I’m a relatively new member of the RWA, having joined in 2017. One of the first things I did as a new member was submit a story to the RITA awards, which is the romance industry equivalent of the Oscars. I confess, I didn’t pay that much attention to the process last year. It was my first time participating, and I had a lot of personal stuff going on as well. I had no expectations.
I also submitted a story this year. No surprise when I didn’t become a finalist. The competition is brutal, right? Each time, as a participant I was required to judge an assortment of entries–none of which were in my own category, paranormal romance. There was the usual mix of hopeful entries (like myself), the enjoyable, above average submission, and the occasional outstanding read. But this year, after the finalists were listed, I became aware of a furor among romance novelists on Facebook, Twitter, and the RWA forums. Like the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the same phenomenon has been ongoing in the romance industry. Not once since its inception has a black author won a single RITA award in any category. This year, five AOC finaled, which is an improvement over the stats of 2017, in which no AOC made it that far, but suffice to say in general, AOC are grossly underrepresented in these prestigious awards.
Conversations opened up on various social media platforms and forums, and naively, with the best of intentions, I waded into discussions on how this problem could be addressed.
What resulted was an eye-opening experience.
I learned about scare quotes, and tone policing. Clutching pearls and white fragility. I would encourage everyone to read the articles White Fragility and the Rules of Engagement, as well as White Fragility: Why It Is So Hard To Talk To White People about Racism. If you are a white female author, I guarantee you if you are honest with yourself, you will recognize past behaviors. And if not in yourself, then you will certainly recognize these defensive traits in others.
I learned that it’s hard to discuss race issues with white people because since we’re the default mode, we’re blind to our own biases and prejudices. Worse, we tend to get hostile and defensive when the status quo is questioned because it threatens our position of privilege.
Some of the proffered solutions ran the gamut of eliminating covers and author’s names in the judging rounds (which would not eliminate bias against characters of color), or offering AOC (as well as GLBTQ authors) their own, separate awards or categories (as if that wasn’t totally insulting). Rubrics that held the judges accountable for their scoring were put forward. Some people thought the awards themselves should be tabled until this judging issue was addressed.
As the discussion raged across a wide variety of platforms, other elements crept in. A denial there was an issue at all. The suggestion AOC weren’t winning because their books were inferior or they weren’t entering in the first place. The bemoaning of the fact finalists weren’t even allowed a day to celebrate their nomination before the inequities of the system were yet again being addressed.
I found myself thinking of the “thoughts and prayers” offered after every mass shooting, and how it was always “too soon” to be talking about gun control after such an event. (See that? I made good use of scare quotes there.)
I found myself wondering how we’d be reacting if instead of white women dominating these awards, it were men? Would we be saying women simply couldn’t write a romance as good as a man? That not enough women were entering the awards? That we just can’t relate to a love story written by a woman? That we prefer to read romances written by men that feature men? As ludicrous as that sounds, I saw white authors, some of whom are Big Names in the industry, making just such statements about race, religion, or the sexual orientation of characters, as well as the perceived inadequacies of AOC of color themselves.
We’ve invited AOC into the building for the feast but have given them a seat at the children’s table. If they dare to complain, we denigrate their works, chastise them for their anger, and chide them for their ingratitude. All with a brittle smile and the suggestion that we should all “be professional” and above all, “be polite.” When in doubt, attack the tone of the complaint, thus rendering it invalid, right?
I reminded myself that like most women affected by #MeToo, I’m tired of remaining silent. Of swallowing my anger. Of living in fear to do simple things, like going to the grocery store or stopping for gas after dark. Of accepting that by virtue of the fact I’m a woman, I come in for a certain amount of harassment, discrimination, and even assault. And I haven’t experienced anything like what AOC go through on a daily basis, both at in general and within our own industry. Their anger is justifiable. And it should be heard, not silenced.
We keep wringing our hands and saying something must be done–and then continue as we’ve always done without making significant change.
I can’t speak for all cis het white Christian white women. I can only speak for myself. I believe change can only come through an acknowledgment of being in the wrong and a determination to educate ourselves to be better. These are the rules of engagement I’m laying down for myself now.
This isn’t about me. I am not the injured party here. If multiple people tell me my words are hurtful, it doesn’t matter what my intention was. It doesn’t matter what my “accreditation” is. If I’m beginning my defensive statement with a list of credentials as to why I’m not racist, I am automatically in the wrong. Because whether I want to believe it or not, I am racist. I can’t help it. I was raised to it by virtue of being born white at a certain time in the Southern US. My indoctrination might not be as blatant as some others, but it’s pervasive just the same. I will have to battle it the rest of my life. I can hate it. I can be determined to do something about it. But I can’t deny it. Not if I want to be better than this.
I was very, very tempted to include an excerpt from my latest story here as a kind of proof that I’m thinking about these things and trying to include diversity in my stories. I stopped myself cold because that’s part of the problem: the insistence I can’t be biased because I promote diversity of all kinds–religion, race, sexual identity, etc–in my stories. I don’t get a free pass because I write about open-minded characters from all walks of life.
You cannot change anything if you refuse to admit there’s a problem. You can’t change an organization or an industry if you refuse to change yourself.
If I say or do something hurtful, I need to apologize upfront. Heartfelt and not half-assed. Not “Oh, you must have misunderstood me.” A straightforward acceptance that I screwed up and owe someone apology. End of story.
I can’t learn if I’m so full of my own self. Of my credentials in the “I’m not racist because” game. The bias is there, whether we want to believe it or not. The only people who “don’t see color” are the default winners in the race game. Everyone else has the color of their skin (or their religion, or their sexual orientation) rammed down their throats every day. Refusing to acknowledge color bias (or any other bias) is the equivalent of erasure of the marginalized group–and not in a good way.
4. Diversify my reading.
There is an easy way to expand my horizons, to learn more outside my middle-aged white woman existence. Yes, I love Regency romances that feature characters set in England. I cut my teeth on Jane Austen! It’s familiar and beloved. But genteel impoverished white women who get rescued by incredibly wealthy white men isn’t the ONLY historical romance story out there. Ditto contemporary romances, paranormal romances, romantic suspense, you name it. Likewise, racism isn’t just individual acts of hate and spite. If you’re an AOC, it’s the inability to find cover art for your characters. It’s deciding whether or not to enter contests when you know there is existing bias. It’s knowing if you made your character’s race ambiguous, you might sell more copies when your heart cries out against such a move. It’s knowing if you give your character of color a certain wealth or status someone will question the accuracy of your creation. (I suggest you read Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack on this subject,)
The more you know about someone different from you, the more you realize how much you have in common. Reading about those outside your experience expands your compassion and acceptance.
My personal experience is VERY narrow. I live in a conservative, rural, small Southern town. Ninety percent of the people I interact with on a daily basis are white. My white privilege blinds me to things POC must deal with every day. I’ll admit right here, I’m sometimes hesitant to include characters of different racial backgrounds in my stories because I’m worried about getting my depiction wrong. That’s not a valid excuse. It’s up to me to expand my own horizons. It’s up to me to make sure my writing choices aren’t hurtful. That I avoid white savior tropes. That my characters aren’t caricatures or stereotypes, two-dimensional cameos so I can tick off some diversity points.
If I’m concerned about ‘getting them right’, I’m not doing enough diverse reading. I’m not talking to enough people.
What I can’t do is assume that race has no effect whatsoever on the character I’m building, nor assume it is the only thing, either.
5. Support AOC and those in the industry.
As authors, we have the power to use and promote whomever we wish. In general, I’m not as good about supporting fellow authors as I should be. I need to rectify this by promoting books I enjoy and services I appreciate. Follow AOC on social media. Branch out of your “comfort zone” and take a chance on editors and graphic artists who bring something different to your table. You’ll wonder what took you so long.
I wish I could name each and every person responsible for enlightening me here. I’ve read so many posts on social media and forums this past week that it would be challenging to name them all–not to mention some of these posts were made to closed platforms, so I’m not sure how much I should share. I’m also not going to call out people who exemplify white fragility, or point fingers at those who’d rather maintain the status quo than manifest real change. This is not the post for that.
Instead, I invite you to take a hard look at yourself and the assumptions you make about AOC (or other marginalized groups) and the stories they have to tell. I’m betting you’ll find more common ground than you’d think, if you’d only give everyone an equal chance.
If you don’t know where to start in broadening your reading horizons, I ran across these resources for finding books by diverse authors:
And on Twitter, you can use the hashtag: #weneeddiverseromance to search for authors and titles.
I’m going to be expanding my reading list. And though I tend not to leave reviews on Amazon (the whole pen name thing), I’ll be making better use of my Goodreads and Bookbub accounts to share my impressions of stories I love. I invite you to do the same.