The announcement of the finalists for the Romance Writers' of America's 2019 RITA awards has caused dismay and led to calls for change. Earlier this year, there were similar sentiments expressed after the publication of the Ripped Bodice's report on the state of racial diversity in romance publishing in 2018. The authors of that report had
hoped that providing clear data would contribute to the work that authors of color had been doing for decades to prove that there is widespread systemic racism within romance publishing [...but] there has been zero progress in the last 3 years. [...] For every 100 books published by the leading romance publishers in 2018, only 7.7 were written by people of color. That compares to 6.2% in 2017 and 7.8 in 2016.The figures for this year's RITA finalists are, if anything, even worse:
US Census data on race/ethnicity (2016)Bronwen Fleetwood analysed the data for the RITAs over a 20-year period: "There were 397 data points in total, including winners and finalists. Of these only 17 were BIPOC. That’s 4.28%" while "Out of all the winners (241), only ten were BIPOC. That’s 4.1%".
2018 RITA Finalists by race/ethnicity
As Esi Sogah, Senior Editor at Kensington Books, has said "This is an industry-wide problem and readers/consumers are a part of the industry, not separate from it. It is very hard to root out biases in those who refuse to acknowledge they have them".
What the analysis of the RITA results and the Ripped Bodice report findings provide is evidence of institutional racism. Institutional racism is
“the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin”. It is seen in “processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantages minority ethnic people”.
Empirical psychology of the past few decades has again and again shown that the workings of our minds are not transparent to us, and that many of us harbour and are influenced by implicit biases. [...] This sort of bias means that people who – sincerely – report that they are not racist, and that they are committed to fair and non-discriminatory treatment, might nonetheless harbour implicit race biases, and be influenced by these biases in the way they behave. These biases are described as ‘implicit' because they are not easy to detect (we cannot easily check whether we have them or are influenced by them), and because they operate automatically, and outside the reach of direct control.Implicit racial biases are likely to vary, with different stereotypes being associated with different racial/ethnic groups. As LaQuette and others have pointed out, the lack of winners and finalists is particularly glaring with respect to black authors:
there have been no black Rita winners [...] the issue at hand is black women who are being discriminated against (both authors & characters).As a result of the long-standing institutionalised racism in the RITAs, some black authors no longer enter, or have never entered, their works in the competition. Beverly Jenkins, the 2017 RWA Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient, is one of them:
There are various strategies that have been tested as ways of tackling implicit racial biases. They range from trying to change the biases themselves – a sort of cognitive training that should overturn traces of negative stereotypes in our minds – to putting in place structural measures and checks to try to stop biases from impacting on decisions and actions. Such measures might involve new ways operating – such as considering whether to exclude information about race from a decision-procedure in order to avoid potential biases - or new ways of checking each other's decisions and holding each other accountable.In the context of romance publishing it would not be at all desirable to alter published novels in order to "exclude information about race" with respect to the protagonists. In addition, it appears that some authors would strongly resist the suggestion that they have any biases, and would therefore probably not be open to some "sort of cognitive training" prior to judging the contest. However, some other strategies could perhaps be implemented. Cat Sebastian, for example, has proposed the following:
While the peer-judging process is a traditional part of the RITAs, the core problem with the current state of the awards is that the pool of judges (largely other RITA entrants) is operating with inherent biases. Any solution needs to start by addressing the fact that a biased judging pool selects which books will final. I propose that we end peer-judging and instead put this process into the hands of a diverse committee. Instead of requiring authors to nominate their own books, nominations could come from demographically diverse committees organized according to subgenre; these could consist of authors who are not entering the RITAs as well as a diverse group of librarians and reviewers.The full proposal is here and discussion about it can be found here. I include it not to endorse it (since I'm not a member of the RWA, and moreover I know nothing about the complexities of how to run a competition of this kind) but to demonstrate that there may be measures which could be implemented which would counter the impact of the biases afflicting the current process.
Edited to add: the issue is being discussed in various locations, including the private PAN forums (for published authors who are members of the RWA). I do not have access to those but I got a flavour of the discussions via Twitter.
Here's African American author Piper Huguley's response to comments made elsewhere by Jennifer Beckstrand, one of the finalists, rebutting the "implication that I don't work on my craft and that must be [why] I haven't finaled in the RITA yet. Your statement about there being no racism in RWA is flat out wrong."
Cherry Adair, the 2019 RWA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient thought criticism should wait in order to allow award recipients to enjoy their achievements.
But Joanna Shupe (another of the finalists) argued that it was right to have debate now:
Susanna Kearsley, another finalist, withdrew her nomination, saying that her novel "is dedicated, by name, to the people my own ancestors held in slavery, and I can't properly honour their lives and memory, nor pay respect to the diversity of characters in my book by participating in an award that doesn't fully represent that same diversity"
withdrew hers too
on her website that "At this point, the RITA is broken, and the award judging process needs to be completely reconsidered."
Courtney Milan (who won a RITA in 2017 and is also a lawyer) noted that
The point of the RITAs—and I mean this legally—is to raise industry awareness of excellence in romance fiction. RWA is a trade organization. Legally, it cannot engage in activities with the purpose of benefiting individual members. [...] The legal purpose of the RITA contest is to promote excellence in the romance industry. It is NOT to make authors feel good. [...] At this point, between the “uh nominations mean no organizational endorsement” shuffle that we had about Nazi romance and this, it’s pretty clear that the organization does not, and CAN not endorse this award as having any relation to industry excellence. What is RWA’s non-profit justification for engaging in this activity, then? Because if this is not accomplishing a legitimate purpose related to our non-profit status, than shouldn’t the contest be considered and accounted for as a for-profit activity?Edited again to add that later on 25 March the RWA President, HelenKay Dimon, issued a statement which says, among other things, that:
The 2019 RITA finalists were announced late last week. While we are happy for our finalists, we cannot ignore the lack of representation on the finalist list or the shadow this lack of representation casts on RWA. The Board apologizes to our members of color and LGBTQ+ members for putting them in a position where they feel unwanted and unheard. While the Board cannot undo the harm inflicted this year, it does make the following points and commitments: The Board affirmatively states that there is a serious problem with reader bias in the judging of the RITAs. This is most evident in the preliminary round of the RITAs. [...] The Board is currently investigating options and reviewing member feedback to change the scoring and judging of the RITAs.