Race, ethnicity, and whiteness

Publication year

From the introduction to the volume:

Erin S. Young’s chapter on “Race, ethnicity, and whiteness” (Chapter 23) begins with a review of the romance scholarship analyzing and critiquing representations of race, blackness, and whiteness in romance fiction. Young observes that extant studies emphasize the role of romance in shoring up white privilege and supremacy, before navigating her way through the fraught problem of how non-white characters and cultures have often been caricatured and (mis)represented in the genre. Romance, she notes, has a race problem. However, this is not only a problem of misrepresentation, but a problem of racial politics as well, evident in the debates over Black authors who feature the “taboo” of Black/White interracial romance. Young’s chapter ends with a summary of current concerns among academics working in this field, as well as an optimistic hope that representations of racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in romance novels are improving because readers are demanding change, as shown in the conversations taking place among the romance community in online venues. (18-19)


romance writers and readers share a particular set of assumptions and expectations about the novels—and about romantic love—that enable the effective utilization of coded language, images, and descriptions: “[The fictional world of romance] is an active, dynamic realm of conflict and resolution, evil and goodness, darkness and light, heroes and heroines, and it is a familiar world in which the roads are well-traveled and the rules are clear” (Barlow and Krentz 15–16, emphasis mine). A significant number of the authors’ examples deal with the contrasts of “darkness” and “light.” Heroines are light, and heroes are dark; the authors note that by the romance novel’s conclusion, “[The heroine] has succeeded in shining light into the darkness surrounding the hero” (Barlow and Krentz 20). Barlow and Krentz argue that readers understand such tensions—hero/heroine, darkness/light—as part of “a time-honored tradition” of storytelling that goes back to ancient mythology.

But—and here, I get to my second and more important point—whose mythology? Barlow and Krentz’s examples are entirely Western, ranging “from ancient Greece to Celtic Britain to the American West” (16). And more importantly, whose shared assumptions? [...] The symbolic language and imagery are cornerstones of the genre, but they are also, as many scholars have noted, heavily racialized. Further, popular romance fiction is particularly sparse in its representation of non-white characters in general, and of non-stereotypical representations specifically. Popular romance, in sum, has a race problem. As this chapter will demonstrate, many authors, scholars, and fan communities are making major strides in combating the problem. However, much more work is needed from scholars (both academic and para-academic) to address the genre’s racial gaps and to explore the more inclusive romance fiction that began to proliferate in the twenty-first century, as well as to denaturalize the constructed cultural narrative of whiteness. Although historically white, popular romance novels have gained significant diversity in authorship, readership, content, and publishing over the last few decades. (511-512)


The final section of this chapter discusses a Smart Bitches Trashy Books review of Mary Balogh's Someone to Love. In it, Balogh was criticised for her depiction of a "nameless 'Chinese gentleman'" (524). The review elicited defences of Balogh, counter-arguments from those who repudiated claims about historical accuracy etc, a reponse from Balogh herself, and an intervention by Courtney Milan.