Writing the White Boyfriend: How today's love stories are revising interracial romance tropes

In romance lit as everywhere else, race matters. These narratives are becoming more diverse, nuanced and vulnerable

Published August 21, 2022 11:00AM (EDT)

Attractive young couple hugging on a boat (Getty Images/bernardbodo)
Attractive young couple hugging on a boat (Getty Images/bernardbodo)

A good romance feels like putting two puzzle pieces together. One piece might be gruff and grumpy while the other is sweet and affectionate. Two pieces might be very alike, but detest each other: similar-shaped curves that just won't line up. One proud piece, one prejudiced. The dramatic core of the romance novel is the moment when the two pieces finally click! into place, but for that click to satisfy, readers need to know those puzzle pieces in detail. Their shapes, their histories, their hard and soft edges, the curves and scope of all the different parts that make two people work. It means that every romance novel is at its heart a character study, an examination of those details that make someone who they are.

Unsurprising then, that in romance literature as everywhere else, race matters. The choice to write a character as a particular race is never a coincidence. Though whiteness is often permitted to pass uncommented, Sally Rooney's novels are as much about what it is like when two white people fall in love as Tia Williams' are an ode to the romantic experience of two Black people. Our racial identities and experiences form a core part of our personhood. In a character study, they're significant.

Interracial relationships throw this into high relief, pushing cultural and racial differences to the fore⁠—the key edges of those puzzle pieces. A spate of new novels depicts interracial relationships with intimate and nuanced attention, from the very optimistic (Jasmine Guillory, Tracey Livesay, Talia Hibbert) to the more ambiguous and even fatalistic (running the course from Alexandra Chang to Raven Leilani). Not every novel is an idealized version of love breaking down every border; some, like Leilani's "Luster," actively scorn the privileged white love interest. But even the more traditional happy-ever-afters spend careful and thoughtful time working out how an interracial relationship can and does work.

Similarly, interracial romances ⁠— for a long time code for "one white person and one person of color"⁠ — are becoming more diverse in themselves, with appetite growing for interracial romances that don't centre a white character at all. Morgan Rogers's "Honey Girl" and Adiba Jaigirdar's "The Henna Wars" both depict interracial lesbian relationships where neither character in the partnership is white⁠. But when one half of the relationship is white, growing diversity in publishing and more authors of color writing romances which reflect their experiences have led to my new favorite trope: the White Boyfriend.

One half of an interracial relationship written by an author of color, the White Boyfriend strikes me as an inversion of the Pocahontas-style narrative in which a white man ventures into unknown space and falls for a foreign, "exotic" love interest whom they treat more like a specimen than a significant other. But now it is the White Boyfriend who is the exotic specimen, evaluated for his potential worth, scrutinized for his privileged position and prepared for potential discard. Novels that consider the White Boyfriend are often humorous: He's a 10, but he thinks panch phoran is a Soundcloud rapper. The love interest in Sara Jafari's "The Mismatch" is a British lad with all the embarrassment that entails; wearing running shorts in the winter, posting shirtless selfies where he pouts at the camera. But as they get closer, the initially reluctant Iranian-British heroine Soraya begins to realize they're not so different after all.

Now it is the White Boyfriend who is the exotic specimen.

Jokes aside, the White Boyfriend offers the opportunity to explore complex issues of race and cultural difference in a close and intimate way. As two lovers draw together, we watch the personal and political collide. Cultural, historical and political differences are all present within the intimacy of one relationship, like a pressure cooker or experiment that seems to have wider repercussions and meanings. For many people of color, getting close to white people feels fraught, leaving us on edge or even vulnerable. That vulnerability is intriguing for writers, worthy of deep exploration.

My own novel, co-written with my wife Mikaella Clements, centers on the relationship between British-Indian actress Whitman Tagore and her white playboy love interest, Leo Milanowski. In "The View Was Exhausting," that puzzle piece click! comes in fits and gasps, in no small part due to the tension between the two protagonists' identity. Leo and Win are both famous, but Win has to work hard, clawing for every moment of public attention, searching for space in the spotlight; Leo rolls out of bed with his handsome face and lets the cameras go to work. Win is judged, castigated, sneered at for the slightest slip-up; Leo bats his baby blues and all is forgiven. (Actually, his eyes are brown, but the point stands.)

We wanted to write about how much race informs and determines the arc of a person's life. Win and Leo are inherently similar, best friends who understand each other on an instinctive level, but their different races have set them miles apart, in a way that Leo himself cannot even entirely understand. "Talking to Leo was sometimes like shouting over a giant gulf that gaped between them that Leo thought was just a crack in the pavement," Win reflects. "He thought he could lean forward and offer his hand and guide Win lightly across. But Win wasn't even sure she wanted to be on the other side."

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Because racism isn't always — or even mostly — a matter of virulence and hate, it was important to me that Leo was an ally who still got things wrong all the time. Win and Leo talk about race a lot; more often than not, those conversations go badly. "I forgot I was talking to the One True Good Man," Win tells him once, and of course she means the One True Good White Man. The White Boyfriend might not be deliberately racist, but he is often clueless: "Just talk to her," Leo advises Win about her first generation mother, with no experience of the internal dynamics and workings of immigrant families.

For me and other writers of color, the White Boyfriend offers a compelling opportunity to reconsider and rewrite classic and racist tropes within interracial romances. A common pitfall is the white love interest appearing as a savior, swooping down to free the protagonist from her predicament. Nicola Marsh's "The Boy Toy" reacts by switching the anxiety to white love interest Rory, who frets about meeting his love interest's big Indian family. His desire to fit in and meet the high standards of Samira's mother and aunties works to destabilize his own privilege, often to great comedic effect. Tracey Livesay's "American Royalty" allows her Black heroine Dani to be vulnerable without requiring her leading man to solve problems for her. "When they know there's a chance their relationship is more serious, they're both aware of the problems they're going to face," Livesay says. "By that point, what I hope I've done is write a love story that shows they're willing to handle anything thrown at them."

The White Boyfriend offers a compelling opportunity to reconsider and rewrite classic and racist tropes within interracial romances.

Privilege is a useful concept in a structural sense, but it tends to get messy in interpersonal issues, especially in a one-on-one conversation where each character is deeply aware of the other's flaws, failings, hurts and dreams. Interracial romances make space for play and transgression and also the mess, resisting an idealized solution in favor of real, complicated feelings. Alexandra Chang explores that dichotomous sense of the personal and political in her novel "Days of Distraction." Newspaper articles, court documents and online forum threads appear amongst Chang's more traditional narrative to present a messy, complex portrait of the interracial relationship at the novel's core. The mosaic format gives the reader a broad and detailed insight into the pressure that Chang's protagonist is under, highlighting the insidiousness of anti-Asian sentiment and the way racism slips inside a relationship, even against both partners' best intentions.

For us, the key was to give Leo an arc that was as much about understanding his own whiteness as it was Win's British-Indian identity; to see himself, and not her, as the other in their dynamic. Saving someone is simple, a one-off act that involves a moment of bravery without much critical thinking. The daily, repetitive, tiring work of understanding someone and their life is much more difficult, but that's what a good partner does. The White Boyfriend who makes it through to the happy-ever-after is one willing to roll up his sleeves and get busy.

By Onjuli Datta

Onjuli Datta is co-author, with Mikaella Clements, of "The View Was Exhausting." Previously her work has been published in Marie Claire, Lithub and more. She lives in Berlin.

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Authors Books Commentary Interracial Relationships Race Romance