Too scared to diversify?
Articles like this one have caused me to take a close look at the novels I write. While I often use diverse secondary characters, my main characters are painfully similar: white girls with issues. I've got poor country white girls, rich socialite white girls and reclusive sociopathic white girls. But they're all white. And in today's world of romance novels, that is the sad norm.
So... why haven't I written a black hero or heroine yet?
Let's be brutally honest for a minute. I'm scared. I'm afraid that I will offend black readers or misrepresent their culture, or not do a proper job of showing their relationships or racial struggles. It's the same reason why I haven't written a Muslim main character, or a Jewish one.
But I need to break that mold, and I grabbed one of my favorite women in our industry to help me do it. As a writer, reader, and editor, Renita McKinney is the perfect person to help navigate this important topic. I sat down with Renita and dove right into the thick of things. While this interview and article focuses on black culture and characters, her tips and opinions could easily be applied to any culture or race.
1. What are some of the biggest pet peeves you have when you read ethnic romances or bi-racial romances? Ethnic romances? Is that the right terminology?
My biggest pet peeve is authors have a tendency to whiten them up. As though they are afraid to make them too “black.” They want the characters to be black, but then write characters like “Becky with the good hair,” or they want us to blush on demand (on-going joke with Author Chelle Bliss), and our skin is always caramel or mocha. But we carry so much more. We wear dreads and afros. We have full lips and wide hips. We can be ebony to bronze. We can go from Ebonics to proper English. We have evolved.
Authors who do their research or reach out to their black friends or counterparts learn the ethic and cultural differences. And yes, differences do exist. It’s not a bad thing. Just as there are generation gaps, there are cultural gaps. Once a character becomes involved in a biracial relationship, it is so much easier for white authors to incorporate the black character into the white world as opposed to meshing both. We find them attending the upscale clubs, the five-star restaurants, but seldom will the black character take them to the hole-in-the wall and the best rib joint in the city. Seldom do they slam dominoes or play spades. One of the books that really did a great job of that was, Without Me by Chelle Bliss. She took her character to his black girlfriend’s family barbecue, and she nailed it.
Ethnic Romances? I have never really given “black romances” an official name. Since I can only speak from and about the culture in which I know, I prefer the term “black romance” if it must be defined. So I just did a google search under ethnic romance and I got African American romance. I have also seen that genre on Amazon. Again, I think people are afraid to use the word “black” for being offensive.
2. What do you wish you would see more of in today's novels? What scenarios? What character casting?
As you know I read an enormous amount of books, and diversity is missing! I want to see diversity. But not as an afterthought or a way to grab black readers, not even as a politically correct thing to do. But as a black woman who loves to read, I would like authors to know we are mainstream America as well. We fit into every scenario, every economic category, every educational level, and every career field. Why are we always relegated to being the bodyguard, the best friend, the housekeeper, the nanny? Let us be more, because we are more.
I’d like to see us as the hero and heroine. I would love to see where we are the lead, the billionaire, the hot alpha male, the strong woman who tames him. All while remaining true to our culture.
3. When writing interracial romances: do I need to address the fact that they are different races and have them face struggles because of that? Or can I just write a normal romance without mentioning that?
The term interracial has already defined the fact they are different.
Personally, I think knowing they are of different races needs to be addressed. In saying that, it does not need to be the core of the storyline, or the basis of the characters for that matter, but addressing the differences can be vital to the storyline. There are issues in this country still with interracial relationships. There are areas where it is a battle, so to pen a story and pretend there are no struggles, no second glances, no friend commenting is not conducive to today.
It also gives black readers a sense of inclusion. For so long we were left out. I cannot remember the first book I read that had black characters that were not maids. Perhaps, Eric Jerome Dickey or E. Lynne Harris. Yes, two black men wrote New York Times bestselling romances before I knew of Alessandra Torre, Kristy Bromberg, or Ruth Cardello.
Would you not have a white character and describe them? No, you would not verbalize the term white, because that is the normal expectancy of the character. Yet you would say Italian, Greek, or any other cultural name. Why would you not say the character is black?
4. In an online discussion, you mentioned that we should keep black characters "true to their culture." For me, that's the terrifyingly giant question mark that hangs over my keyboard. Can you give us some pointers on how to properly show black culture without dipping into racial stereotypes?
Talk to your black friends and discuss the cultural differences. I have a black friend who likes to snow ski (not the norm in the black culture), but that friend can also play spades (not the norm in the white culture). You have to learn to diversify your characters. Inclusion! That is what this day and age should be about is inclusion.
Include humor! We can laugh about trying new things. The first time a white friend of mine sat down and played spades I was just no. As they became more inclusive in our circle, playing became the norm to them, and they were almost as good as me. Interracial relationships need to be all inclusive, and differences will suddenly become the norm.
5. Can you provide us some Do's & Don'ts when creating black characters?
~Do not be afraid to write about us. We're human too. I love reading characters who look like me. For so many years there were none, but I continued to read. So now, as this world has progressed, our books needs to reflect that as do movies, tv shows, and other forms of media. Young people today will be older readers tomorrow and are more tolerant and accepting than my generation. They require more cohesiveness and less separation.
~Do not be afraid to refer to the characters as black or African American. They are not bad words. There are terms that should not be used (yet, depending on the era of your book, perhaps so), not in this day and age. But Black is who we are, and we wear that with pride.
~Do keep the characters true to their culture. Nothing worse than reading about someone black and they have all the culture and attributes of some other race. Also, please understand, black culture and ghetto are not the same. Our music is culturally different, as are the foods we eat. We are very family oriented and respectful of our elderly. We are chameleons as we adapt ourselves to our environment. I can talk with my friends in the hood and meet with the president of any corporation. We are bodywise thick by nature, and we wear it well. We worship differently, we party differently, and we socialize differently, but love should be all inclusive. It is of acceptance. It is of trust. Those things should make the meshing of two cultures the norm.
~Don't make them stereotypical. I was editing for an author once, there was a dinner prepared by a black character. Every stereotypical food known to the black culture was served. Greens, bbq, grits, chittlins, cabbage, cornbread, black-eyed peas, watermelon, etc was all at one meal. I was like JUST NO! We eat filet mignon too. Don't have them with all color weaves, always straight hair, loud, or ghetto. Make them a chameleon. Able to adapt themselves to their environment. I have dreads, I wear nothing fake, and I'm proud to be a black woman. I embrace everything about me and my blackness. Don't take that away in books.
Make us fun! Not the angry black woman, the brooding friend, the smart-aleck sidekick.
6. Are there any other African American cultural stereotypes that you see in novels that make you cringe?
I just finished a novel . . . the end of a series actually. I loved this entire series and adore the author. She has written a strong black character, stereotypical in his role, but nonetheless strong. She takes him through every novel as strong as he was in the first. At the end of the final novel, she kills him off. She kills him off protecting a white man. Now, please don’t take this as a prejudicial thought, but more a stereotypical ending. Not only in novels, but in media as well. We want to prosper and live. We want the HEA.
We deserve more, because we are more. I hate when we are relegated to being the sacrificial lamb. You know like the black character was the one who would die in the horror movie, or the war movie, or alien movie, lol.
7. Do you have any novels you have enjoyed and could point writers to as an example of strong diverse writing?
One of the best novels I’ve read where there was a black character who was not written by a black author was The Law of Moses by Amy Harmon. The moment I learned the hero was black, I stopped reading, sent her a Facebook message with tears in my eyes and thanked her.
As I mentioned earlier, Without Me by Chelle Bliss. She totally nailed the barbecue scene.
Any book by Eden Butler. She incorporates so well.
I would also say, read any books by E. Lynn Harris. He was a black male romance author who wrote M/M in the black community. He was simply amazing. He made the New York Times bestseller list ten times before passing away at the age of 54 in 2009. Black female readers made him a household name. Don’t sleep on the fact we read. If you bring us who we are, we will ride with you.
8. Did I miss anything? Is there anything else you'd like to share?
Black love is no different than white love. We want the same things. We want the HEA. We want a billionaire, hot MC guy, hip-hop dude, and that controlling ALPHA MAN! We have the same fantasies and we want to be included in those fantasies. We want to be wooed and swept off our feet. Handcuffed to the bed while he slowly takes his time to please us.
Again, do your research, reach out to a black friend, and incorporate us in your stories. Make your stories about us.
Renita McKinney was born in Texas, but raised in both Arkansas and Texas. As an only child, she started reading before she could walk, and books became her best friends. The characters became her family, and she developed a love and respect for writing, reading, books, and authors.
At the age of ten, she read a book, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, and reading developed into more than a hobby to Renita; it became a passion, an unquenchable thirst. Not being able to read would have seemingly been a slow and torturous death.
Previously married to a military man, she was fortunate to have lived and traveled all over the world. She would often visit foreign countries that didn’t seem foreign at all; she had already traveled there within the confines of a book.
Her passion for books, desire for writing, and love for words have afforded her the opportunity to work with many NYT, USA Today, and Amazon bestselling authors as a developmental editor, beta reader, and proofreader. About two years ago she started her own author services business, A Book A Day. She has a business partner who brings an entirely different perspective to the editing process. The male perspective. Renita has worked with such authors as Mia Sheridan, Ruth Cardello, Chelle Bliss, Alessandra Torre, and others.
“It’s exciting to be on the inside of a story as it comes together and even more amazing that my opinion and input is requested by these phenomenal storytellers.”
Renita now lives in San Antonio, Texas, and is the mother of three amazing adults: Holly, Lamontre, and Brandon. She works for the USAA, tries to read at least 500 books a year, and loves to hang out at her own version of Cheers: Lefty’s Draft House, where friends have truly turned into family.
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