I was in the shower, thinking about how much I enjoyed KJ Charles’ Unfit to Print and its two POC leads, when I had a revelation about books I don’t enjoy so much. Why do half-Indian heroes in most historical romances continue to bother me so damn much? Not just because they don’t engage with biracial identity or transracial adoption or anything of that nature in any meaningful way, but also because they reinforce the relationship between white adjacency and white supremacy. When that hit me, I practically skidded across the tub from the force of the “duh!” The whole point of these sexy dukes and earls and generally wealthy hunks with tans is that they can move in white worlds. They “belong” in ballrooms, in clubs, in the House of Lords. It’s aspirational, inspirational. I mean, heavens, we wouldn’t want them otherwise, would we?
It kind of reminds me of that scene in The Ten Commandments where Nefretiri comes to visit Moses in the mud pits (let’s linger, momentarily, on the irony of me citing a film where two white actors playing an Egyptian woman and a Jewish man, respectively). There is naked lust in her eyes. She doesn’t mind his reversal of fortune one bit, as it allows her to enjoy his sun-bronzed and dirt-speckled chest. But, ugh, one thing bugs her: “They may be your people, but do you have to wallow with them, smell like them?” she huffs of his choice to stay and toil with the enslaved people in Goshen. Do you have to smell like them? In other words: Be as diverse as you want, embrace your heritage…but it has to be in my world, where I’m comfortable. As long as it serves me and my sexual and political needs. As long as you can still be Prince of Egypt. Be who you are on my terms. Gee, why does that sound familiar?
Because it’s everywhere in romantic fiction by white women. Because it’s everywhere in our world. People of color, people from marginalized communities, are only useful if they are tools to maintain the status quo. If they fit in with the white cishet ideal without making waves. So, heroes like the ones in Eloisa James’ Born to Be Wilde, Katharine Ashe’s In the Arms of a Marquess, and various books by Mary Jo Putney…they are basically the Regency Model Minority. The “good” brown men who fit right in, who don’t flaunt their Otherness, who never make white people question their whiteness. They don’t go to temple. They don’t associate with any other brown folks. They only speak English. They don’t smell like curry (but sandalwood is okay!), because they don’t eat it unless their white friends have expressed interest in Indian cuisine. They think wealth and social status are the great equalizer—and in most historical romances they certainly are: The whole reason that these male characters can marry white women and live happily ever after is because they are rich enough for their racial identity to matter just a little less. Money and power allows them access, acceptability…to assimilate, not integrate.
Applied to our current political climate, that philosophy is even less romantic. All of these dudes would be pro-45 Republicans in the US and pro-Brexit Conservatives in the UK. That’s right. We’re talking Dinesh D’Souza, Ajit Pai, Shiva Ayyadurai. (Albeit much lighter skinned, of course.) Really sexy right? Are your loins afire yet? I’m sure this would horrify many white historical romance authors who consider themselves progressive feminists. But that’s what happens when you don’t engage intersectionally, when you only look at your decisions through a white lens. When you assume that hanging out exclusively with white people, in a white society, is what all POC must aspire to. You completely miss the damage of the model minority myth, of assimilation, of how desperately trying to pander to white supremacy has led to upheaval within communities of color.
“They may be your people, but do you have to wallow with them, smell like them?”
Yeah. Yeah, we do. And it’s better than smelling like racist bullshit.
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