Love, color, and blindness

by Sunita

[Note: I accidentally uploaded a rough draft of this post earlier today, complete with typo in the title. This is the version I meant to post.]

Love sees no color. Well yes, I suppose that is strictly true. Love is an emotion, after all. It doesn’t exist without embodiment in a sentient being. But people, unless they have vision impairments, do see color, with their eyes and their brains and their hearts.

We’ve taken the phrase “love is blind,” which is a lovely poetic conceit (Shakespeare used it in several different plays), and run wild with applications to places it doesn’t belong. It’s neither a real condition nor something to which we want to aspire.

Every human has a color, but in the western world (and far too much of the non-western one too, for historical reasons) we only take note of the color of non-white people. More than that, not noticing a group’s color is a sign that it’s been incorporated into the default, “white,” group. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people now considered white in the US, e.g., Italians and Slavs, were not considered white. Now if you called them POC, you’d get a lot of strange looks.

When we read and write love stories we’re looking for stories that make us feel good about the characters’ future lives together. The stories may take us on a rocky road to get there, but we always get there in the romance genre. So if the couple have differing class, race, or ethnic backgrounds, the differences have to be shown to be ultimately unimportant in shaping their futures. At the same time, the differences make for great (and realistic) external and internal conflict. It’s a tricky line to manage, and it is susceptible to stereotyping and shortcuts.

So it’s no surprise that authors and readers also want relationships where color isn’t a factor. But if you’re setting a story in an environment where one of the characters is a member of a historically disadvantaged or discriminated minority group, there’s really no such possibility. The cultural context that creates a majority-group character doesn’t have to be specified; it’s the default. But what is the default for the minority-group member? It depends, so it needs to be specified, even if the person doesn’t identify that much with it. We are all made by our cultural contexts, but we don’t all come out of the default culture even when we live in it.

Hrithik Roshan. Ewan McGregor. Gregory Peck. All of those are real live flesh and blood people, with personalities and histories that go with their bodies. But although they are individuals, the social context also matters when they’re out of the environment in which they’ve been nurtured and raised. Put Ewan McGregor in the southern US and he’s a Brit or a Scot. Put Gregory Peck in France and he’s an American. Put Hrithik Roshan in Los Angeles and he’s an Indian. And brown-skinned. He’s not particularly dark, but he’s identifiably South Asian, and that makes him brown. When you watch Gregory Peck in a movie, do you feel you understand all Americans through his portrayal? Almost certainly not. Does Ewan McGregor stand in for all Brits? No. All Scots? Maybe sometimes, to some people. Hrithik Roshan stands in for a lot of Indians. Sometimes for all Indians: Hindu and Muslims, northerners and southerners. The fewer Scots and Indians you know (or know about), the more Scots and Indians Mcgregor and Roshan stand for, in terms of conveying information and ticking off stereotypes.

We treat non-minority people as essentially individual and not representative; they don’t stand in for all majority group people. But minority people are different. They can be treated as conforming to type or challenging type, but type is almost always there.

And that’s how they live their lives, as representations (in addition to being individuals). Dissociating them from their individual characteristics reproduces the erasure of individual difference that minority group members experience in their everyday lives. It doesn’t really matter that you’re complimenting Roshan by telling him how hot he is and how much you love Bollywood.

When good authors write minority characters, of course they want to highlight their individuality. That’s what makes a powerful fictional person. But race and ethnicity is an inescapable and foundational part of a minority group member’s psyche and lived experience. It isn’t the same lived experience for everyone. Some feel that identity every waking hour, some may go long stretches without thinking about it. But no one has the luxury of never thinking about it.

If you don’t spend a lot of intimate or close-quarters time with minority group members, you may not think about this much. But if you fall in love with one you will, unless they choose not to talk about it (and then it is still likely to manifest itself indirectly). It doesn’t mean every part of your life will be defined by it. After a while you might not even think about it as something the two of you, in your private sphere, have to negotiate. But other couples, couples who are like you in that one regard, will always be negotiating it. With each other, about their children, their families, their friends, their jobs, always somewhere.

There’s no way that kind of outside influence has zero influence on your interior life. It can make you stronger, it can pull you apart, it it can be something you just adjust to, like you do anything else you can’t avoid dealing with. But it’s not nothing.

Color doesn’t play the same role in every person’s life, so it obviously isn’t going to play the same role in every relationship. But society doesn’t let minority people forget their color even if they want to. The reality for minorities is that everyone’s skin color provides a social cue, whereas majorities don’t think of their own skin color as providing social cues at all. Maybe the desire to emphasize the “love sees no color” condition comes from a wish that we could all have the freedom not to notice. But that’s not the reality. And the color-blind fantasy takes away not just what is difficult in our lives but what is good and wonderful. I like who I am. All of it. The bad experiences made me as much as the good. I’m OK with that and that’s the reality I want to see in my romances.

If, as an author, you want to write about a non-white character for whom color does not play a role, write a story in which they are the default color in their cultural setting. Because otherwise you’re just erasing an integral part of what makes them who they are. No minority-group member’s personal journey is all about color. But equally, it cannot be not at all about color.

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