Monday, March 25, 2019

Race and the RITAs

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)
White: 61.3%
POC: 40.9%

2018 RITA Finalists by race/ethnicity
White: 97.3%
POC: 4%
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%".

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”.
As Sogah observed, biases are often unacknowledged. It is important to note that
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:

In other contexts
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"

Ann Aguirre withdrew hers too

Among other things, she stated 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.
Edited on 28 March to note that RWA have now announced that "Cherry Adair is withdrawing her name as the 2019 RWA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. [...] There will be no Lifetime Achievement Award recipient this year." The full text of Adair's apology can be found here.

Edited on 29 March to add that RWA Board Member Catherine Bybee is withdrawing her book from the competition too and has issued an apology:

Anna Zabo provided the image of Bybee's apology via this Twitter thread, which also includes a transcription of the text in the image.

Edited later on 29 March to add that a replacement has now been found for Avery Flynn, who resigned from the RWA Board on 25 March "because, in good conscience, I could not go to the RITA ceremony": the RWA announced that "RWA President HelenKay Dimon appointed Seressia Glass to the Board of Directors. She will serve the remaining term of the seat vacated by Avery Flynn."

Edited on 4 April to add that Lois Beckett has written a very detailed account for the Guardian of the background history regarding racism, romance fiction and the RWA. It concludes be referring to the current situation with the RITAs.

Edited on 9 April to add that Catherine Bybee has resigned her position on the RWA Board of Directors:

Edited on 19 April to add that RWA announced that they are
in the process of hiring an outside consultant to assist the Board in working through the diversity, equality and inclusion issues in RWA.  We are excited for this new step. The consultant will work with the Board on issues, including leadership training and RITA judging. The consultant will also assist the Board in restructuring the Diversity Advisory Committee (DAC) to be responsive to member needs and play a more active role in relaying concerns to the Board. We thank the current DAC members for their hard work this year. The committee's work will be placed on hold during the restructuring, with an expected relaunch after the annual RWA conference in July.
In addition, "RWA President HelenKay Dimon appointed Kate McMurray to the Board of Directors. She will serve the remaining term of the seat vacated by Catherine Bybee.  Kate previously served as president of both the Rainbow Romance Writers, RWA's LGBTQIA+ chapter, and RWANYC, the New York City chapter."


  1. When criticized for her statement, Cherry Adair referred to those criticizing her as a "lynch mob", and when called out for *that*, she deleted those tweets and then started blocking various other authors and readers, many of them AOC or authors of LGBTQA+ romance.

  2. A day after the finalists were announced, Helen Hoang revealed on Twitter that out of solidarity with black authors she had not entered her novel "The Kissing Quotient": "Until the judging process has been fixed and a black author has won this award, RITA finalist/winner is not something I want on my bio."

    Link to tweet:

  3. Thanks for the additional information, Sandy. I'd seen something about the "lynch mob" comments but they must have been deleted by the time I went looking. I hadn't spotted the comments by Hoang.

    If you come across any more developments, please do feel free to add more comments about them!

    1. C. Adair did indeed delete the tweets in question, but you can find screenshots here:

    2. So (in case that thread later disappears), the gist of it, summarised by @Mojitana, is that Adair

      compared the people including authors of color who were respectfully trying to educate her about the hurt her words caused of being a lynch mob. She "apologized" and then doubled down by trying to redefine the historical significance of lynching.

      i.e., according to one of the screenshots, she attempted to define "lynch mob" as "a band of people intent on lynching someone. No mention of color."

  4. Thank you for this post! Do you mind if I share it with my class?

    1. Please do, Heather! I gathered the links in the hope they might come in handy for someone.

      I think the RWA must have amended their post containing the list of finalists because now the names of the people who've asked to be removed from the contest are no longer there.

  5. Kharma Kelley, "an author and woman of color, but also [...] someone who works in DEI" (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) makes some important observations and suggestions here about changes which could be made to the RITA contest.

  6. Regarding Catherine Bybee: The withdrawal came as a result over the pushback against several ill-judged social media posts, in particular a ~10-minute video in which Bybee said that she deserved the nomination (she said that several times), that there is a bias against marginalized authors (she didn't quite use that term - it almost appeared as if she was not familiar with the term), but that when she first became a member of RWA, she couldn't enter her book in the RITAs because it was published by a small press publisher. And self-published books couldn't be entered either. She continued that she is sorry no "African American author" has ever won a RITA, that RWA is her "tribe" (acknwoledged that "tribe" is mot politically correct, but used it anyway), and how she has been so hurt by some of the members of that tribe just because she received a nomination she totally deserves. And can't we just all love each other?

  7. This is an excellent article. Thank you.

    Sandra Schwab, My comment was inappropriate, and while it was colloquial and said from a place of deep hurt and anger, I realized immediately that it was pouring gasoline on a raging inferno. I apologized instantly, then realized that leaving the words up there was a continual stream of gasoline. I removed it from my feed. Interestingly enough, it was not from AOC that I/we received the most vitriolic comments. It was from sanctimonious white women who feel as though hurling stones at various other RWA members make them more pro-AOC. It doesn't, it just make them bullies. How does injuring someone else fix the issue? How does forcing people who have earned the nomination to withdraw? When I responded and referred people to my original tweet – I was vilified. When I blocked people I was vilified. The mob mentality ruled. Didn't FIX anything, didn't make anyone happy, didn't allow anyone to enjoy their moment. If I'm unhappy, then damn, it, you should be even more miserable. Is *that* how it works? Apparently, yes.

    My original post after a total stranger emailed me – "Devastated. Would you please call me?" I immediately called her back. She and another nominee were ripped apart by the directly aimed vitriol the moment they announced they'd finialed. They were scared and wouldn't be going to NY.

    As a long time champion of new writers/authors, I was incensed. This was my Twitter post. "I agree 100% that this must change, but can't we wait five minutes for the finalists to enjoy their day?" How did this make me a racist, bigot, hater of fat white women, hater of LGBQT? (Yes, I was called all that and much much worse both on Twitter and privately)

    The mob mentality ruled, stridently yelling over compassion, logic, and rationality. Don't get me wrong, as stated time and time again. I agree that RWA has a bias. But it's not going to be fixed instantly. Why couldn't those finalist enjoy their moment in the meantime?

    My withdrawal from my Lifetime Achievement Award was no apology. It took myself out of the fray to quiet the noise for the board and the very people who were vilifying me. I've spent more than 30 years mentoring, supporting and loving new writers. I put time and thousands of $$ where my mouth is. That won't change, and honestly? If any one of the woman who dumped on me on Twitter, who threatened to get together in NY and throw food at me, spit on me, and boo me wherever I went- ever asks for my help with plot or anything else, I'd say yes without a second's hesitation.

    Another excellent article

  8. Well, wow. So, no apology, just to quiet the noise, and still with the self-righteous martyr attitude. The racism is well entrenched, and the "generous lady of the manor" persona is firmly in place.