The Bodies in the Backyard: Can RWA Be Saved?

Earlier this year, I attended the RWA National Conference for the first time. I’m a relatively new member to the Romance Writer’s Association, but I had a book that was a finalist in one of the awards being announced there, and made the decision to attend at the last minute. I learned a lot during the different panels, met some new and interesting people, and had so much fun that I made plans to attend the 2020 convention this coming summer in San Francisco. 

I tend not to go to the website very often, getting my information through digests instead. I avoid participating in the forums: the one time I initiated a question about how best to market something, I inadvertently ignited a controversy, with the discussion devolving into what constituted a romance–and try as I might, I was unable to get the conversation back on track. The moderator ended up shutting the discussion thread, which was mortifying for me. 

Not an experience I wanted to repeat. I tended to skim the discussions if I read them at all–when you have 800+ emails in your box every day, you have to prioritize.

But I still felt as though there was much to be learned about the business and craft of writing, so I renewed my membership when it came due. 

On Friday, I had a health emergency that screwed with my weekend. On Monday, December 23rd, I was happy just to have survived the weekend and looked forward to having a few days off from work. On Monday, December 23, however, Alyssa Day released on Twitter the bombshell news that Courtney Milan had been censured and banned from the RWA stemming from an ethics complaint against her because she, as a Chinese-American, described a book featuring a half-Chinese woman as a “fucking racist mess” on her own Twitter account, and essentially RWA decided to throw the book at her.

Romancelandia went up in arms at the news, and the backlash against RWA was so great, the organization reversed its position pending further proceedings.

And then things really got ugly.

I’m not going to list the particulars of the case: the charges made by Suzan Tisdale and Karen Lynn Davis (in roles as a publisher and an editor, which should not have been allowed as they were raised as one RWA member against another, or that the bylaws make non-RWA space such as Twitter exempt from such actions). I’m not going to go into detail about the private committee formed to come to this ruling that the general Ethics Committee knew nothing about, or that not all information was presented to the board for voting by the President-elect, Damon Suede. I’m not going to give you a timeline of events showing how, when discrepancies in procedure came to light, a large number of board members resigned in protest of the way in which things were handled, and the other egregious events now being reported: ethics complaints never making it to committee, a chapter refusing to pay AOC the going rate for speaking engagements, RWA members reporting gross failures of other members to abide by the stated rules and never getting called out or censured for it, or RWA’s lack of advocacy on behalf of the authors and contractors of Dreamspinner Press for not paying royalties and narration fees, among others.

I do need to point out, however, that in the wake of Carolyn Jewel’s resignation, Damon Suede is now acting RWA president–and supposedly (by his own admission on social media) is on very good terms with the executive officers of DSP, and is one of their bestselling authors. And that he has a book (at the time of the writing of this post) from Dreamspinner Press listed for sale on Amazon as coming out in January, 2020. If nothing else, this represents a conflict of interest. RWA has been very soft on the issues stemming from Dreamspinner’s actions, only going so far as to prohibit DSP from attending any RWA activities.

If you want all these details, including screenshots, statements from RWA and Damon Suede, and links to the rest, I’d advise you to read this excellent post: The Implosion of the RWA. Everything you need to know is there, and it appears it is being updated as events unfold. If you’re looking for the Cliff Notes version of the situation, this Twitter thread by Cate Eland is pretty spot on as well.

I’ve likened the stench coming off this collective mess to that of gases being released from the surface of a pond where bodies have been dumped for years. There’s no telling how much more will come out, or how many bodies are in there.

And the pond is in our own backyard.

I’ve been reading the posts in the RWA forums in response to this appalling situation. Predictably, the members are taking sides falling among two lines: those that support diversity and inclusion, and those who don’t.

Let me tell you, many of the people who have resigned no longer feel the need to keep silent about the workings of RWA, including the backdoor channels that have allowed certain women, women referred to as Nice White Ladies, to make their complaints, charges, and attacks without repercussion. Among the women who have taken a stand for diversity and inclusion, many have pointed out it is Courtney Milan, a woman on color, who took the blow for being a vocal proponent of change, even as white women making similar statements were not challenged.

There is a lot of anger in the forums. People are livid with the ruling, the machinations behind the scenes to bring it about, and have lost faith and trust in the RWA as a whole. The board members who resigned are all AOC, and suddenly Damon Suede is in a position to appoint a new board without having to go through the election process. People who have poured their heart and soul into making RWA a better organization for all its members are disgusted and discouraged and see no point in staying on for empty promises once again. Many people can point to Courtney Milan as the driving force behind those changes and this feels very much like a public smackdown for her doing so.

The remainder of the members speaking up on these forums have complained about the “drama” (my quotations, not theirs) and express a desire for things to go back to the way they used to be in the Good Ol’ Days when we talked about men’s chests and how to write stories with beautiful blonde-haired blue-eyed heroines. “Can’t we all be nice” is one refrain, along with tone-policing anyone who dares to call out racist, ableist, or anti-GLBT language or attitudes on these threads.

Many have indicated their intent to let their memberships lapse when time for renewal, either because they are tired of the drama or because of the lying, manipulation, and double standards being revealed in this case against Courtney Milan. Many have resigned from their role as judges in the upcoming RITA awards, while others have declared their intention to withdraw their entries from the awards themselves. Still others have made eloquent cases for staying in the organization and forcing it to make things right: petitioning for the resignation of Damon Suede and Executive Director Carol Ritter, and calling for an audit and complete transparency of the proceedings and everything leading up to this moment. Some AOC have advocated staying because leaving is exactly what the Nice White Ladies would like them to do.

I chose to stay for the moment, so I could sign the petition and also vote in any potential future elections to replace the Board. I am of mixed feelings about this. I’m not sure the RWA can be saved. I’m even less sure that it should be saved. What’s going on in RWA feels a lot like what’s been happening with Brexit and the MAGA populations among us: a division down the lines of those who want the Old Way (which always worked for them) to stay in place versus those who will no longer accept anything less than a full seat at the main table with access to the entire meal–as it should be.

I signed the petition because I want answers, and I don’t think we’re going to get them any other way.

It’s hard to justify “both sides” of an argument when one side wants to do active harm to the other. I don’t think immigrants belong in cages. I believe that POC are at higher risk of being incarcerated or killed, face steeper sentencing, and more. And like the Old Guard among the RWA, I think what we got with our current administration here in the US is (in part) a backlash against having an intelligent, articulate, and empathetic black man as President before him. I include this statement because I believe the polarization we are seeing in RWA is but a reflection of what we’re dealing with as a nation–or even the world.

See, the thing is, I fit the Nice White Lady demographic. I’m a white, middle-aged cishet woman who was raised as both a conservative and a Christian. I live in a small rural, conservative town. I live in a cultural and social cocoon that likely would have never been breached had I not discovered fanfic and broadened my narrow horizons. I’ve worked for people who don’t believe in evolution, and think the world is only six thousand years old. I have one black friend. And let me tell you, this doesn’t make me an expert on racism or prevent me from being racist. I’ll never forget the time we were planning to meet to see a movie on a snow day and she casually mentioned her street hadn’t been plowed yet because she lived in a black neighborhood.

I didn’t believe her. I thought she was being paranoid. I thought that battle had been fought and won a long time ago because she had the right to vote, sit anywhere she wanted on the bus, to attend public schools alongside me, and to marry any man she wished (I specifically didn’t say anyone here because at the time, same sex marriage wasn’t an option). I didn’t believe her because I’d never experienced the kind of racism she dealt with on a daily basis. And I never will.

So when a POC tells you, as someone outside their experience, that you’ve gotten something wrong about their experience, the last thing you should do is double down on your wrongness. You don’t point to your degree as a historian, or the amount of research you did on the story. You shouldn’t drum your heels and cry about being called out for using racist scenarios or racist language. You shouldn’t claim that because it was never your intent to be racist, it’s impossible for this to be the case.

Let me put it another way. It doesn’t matter if I intentionally bumped into someone with my car or misunderstood the rules of the road, wasn’t paying attention, or otherwise accidentally hit someone with my car. I still HIT SOMEONE WITH MY CAR. The very fact that some accident victims would still politely point out the injury I caused them is a testament to their character, but they would be completely justified in telling me off and reaming me out for my careless action, even going so far as to press charges and demand reparation for medical expenses, etc.

And if my intent wasn’t malicious, if the action was truly accidental, the victim would still not be obligated to accept my apology.

But I would be obligated to learn the effing rules of the road and abide by them.

So while I’m not yet ready to cancel my license by withdrawing membership from RWA, I’m determined to become a better driver. To educate myself on things that are so ingrained, so innate in my upbringing, that I don’t even realize they are there. Language that may be unintentionally hurtful because it excludes or maligns. Attitudes I never thought about before that impact others on a daily basis. To speak up when I see someone slighted. To welcome when my own instinct is to not make eye contact or speak to anyone I don’t know–that’s my insecurity that can’t be allowed to make someone else think it’s about them. To educate myself on my own shortcomings. To think before reacting.

I’m going to get it wrong at times. I know this because I am of the Nice White Lady demographic. I took a hard look at myself after reading this thread on Twitter by Foz Meadows explaining why NWL get so defensive when called out: it’s because their identity is tied up in being nice and to be told they aren’t nice is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. It challenges a NWL on a fundamental level. It’s most likely the basis behind the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, PhD. I don’t know for sure because I haven’t read it yet.

But I will.

 

2 thoughts on “The Bodies in the Backyard: Can RWA Be Saved?

    • Thank you. My initial reaction was to leave the organization, and that is probably what will happen at some point, but I wanted to throw my weight toward making the recall and accountability happen too. If we all leave in protest, then the people who *want* that will be in charge. 🙁

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