GS vs STA: Overcoming Prejudice

I received this email from Jan Oda, who is looking for a particular type of romance. Her request gave me a lot to think about. 

“I was going through my old HP's, and I bumped into Sun Lord's Woman by Violet Winspear. It's an HP from the 80s, but I quite like it because of its subject. It starts out as a typical Sheik romance, but the conflict is very original. Linda's mother was Jewish*, and when Karim finds out he's distraught that they married, because of his position as an Arab leader and the everlasting conflict. In the end, love conquers all however, and they live happily ever after, no matter their ancestry.

I was really surprised that an HP could touch on a subject so sensitive, and not screw it up completely (it's not very nuanced nor deeply explored, but it's there). So I got thinking, I want to read more books like this. Where characters are prejudiced and discriminating, but where love overcomes those feelings. I think I'd prefer it if it were the hero and heroine themselves who were prejudiced, but I'm interested in books where it's the supporting cast and surroundings as well.”

“I'm not a religious person myself, so I'm not only interested in stories featuring religious based conflicts. Interracial and multicultural relationships seem like a very good ground for this kind of conflict as well, because unfortunately racism is still everywhere.

And I read basically everything, so it can be paranormal as well, with animal shifters bigoted against other animal kinds; or sci-fi with different species of aliens… Anything goes, from historical to contemporary to time-travel and alternative universes.

As long as the basic/main conflict of the story is built around the prejudice the H/h feel when they first meet, or realize their difference, and how they overcome those feelings, I'm interested.

I think it's the perfect time of the year to read about tolerance and love, so I was hoping you (or the Bitches in general) could help me with this.”

[*Many Jewish denominations focus on matrilinieal descent: if your mom is Jewish, you're Jewish, the theory being that one always knows who the mother is, while the father could be a mystery. The idea of the heroine's mother being Jewish means the heroine is also Jewish. These customs were obviously born before DNA testing, though they continue today. Additional data if you're curious: Some denominations, including some Reform and Reconstructionist congragations, recognize patrilineal descent and do not require children with a Jewish father to formally convert. However, some groups don't always recognize or honor the practices of another.]

Back to Jan Oda's query. I really wonder if it is possible to bring a character back into a higher level of esteem in the reader's eyes if that character is prejudiced or discriminating. This goes deeper than “I was wounded by a woman so all women are bad,” and way past, “I have blanket shallow assumptions about you and your culture that are easily corrected because I don't actually hate you or anything.”

I recently read Sarah Anderson's A Man of His Word, a romance wherein the heroine was Native American, and the hero was from far outside the local community near the reservation. He wasn't prejudiced at all, just blind to some of the consequences of going out with her. In one scene, he takes her to a bar in a rural town outside her reservation. People were openly hostile to her, and cruel. The hero didn't see it until they were already in their seats and he noticed that everyone was staring at her. Then he felt badly. He wasn't intentionally ignorant or trying to be cruel, but the end result was the same for the heroine, who was humiliated (and later in danger) (because what book isn't improved by a fight scene, right?) and pretty sure she should never leave the reservation again (which is exactly what the localholes wanted). Yet that anti-Native American prejudice isn't revisited really by the end of the book, except that the heroine has options. She could leave and go home with the hero, for example, but it stayed in the back of my mind that her family would still face those hateful people if they left the reservation. It was both a welcome and troublesome introduction of prejudice as a reality: there isn't a solution for it, really, for anyone. Boneheads will be boneheads until they die out and their prejudice is replaced with another bonehead prejudice in another generation.

Clearly I am feeling all kinds of optimism today, huh?

Similarly, Pamela Clare's The Naked Edge features a Native American heroine and some very scary scenes of the cruelty she and her family face from locals who just plain hate them for being Native American. Yet I don't know if I can recall a novel that presents (hur hur) an Arab hero and a heroine who is Jewish, or vice versa. 

Jan agreed as we corresponded on the topic: 

I agree that it's a hard theme to pull of well, because racism and prejudice are such very distressing topics, and not something we want to see in our hero or heroine. At the other hand, Romancelandia is filled with redeemed villains and asshole alpha's who turn into lovable men thanks to the heroine, so in theory it should be possible with bad traits like this as well. There's been Romances focused on prejudice against working females (you know, the alpha tycoon who doesn't believe the heroine is capable, just because she's female). Sexism is a prejudice like any other, and we encounter heroes who see the light in this area and redeem themselves. So again, in theory, I do believe other kind of prejudices could be addressed as well (and if they aren't yet, they totally should).


I do think there might be a scale difference when it comes to racism and prejudice however. Maybe active and passive? I don't think a member of the KKK or a Nazi could ever be redeemed, because they truly felt that way and acted on it (and did horrible things). Someone who has been brought up in a climate of prejudice however without encountering different points of view is basically doomed to be prejudiced until he/she encounters that different POV, and then he/she should be judged on how he/she acts from that moment on.

Since today everybody can technically be immersed in all different POVS, this might not be a believable scenario for contemporary romance, but it definitely is for historical romances or speculative romance.


(Shelly Laurenston touches on this with her Pride series, where hybrids are terribly discriminated against by pure shifters of any breed, and in Beast Behaving Badly a bunch of them are actually put down, because there's nobody to stand up for them. Unfortunately that wasn't the main focus of the story, because I thought it was something really worth exploring).

I think it could be a really powerful plot line, and a source for such a huge amount of character developement and growth (which I always like in my romance) I really hope there are books like this out there.

Me, too. I'm curious to see if there are any recommendations for books that are brave and different, and take on a really ugly perspectives, perhaps held by the protagonists, and change them. That's tricky, especially since the reader has to ultimately believe that within the space of the story enough has changed in that character's world view that their feelings will consistently overcome their existing prejudice now and in the future after the story ends. That's a little different than learning to see things differently after one's ignorance has been corrected.

It's almost a question of optimism: can someone change their entire world view, even if everyone they know and love does not? I think in romance we'd like to believe that it's possible, particularly when real life demonstrates otherwise, but it takes some real skill on the part of the writer to pull it off – especially in the limited word count confines of a category!

So, anyone have any recommendations for books that feature characters overcoming deep and potentially explosive prejudices based on culture or heritage that are overcome by love and the happily ever after? 

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Rose says:

    Suzanne Brockmann tried that with Mary Lou Starett. Mary Lou started out with many prejudices and clearly had racist beliefs (among other issues); in Into the Night, she ends up falling in love with an Arab man. I read the books in that series completely out of order, so I can’t say if the progression made sense, but for me her storyline in Into the Night (which was resolved in Gone Too Far) worked very well.

    I think that Sugar Daddy by Lisa Kleypas might fit the request to some extent. Liberty has to deal with people who see her in a certain way because of her ethnicity and her small town, trailer park background – including the hero.

    The hero in Liz Carlyle’s Never Deceive a Duke is Jewish, and has dealt with prejudice for most of his life, including from his paternal family. I don’t recall it being an issue for the heroine, though.

    The h/h in Flowers from the Storm have to deal with religious issues related to her strong faith and his lack thereof.

    I wonder if prejudices related to class issues would also be relevant? Because I can think of books that explored class differences in interesting ways.

  2. 2
    Aurora85 says:

    I would recommend a story but it doesn’t contain a HEA though. For those who are curious anyways, Han Suyin’s ‘Till Morning Comes about a Chinese male and American woman and the issues they deal with both in China and America.


  3. 3
    Sally says:

    Some books that might interest you:

    The Unmasking of a Lady by Emily May – The hero humiliated the heroine because of her past living situation during her first season, and from then on people made fun of her as well. However, the heroine learnt to show a brave face and ignore the comments. The hero and heroine were brought together years later when the hero’s sister was faced with gossip and needed the heroine’s help. Plus, the heroine was also secretly a thief!

    Child of Her Heart by Cheryl St.John – An IVF mix-up was apparent when the heroine gave birth to a baby of African descent. The heroine loves her baby but her mother was not happy about the mix-up. The prejudice comes from the heroine’s mother and other people starring at the heroine and her child because they have a different skin color. I don’t remember much details about this book but I believe the prejudice is light. Don’t let that stop you from reading it though because the interracial family dynamic a subject that you don’t see too often in romance novels. The hero is African American.

    The Keepers by Heather Graham and the other books in the series – It’s racism but amongst paranormal beings instead of humans.

  4. 4
    Carin says:

    I second Rose’s rec of the Mary Lou story line in Brockmann’s books.  I read them in order and I thought they were really well done.  Beside that secondary romance, there was kind of a twist with the villain storyline that was good, too.

    On the fantasy romance side, I highly recommend Warprize by Elizabeth Vaughan.  Two cultures have been separated and at war.  The heroine is pretty open minded, but much of the story line is her coming to understand them and vice versa.  Plus, for me, it was a can’t-put-it-down good read.

  5. 5
    kkw says:

    I don’t like prejudice in romance novels (although, as mentioned, the sexism certainly runs rampant and I keep reading them). I don’t want them to be profound, I don’t actually care about personal growth for the hero or heroine, and I feel it takes away from the happy ending if real, horrible, unfixable elements are presented. A superficial tackling of a complex situation makes me cringe. So anyway, I can recommend some books I didn’t like, and hope they work better for you.  Of course, I can’t remember the books I *do* like…May have to get back to you on this one.  I was so proud of myself for remembering Suzanne Brockmann had some, and lo Rose has already supplied the titles.  Mostly, I can think of books where it’s class issues, I suspect because that’s easier to fix – slap some education on her (if she doesn’t already have it) and she’s fit to mix with her betters, never having really belonged with her family anyway, and then no one is ever allowed to criticize her again (if they even want to, mostly no one can discern her secret shame) because her new powerful family rallies around her.  Anyway.  Is class prejudice of interest? Beverly Jenkins doesn’t that I know of have main characters that are racist, but it’s definitely something they have to deal with.  There was that whole quadroon sub-genre in the 70s and 80s, but I don’t know that the racism is ever resolved.

  6. 6

    Can’t help with the books but I just had to chip in my two bits on the matrilinieal descent. An Orthodox Rabbi told me the reason for this is because children get their souls from their mothers. Women are seen as men’s spiritual superiors, we don’t even have to pray, just by being women God listens to us automatically without any formal prayer. (I wish I could remember his name but I do know a famous Rabbi said that the Messiah would come when husbands listened to their wives.) 

    Yes, obviously the “You know who your mother is” thing plays into it. That was my first thought too. However, there are other reasons they do it that way.

  7. 7
    Carney says:

    I liked the Host by Stephenie Meyer. Fair warning: I did like Twilight, which is her slightly more famous book, but I liked this one better. It’s your basic body snatchers plot from the perspective of the body snatcher. Definite prejudice overtones here as the humans aren’t too fond of bady snatchers, naturally. There is a light romance throughout and it’s a fun, fast read.

  8. 8
    Melissandre says:

    This is an extremely Old Skool book, but George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda tackles a lot of these issues.  The book was written and set in the Victorian period, and deals with many of the issues/stereotypes of the Jewish community.  The hero doesn’t really have a prejudice to overcome, but much of the plot does center around these prejudices and the way they must be dealt with.  I haven’t read the book itself, but there was a recent BBC miniseries (with a very pretty Hugh Dancy) that was quite good.

  9. 9
    ms bookjunkie says:

    Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series deals with prejudice. But. The prejudice is between the three factions (psys, changelings and humans), it’s not about ethnicity and color. I find it refreshing and thought-provoking that the prejudice is not about the “everyday” stuff, because it makes me take a closer look at my own assumptions and prejudices.

    Roslyn Hardy Holcomb’s ROCK STAR has a white rock star hero and a dark-skinned, dreadlocked African-American heroine. He thinks she’s beautiful, her educated Southern family isn’t crazy about the LA rock star part… and that’s just the beginning. Outsiders figure he’s using her for sex and she’s with him for money… the prejudice, idiocy and hatefulness continue and give a peek at what some multicultural couples might face daily. Awesome (and I mean awesome!) book.

  10. 10
    Donna says:

    This makes so much more sense than religions (mine own included until a few centuries ago) who claim women are soulless and inherently corruptive influences.

  11. 11
    J0j0s says:

    If you’re ok with PNR, Frostbound by Sharon Ashwood has a heroine who was raised in a monster-hunting family and gets turned into a vampire as a way to get revenge against her father. It helps that she had doubts even before her transformation, but she still has to deal with being the kind of creature she was raised to hate. I thought her struggle to forgive herself for her upbringing and prove herself to the members of her new community, in addition to the romance, was really believable and touching.

  12. 12
    Bungluna says:

    Most of the books I was going to mention have already been brought up.  I have a sci-fi one, be Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, that deals with racial/cultural prejudice in an interesting way.  It’s “Local Custom”, a part of the authors’ Liaden Universe series.  It deals with the situation created whne Er Tom, a Liaden, discovers that a terran he had an affair with had a child and named him after Er Tom, his father.  The conflict between their customs and their races plays out nicely, I thought.

    Louise MacMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife quarted also deals with a couple from vastly different races/cultures trying to forge a marriage against active prejudice.

  13. 13
    StarOpal says:

    Doesn’t Secrets of a Summer Night, by Lisa Kleypas, deal with the heroine’s class prejudice with the hero? It’s in my tbr, so someone who has read may want to correct me here.

  14. 14
    PamG says:

    Just finished Jeaniene Frost’s first Cat and Bones novel. Halfway to the Grave involves the heroine overcoming the deep-dyed prejudice against vampires that was instilled by her mother.  It’s a major conflict between the h/h, but I have trouble with the concept of bigotry being resolved by propinquity and sex.  Too slick by half… (hur hur) 

    Actually I like Charlaine Harris’s take on bigotry in her earlier Sookie Stackhouse novels.  I think she presents some of the complexities and horrors of prejudice in the interactions between the Fellowship of the Sun and vamp culture.  Patricia Briggs also has her supes deal with “coming out.”  The parallels between these fantasy subcultures and some of the issues facing glbtq as well as ethnic minorities are fairly obvious.  Unfortunately, the latter two series do not unravel prejudice primarily through the relationship of hero and heroine, but then I don’t know if I could accept the intricacies of personal prejudice being neatly sorted out by true love and the HEA.

  15. 15
    Olivia Waite says:

    The name Violet Winspear just reached out from the past and slapped me upside the head. I had to stop and remember I wasn’t fourteen years old anymore.

    I had a great conversation with someone on Tumblr a while back about prejudice in paranormal romance—she posted to ask why there were never any black werewolves in romance. I responded that as an author I would be wary of making characters of color into werewolves or vampires because there’s a long history of dehumanizing stereotypes to take into account (which is one of the things Twilight has been criticized for by members of the real-life non-werewolf Quileute nation). But authorial cowardice is not really the best defense against whitewashing.

    Sometimes it seems as though interspecies prejudice in paranormal romance is a way of talking about race without actually including non-white characters.

  16. 16
    Sarah C says:

    I agree with Sugar Daddy as a good example where the prejudice is not swept under the rug.  unfortunately it seems to me beyond independent publishing houses that any form of prejudice is swept up quickly usually solved with HEA without much discussion of the issue.  I think its unrealistic to expect racial/ religious difference to be solved by the end of the credits.  but more attention should be paid to the fact that people are not just in homogenous relationships.  the problem I find in romances is the stereotypes exist still when it comes to religious or racial differences in the couples.  In a good chunk of modern romance races and ethnicity are still relegated into the role the sassy best friend or sideline characters not really part of the storyline. I have had this discussion when it comes to interracial romances that the representation is not strong. I have to say personally it was really hard when I was younger to get behind author’s raving about the heroines milky white skin or pick your poison when it comes to description of the pale heroine.  It bugged me because it wasn’t what I saw in the mirror and I wondered why the emphasis on being pale.  I wanted to read stories with heroines who actually went to the sun occasionally at least.  I wanted some one who at least wasn’t the fair haired pale woman.  Sadly it is still hard to find romances that have diversity in them at all.  It is actually one of my romance pet peeves as you will.  When i get bored with romance i look to fantasy writers who at least seem to have some diversity in their characters. rant over.
    Some Recs
    Marjorie M. Liu is a good example of a writer who writes romance where the couple has to over come prejudices granted most of hers are paranormal based.

  17. 17
    Rebecca Kovar says:

    I second the Marjorie Liu inclusion, as she writes characters diverse in race and species. She also has interracial relationships where race is not the defining issue at all, which is quite refreshing. There is still prejudice to overcome, but it’s usually not the MCs who are doing that. She seems to really dislike witches, though. ;)

    Zoe Archer’s Blades of the Rose series deals with prejudice, but again not between the MCs but rather the world around them.

  18. 18
    Julia says:

    I just read an older one (mid ‘90s I think) that dealt with this from a futuristic/sci-fi perspective – Karen Fox’s Somewhere My Love. There’s two type of “people” – the regular humans and people who have developed psychic abilities. Because of some conflicts in their past the two groups hate each other and the regular people have managed to destroy most of the people with special abilities. The hero in the book is one of the remaining psychics and the heroine is from a police force dedicated to getting rid of the psychics. So obviously they dislike each other almost immediately but are forced to work together and get over their prejudices. I thought the prejudices were very realistic and handled well, but the book still came across as funny and cute – not the downer that reading about real life prejudices can be.

  19. 19
    Darlynne says:

    This isn’t a romance per se, but one (two, actually) of my favorite books this year. They were new to me and I’ve continued to think about them long, long after finishing.

    Zoe Ferraris, who was married to a Saudi-Palestinian Bedouin and knows of what she speaks, wrote Finding Nouf and City of Veils. Her main characters are an educated, ambitious female lab worker, Katya Hijazi, and a devout Muslim man, Nayir Sharqi, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

    On one level, Katya’s story of trying to succeed in a world where she must be driven to work by her father’s driver, cannot talk to any man outside her family and must enter the coroner’s office through the women’s entrance, would be fascinating all by itself. When she cooperates with Nayir, a sort-of private investigator and desert guide, to discover the cause of death of her friend, a member of the family for whom Nayir worked, the situation becomes outright dangerous.

    The beauty of these books—and the way they fit in with the question of prejudice and changing one’s worldview—is that Nayir is, for this Western reader, completely reprehensible. He is unspeakably appalled by Katya’s deliberate wantonness when she looks directly at him and doesn’t immediately lower the face veil of her burqa in his presence. He is outraged, entranced and angry when she speaks directly to him. Honestly, I hated him.

    Over the course of the investigation, Nayir begins to question what he has always thought about women, their lives and how they should behave. He realizes how narrow his outlook has been and how isolated this has made his life. The reality for him as a devout Muslim is that unless a family member introduces him to a woman, he will never—and it really is never—meet one and hopefully marry. As a Bedouin without any local family ties, he is doomed and is it this realization of how the jailer becomes the jailed that captivated me.

    Katya more than holds her own against Nayir and they both—me included—learn a great deal about each other and the other’s perspective. I am a huge Nayir fan now and feel that I am a better person for it. After finishing each book, I wrote to Ms. Ferraris to tell her—and, lordy, did I gush—how much these stories meant to me. My worldview changed and I hope the SBs reading this will be challenged enough to step into this world.

    As always, Sarah, thanks for another thought-provoking discussion.

  20. 20
    Lynn says:

    Linda Howard’s Mackenzie’s Mountain hero Wolf is Native American and faces prejudice from the small town he lives near.

  21. 21
    FD says:

    The Veiled Web by Catherine Asaro comes to mind – combines a Moroccan Muslim hero and an American Catholic ballet dancer heroine with a dash of suspense, an AI   and some philosophical questions about the nature of life, love, beauty and faith.

  22. 22
    Kate Pearce says:

    Kathleen Eagle writes excellent romances often set in Native American locales, which deal with real contemporary issues and prejudices (Casino’s anyone?). I assume she knows what she is talking about as she went to work on a reservation and married a Native American and has several kids of mixed race.

  23. 23
    Tacatshenan says:

    Eileen Wilks World of the Lupi series.
    Lily Yu and Rule Turner can’t be more different. She is Chinese-American, he is American-Werewolf royalty.  Many types of prejudice are encountered through the series.
    Wonderful series.

  24. 24
    jules says:

    I believe that Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale also deals with prejudice.  Even more than Christian’s stroke (and threat of being sent back to the asylum by his family), I think the central conflict is really Maddy’s Quaker faith and her struggle to reconcile that with her love of a “worldly” duke.

  25. 25
    appomattoxco says:

    I’ve read a few lion shifters and wondered why they were blond white people. Now it makes sense sort of.

  26. 26
    cleo says:

    A couple Sharon Shinn stories come to mind – the story “Blood” in her collection Quatrain and the novel Heart of Gold.  They’re both SF, set in the same world with two rival races – the patriarchal Gulden (who have gold skin) and the matriarchal Indigo (who are indigo colored) and the Guldens are the oppressed race.  Heart of Gold is the first book and while I thought it was a little heavy handed in places, I also really enjoyed it – there’s a romance in it, but it’s not primarily a romance. 

    Blood is a wonderful short story – it’s a beautiful romance between a Gulden man and Indigo woman.  Initially he’s very prejudiced against her (she comes from a progressive family and is more open) but eventually comes to see her clearly, and it’s just.  Exactly the type of story Jan asked for.

  27. 27
    cleo says:

    and it’s just lovely.  I meant to say LOVELY.  That’s what I get for hitting submit too fast

  28. 28
    cleo says:

    Interesting.  That kind of makes sense.  I think Nalini Singh’s psy/changeling books are the exception.  Her changelings are of many different races.

  29. 29
    SammyJo says:

    This made me think of Bed of Spices by Barbara Samuel. A medieval romance with lots of conflict concerning the Jewish hero and Christian heroine.

  30. 30
    Jan Oda says:

    Wow guys. Thanks so much Sarah for having my request, and thanks everyone for all the recommendations. My TBR is growing by the minute!!

    I’m a bit hesitant about the Brockmann’s, since Romantic Suspense is my least favorite romance subgenre, but I might be tempted after all.

    I think sci-fi romance and paranormal romance would be perfect vehicles to address issues like this, but I found way less than I expected when I started looking for stories like this. I’m glad there’s more out there than I found on my own.

    I always found it terribly frustrating that most romances were very much unicultural, whether Caucasian, Afro-American or Latino… I’m always extra happy when I encounter a multi-racial relationship in Romance (it’s one of the reasons I’m both a big Singh fan and a Laurenston fan). The way skin-color doesn’t matter at all in those books makes me happy, because that’s the way it should be.

    At the other hand I always stayed hungry for books that do address the issue, so I’m glad that now I’ve found at least some :)

    Thanks again! And keep them coming!

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