“No offense—we’re tired of reading about pink nipples.” A deep dive into racism in the romance novel industry.

April 5, 2019

For decades, the world of romantic fiction has been divided by a heated debate about racism and diversity. Lois Beckett from The Guardian wonders, is there any hope of a happy ending?

Last year, the Strand Bookstore in New York convened an all-star panel titled Let’s Woman-Splain Romance! The line to get in the door stretched down the block, and the room was thrumming with glee even before the panel started. This was not an audience that needed to be told that smart women read romance novels, or that the genre could be feminist. The authors speaking that night were all big names, including Beverly Jenkins, an iconic author of African American historical romance – who blew a kiss to the audience as she was introduced to whoops of delight – and two breakout stars of the previous year, Alisha Rai and Alyssa Cole.

The subtext of the event was clear: it was not just a celebration of romance novels, but a celebration of diversity within an industry that has long been marked by pervasive racism. For decades, publishers had confined many black romance authors to all-black lines, marketed only to black readers. Some booksellers continued to shelve black romances separately from white romances, on special African American shelves. Accepted industry wisdom told black authors that putting black couples on their covers could hurt sales, and that they should replace them with images of jewellery, or lawn chairs, or flowers. Other authors of colour had struggled to get representation within the genre at all.

Jenkins and Cole, who are black, and Rai, who is south Asian, had been fighting against these barriers for years. Their success – as authors of critically acclaimed love stories sold in Walmarts and drug stores across the country – had not made them any less vocal.

The panel moderator turned the “diversity” question to Rai first. Her latest series was, he began, “very multicultural and [with] a broad spectrum of sexual identity in it. There’s a lot going on in the sweeping saga that has hot romance at the centre of it.” He paused.

“I’m sorry, is that a question?” Rai asked, very calmly. In her day job, she was a lawyer.

The moderator started referring to a previous time when romances had been less diverse, but Rai cut him off.

“We’re still not at mission accomplished,” she said. And the issue was not really diversity. “It’s about reality.”

“Can I say nipples in here?” Rai continued. The audience giggled. “Many, many years ago, when I first started writing, someone said to me: ‘Oh, this is the first book where the heroine had brown nipples, like on the page,’ and I was like: ‘What? That’s crazy!’ She was a long-time romance reader. I thought about it. I’m pretty sure nipples come in all shades, but they’re always, like, pink on the page, or berries, or some kind of pink fruit.”

By this point, the audience was guffawing and Jenkins was bent over with laughter. “What happens is, it goes into one book, it goes into 10 books, people read those books and write their own books, and suddenly, everybody’s got pink nipples,” Rai said. “And they forget about the fact that that’s not reality.”

Jenkins straightened up. “I always had brown nipples in my books,” she said. “That’s one of the things readers said early on: ‘No offence – we’re tired of reading about pink nipples.’”

The conversation shifted to other implausible but time-honoured turns of phrase: looking daggers, panther-like grace. Everyone laughed, and there were cupcakes, and at that moment in the bookshop, in front of this multiracial panel of bestselling writers, it might have been easy to think that the future of diverse romance had already arrived. Except, the authors kept warning, it had not.

Read full post on The Guardian

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