Romance Writers of America debacle reignites diversity conversation

Over the last week of the year, news spread of novelist Courtney Milan getting punished by Romance Writers of America for making claims that fellow romance novelists had written racial stereotypes into their works. Knocking diversity down a peg at the 9,000-member writers’ trade group, the news also showed how these groups are still struggling with supporting members of color and maintaining a diverse board.

Now a former RWA board member, Courtney, who identifies as Chinese-American, said on Twitter that fellow member Kathryn Lynn Davis had used stereotypes of Asian women in a book, according to media reports. Kathryn and Suzan Tisdale, who work together at an imprint, filed complaints with the RWA over Courtney’s comments, according to the organization’s statement.

This led to the RWA ethics panel suspending Courtney’s membership for one year and banning her permanently from leadership positions. When this news surfaced online two days before Christmas, RWA changed course to avoid “the spreading of false information, threats, and personal information” and rescinded the sanctions. Several board members resigned over issues connected to the situation while RWA members and other writers continue to express their opinions on social media.

For writers in any genre, RWA is considered one of the most valuable resources in the industry. From experience, I’ve been to one local event where I paid $10 and learned several book marketing techniques from a successful indie author. Around 50 people came to the event, crammed into a school classroom. I had never been to a regular literary group meeting that garnered such high attendance and audience engagement.

When I joined a local board of the Women’s National Book Association and attended the national meeting, other members warmly welcomed me. It was due to the attempt to diversify the board and the association as a whole. This is slowly becoming a priority at these long-standing writers’ organizations yet there are still a lot of missteps. For example, WNBA had a local board with a black president and vice president and the chapter fell apart due to the lack of financial resources the national organization wasn’t willing to contribute.

Like Courtney tweets below, these organizations depend on extra money from their members, who many haven’t yet been published and/or don’t have disposable cash to get the help the organization promises.

I’ve also been a part of writing critique groups where I would be one of the only people of color in the room. I have expressed to writers when I believe a scene or the use of a character can come off as offensive. Once, I told a writer her story revolving around the police shooting death of her main character’s unarmed black male friend and it turning out to be all about the main character, who was a white female, could be seen as racist and/or insensitive. I added that the reader doesn’t see the black friend’s family or community who would be more devastated; just the white woman and her community. Writers may want to add diversity to their books but how it’s done can make a difference in whether they’ll receive backlash later down the road.

In RWA’s statement, it says Kathryn Lynn Davis lost a three-book contract because of Courtney’s tweets. The New York Times reports Suzan Tisdale has lost potential authors on her imprint over the controversy.

Personally, I’ve found solace and support in the growing number of black women’s writing and reading communities such as Mocha Girls Read, The Free Black Women’s Library, and Well-Read Black Girl. There’s been exponential growth in people of color establishing their own organizations due to not feeling comfortable within industry-respected organizations like RWA.

I started she lit as a literary lifestyle blog for all women because of the thick racial divide between white women and nonwhite women, millennial women and middle-aged women. Ageism also plays a role, where you put all these women from different backgrounds in one room and expect reading and writing to connect us all. But the range of time periods we’ve lived in perpetuates the racism or the general misunderstanding of each other.

The RWA story also touches on the lack of diverse beta readers writers may use. Writers tend to rely on their communities to go over their polished manuscripts, but those communities may not be that diverse, e.g. all women, all white women, all straight women, etc. A diverse panel of beta readers can help detect offensive descriptions that won’t receive such criticism and hurt an author’s career. A literary agent and a publisher may not see those issues because there is a diversity problem in the industry with most agents being white.

This is the second social media blow-up in the last two months involving well-known women writers oversharing a private conversation or matter on Twitter that turned into racial backlash caught by the eye of mainstream media.

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