Go to the romance section of a bookstore and browse the shelves. How many romance novels show white couples on the cover? Chances are, all of them.
The lack of cultural and racial diversity isn’t just on the cover art or between the pages. The Romance Writers of America (RWA) gives out the RITA awards every year to honor excellence in published romance. In 2018, NPR.org reported that no black author has won the award in the RWA’s 36-year history. “According to the RWA’s own research, black authors have written less than half of 1 percent of the total number of books considered as prize finalists.”
RWA admitted that black authors underrepresented as finalists was “a serious issue that needed to be addressed.” In a later press release that year, the nonprofit trade association of more than 9,000 members said “diversity and inclusion were paramount concerns” for the organization.
Yet a year later, no authors from a minority or marginalized group were represented in the list of 2019 RITA finalists. The RWA released a statement apologizing for putting the authors “in a position where they feel unwanted and unheard.”
The state of racial diversity in romance publishing
Despite the awareness about the lack of diversity and the sense of urgency to make improvements, there has been a decline of authors of color in published romance fiction. The Ripped Bodice bookstore conducts The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report. In their 2018 study, they discovered that “for every 100 books published by the leading romance publishers in 2018, only 7.7 were written by people of color.” Or as the report mentioned in bold letters: “There has been zero progress in the last 3 years.”
Why hasn’t there been progress?
Perhaps the romance fiction industry feels that showing awareness is enough. Throughout my writing career, almost all of the writers attending romance fiction conferences are white straight cisgender women. The editors and “gatekeepers” are usually white women and the librarians who acquire romances for their patrons are most likely to be white females. Attend an annual RWA conference where all the industry professionals come together and it would be hard to argue that the lack of diversity doesn’t have a strong influence on the decision making in romance publishing.
How does a primarily white industry affect your book purchasing?
In the Diversity Summit held by the RWA at the 2018 conference, publishers pointed out that the “retailer shelving practices” was a major obstacle and prevented diverse authors from being discovered by readers. In other words, African-American and LGBTQ+ romances are often shelved in other areas of the store and romance readers don’t see them.
Why should the lack of diversity matter to you, the reader?
The Romantic Novelist Association (RNA) in the United Kingdom says romantic fiction “can reflect our own relationships back to us, and challenge our pre-conceptions about what love looks like.” If romance fiction is only offering the first part of that promise then readers are missing out on the full potential of the genre.
The lack of diversity also decides which stories are told and shared. Romance books with underrepresented characters are not reaching romance readers. Since this affect sales numbers, publishers drop the authors and romance series for financial reasons. For example, Harlequin Kimani had been the category romance line that required a Black heroine. Kimani was one of the lines Harlequin closed because of “changes in the retail landscape and readership preferences”. Some writers argued the books had been segregated from other lines. Kimani authors felt they had received “separate and unequal treatment by the publisher” in terms of marketing and promotion.
Has the average romance reader noticed the lack of diversity in their stories?
It’s hard to give a definitive answer. The RWA commissioned a report in 2017 and found that 73% of romance readers are white compared to 12% black/African-American, 7% Latino/Hispanic and 4% Asian/Asian American romance readers.
Which leads to the questions: Are there more white readers because they’re represented more in romance fiction? And do readers from different backgrounds ignore the genre because they don’t feel included?
How is diversity represented in romance fiction?
I wanted to know how cultural diversity is shown in a white female industry. To see how ancestry groups (the term used in the United States census survey) are represented in contemporary romance novels, I decided to look at the surnames of the main characters in a category romance line. This is what I found:
- The ethnic and cultural diversity in romance stories doesn’t accurately reflect the world we live in.
- The majority of romance heroes and heroines in contemporary romance novels are of white British descent.
The methodology used
While someone’s last name doesn’t necessarily indicate a person’s ethnicity or cultural background, it is one of the easier identifiers in fiction. For example, readers assume that a character with the last name Standing Bear has Native American ancestry. Tracking surnames found in story descriptions allows a consistent method of research.
I looked at the main characters’ surnames in Harlequin Desire. This category romance line publishes contemporary romances set in the United States of America and the publishing offices that acquire the stories are based in New York City. The writing guidelines say the romances offer “a window into the world of the American elite.”
Does this “all-American” romance line accurately reflect the biggest ancestry groups in the country? Or does it mirror an overwhelmingly white romance fiction industry?
The Most Common Surnames
I looked at 2,889 Harlequin Desires available on the Harlequin.com Web site and they were published from the 1990s to June 2019. Taking the information found on the back cover copy of the books, the most commonly used surnames in Harlequin Desire are:
- Baron / Barone / Barron
- Smith / Smythe
- Elliot / Elliott
- Connelly / Connolly
In this top 10 list, 6 surnames are English, 3 are Scottish and 1 is Irish. However, the biggest ancestry group in the United States is not British. It’s actually German.
**The Westmoreland surname is exclusively used in Brenda Jackson‘s work and the main characters are African-American.
German ancestry group
- 14.7% of U.S. residents self-identify as German ethnic origin and it’s the largest ancestry group in the United States. (This reflects the Midwestern area where I grew up. There were more Schmidts and Muellers than Smiths and Millers.)
- In contrast, only 1.5% of the Harlequin Desire heroes and heroines had a German surname.
Black or African-American ancestry group
- The second biggest ancestry group is Black or African-American. They comprise 12.3% of the American population but I couldn’t track this heritage in the Harlequin Desire line based off surnames.
- I only found two Harlequin Desire characters with a surname originating from Africa. One was from the Ivory Coast and one was from the Maasai people who are located in Kenya and Tanzania.
Mexican ancestry group
- The third biggest ancestry group in the United States is Mexican (of any race). They make up 10.9% of U.S. residents.
- Harlequin Desires only has 2.25% of main characters with Spanish surnames and it was not clear how many were of Mexican descent.
Native American ancestry group
- Harlequin Desire, with its American setting, has published romances with Native American characters for decades. 1% of all Harlequin Desire heroes and heroines are of Native American descent.
- According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Native Americans comprise 2% of the United States population.
Asian ancestry group
- U.S. residents with Asian roots make up 5.6% of the population. The percentage of Asian main characters in Harlequin Desire is 0.2%.
- Out of the 2,889 Harlequin Desire books published, 3 main characters had Asian Indian surnames, 2 had Chinese surnames, and there was 1 each of Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese surnames.
British and Irish surnames
- 7.8% of U.S. residents self-identify as having English heritage. Over 54% of the main characters in a Harlequin Desire have an English surname.
- In addition, 14% of Harlequin Desire heroes and heroines have a Scottish surname. In comparison, there are 1.7% U.S. residents who have Scottish ancestry.
- 11% of Harlequin Desire characters had an Irish surname. 10.6% of U.S. residents have Irish roots.
- There are 2.52% main characters in Harlequin Desire with a Welsh surname but there are 0.6% of U.S. residents with Welsh ancestry.
The lack of diversity in my characters
As I was tracking the surnames, I began to notice the last names that kept popping up in the Harlequin Desire booklist could also be found in my stories. Coming from a hometown with German and Polish heritage, and with an extended family of South Asian and African origins, I don’t know why I chose to give most of my characters an English surname. Was it to improve the ability to sell my manuscript? Or did I choose the default ethnicity because it would “fit in” better with the genre?
I should have put more thought in the ethnic origins of my characters. While I had created some multiracial characters, the majority of my heroes and heroines were white with British surnames. When I did write a romance with South Asian main characters, I heard from South Asian readers who were delighted to see their world represented in mainstream romance. I also heard from bloggers and reviewers who didn’t want to read the book because it was too unfamiliar.
Romance Writers of America has publicly made a commitment to create an inclusive organization and industry. In 2019, they announced they were hiring an outside consultant to “assist the Board in working through the diversity, equality and inclusion issues in RWA.”
Update: On May 21, 2020, The Romance Writers of America decided to retire the RITA awards. The Board of Directors introduced a brand-new award, The Vivian, “named after RWA founder Vivian Stephens, whose trailblazing efforts created a more inclusive publishing landscape and helped bring romance novels to the masses.”
Update: On June 5, 2020, the Romance Writers of America explained that they were rebuilding the organization around “the core principles of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access (DEIA).
Harlequin has recently acknowledged the lack of ethnic identities in the Harlequin Desire line. The current writing guidelines state that they are “actively seeking books from authors of underrepresented backgrounds.”
Update: In 2020, Harlequin made a commitment to diversity and inclusion, stating that they were “actively working to further broaden representation through outreach and initiatives supporting increased diversity, such as the Romance Includes You Mentorship and regular participation in #DVpit story pitch events that connect editors with writers in marginalized communities.”
In order to thrive, the romance fiction industry needs to show cultural and racial diversity in its stories. The genre is written about women, for women and by women. That means all women.
But more importantly, no reader should feel excluded. No writer should feel unwanted and unheard. Romance readers and writers of all backgrounds should see that they are part of the tradition of romance fiction.
Is romance fiction diverse in other areas? Read my Representation in Romance series and decide!