This started as a Facebook post, but it got super long: To my friends who are not romance writers/ readers and don’t know what has been going on in the past 24 hours but love some tea: buckle in, this one’s a doozy.
Important context: Founded by editor Vivian Stephens, a black woman, and 37 authors in the romance genre in 1980, the RWA (Romance Writers of America) a nonprofit organization, is designed to cultivate talent, connections and interest in the romance genre.
If you’re a writer, you pay your fees, and you are exposed to education and connections within the industry. If you’re a reader or an industry professional like, say, an agent or a librarian, by becoming a member, you have first-hand access to up-and-coming writers who are actively being mentored by people who understand how the business works from a craft and business standpoint.
The RWA is a national organization, and there’s lots of local chapters around the country. Because I live in New York and am a member of the RWANYC, I benefit from rubbing shoulders with incredibly talented and diverse writers in the genre, (because New York) and networking with legitimate industry professionals right outside my front door (because New York).
Most of the romance writing community is very active on twitter, and there has been an ongoing conversation within the RWA overall about inclusivity, de-marginalization within the genre, and providing access to people of all backgrounds. The issues essentially boil down to:
- If Happily Ever After (HEA) is for everyone then we should be able to see it on paper. (i.e. we need more diverse leads and voices)
- If the RWA is for everyone, we should be able to see it on paper. (i.e. writers from diverse backgrounds should be receiving comparable deals/ attention/ opportunities to Nice White Ladies).
This has not been the reality, and while there have been some justifications and push back by Nice White Ladies, what they are actually saying and doing in response doesn’t really hold up.
For example, during our RITA event at our national conference, our host Sarah Maclean took the stage and pointed out that in the 37 (?) years of its existence, no black writer had won a RITA. My own chapter President, LaQuette, took the stage, and in a fantastic speech pointed out that industry professionals are leaving money on the table by ignoring marginalized writers. You can watch the whole event here. LaQuette’s portion begins at the 1:41:43 mark.
The next morning I was helping with setting up a book signing event. We had a quick break, and one older Nice White Lady from Jersey must have forgotten that I was in the room, because she started talking in a low, semi-defensive voice about how no black writers had won a RITA before because, “there simply weren’t that many black writers 30 or 20 years ago.”
People tried to get her to stop, but she just continued, not getting the hint. I then contradicted her, and she jumped realizing that I was in the room. Except she still wouldn’t stop, and only kept getting more defensive the more people kept trying to get her to shut up, incapable of admitting that she was wrong. At some point she started talking about how she was present during the civil rights movement of the 60s, which… okay? I eventually tuned her out because being the only woman of color in a room is a special kind of exhaustion.
I mentioned this incident during our next chapter meeting, and one of our own members asked me for a description of this Nice White Lady, because she had to shut down some else who fit her description at Jersey’s chapter meeting.
And this is the problem with changing systemic issues, because the moment you start making “waves” (i.e. changing systemic issues that have always been problematic and are designed to only benefit a few directly and a few more who are “willing to play the game” indirectly) there will always be people who will get deeply defensive, territorial and combative, who will bitch and moan about, “the good old days,” or like this Nice White Lady from Jersey, go around whispering coded little sentences seeking out people who agree with them.
That Nice White Lady from Jersey was less worried about the correct number of black writers 30 or 20 years ago than she was with feeling out the room to see who was on her side, because whisper campaigns are insidious. It’s murder by a thousand cuts, it’s a whole lotta microaggressions piled on top of the other, and they are much, much more effective when you have allies who speak your language, and much harder to call out when hidden under a veneer of niceness.
And by calling her out, in her head, we are the assholes for making her feel bad. We are the racists for making her feel like a racist, because she isn’t being racist-racist. She’s just voicing her opinion that just happens to imply that black people just haven’t been trying hard enough. You know. Diet racism.
Enter: Courtney Milan. Courtney is a Historical Romance writer, RWA board member, former lawyer and law professor who has a large following on twitter, and is sharp af. She, like many of her contemporaries (and I can list names easily) has been very vocal about addressing racism within the organization, and really, overall.
On December 23rd, news broke on twitter that someone had filed an ethics complaint against Courtney for calling out racism, you can read the details here.
The RWA took this complaint and decided to suspend Courtney for one year, and ban her for life from holding any leadership position within the organization.
The RWA essentially decided that calling out racism and thus making Nice White Ladies uncomfortable is actually worse than being racist.
BUT THAT’S NOT ALL. When the complaint came in, Courtney was the chair of the ethics committee and was asked to step down so they could review this matter.
Except, the rest of the committee did not get to hear on this matter. Instead, they formed a new panel without informing the existing committee, and then handed down the decision on the complaint against Courtney.
To say that people were livid is an understatement. #IStandWithCourtney was trending on twitter. People were canceling their memberships and refusing to judge the upcoming contest.
Some people have been pointing out ethics complaints that never made it to Courtney’s desk. And the fact that conversations about the judging on the internal forums were being deleted even though the office is supposed to be closed.
AND THEN RWA REVERSED THEIR DECISION. No apology, no acknowledgement that they messed up, no explanation as to who was involved, how and why they came to that bonkers decision in the first place. They came at someone with a huge support system and it bit them in the a$$.
Are you tired? I’m not tired. It’s 4:30 AM on my last day off and I’m milking every second.
I’m not a published author. I don’t hold a leadership position of any kind, and I’m pretty much watching all this from the sidelines because I’m not nearly as qualified as everyone else who has been commenting on this, but man, I can’t even imagine the heartbreak and betrayal some of my peers are feeling over this. To work on your own time to advocate for an organization that you believe in that you want to improve, only to see how easily you can be discarded, is a special kind of hurt.
If ex-law professor Courtney Milan was less beloved, less popular, less savvy, and, seriously, less graceful in her response (she was upset, but she didn’t pop off), this would have ended differently. She had people and organizations who spoke up for her and were willing to explain, calmly and clearly, to Nice White Ladies why this was a terrible decision.
But let’s be clear, Nice White Ladies have the power to cost us our reputations, jobs and opportunities because we dare to make them uncomfortable, sometimes just by existing in the same space as them. And yeah, sometimes it’s not a matter of race, but of class, privilege, gender, orientation and socioeconomic status.
Like other people who fit the criterion (just learned this is the plural of criteria, who knew) listed above, I am in the not-so-unique position to be able to recognize and call this shit out, while also knowing that by doing so, I put a big target on myself every time.
I say not-so-unique because there are so many more people in this world who can identify with me, but there are many less of them who are in positions of power. And those who do hold positions of power and are not marginalized in these ways, or are privileged enough, ignore or insulate themselves from being affected by these dynamics. They shut the door behind them and keep quiet.
Being the only woman of color in a room, like that incident with the Nice White Lady from Jersey, is an exhausting position to be in as it is important to speak up, and sometimes the weight of it just sucks.
It’s not enough to want our organizations, governments, and work environments to be more inclusive, reasonable, empathetic, and human. It is not enough for us to work ourselves to the bone to try and change institutions from within. Like Courtney said herself, the RWA, like Nice White Ladies, like the rest of the world have to be willing to change, because we can’t keep doing this for you.
And the sad part is, if some of you just managed to get over yourselves, we would all be better for it. Not just the marginalized people. All of us. But no, you would rather literally burn the world to the ground than rescind your marginal sense of superiority.
Anyways, Happy Holidays, and vote Democrat in 2020. And maybe RWANYC should drop the A? No? No? Just checking. I’m going to bed.
I posted this on the morning of Christmas Day and so much has happened since that it’s impossible to keep up, including, but not limited to:
-Rumors that President-Elect Damon Suade may have a book coming out in January through Dreamspinner, may still be getting paid through them and is maybe avoiding addressing any of their impropriety because of their relationship?
It’s a lot. Claire Ryan has another post with a timeline and links if you want to check it out. All of this boils down to the original point I was trying to make: this is just a bunch of people hiding their -isms and -phobias through back channels and coded language, and it’s finally being exposed in the ugliest and most public way I’ve ever seen.