to ensure the relationship continues. Having brought the problems of race-blindness to the surface, does Perez then sweep them under the carpet to achieve her HEA? I'm curious to hear what other readers think...

On a related side note: of the heterosexual interracial romances that I've read that feature one character of African descent, that character is almost always the female half of the romantic couple. Intriguingly, this is precisely the opposite of real-life marriages in the United States between blacks and whites, according to the U.S. Census Bureau: In March of 2009, there were almost twice as many marriages between white women and black men as there were between black women and white men.

If romance was truly colorblind, would we not have an equal number of black hero/white heroine couples as we do white hero/black heroine couples? What does the prevalence of the black woman/white man romance tell us about the desires that current-day interracial romances fulfill for their readers?

Sharing Space:
The Complete Series
JK Press, 2014


  1. Great discussion and review as usual - just picked up the boxed set so I'll let you know what I think.

    1. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts, Joy.

  2. This is a very fascinatig view of a problem told from a very USA POV. As I don't know your society, I'll tell you about mine, in which certain trends are the same.
    In Europe, intermarriages are not studied from the point of view of 'race' or 'etnicity' but about people from different nations. I've read about a study made in 2012 by Italian sociologists and countries as Switzerland, or France are more open in this respect than Southern Europe countries.
    But the interesting thing is that you can find minorities in any society. And it looks that the same happens with those minorities: there are more heterosexual couples in which the man comes from the minority and the woman from the majority that the other way around...
    The major minority in Spain are the gypsies, and intermarriage is really not very frequent. A gypsy man could marry a non-gypsy woman, for instance, if she goes into her husband family and assumes their way of living. But a gypsy woman would not easily marry a non-gypsy man. In a study I've seen about a group of gypsies in Catalonia the ratio was 'gitano/paya -7-, payo/gitana-1-. This is the same phenomenon as US black and white: there are seven times more men from the minority marriying somebody from the majority than the other way around.
    What's the reason for this? I don't know. Perhaps it has to do with the role of the woman as the keeper of the group traditions. Or she will be seen as rejecting the family. Or perhaps it's something about men wanting to marry somebody they see as a kind of 'trophy wife'. I really don't know, but it will be very interesting to study.

    1. Bona:

      Yes, this book brings up lots of interesting issues, especially when you think about the issue not just from an American-centric perspective. How does one's national identity play into romantic choices? How does one's ethnic identity? Is it always the case that heterosexual marriages more often feature men from the "minority" or oppressed group(s) and women from the dominant group? We need a sociologist as well as a literary scholar on board to answer some of these questions!

  3. Fascinating comment on the European perspective, Bona, thanks for sharing.

    Re: the post, I don't think if racism doesn't break a couple up, it's being swept under the rug, it's just a fact of life (for now). I actually stopped by to rec The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin though since I promised to pass on feminist reads. I'm a third through and there are feminist convos! :D

    1. Thanks, Anonymous, for the rec. Just finished LOTUS PALACE, and I agree that it has plenty to consider from a feminist angle...

  4. I have to admit that I've wondered at the preponderance of BW/WM interracial romance in stores and in reviews.

    As you noted, the majority of black/white couples in the US (and, as far as I know, in Canada and the UK) consist of white women and black men, but relatively few romances feature that coupling. Is this because black women tend to write the majority of these romances and may (quite naturally) wish to see a woman like themselves in the heroine's place? Is it because many readers still refuse to see black men in a romantic role? Or is it some kind of marketing decision whose logic escapes me? In any case, it seems that the way that interracial romances are written does not necessarily reflect how they're lived.

    1. Thanks, Marie-Thérèse, for stopping by, and for sharing your ideas about why BW/WM pairings might be currently dominating interracial romance. I think all of three of the probabilities you pose play into the current trend, although I'd guess that #1 and #3 are more at play than #2 (at least, when the author is a woman of color). Re Marketing--I'm wondering if the assumption is that readers (primarily female) want/expect to read about heroines of the same race, so that women of color might shy away from a book with a white protagonist, even if the hero is of color.

      Personally, I enjoy reading about people from different backgrounds and with different experiences than I have, maybe even more than I enjoy reading about heroines with whom I can "relate." But perhaps I'm in the minority?

  5. Curiously, historical romance seems to have a higher proportion of WW/BM romance than contemporary. At least, off the top of my head, I can think of more. Of course, that doesn't say much as my sample may well be biased and incomplete ;-)

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  7. In response to the question regarding BW/WM romances vs. WW/BM romances, the answer is simply that the women who write the former are themselves involved or interested in these pairings. And of course, just as mainstream women do, writers put themselves in the position of the heroine. Since men rarely write romances (that I know of), WW/BM romances will probably increase when WW involved in these relationships begin to pen these books. Until then, there will be a dearth.

    As for race being an issue in IR romance, many of the writers and readers of IR romance are looking for the same escape as mainstream readers. Some stories do touch upon the issues race, but many do not. Readers have expressed an appreciation for not having race as the integral issue between the protagonists; they're looking for a good plot, fleshed out characterizations, some action and some romance (and maybe a little kink). Also some mainstream readers who avoid multicultural and/or IR stories claim that there avoidance is because THEY don't want to read about race issues, not giving any books a chance to entertain them.

    Last year, I wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune regarding the increase of BW/WM romance novels in response to a reader's question as to whether these stories are a "fad." Definitely not. There is an increase of BW/WM relationships/marriages, and the increase is reflected in the books that are being written.

    Interracial Romance Novels - Not a Fad

    1. correction: "there avoidance" should be "their avoidance"

    2. Thanks, Sharon, for stopping by, and for linking back to your Chicago Tribune article on interracial romances. How depressing to read that you've found:

      "On many romance message boards, readers have suggested that they cannot relate to female protagonists of other races - at least, not for their romantic fantasy reading."

      Is this true for readers of color, as well as for white readers, do you think? In the past, it was much more difficult to find romances featuring women of color, and so I'm guessing that women of color who enjoyed reading romance had to read across racial lines, identifying with white heroines. With the increase of romances featuring women of color in the wake of the rise of the e-book, though, such cross-race identification can be avoided. Do you think women of color are glad to leave white female protagonists behind, and read books about heroines with whom they can racially identify? Or because they've had a history of having to read across race, do you think women of color are more flexible about their heroine identification?

  8. Readers of color have no problem reading about white heroines because for so long that was all that was offered. But yes, as more books featuring woc come on the market, these same readers love to see themselves reflected in the story line. However, they still read books mostly based on the criteria of a good story told well, with believable plots and good characterization, despite the color of the hero/heroine. so there tends to more flexibility with readers of color. But because romance entails fantasy, some mainstream readers say that books featuring woc "interrupts" that fantasy for them, so obviously the "flexibility" tends to be one-sided. However, strangely exceptions seem to be made when the writer of a multicultural/IR story is white such as Suzanne Brochmann.

    Ask any romance writer of color the frustration of never achieving comparable sales numbers as mainstream writers because of this fact. However, it is encouraging that more review sites are at least attempting to review books by woc and that some readers have indicated that they will try to broaden their tbr piles.

  9. I read this and all I can think is that you’ve missed the point of intersectionality. I gave you the benefit of the doubt after your previous post complaining about the writing found in those few multicultural titles you read that raised what you recognized as feminist concerns, hoping that you would then blog about a novel whose leads were both characters of color or if you chose to write about an interracial romance that you would use a more nuanced approach.

    It was a mistake on your part not to write a post about books by authors of color with characters of color that you didn’t think were feminist in nature. In the absence of such a post, it looks like the only multicultural books you read were ones you considered inferior artistically, which comes across as terribly condescending, and inviting outside perspectives by blogging about your perception that the books you read that were up to snuff artistically weren’t feminist could lead to input showing in what way those books reflect other concerns that trump what you recognize as feminist or which recast feminism in a way that’s unfamiliar to you.

    Olivia Waite’s <a href="http://www.oliviawaite.com/blog/2014/04/b-is-for-beverly-jenkins/”>recent blog post on several of Beverly Jenkins’ novels</a> as part of a series of posts devoted to intersectional feminism A to Z is an excellent example. She doesn’t spare Ms. Jenkins regarding the regressive nature of her novels’ portrayal of male and female roles, but she also acknowledges how this stems from the historic problems caused by the marginalization of the Black community, particularly its men.

    Your pedagogical tone here makes it seem as if you were writing from a position of authority when you’re not. (Actually, that’s a general problem I have with your posts; the content is very much based on your personal reactions to the text, but the way you write makes it seem like your reaction is authoritative and informed by scholarship.) This is not your lived experience (at least I know of no facts that suggests that it is), so your speculation about what it’s like to be in an interracial relationship and what that means (or should mean) to those involved is uninformed. You don’t discuss the racial fetishizing implications of Richard thinking that Chloe’s hot or of any other aspect of the novel. What are the sexual stereotypes blacks have about whites and vice versa? What about the place of culture? Why do you highlight Myra’s disdain for white people and nothing else? Why does it matter that the characters are conscious of race, and why would the characters who are engaged in an interracial relationship be the ones who are iffy about it? (to be continued)

    1. Hi, Lawless:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, and in such detail, on a post that clearly made you so very angry. I appreciate your willingness to engage, rather than to just turn away in frustration.

      You open your comment with the idea that I've "missed the point of intersectionality." What is the point of intersectionality, in your opinion? In the opinion of the critics you read and respect? In what ways do you think I've missed it?

      I'm intrigued by your suggestion that I blog about a romance with characters of color that I don't consider feminist, and invite commentary from other readers that might "recast feminism in a way that is not familiar to [me]." Would you be interested in crafting a joint blog post here, with me, on such a topic? What book would you choose?

      Thanks for the pointer to the Olivia Waite review of Beverly Jenkins' DESTINY'S EMBRACE. I read it (Jenkins' novel), as well, and found myself disappointed with it in many of the same ways that Waite did. Since I try to blog here at RNFF about books that I'd recommend to fellow feminists, rather than diss ones I wouldn't, I chose not to blog about it.

      You take issue with the tone of my writing, specifically as it relates to issues of authority. I shouldn't write with this tone, you feel, because "this is not your lived experience"; this is "your personal reaction"; and this is "not informed by scholarship." Can we only write about our own lived experience? What counts as scholarship? What grants a writer authority?

      I speculate, rather than declare, because I AM uninformed, at least on a personal level; I don't personally know what its like to be in an interracial relationship. But I can think about it, especially when the book I'm reading asks me to, and bring up questions that a text raises for me. My questions aren't going to be the same as your questions, no doubt. But does that make them not worth asking?

      My post doesn't discuss the fetishizing of Chloe (by Max, did you mean? Or do you think that her first boyfriend does it, too?), nor does it discuss the sexual stereotypes races have of one another. How do you think addressing these issues would inform/change/contradict the argument of this post?

      Why does it matter that the characters are conscious of race? My post argues that NOT being conscious of race, being "colorblind," can in fact be a type of racism, a racism that I see Patrick engaging in. Not out of cruelty or intention to harm, but rather out of good intentions. That's why I think it matters. Do you think the phenomenon of colorblindness is not a manifestation of racism?

  10. In addition to my disappointment that you chose to write about an interracial romance rather than one between two PoC (it smacks of fear that you couldn’t relate to two PoC characters and were dipping your toe in the pool of African-American romance), your speculation about the reasons for the prominence of BWWM in romance at rates exceeding that within the population at large skips over any consideration of the intended audience for interracial romances – are they aimed solely at Black women, or are they meant to generate crossover appeal to white women? – and any nuanced consideration of the intersection of race and gender, particularly the rampant fetishization , stereotyping, and emasculation of Black men that has taken place ever since the first African slave set foot on American soil. (Don’t even get me started with stereotypes about Asian men, which are irrelevant here anyway because none of the characters are Asian.) Other than maybe a sentence or two, that whole section has nothing to do with intersectionality, and its inclusion reinforces the impression that you are bringing your own perceptions to the table rather than analysis. Otherwise you would have recognized that whites have all the power, and thus to speak of those of different races experiencing privilege from life and love as if that were interchangeable for everyone is either a mistake or a serious misstatement.

    For an examination of the same text that does things right by taking the whole text seriously and addressing the issues raised by it, see this review by Ridley at Love in the Margins. Your examination of the book does not make me want to read it, but Ridley’s does. For more comments on what was missing here, see this Love in the Margins post that links to and characterizes this review as an example of white feminism writ large.

    If you want to do better, read the archives of Love in the Margins, all of Olivia Waite’s posts on intersectionality, and these posts from SFF review Strange Horizons about reviewing books outside one’s own culture or lived experience -- Nishi Shawl’s Reviewing the Other, Samuel R. Delany’s Escaping Ethnocentricity? (which concludes that escaping ethnocentricity is impossible), and a roundtable discussion about the topic -- before writing another post about multicultural romance. Also do more research, particularly on the internet, when you’re tackling a specific book or topic about which you know little. Maybe the author has written more about why she wrote a book; maybe someone who has the requisite background or life experience has written about the issues a book raises. Do not limit yourself to scholarly books by people whose background may well be the same as yours or what comes up first on an internet search.

    I had been looking forward to seeing you tackle Jeannie Lin’s The Lotus Palace, which is my favorite of the romances published in 2013 (though I didn’t read it until this year) and at the top of my list of feminist romances published in 2013, but you missed the mark so badly here I’m not sure I even want you to discuss it.

  11. Lawless:

    More thoughts in response to yours:

    You write that my "speculation about the reasons for the prominence of BWWM in romance at rates exceeding that within the population at large" is lacking. I don't think I made any speculations; I asked QUESTIONS, hoping that they would lead to a larger conversation on the topic, a topic about which I'm not that knowledgeable.

    Conversations about issues of audience (are IR books aimed primarily at readers of color? Or are they trying to reach white readers AND readers of color? Does their level of "colorblindness" go up or down depending on a particular book's answer to the above? On a publisher's answer to the above?)

    And conversations about the rampant fetishization, stereotyping, and emasculation of black men by American culture-- does it make the very possibility of a black hero/white heroine combination unthinkable? Does the fear of black men this cultural denigration engenders make such books unmarketable to white audiences? Does it affect black readers, as well as white ones? Does the U.S.'s current-day racist practice of incarcerating black males at much higher rates than white males, and the subsequent population imbalance between black males and females, make black readers unlikely to want to engage with an IR romance in which a white woman is the one who ends up with a black man?

    You write that "whites have all the power, and thus to speak of those of different races experiencing privilege from life and love as if that were interchangeable for everyone is either a mistake or a serious misstatement." I don't think I argued that privilege is interchangeable for everyone; my post was focusing on the white privilege Patrick practices, the privilege of being able to be colorblind when it comes to race. Contrast that to the far more frequent consideration of race that Chloe and her friends and family engage with in the novel; Chloe and other characters of color do not have the privilege of being colorblind.

    Thanks for the links to articles on reviewing outside one's culture; I'm looking forward to reading them.

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