On 30 March the RWA posted the following (as part of a slightly longer statement):
We’ve only recently started collecting demographic information on our members, and that is on a voluntary basis. But from what we could determine, the statistics for black author RITA finalists from 2000 to 2017 are:I don't know precisely what prompted this statement. It seems quite likely it had been in preparation for some time, but the demographics of this year's RITA finalists had caused concern after "RWA announced the finalists for the 2018 RITA and Golden Heart awards on March 21" (RWA). Courtney Milan, who is a Director-at-Large on the current RWA Board of Directors, has noted that
- The number of finalist books by black authors is less than half of 1% of the total number of finalist books
We understand there are questions about which authors enter and what percentage of entrants are black authors. We will attempt to gather that information in the future to answer these questions but, in the meantime, it is impossible to deny that this is a serious issue and that it needs to be addressed.
- No black romance author has ever won a RITA
If we lived in a society with real representation, of the 88 works that were RITA finalists this year, we would expect that 12 of them were black, 5 were Asian, 1 was Native, and 16 were Hispanic (with some percentage of those being nonwhite Hispanics.) [...] By my count, this year 4 of our finalists are Hispanic and 2 are Asian (Four Hispanic because I’m going by finaling works, not authors, and Alexis Daria and Priscilla Oliveras has works that double finaled as best first book.)One of the ironies of this is that RWA came into existence because of an African-American editor, Vivian Stephens:
In 1979, editor Vivian Stephens and a group of romance writers met at a writers conference at the University of Houston. At the time, writers groups largely ignore the romance genre, and these women recognized the value of an organization dedicated to the needs of romance writers in the rapidly growing American romance fiction market. (RWA)And yet, the RWA has often felt like an extremely unwelcoming place to people of colour. For instance,
Did you know that women of color who attend RWA often have what is in effect a buddy system? So they’re not left alone? Did you know that every year, Black women who sit down at lunch tables see white women stand up and move to not sit with them? That black women with twenty books to their name get called “aspiring authors”? That these things happen under the nose of white authors who don’t say anything because it would be “mean”? (Courtney Milan)That black author with twenty books to her name was Kianna Alexander:
And the person who said it to me was an editor at a major publishing house, who simply looked at me and assumed I was "aspiring" rather than multi-published.Publishers are clearly part of the problem. The lack of diversity in romance publishing was highlighted in The Ripped Bodice's 2016 report on the issue. In 2017 they repeated their analysis of romance publishing and their
study highlights just how glaring of an issue racial discrimination continues to be. This is an urgent issue. The downward trend in the industry as a whole this year shows that simply noting and discussing the problem is not enough. We need action. [...]As Courtney Milan indicates, the net effect of all discriminatory attitudes and barriers to inclusion is to create
Do not mistake this data as evidence that books written by authors of color do not exist. The books ARE out there. They are being self-published due to publishers' historic and current attitudes towards non white authors.
a tale of two RWAs. [...] It’s not just about people. It’s about the entire system of power. [...] In 2016, more black women were RITA finalists than in any of those other years before. One of those black women was
@PhyllisBourne, who finaled with a book that was released by Harlequin Kimani. Harlequin tends to celebrate its RITA-finaling authors—they’re very proud of the fact that their series authors write wonderful books that capture hearts, and they should be. Those authors are often given pride of place at their publisher signings. Phyllis Bourne, who was attending RWA, was not invited to sign her RITA finalist book at their signing. She wasn’t invited to sign at all. She reminded them she had a RITA finalist (was, IIRC, the only black Harlequin finalist?), and they just snubbed her. [...]
Like I said, this is a tale of two RWAs—one in which every woman of color was aware that a large number of black authors faced an existential threat to their career, and one where most white woman had no idea. [...] WOC wanted Phyllis to win. We really did. And yeah, we understood it might not happen, but man, publishing is full of disappointments. You get up and you keep going. But there was ONE book in that category that...um, let’s say, I didn’t hear a lot of WOC they wanted it to win. This was a book (written by a white author) where the heroine was Native. She had a family history of alcoholism and poverty (because of course she did) and the hero was a white savior, and... it’s really not about that book. [...] It was hurtful that we knew some of our fellow authors who served as judges had read these books and didn’t notice that they were deeply racially problematic at best. But it’s not like racially problematic books hadn’t finaled before. You just hope they don’t win. It’s one thing if five judges randomly chosen don’t notice it. But five final round judges, hand-picked, would have to like it for it to win. You know which book won. And—by the way, this is important—Harlequin also published this book.This, and more details and examples, can be found here, on Courtney Milan's thread. Seressia Glass adds more detail about the hurtful comments directed at her at that conference and each one matters because, as she states, "microaggressions add up." A pattern of microaggressions makes clear who is an "outsider" and whose work is not likely to be valued; the targets of microaggressions react accordingly. Beverly Jenkins, who is celebrated for her historical romances about African-Americans, for example,
never received a RITA until the LTA [Lifetime Achievement Award] last year because I never entered. Back in the 90s, I knew my chances of being a finalist were zero to nil, so why put myself through that. When I gave keynote in 2016 there was a record number of POC and queer finalists. Was this due to the judges? The numbers submitted? I was hoping it was a trend, then last year? Nope. Back to “normal”. This year “normal” too.Sasha Devlin notes that:
Romance is always talking about how empowering the genre is for women, how welcoming, rah rah sisterhood & yet the truth is for many of us it's a gauntlet. Every event, con, meeting is a chance for Who Might Be Racist? Who Will Back Me Up?To summarise, this is an issue which affects many different areas of publishing. It affects: how people are treated in person; which authors receive contracts from publishers and which do not; it is about the contents of the books which are and aren't published; it is about readers and the books they do (or don't) find problematic. On that last point, here's an example of a Harlequin romance, published in March 2017, which as pointed out here by azteclady has "so many things wrong with it" yet it nonetheless received a favourable, B review at All About Romance, whose reviewer would "recommend this book to adventurous readers looking to try something new." And here's a 2007 RITA-winner published by Jove which I critiqued at the time for its racist stereotypes: the reviewer at the Historical Novel Society noticed the "helpful peasants, and villains who only lack a mustache to twirl to complete their stereotypical portrait" but nonetheless concluded that "this is still a fast, fun read."
There's a lot to fix:
I mean fix the presumptions of quality. Fix the presumptions of "I can't relate to 'those' characters." Fix the perspective that you can't help. (Adrienne Michel - another current RWA Director-at-Large)We can all play our part in bringing about change. I wish RWA well as it attempts to address this deep-seated, systemic issue.