Romanticizing White Supremacy
An article based on this presentation, "Reclaiming Historical Romance", was published in the December 2018 issue of Romance Writers Report. It was written for an audience of historical romance authors; the below was for an academic audience. That article, as well as the PDF version of the below presentation, can be downloaded at my online store. It contains a list of further readings and resources.
This is a presentation I gave at the Researching the Romance conference, hosted April 13-14, 2018, at the Bowling Green State University's Browne Pop Culture Library. It was titled "History's Been Hijacked: How To Combat White Supremacy Through Popular Literature." I'm not putting every slide here, and I've added in some small bits that I had to cut for time (I only had 15 minutes), but the differences between what is here and what I presented are vanishingly few and inconsequential. Please note as well that I am not an academic or a scholar at all. I am just someone who's read a lot of historical romance and now writes it, who saw this thing and wanted other people to see it and above all, to talk about it and consider it when they read/write anything based in history. That's the sum total of my qualifications: I am familiar with the genre and I would like to hinder the spread of white nationalist rhetoric, the end.
One thing I'll say up front here instead of waiting til the end (as I did in the speech): In no way am I saying that reading/writing/liking stories about white people falling in love in Ye Olde England is racist, or is a white supremacist predilection, or contributing to a morally bankrupt worldview, or anything remotely like that. It is not wrong, it is good and entirely fine to enjoy rich white people in ball gowns making googly eyes at each other. I love it! I write it! IT IS GREAT, THAT IS NOT MY POINT.
So now that I've preemptively said that, let's get on with it. Oh, one more point: I welcome new and differing perspectives on this topic, made in good faith and with a constructive purpose, so please feel free to email them to me. All I want is for people to reconsider how they view history, and the consequences of using distorted history as a basis for storytelling. I'm not an expert on any damned thing in this world, I'm just telling you what I see. If this makes you think at all, then I've done what I wanted to.
I am told I began this talk with, "Hi, I'm Elizabeth Kingston. I write historical romance novels, and today I'm going to bring you down by talking about Nazis."
I want to begin by saying that we're going to be looking at the historical romance genre in the aggregate. This is about the forest, and not any individual trees. There are a lot of great exceptions to the rule that we all love and celebrate, but I’m here today to talk about the rule and not the exceptions – so please keep that in mind.
You’re probably wondering what the KKK and neo-nazis have to do with historical romance novels, which is perfectly fair. Romance readers are everywhere, as we well know, but it’s extremely unlikely that anyone who already identifies as a white supremacist is going to be persuaded to think any differently because of a romance novel.
So to explain the intersection of these two worlds, I’d like to tell you about Derek Black.
Derek Black was once considered the bright future of the white nationalist movement in America. His godfather was David Duke, his own father Donald Black built and runs Stormfront, the oldest and largest hate site on the internet. But Derek Black has publicly renounced white nationalism, and now he speaks out against the movement and their tactics.
Derek explains that white nationalists don’t target people on the fringe, “but rather the people who start a sentence by saying, “I’m not racist, but…”
It is in that space – “I’m not a racist but” – that's where white supremacist ideology thrives. It gains traction wherever people have unconscious and unquestioned biases that can be manipulated by extremists. For example, Derek Black was 10 or 11 when he built the children’s section of Stormfront by creating a forum to talk about, of all things, The Lord of the Rings.
He found that he could appeal to people’s taste in fiction – fiction with a white mythos – to recruit new members.
So while I don’t think any of us believes that historical romance is a fertile recruiting ground for white nationalists, it is undeniable that the version of history taught by romance novels has made it far easier for white supremacist arguments to be accepted by otherwise intelligent, well-read people. To put it simply, the well is poisoned, and if you read historical romance, you are drinking from that well.
The most glaringly obvious influence of white supremacy is how the vast majority historicals are set in England. This holds true even though Americans (a huge proportion of the readership) have an extremely varied heritage. We could have romances predominantly set in Russia, Greece, Morocco, Mexico, Japan, Poland, Ethiopia - any number of places that reflect our respective histories - but instead, it's overwhelmingly England.
But before we get into why that is, let’s talk first about the specific beliefs that are prevalent in the genre.
First, there is a strong component of misogyny in white nationalism. Anyone who studies this issue knows that the fear of black men raping white women has been used to keep both African Americans and women oppressed for centuries. Also, sexually fetishizing Asian women in particular is a real theme with white supremacists, as well as the belief that “other” cultures sexually objectify and “dishonor” white Christian women and are therefore evil. The era of European Imperial Power is held up as a golden age of history, and "white and Christian" is the norm while anything non-white and especially non-Christian is considered “exotic” and treated with great suspicion. This last point ties heavily into the anti-immigrant sentiment, which is a high priority item on the white nationalist political agenda. And finally, white nationalists only talk about the history of other cultures in the context of highlighting how backwards they’ve always been. They consistently erase the contributions of non-white, non-Christian people.
So now that we know what we’re looking for, let’s see where we can find it in Historical Romance.
The first that come to mind, because they are the most obvious, are the old Native American Romances. These depict the noble savage, present manifest destiny as a good thing, and nearly always feature a white woman being abducted by a Native American man. (He very often turns out to be a white man who was kidnapped as a child and raised by a Native American tribe - and that’s why he’s allowed to be the hero, because he's really white.)
Historical Western Romances also tend to feature racist depictions of Native Americans, just less noble and more savage in this iteration. There is also a lot of erasure - for example, historically it's estimated about 20% of cowboys were black and 40% were Mexican, but in historical westerns cowboys tended to be overwhelmingly white.
And of course Sheikh Romances, which almost always depict a white woman forced into a harem as a form of sexual slavery. (Note also that often the sheikh turned out - of course - to actually be Christian and/or European which, once again, allows him to be an acceptable hero to the white lady heroine.) The sheikh romances reinforce the perceived sexual depravity of Islamic cultures, as well as the trope of the white woman in sexual danger from a non-white man.
While there are some historical authors of color like Beverly Jenkins and others currently writing in the Historical Western space and doing so with success, as I said: we’re not looking at exceptions to the rule, but the rule itself. And as a general rule, these sub-genres have largely died out and are no longer wildly popular with romance readers. The historical genres that are still popular are listed here:
Source: Author Earnings, 2016 Romance Writers of America PAN Presentation, July 15, 2016
This information focuses on profits and not units sold, so it’s not perfect. But we romance writers know what’s popular with readers, and this data reflects what we know.
There are five historical sub-genres that make significant earnings for authors, but since it’s a time-honored tradition in Romance to fudge the years in any historical era, we’re going to consolidate them into two categories. Regency and Victorian will go together to represent the 19th century, and Medieval will include Ancient and Scottish. (That’s because if it’s a Scottish romance, it’s usually either set in medieval times or it's Outlander.)
These two periods – the medieval and the 19th century - are extremely important in the white nationalist movement. It’s no coincidence that they are the eras that continue to thrive in Romance.
There’s a reason for the relationship between these eras. The connection was deliberately created in the early 19th century with an expressly white supremacist intent.