The Romance Writers of America Board of Directors has addressed the lack of Black representation in the finalists for the RITA award in a recent statement (nb: emphasis herein is mine):
The RWA Board spends a portion of every year reviewing, discussing and revising the RITA® contest to ensure that it meets its stated objectives and is reflective of the best books in the genre. Specifically, during the last few years, we’ve taken a hard look at contest issues, including judging, categories and scoring. A recent discussion among our members has highlighted a systemic issue—black authors are significantly underrepresented as finalists.
While the Board only votes on changes to the contest during the July Board meeting, the only in-person meeting when the contest is not active, we do assess it all year long and the lack of representation of our black romance authors as RITA finalists and winners is a serious concern for us.
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:
• The number of finalist books by black authors is less than half of 1% of the total number of finalist books
• No black romance author has ever won a RITA
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. The RWA Board is committed to serving all of its members. Educating everyone about these statistics is the first step in trying to fix this problem. We know there are no perfect solutions but ignoring the issue is that not acceptable. To the extent members have suggestions, the Board would like to hear them.
This will not be an easy or quick fix, but we are committed to RWA being a welcoming and fair professional writing organization, open to all romance authors and celebrating the best romance books through our RITA contest.
You may contact any Board member with your thoughts, or President Dee Davis directly at [email protected]
As you might imagine, this statement has caused exactly zero discussion online and off – kidding, kidding. There is a lot to talk about here.
As someone who has paid attention to the RITA for several years now and who has asked an increasingly annoying number of questions about it every time I speak to an RWA board member, I’m pleased with this statement. Effectively, RWA is saying, “We have a problem. We need to fix it.” Definitely true.
I also know that fixing or even changing the RITA is a tricky business. For starters, as it says in the board statement, the only time changes to the RITA can be voted on is while the contest is NOT in progress, so only during the July meeting. That means every suggestion and idea or new method of managing the RITA contest is evaluated all year but changes can only be voted on once a year.
But more importantly, fixing systemic or institutional racism is not an easy task either, to say the least. And that’s what needs to be addressed. The lack of Black author representation among the RITA finalists and RITA winners is not the only issue; many other writers have spoken up about hostility, exclusion, and racism at conferences that mean Black authors, authors of color, and writers from marginalized groups feel not only unwelcome but unsafe at romance writer conferences and chapter meetings. Courtney Milan wrote about the experiences of several authors on Twitter in a thread, as have many others, including Marjorie M. Liu. While there isn’t an easy-to-follow (and therefore easy to derail and spam) hashtag, the discussion among romance readers and writers on social media and individual loops continues.
Board member Adrienne Mishel tweeted at length about how the national board wants to fix things, and how members can go about asking for help, or calling out acts of racism or marginalization at local chapter levels:
Local chapter members — YOU ARE NOT ALONE. We are here to help you and your chapter leadership be successful. Lean on us to help you when you don't know what to do. That's what we are here for.
— Adrienne Mishel 🍷💋📚❤️🦉 (@DrenzPen) April 2, 2018
The RWA statement and the ongoing conversations that followed about racism, moments of exclusion, and examples of marginalization on personal and professional levels are all part of the upheaval of change. It’s familiar, difficult, and necessary – much like individuals revealing stories of sexual harassment in the media, in movie production, or in their workplaces. Making public the extent of the problem is part of fixing it, as is naming that problem, and moving the discussion of safe spaces from private forums to public ones.
As creators and consumers of stories, confronting these accounts is important, as is ensuring that everyone is heard, and that real change can happen. And as I said, institutional racism is not an easy problem to fix. Part of that racism being “institutional” is that it’s welded to the foundational structures of organizations, of society in general, of social rules, everything. Reframing “this is how things have always been done” to highlight how those ways are unacceptable and reckoning with what has been, as National Geographic did recently (TW for that link) is exhausting, painful, relentless work.
And alas, I don’t have an easy answer to the representation in the RITAs or to the other issues being raised. My personal choice was to stop reviewing the RITA books here and to start judging the contest this year (which I did in the preliminary rounds). I don’t want to prescribe a specific action for others, such as advising marginalized writers to join an organization or chapter they feel has been hostile or hurtful to them – but I also want RWA, and romance, to more accurately and inclusively represent all the people who read and write it. Seeing the national board acknowledge the problem and name it is a step. It’s a long staircase to climb, but it’s a step.
As Courtney Milan put it:
I know we can have the community we deserve because I see it everyday.
— Courtney!!! Milan (@courtneymilan) April 3, 2018
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