We’re still here.
A year after the RITA awards were acknowledged as problematic and promoting of a biased system, we are once again, as a romance industry, fighting for inclusivity and equal opportunities for all authors. Small victories for authors from historically marginalized communities, a handful of authors of color as finalists, a few queer books in the finals, are not enough change at not nearly a fast enough pace, and yet, we’re still here.
Let me take a step back.
Last year, the Romance Writer’s of America contest finalists were announced. And they were overwhelmingly white. Disproportionately white. White enough that people started looking at numbers from years past and realized that in the last seventeen years of the contest, less than half of 1% of finalists had been black authors. No black author had ever won RITA.
The RITAs are judged by authors who enter, meaning that if your membership is a homogenized group, representative of a specific community, your judges are going to be a homogenized group, representative of a specific community. If there is an inherent bias within your organization, there will be bias in your judges. And women of color will, once again, be shown to the door. If they’re acknowledged at all.
Which goes to prove exactly how large the issue of the RITA award truly is. It’s not a contest in some isolated vacuum that can be fixed on its own. It’s a contest, reflective of a membership, reflective of a basic ideology where either intentional exclusion or a lack of welcoming and inclusive outreach have kept women of color, queer authors, authors from different religions and people with disabilities out and created an organized where only one type of voice is being heard.
Credit where it’s due, people are responding. RWA is responding. But there are also a lot of voices that oppose any kind of movement forward for the organization and for the industry. These are the voices that ask what about white women, that claim being called out for racist behavior is ‘unprofessional namecalling’, that do not understand why opening a separate category for ‘diverse authors’ is not the answer to the underlying issue of systemic bias, misunderstood privilege and decades of othering.
These are the women that are both perpetrator and victim of a broken, white, cis-gendered, heteronormative patriarchal society that could use their privilege for good, if they were willing, but would rather hold tight, for fear of losing the small ground they have gained.
Those are not the women we will reach with inclusivity programming, grassroots efforts, and articles on intersectional feminism. But if you are interested in creating a better writing community where you live, there are simple, actionable steps you can take today to make a difference tomorrow.
- Read widely. Twitter is hot with inclusive reading lists. The POC Queer Romance Authors Community is a good place to start.
- Share widely. Look at who you invite to your Facebook groups. What books are in your author giveaways? Who do you retweet, recommend or interview on your blog? These are free, easy efforts you can make right now.
- Listen when an author whose voice is not being heard speaks of their experience. Just listen.
- Avoid the instinct to be defensive. Understand that racism, sexism, and homophobia are part of a systemic narrative. Be willing to unlearn. Always strive to be better.
- Don’t expect authors from marginalized communities to do the heavy, emotional labor every time. Be grateful when they do. Do your own homework. Educate yourself. Learn about intersectional feminism and what it means to be an ally.
- Stop reading and supporting problematic authors. Find other favorites.
- Look at your writing communities. Are they inclusive, accessible, representative and welcoming? What changes can you make to improve on those points?
- Hire sensitivity readers. Value their time. Find critique partners and BETA readers with experiences different than your own. Value. Their. Time.
- Work to avoid ‘othering’ words in your writing and life. Exoticising and fetishizing characters from different backgrounds is another form of oppression. Remember that language is inherently white and male.
- Consider programming that presents a platform for authors from different backgrounds. Panels, speeches, interviews, etc.
These are just a few of the steps we can take to make all writing more inclusive and open to all voices. As storytellers, recording the world as we see it and as we would like to be, we have a responsibility to make space for all stories, for all experiences, and for all authors. As we say in romance, everyone deserves a happily ever after.