Love, color, and blindness

[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.

18 thoughts on “Love, color, and blindness

  1. “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.”

    Great post, and I think it’s good to acknowledge that possibility because it goes some way toward explaining that special character of hurt that white people feel when we are called out — rightly– for our ignorance.

    • Thanks! And yes, I think that many white (and other majority-group) people are acting out of a desire to rectify the imbalances and improve things. They aren’t trying to pretend the past didn’t happen. But the past continues to shape the present and there’s no getting away from that.

  2. “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.”

    Boom!

    • Heh. Of course authors aren’t going to do that as a rule, because it requires an enormous amount of research and letting go of much of what you think you know about other contexts. But it’s a good thought-exercise.

      • Reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, I just recently noticed that he only mentions the race of white people or Indians – which of course makes sense, because they’re not the default.

        • Wow. That makes total sense, but I wouldn’t have thought about it either. Thanks for noticing and pointing it out to us.

          • It’s really interesting. I’m learning a lot reading this and not just about Mandela’s life.

  3. Writing POC characters is a sticky wicket for white authors, but worth trying to do right, I believe. Just as some authors are better than others with characters not of their gender, some authors are better than others at this. It definitely starts with acknowledging that race IS part of the character’s experience, and finding a way to express that as an aspect of the character’s individuality.

    As a white reader, albeit a teacher of classes on intercultural communication, I don’t always trust my own barometer for whether an author has succeeded in this effort. But I’m determined to keep trying, and to support authors who are making a good-faith effort to depict a cast of characters who aren’t monochrome. One important tool is to listen to what readers of color are saying about those efforts, trying to tune my barometer (mixed metaphor?). Conversations about this are very important.

    • I agree, I want to keep trying as well, and I want authors to keep at it. Better to get it not-quite-right than not do it, or feel like you *can’t* do it because you won’t get everything right.

  4. Pingback: Links: Saturday, March 8th | Love in the Margins

  5. This is such a loaded topic for me. I’m white and married to a Japanese American from Hawaii. When I lived in Japan I had a long term relationship with a Japanese man. I’ve also had relationships with other white people, but from different countries that represented similar but different social/cultural expectations than in America. Race/color/culture has always been a part of those relationships, always. Particularly when I lived in Japan and with Japanese boyfriend, race and culture were ever present in both positive and negative ways.

    This is why I like to read interracial love stories. I want to read books that represent my experience. But here’s the thing, I often find books with Asian characters to show stereotypical versions of Asians, which is why somehow I’d rather read an interracial love story written by an Asian. And to be honest, even in those cases I still feel I have to check my take because even though I’ve been in and still am in an interracial relationship, it doesn’t mean that I’m not coming from a standpoint of privilege or my own exoticizing of other.

    I’ve also read a lot of interracial white/AA. This gets stickier for me due in part for the reason SonomaLass mentioned above and also I often fear my own unconscious white privilege will tell me it’s a great story when really, it might be erasure of the AA character’s POV. I’ve been paying a lot more attention to that and checking myself. But it’s not an easy thing to see or separate from as it’s an issue way closer to home, meaning the long history of white oppression of black’s in US. To be honest, due to this I have my go to POC reviewers. If they’ve read the book and praised it or said this is a racist piece of crap, then I know exactly what’s going on. If praised then I know the author got it right or at the very least wasn’t offensive to a POC reader. I then read it to see my own reactions and learn from that.

    For this reason I’ve also started reading AA/AA written by AA to get a perspective I can’t personally know. The few I’ve read often do bring race in but in those cases white is the “other” and I actually enjoy that. One thing I’ve found from this and reading a POC’s reviews is that race and culture still come into it. I just read a book that besides being badly edited, also had a main character I disliked. I would dislike her no matter what race. However, when I read the POC review and interview with the author, I discovered that reviewer had a different take on the book due mainly to being able to identify with the character as a black person. This is an added sub layer that I completely missed. I thought I took the character at face value based on her characteristics. But actually I was viewing her through my own cultural/racial context, which stopped me from experiencing her in her own racial/cultural context. I still don’t like her as a character, but I looked at it differently after that.

    Still though, I keep reading and trying and learning by reading as many IR, multicultural as I can. I learn a lot. I constantly worry that when I read/review an IR or multicultural book that I’m getting it wrong, but I do it anyway. Maybe one day someone will come in and slam me, but that’s OK, that’s how I learn.

    • All of us read through the prism of our own experience, there’s no way we can avoid that. And none of us have all-encompassing knowledge of our own culture, let alone other cultures. Readers who are in mixed relationships often have a better sense of what they do and don’t know about other cultures because they’ve negotiated their own gaps in knowledge directly. You’re one of the most self-aware readers I know in this regard.

      This is one of the difficulties we face in recommending books to others, too; my own ethnic and cultural experience is located in a very specific time and subcultural place, and the older I get, the more aware I am that my experience isn’t what people coming of age today are experiencing. That’s why, to me, it’s less about getting some abstract “authenticity” correct and more avoiding erasure or obvious stereotyping.

  6. Thanks for such an interesting post, Sunita. I’m white, so there are things I am blind to. My family being biracial does not make me an expert. It’s been my experience that race/culture (as you point out, it’s hard to disassociate the two) *always* plays some role in a couple’s lives. Though a lot of the meatier issues seem to come out after marriage/long-term partnership instead of in the first throes, as it were. At least that’s been what I’ve observed/experienced. And some of it can be amazingly nuanced and varied. Some of it good, some of it, sadly, not so good.

    • Hmmm, not super happy with my comment this morning. In that meatier issues always come out after marriage/long-term, so I think my comment might imply that there’s no reason to think of color at all in, say, a HFN romance. Which is not what I think.

      I’ll admit as a reader I can be happy with a pretty light hand, if the author is showing some sensitivity, but it can be hard to say where that blurs into erasure and I just don’t realize it.

      • I think I got what you meant. It’s not that there are *no* issues in the early stages, it’s just that as relationships continue and become more complex or involve more people and decisions, more issues emerge that no one was thinking about at the beginning.

        I agree on the light hand. Not everything is about race or gender or ethnicity, or at least not consciously. And some people really don’t think about these aspects as much as other people do. It’s the blend of structural and individual that make a good character and a good story.

  7. Great post and a thorny issue. I used to always think that Nora Roberts had the power to do anything. I remember wishing she would feature POC characters finding true love but she hasn’t as far as I know. I quit reading her years ago so I can’t really say much about her writing these days.

    Slightly Off topic plug: Sandra Kitt’s The Color of Love was digitized last year. I thought it was one of the best IR romances at the time (W male/AA female) and she did address race/culture in her book and more from the AA POV and a little from the white male POV.

    Off topic x 2: I need a better way to alert me of your new posts./mumble

    • Oh hey, I think I have that Sandra Kitt book in my TBR! I have to look for it.

      I still have my trusty RSS reader, although it’s sometimes *very* late in telling me of new posts.

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