Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Racism, Literary Criticism and a "Safe and Respectful Environment"

In the same year as the Romance Writers of America finally awarded RITAs for the very first time in its history to African American authors, and when they were instituting new procedures in the RITA judging process to reduce bias, I'm very sad to have to report that the RWA Ethics Committee, and its Board in upholding the recommendations of the Committee, have taken a massive step backwards.

Alyssa Cole reported on Twitter that RWA had notified Courtney Milan "they'd agreed with ethics complaints filed against her for calling out racism." As reported at Smart Bitches Trashy Books (who link to the various documents in the case)
RWA has “moved to accept the findings of the Ethics Committee” and has recommended as penalty that Milan be suspended from RWA for a year, and be banned from holding any leadership positions on the national or chapter level.
One complaint was filed by Suzan Tisdale, who wrote that "Recently, someone on twitter accused one of my acquisition editors Sue Grimshaw --of being a racist. This happened after they discovered Sue Grimshaw had liked a tweet on twitter." The circumstances surrounding this were discussed at length, at the time, here at TMT. Another key part of Tisdale's complaint was that
Ms. Milan began tweeting screenshots from a book that Kathryn Lynn Davis wrote in the 1990’s titled Somewhere Lies the Moon. [...] In these tweets, Courtney alleges the book is racist, inaccurate [...] Her allegations of racism are not based in any kind of fact or truth. Ms. Davis has a master’s degree in History and immersed herself into the Chinese culture for six years before she even began to write the aforementioned novel. Keep in mind, this book was written and published in the 1990’s.
The allegations clearly are based on a "kind of fact" since Milan was performing literary criticism of a text, and she provided screenshots of the parts of the text in question which she felt perpetuated racist tropes/stereotypes. Quotations from a primary text constitute a "fact" in literary criticism.

It is suggestive that Tisdale felt the need to ask the RWA to "keep in mind" the publication date of the novel. The implication here is that novels from this period should not be held to the same standard as novels with a more recent publication date. Could this be a tacit admission that novels published in the 1990s, including this one, were more likely to include racist elements? [Edited to add: perhaps Tisdale was echoing Kathryn Lynn Davis's complaint to the RWA, in which Davis defends her book by stating that "The book [....] was written in the 1990s and is historically accurate, which makes it both immune from and irrelevant to current judgments of racist literature." Davis is wrong regarding both immunity and irrelevance: here's just one example, by Hsu-Ming Teo, of analysis of a romance novel from the past which discusses its racism and outlines its ongoing relevance in the decades following its publication.]

Since Tisdale mentions Davis's degree, it's also worth pointing out that, as recent debates about racism in medievalism and academia more widely make all too clear, academic credentials are no guarantee of an absence of bias.

So, Courtney Milan has been highlighting racist behaviour and racism in the text of romance novels. As a result, the RWA's Ethics Committee
determined that Ms. Milan’s comments were in violation of the organization’s expressed purpose of creating a “safe and respectful environment” for its community of writers. Most particularly, the committee considered the legal phrase of “invidious discrimination,” defined as “By word or deed likely to arouse, inflame,or incur resentment or anger in others; tending to cause discontent, animosity, envy; words that created an unjust comparison or were unfairly discriminating,” as being applicable to this case.
Considering the imbalance in the RITA awards, which are supposed to reward excellence in the romance genre, one might well ask whether promotion of these awards has included a great many "words that created an unjust comparison or were unfairly discriminating."

Certainly, as many people (including May Peterson) have pointed out, racism in the RWA means it has not been a "safe and respectful environment" for many writers and "that racism, both covert and overt, institutional and individual, absolutely expose[s] RWA members of color to hostile and unsafe conditions and potential damage to career and reputation."

Since I am not, and have never been, a member of the RWA, I don't feel it's my place to offer suggestions to those who are. However, I do want to point out that the RWA awards academic grants and
The objectives of the program are:
  1. To support theoretical and substantive academic research about genre romance texts and literacy practices.
  2. To encourage a well-informed public discourse about genre romance texts and literacy practices.
In the context of this ruling by the RWA Board, in which criticism of racism in a text was part of the evidence against Milan, I'm not sure how academics can "encourage a well-informed public discourse" about romance fiction without running the risk of the RWA deciding that the research is lacking in respect towards its members. I have never applied for one of these grants and had not thought of doing so in the future, but this latest episode in the RWA's history makes me wonder if romance scholars as a whole need to consider whether receipt of one of these grants will henceforth involve tacit approval of the RWA's stance with respect to Milan and criticism of romance authors and novels.

[Edited to add: I'm not sure how many romance scholars are still using the RITA awards when trying to create a corpus for study, but given the biases which have been revealed in the competition's procedures, we probably shouldn't be doing so, at least not unless we take them into account/are wanting to investigate those biases.] 

[Edited again to add that Caitlyn Lynch has brought up an interesting point: in the future, in the light of this decision by the RWA Board,

Are RWA going to take into account the applicant's history of critique of issues like racism, homophobia, ableism etc when considering who to award grants to? Will applicants be eliminated if they have previously been critical of RWA members, and IF NOT, would members ... have a case against the org itself, for 'contributing to the unsafe environment' by KNOWINGLY giving a grant to applicants with a known history of critiquing RWA members? Catch-22.]

[And I'm going to add a few more links, for posterity:

Copied from SBTB and Alyssa Cole's thread:

The Wrap's Writeup:

Which is reported by Kirkus.

And another edit, to add the latest comment from RWA:

Early on the 25th of December (UK-time) the RWA tweeted that
At a meeting today that identified a gap between policy and process, RWA’s Board of Directors rescinded its vote accepting the findings of the Ethics Committee report and the consequent penalties against Courtney Milan pending a legal opinion.
RWA reiterates its support for diversity, inclusivity and equity and its commitment to provide an open environment for all members.
Various people have pointed out on Twitter that this is not an apology. It is not clear what type of legal advice RWA are seeking, or why they are seeking it. 

I have posted a further update in a new post.


  1. If a child has one parent with brown eyes and one with blue eyes, the child can have blue eyes. Though diversity is wanted today, beating people over the head and lambasting authors isn't the way to do it. If one isn't to write about other cultures one can only write about one's own neighbors and families.

  2. My interest in writing this post was to explore some of the implications of the RWA ruling. If the RWA is henceforth going to consider critique of racism in romance novels to be a form of "beating people over the head" (as you put it), this would appear to run counter to their intention of encouraging scholarship, since scholarship not infrequently involves making public critiques of primary texts.

    Milan's response to Davis's complaint (which I have just added to the links list above) addresses the question of why she found the blue-eyed heroine problematic by linking to this tumblr post.

    Regarding writing about other cultures, in her response to Tisdale Milan notes that "Diana Gill at Tor recently sent me a book for review which had a half-Japanese protagonist, and was written by a white woman. I praised the book". For more details about why, see this thread by Milan to which she linked in her response.

    1. I think this short thread by CM addresses why the blue eyes thing is problematic.

      And this thread by Dr Reese goes into more detail and examples of the same, often subconscious, racism.

    2. Thanks! I spotted that too, and thought it was important to add so I was writing a comment further down just as you were writing this comment. I copied out Milan's comments in more detail, so if someone can't find the thread for some reason, they're on here.

  3. I love Milan’s book but I can’t stand her because she’s a twitter bully. She’s been horrible to some of her romance colleagues and loves to stoke mob mentality. About a year ago she was going after Eloisa James because the half- Indian hero in Born to be Wilde wasn’t dark enough or something.

  4. Eva, could you give me a link to Milan's comments on this? I've looked around and I couldn't see any evidence of her "going after Eloisa James." All I can find is Milan retweeting a "Thread from a Shakespeare scholar who specializes in race". It was the Shakespeare scholar, whose pen-name is Elysabeth Grace, who was critiquing Eloisa James and, more specifically, some comments James made in an Entertainment Weekly interview.

    Another person who tweeted about this article, at greater length than Milan did, is Jackie Lau. Among other things, Lau tweeted that

    'In the article, Eloisa James says: “I wanted to have a hero who wasn’t just totally white and aristocratic, and that was a lot of fun.” Which is uncomfortable for me.'

    This points to one of the problems with focussing on the language used by people like Milan; it glosses over the hurt caused by the writing of those they critique.

    Suleikha Snyder also commented on the interview, observing that

    'she thinks having her biracial hero raised in England sidesteps colonialism.'

    These commentators are not "bullying" or being "horrible," they're merely highlighting comments that James herself made. In the article, James herself makes it clear that she chose this hero's background in response to a trend:

    "One of the main things we’re talking about now is diversity, and Parth, the hero of the third book, is half Indian. I wanted to have a hero who wasn’t just totally white and aristocratic, and that was a lot of fun. He’s a self-made business man. What was happening with many children at that point was, say a squire or a young second, third, fourth son of an aristocrat would go over to India with the East India company, marry an Indian woman, but then they would send their biracial children home to be raised in England. So they have lots of records of those children. So his parents sent him to the Duke of Lindow, to the Wilde family, and then they died of a fever. He was raised with the Wilde family, so he is a Wilde, but he has a more interesting background.

    Is this the first time you’ve written a non-white hero or heroine?
    Yep. It’s very difficult. Specifically, there were plenty of people of color in England in the Georgian and Regency periods. I’ve looked up all the scholarship. I’ve read the primary sources on it. There was a very famous butler, for example [...]

    I’m an academic, so I talked to a friend of mine who is an academic from India, and she helped me plan a whole background and gave me books, and then she read it. I feel it’s more like a research read. I needed the background. I needed the research, and I needed to figure it out. Because I did try to write a short story with an Indian heroine once. I got about halfway through, and I was like, “This is just not working. I can’t have a colonialist aristocratic white guy with her.” And then I called up the friend, and she was like, “You can’t do that, you’re not able to negotiate that.” But here, in this case, because he was raised in England and he came over at age 5, it allowed me to populate my book with someone of a different race, but not feel so like I’m intersecting a major historical trend here, like colonialism."

    1. Thank you for your response!
      Yes, I was referring to that Jackie Lau tweet. CM expanded on JL tweet claiming EJ’s “implied racism” in the book and basically says EJ’s “Whiteness is in everything you have ever written” and her final tweet in her thread from 5/7/18 :” There is a name for people who hold people of X color to one standard and white people to a lower one, and you don’t need to write books about POC to please racists.”
      I can only applaud EJ for not engaging with CM and her mob who immediately jumped on the “EJ book is racist” bandwagon. Soon after EJ deleted her twitter account.

      This is just one out of many incidents where CM attacks her fellow female writers. She screams diversity but when a white person writes a book with biracial hero, she goes into full attack mode. Unfortunately, CM and Cole and others have turned the Romance twitter community into an echo chamber where we cannot have honest conversation about any issues. CM online presence is full of hostility, snarks and vicious attacks particularly on Christian authors. The best thing is not engaging because these “virtue signaling “ ladies will attack and destroy you.
      I can only applaud RWA for finally taking a stand against this behavior (online bullying) and I fully agree with Tisdale/Davis complaint. If you need any further proof of what has became of Romance twitter community, Please search the hashtag “IstandwithCourtney” and see how they smear Tisdale calling her “a fu***ng racist”.

    2. I think you're referring to this thread by Courtney Milan? I can't see any mention of Eloisa James in it. What I can see are some statements which, when read in context, appear rather different from the way in which you present them.

      The whole thread is offering writing advice, and the last piece of advice is that:

      Identity is not plot. Think of the vast number of books we have in which the white characters whiteness plays an insignificant plot role. [...] it’s perfectly okay to let the character’s identity inform their characterization, but to not make it a Big Deal in the plot. Some people want it to be Big Deal because they feel like what is the point of reading a book with a Chinese heroine if we don’t have her dealing with Chinese issues 24/7? [...] You do not have to care about those people. There’s a name for people who hold people of X color to one standard and white people to a lower one, and you don’t need to write books about POC to please racists.

      As I understand it, this cannot be referring specifically to Eloisa James's Borne to be Wilde because Milan gives the example of a Chinese heroine, and there is no Chinese heroine in Eloisa James's novel.

      Milan is making a general point that all of us have an existence which is shaped by, but generally does not revolve wholly around, our race/ethnicity. If white readers accept that this is true for white characters, but are only interested in reading about characters of colour while they are being 'exotic' and 'different', that is racist because it denies those characters their humanity and reveals that the white reader only wishes to relate to characters of colour in terms of their Otherness.

    3. As far as the statement “Whiteness is in everything you have ever written” is concerned, again this is not directed at Eloisa James and the statement needs to be read in context. Milan is offering generalised writing advice, to a generic "you" in the situation below:

      "if you’ve written a bunch of books about white people and you want to diversify, a good first step is *not* to ask yourself “what is the easy POC that I can write about?” It’s to examine how your writing had been informed by your character’s whiteness.

      White is a color; your characters have it. It’s in the scene where the girl gets drunk with friends and doesn’t worry about being loud on the street corner.
      It’s in the way the guy knows if he can *just* get so-and-so’s attention for a minute, they can clear this all up.

      It’s there. Whiteness is in everything you have written."

      What she is saying here is that white characters' experiences are shaped by their whiteness. However, white people often don't think about how their whiteness shapes their experience and white authors may not think about how whiteness shapes their white characters. Indeed, as Robin DiAngelo has observed in her writing about "white fragility"

      White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. Racial stress results from an interruption to what is racially familiar. These interruptions can take a variety of forms and come from a range of sources, including:

      • Suggesting that a white person’s viewpoint comes from a racialized frame of reference (challenge to objectivity)

      You allege that "when a white person writes a book with biracial hero, she goes into full attack mode". In the light of DiAngelo's comments about "white fragility" it's important to think about how comments by people of colour are perceived. DiAngelo writes that

      The language of violence that many whites use to describe anti-racist endeavors is not without significance, as it is another example of the way that White Fragility distorts and perverts reality. By employing terms that connote physical abuse, whites tap into the classic discourse of people of color (particularly African Americans) as dangerous and violent. (65)

      I have already provided evidence in a previous comment that Courtney Milan does not invariably go "into attack mode" when "a white person writes a book with biracial hero": I've already given an example of Courtney Milan praising a novel written by a white author which had a half-Japanese protagonist.

      Analysing characterisation, as Milan has done, and offering writing advice, as Milan does in that thread, should not be characterised as an "attack." If people perceive such things to be attacks, perhaps it is they who "cannot have honest conversation[s] about" these issues.

      DiAngelo, Robin. "White Fragility." International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 3.3 (2011): 54-70.

  5. There is more coming out that puts RWA's procedures/staff in even worse light: (Rachel Grant's thread) highlights appalling breaches in protocol and transparency.

  6. Thanks, AZ. I might have to start another post to deal with some of the organisational details coming out.

    RR, I've just seen some more tweets by Courtney Milan re blue eyes which help clarify why she considers them problematic in this context. She begins by linking to a thread by Dr Debbie Reese, whose "research and writing is on misrepresentations in children's and young adult lit." That thread is worth reading in itself, but Milan's comments specifically on blue eyes are:

    "If you, as a writer, think you’re going to write someone from an ethnic group where people do not generally have blue eyes, but you’re gonna give them blue eyes to show that THIS person is special...

    Please stop.

    It’s not about if it’s possible to have blue eyes.

    You’re starting with the assumption that you can’t be special with brown eyes. You probably have a lot of other assumptions that you need to examine.

    If you haven’t spent years thinking about writing and years reading writing, the one instance of “blue eyes” is probably not going to strike you as racist.

    But it’s the totality of instances that make it really, really clear."

  7. ha! I had just liked to both in a direct reply to RR's comment.

  8. Although I fear the response I'll get to the comment I'm about to post, being a lapsed academic myself I loved reading this post and the resulting commentary. However, I DO have a question as a fledgling romance writer and voracious reader of the genre. How does one avoid the criticism inherent in Ms. Milan's comment posted last regarding writing blue-eyed people if the intent is simply to present the fascinating possibilities of being hybrid in a multicultural, inter-racial world? Should I avoid writing blue-eyed mixed race/biracial characters for fear I'll be accused of trying to make them "special"? Surely every character is "special", whether of one or of more than one race? How does one open the way for hybrid characters to be embraced for their differences without it being assumed that there are deficiencies in or problems with the writer's thinking about race? Part of the excitement of reading and writing interracial couples for me IS that very thing...that they bring so many variables to the relationship, whether ethnic or racial, and that those things add another layer of interest and depth to the romance. Is that naive or racist or wrong of me?

    1. Hello Teri, first of all I think it's important to note that Courtney Milan's criticism of the book was based on considerably more aspects than simply the eye-colour of the protagonist.

      Secondly, Jenny Holiday, who describes herself as "a white lady who sometimes writes MCs who are not white" has written an interesting thread on the topic which you might find helpful. She makes a number of points, among which are:

      There is, I think, one reason for a white lady IN GENRE ROMANCE to consider writing a MC who is not white, and that is when she is writing a series—meaning more than one book—in a contemporary or historical setting in which the overall population is not homogeneously white.

      What I would *not* do is: Make my nonwhite MCs’ identities central to their character or romantic arcs. I try to make their backgrounds realistic (I talk to my friends about this in the planning, and I have gotten sensitivity readers for more recent books) but… That is super not my story to tell. So I try to make identity not incidental but not The Point™.

  9. I definitely agree with you on that. Even though I write IR romances and enjoy reading them, I do my best not to make the race the issue. Often, I leave the physical appearance of the characters mostly up to my readers, only giving the bare minimum of detail because for me what's important is how they integrate their differing cultural and racial experiences to make a happy new whole. And even then, I try not to beat anyone over the head with the race thing because what I enjoy reading and am learning how to write better is people finding love with other people regardless of what they look like on the outside. I only make race appear if it's germane to the advancement of the plot or the development of a character. Thanks for responding, and for the link to the thread. I appreciate it.

  10. Racism is abhorrent. All human beings are born equal and cannot discriminate against others because of their different skin colors. Every race and even every country should communicate with each other, learn from each other's culture, and make the world more harmonious and beautiful.