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15 August 2011

Racism, Stereotypes, & Minority Characters



A recent discussion on Twitter about the depiction of the Jewish moneylender in Heyer’s THE GRAND SOPHY intersected with an authors’ loop discussion about minority villains in Romantic Suspense novels. In both cases the author was called racist, and I find it very troubling for multiple reasons to label an author racist merely because they have a non-white villain/antagonist in their book. However, as many pointed out on Twitter, if you only have one minority character and the depiction is stereotypical and offensive, then yes, you have opened yourself up to just such a charge. It’s a fine line thing and I think it’s worth discussing (hopefully without offending anyone too greatly).

In Heyer’s case, the charge itself may well be true (her biography certainly points to her having held anti-Semitic views), but the depiction of a nasty Jewish moneylender in the Regency period doesn’t strike me as any more “racist” than the modern depiction of a nasty, Italian mob boss on THE SOPRANOS (which, yes, many Italians protested and found offensive, regardless of truth or accuracy). It’s stereotypical for moneylenders to be Jewish during the Regency just as it’s stereotypical now for mobsters in New Jersey to be Italian. It’s a well-documented fact that moneylending was an industry dominated by Jews in the Regnecy (mostly because they were historically excluded from many other professions). Moneylenders, like modern loan sharks, tend to be not very nice people (if they were nice, who’d bother repaying them?). So Heyer’s use of such a character is, for me, allowable, because it’s historically accurate and works for the book (even if the character’s nastiness was informed by Heyer’s own anti-Semitism). Where Heyer runs into problems in my opinion is in her actual on-the-page stereotypical depiction of Goldhanger as a greedy, oily, and ultimately cowardly, Jew. Had he been an elegant, cool, hard-nosed businessman, I wouldnt have had the same negative reaction.


Heyer is not alone in the late 19th/early 20th century when it comes to unsavory representations of Jews, just look at Twain, Orczy, Dickens, and Sayers (all of whom I love reading). And it’s worth noting that other minorities fare no better in literature from that era.

In the case of the Romantic Suspense author, she’d been accused of racism for having a black villain. One reader had stated that they felt she should have included another GOOD black character specifically to counterbalance the black villain (more on this below). Another author piped up to say she’d also been called racist for having black gang members in her book. Many authors wondered if their only choice was to whitewash the universe and only have white characters (and undesirable, unrealistic choice, and a very limiting one) or if only whites could be used as villains/antagonists/or even generally unsavory secondary characters? Is it racist to depict the very real street war between the Crips and the Bloods? What about the one between the Norteños and Sureños, or between the Tong and the Triads? Should we only show white supremacists, Italian mobsters, and Irish IRA terrorists (all stereotypes by the way, and ones that the relevant ethnic groups tend to dislike)?

Sometimes the key IS going to be counterbalance, as the reader suggested (note that most police procedural shows on television have multi-ethinc casts both in and out of the squad room). But sometimes, esp in historicals, I don’t think the counterbalance can be woven in without it looking like a major Mary Sue Maneuver (the heroine whose maid is her BFF, or who secretly works for the underground railroad even though her family owns slaves, etc.). So the key there is going to be making sure that your depiction of the minority character doesn’t tip over into being stereotypically offensive (as Heyer’s did).

I hope I’m making sense, rather than simply digging myself into a giant hole. *sigh* I feel like I’m touching the third rail here, but I think it’s an important discussion to have and that it’s an issue that authors really DO need to be aware of and think about.

15 Comments:

Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Anti-Semitism has been a part of English history, to some extent ingrained in the fabric of its society, for centuries. The Jews were kicked out of the country more than once and the only good thing I can say about Cromwell is that he opened the gates again to readmit them (and only because they were good for commerce).

Because I'm Jewish myself I wanted to play with a scene in my time travel novel (BY A LADY, written under the pen name Amanda Elyot) depicting that anti-Semitism in the Regency, because the whole point of the novel was to shine a light into some of the era's dark corners, surprising some of my modern day heroine's suppositions about it (or what she might have gleaned from reading Long Regency-era fiction, rather than living day to day in the period).

When I was producing 19th c. English plays in NYC (obviously an urban area with a diverse population), I would become very uncomfortable with some of the references to Jews or people of color and think long and hard about whether it was the better part of valor to just cut the reference (or even eliminate a character, as long as it wasn't integral to the plot -- thereby saving a salary as well in tough economic times) so that I wouldn't risk offending my audience, because we weren't holding "talk backs" afterwards to discuss the world the playwright came from versus the world in which we were performing his script -- or to be true to the author's work of art and not violate it by removing the portions we find offensive nowadays.

And ... usually, I made the decision to cut, if it was a minor excision. And if the cut would have been too major, I just scrapped my initial intention to produce that play and selected a different one because my theatre company wasn't set up to turn the productions into "teachable moments" and our artistic mission wasn't for schools but for the larger, adult general audience.

It's a tough call, though.

5:49 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Kalen - it's very hard to do balanced portrayals. Sometimes I find historical sites' depictions of minority characters to contain far too much sweetness and light. Were all slaves well educated and somebody's BFF? Surely one was I'll-dressed and seething with rage.

I personally had a very hard time with the villain of my first vampire novel. He's Syrian who forces my hero to become a vampire out of ethnic and religious hatred. He is a very, very bad man in both Christian and Moslem terms but he's strongly motivated by his love for his adopted son, my hero's godson.

I didn't want to make him an Arab caricature in this post 9/11 era. So I found an Arab and asked him how to move past that. He said the answer was to make this villain more layered, give him more redeeming qualities - not just add more positive Arab characters elsewhere in the book.

The resulting scenes were harder to write but much more layered. I think he's a much more fascinating villain, even if I don't want to meet up with him in an alley.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Vivian Davis said...

Great topic. I'm jarred by the villain in The Grand Sophy, though I love that book and reread it regularly. (What, doesn't everyone reread Georgette Heyer all the time?) I think part of my discomfort comes from the realization that Heyer was anti-Semitic herself, so it wasn't just that she was writing in accordance with the beliefs at the time. It comes through in the way the character is written. Diane's challenge and solution WRT the Syrian villain is the best way to go, I think. But how well do readers pick up the nuances? Do they still see prejudice, even with all the best efforts to keep from reproducing a stereotype?

10:47 AM  
Blogger Maryan said...

I'd suggest that a more overarching issue is the basic racism of society itself. USers may claim there's no--or less--racism but that's only another cultural myth. The whole race issue has been whitewashed. Glossed over. Tucked in a drawer and considered "done."

Were we to take that issue out of the drawer and examine it, we'd discover that the Civil Rights Movement and its offshoots of the 20th century have never been concluded. They sort of wore out. As (non-literary) examples, I offer the animosity towards Obama, the English-only movement, the anti-Hispanic/Mexican sentiment. USers are incredibly racist in reality.

It's rather more interesting that we'd rather attack fiction rather than reality.

As a second consideration of possibly more interest is the place (power?) of fiction and novels. Was Heyer's Goldhanger considered racist and offensive when she wrote it in 1950? Twain's Huckleberry Finn wasn't--and now it's considered too racist to be taught in schools.

And you're correct: it is very much a third rail.

9:44 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

My friend Mala made the comment the other day about a historical romance novel she was reading where the hero was half-Indian, and no one seemed to notice or make a comment about it, even though he had inherited a title. So I guess that's the politically correct version.

12:23 PM  
Blogger Katharine Ashe said...

It is a troubled topic. But if any romance authors were going to address it, it'd be you ladies. Thanks, Isobel.

Elizabeth, I'm particularly interested in your comment about the book your friend read. The hero in my IN THE ARMS OF A MARQUESS (out on August 30, which I'll be chatting about here as a guest of the Hoydens the following day!) is Anglo-Indian, but this is not swept under the rug. Indeed, the love story and intrigue are embedded in my hero's identity and the perceptions others have of him. I'll admit, it was a dicey choice to write a Regency like this. But it was wonderfully satisfying, and of course beyond all else it is a love story. Racism is about hatred and fear (transmitted through education and culture, and manipulated by power). As Dr. King and so many others have taught, love -- strong, true love -- is its most potent adversary.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

@EKM: When was it set? There doesn't seem to have been a strong bias against Anglo-Asians before the 19th century (at least not from what I can tell by reading books like WHITE MUGHALS). Such children were sent home to England in the 17th and 18th century on a regular basis and were accepted with little notice. Likewise, there wasn’t a big deal made about whites marrying free blacks in the 18th century (even Austen sets up such a scenario in her unfinished novel Sanditon. Class was a bigger bar/issue than race.

1:23 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I took this off Twitter because I knew that 140 character posts were going to get me into trouble, but the conversation continued (as these things are wont to do) and it’s now even clearer to me that I made the right choice. One poster claims that it is both RACIST and OFFENSIVE if you have only once minority character in your book and said character is the villain. Period. I don’t agree that this must be an a priori truth, but I also think that discussing the issue in the abstract is somewhat nonproductive and likely to lead to further problems. In the abstract, of course it sounds true, but I can imagine that cases might exist where it would not be so (especially if our definition of “minority” extends to include all minorities [gender, sexual preference, ethnicity] and not just race, which is certainly in my mind when I use the term).

Again, I’m not trying to say that no book/author is ever racist or offensive (lord knows we can all cite examples of ones that are), I’m just saying that each book needs to be addressed on its own.

1:24 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

@Leslie: I’ve never been a fan of Bowdlerizing books or plays. I understand the impulse to do so, but I think in the end it leads to greater misunderstandings about the past than simply leaving it in and letting people grapple with the reality of the work in its original state.

I mean look, I’m mixed race. I grew up reading stuff about Native Americans that totally rubbed me the wrong way and left me offended and furious. But I’d rather KNOW what the prevailing attitudes and real history were than to be ignorant of it.

1:30 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

@Diane: He said the answer was to make this villain more layered, give him more redeeming qualities - not just add more positive Arab characters elsewhere in the book.

This is the point I was trying to make when I was called on the carpet on Twitter and told that it’s racist and offensive no matter how you handle that character.

1:32 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Katharine, I'm not sure the name of the book, it might have been an older romance, but I do know that it was set in the middle of the 19th century when attitudes towards Anglo-Indians had changed.

2:22 PM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

I'm just relieved Heyer didn't realize London had a black population of around 10,000 at the time.

She was a woman of her time and class and that spills over into her work, just as our prejudices and beliefs spill over into ours. Was she portraying an accurate portrait of antisemitism in the Regency? Probably not, but it's a very accurate portrait of her own time.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I often wonder if rewriting history, sanitizing it, or insisting it be rewritten so as not to offend ANYONE in ANY way doesn't do a disservice to everyone involved. We are not children to be lied to or patted on the head and told not to worry about it or we will understand it better when we are older. Diminishing the history of one people in favor of the history of another is in and of itself a form or racism. History, the good and the bad of ALL races should be presented in all of its unvarnished glory. Once that happens we will truly be on the road to understanding. So long as we vilify one people in order to placate another we are not being honest with one another. Honesty is the beginning of understanding. As a half Native American woman I know not all white people were bad during the worst parts of my ancestors' history. Just as I know not all Native Americans were good. When we can look at all of history and see it as our common history then we will be on the path to enlightenment and harmony. A bit simplistic? Perhaps. Not politically correct? To some. Worth thinking over. I hope so.

8:01 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

@Louisa: I couldn't agree more. I'm also half Native American and personally I don't feel that a book with a NA villain must have an offsetting NA good-guy in order for me to not be offended. Now, if the author has a pattern of writing villains who are POC/ethnic without ever showing any who are on the side of the protagonist, THEN we might have an issue.

7:31 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

For an exceptionally current (as in August 23, 2011) take on anti-Semitism in England, here's Roger Cohen's Opinion piece from the New York Times, which I thought I would share, since it refers to Britain's jolly cultural stigma against Jews.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/opinion/sunday/cohen-jews-in-a-whisper.html

9:25 AM  

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