Tuesday, March 21, 2023

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Colorblind Lesbian Romance: Good Intentions, Unrealistic Stories

I read a lot of lesbian books. Lesfic is my go-to genre, my favorite way of unwinding. My shelves are stacked with books from Ylva, Bold Strokes, Bella, and a growing number of indies. The rise of small publishers and self-publishing have been a gamechanger, allowing more lesbian stories than ever before to reach readers. But – much as I love lesfic – I’m not blind to its faults. Lesfic is extremely white.

That’s not unique to the genre. Just 11 percent of novels released in 2018 were written by people of color. Eighty-nine percent were by white authors. Little has changed since then. Women of color are underrepresented across the publishing industry. And this create problems in terms of which lesbian stories are told. And which lesbian stories are not.

Some white lesfic authors have made an effort to include women of color in their books, both as protagonists and love interests. And their intentions are good. This is a step in the right direction. After all, what does it say if people’s romantic fantasies revolve around all-white worlds? I’m glad they’re showing the full diversity of lesbian community.

That being said, there are still problems in how white writers depict Black, Asian, and Indigenous characters. Almost all of these stories are colorblind; a character’s race is mentioned in the description of her appearance, but it has no bearing on the story or how she is characterized. And this is completely unconvincing.

Race is a social dynamic. It shapes how we’re perceived and treated by others. For the majority of Black, Asian, and Indigenous women, racism negatively affects our life experiences. In the UK, 75 percent of women of color have reported experiencing racism at work. As our personalities and beliefs are shaped by experiences, colorblind characterization just doesn’t ring true.

Knowing that you might be discriminated against at any moment changes your relationship with public space. Lesbians from all backgrounds understand that from personal experience. It’s why two thirds of lesbian, gay, and bi people feel uncomfortable holding hands with a same-sex partner. Characters in lesfic novels routinely have to do battle with homophobia. So, why not extend that same awareness to race?

Not long ago I read a short story by one of Britain’s most popular lesfic writers. I’m not going to name her, because she did something kind by giving this story away free during the coronavirus pandemic. Besides, this problem is bigger than any one person.

Her story is one of many, but it typifies the problem with colorblindness. The plot revolved around two exes who moved in together during lockdown. A second chance, interracial lesbian romance. One character was Black, the other white. But they were indistinguishable from one another. And not once did either one of them acknowledge how race affected their relationship. In fact, the story ignored race altogether.

Reading that story as a Black woman, I was astounded. In all of my significant relationships with white women, whether they’re lovers or friends, we talk about race. We acknowledge how it affects my experience of the relationship, and the wider world. And together we discuss how to address racism if it manifests between us. It’s the white women who put conscious thought into negotiating the issue of race that I feel safest with, that take up permanent residence in the chambers of my heart.

And – just once – I would love to see any of this depicted by a white lesfic author. After all, the care and emotional intimacy of those conversations would be right at home in a romance novel. Building that trust could lead to swoon-worthy scenes.

Going back to that story, there was a scene where one character did the other’s hair. It would have been the perfect moment to slip in a mention of natural haircare, or acknowledge all the cultural baggage loaded onto Black women’s hair by inquisitive white fingers. But the author chose not to.

In all the lesfic novels I’ve ever read, the characters invariably end up in bed together. That’s part of the fun with romance! But not once in all those pages have I seen a Black woman wrapping her hair or putting on a bonnet before bed. Going to bed without protecting your hair is, for many Black women, quite literally unthinkable. A little research would go a long way towards white lesfic authors creating believable Black characters, enabling them to add authentic details.

With Black, Asian, and Indigenous writers so underrepresented in lesfic, narratives created by white women are often the most visible depictions of our lives. And this shallow representation creates unrealistic perceptions in the minds of white readers. Perhaps they come away from these lesfic novels thinking colorblindness is the best approach to inter-racial dating, when it’s actually the least helpful.

These colorblind books also risks alienating lesbian and bisexual women of color from the genre. Why should we spend our time and money on books that offer unconvincing depictions of our lives? Lesfic is powerful because it provides meaningful representation that’s often lacking in mainstream media. But the genre is letting lesbians of color down.

Read the full article here

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