An Extraordinary Union: Romance Writers of America and Systemic Oppression
By Allyson Lee (2020)
The RITA award is the highest distinction given in romance fiction. Books that make it to the final round of judging are announced to the public as finalists, and a reception is held to disclose the winner in each of the thirteen categories (Advanced). The winners of the award receive formal recognition from the Romance Writers of America and their peers, which helps to establish their credibility as a writer. In 2018, the list of finalists were released for the short historical romance category, and there were no women of color on it (Beckett) . There was an outcry among romance writers and readers about the homogeneity of the RITA award winners. Romance Writers of America announced that after running the numbers, no Black women have ever won the award and less than .05% of finalists have been Black in the awards’ history (Advanced). The homogeneity of the RITA award that was brought to light by the snub of Alyssa Cole’s An Extraordinary Union is indicative of a larger trend of racism in the romance novel industry, and the conversations on Twitter that resulted from the snub provide hope that the industry will become more equal in the future.
In March 2017, Alyssa Cole published An Extraordinary Union with Kensington, a captivating book set in the American Civil War that follows the love story of a white detective and a former slave returning to role in the south as a spy . An Extraordinary Union attempts to guide readers through the systemic racism of slavery in the American South through the progression of an interracial love story. The book quickly garnered praise from multiple prestigious media platforms and earned accolades such as the Romantic Times’ Reviewer’s Choice Award for Historical Romance (Gilbert). The general public response to the book was one of excitement as evidenced by its status as a winner of the American Library Association’s Reading List Award, an award meant to “highlight outstanding genre fiction that merit special attention by general adult readers and librarians who work with them” (Gilbert; American) . However, when the 2018 RITA award nominees were revealed, An Extraordinary Union did not make it as a finalist (Beckett). All of the books that were nominated for the Short Historical Romance category that Cole would have been in were written by white women with white women falling in love with white men as the main characters (Beckett).
Following the lack of nomination, Cole’s fans went to Twitter to vent their feelings. They recognized the incident as a snub of Cole’s work as a Black woman writing stories with Black characters. Writer and reader fans of Cole went on to use her book’s snub for a RITA as a method to call out systematic racism in the publishing industry. In addition to fans, Courtney Milan, a member of the Board of Directors at RWA, contributed a Twitter thread amongst the controversy, relaying to her fans the stories of discrimination and hardship she has heard from Black authors and authors of color. In the thread, she not only notes that the RITA finalists are in no way representative of the proportions of people of color in the United States, she also calls light to the way Black authors are treated at professional conferences for romance writing (Milan).
Away from the context of recognition through prestigious awards like the RITA, Black women also find themselves isolated and lacking validation. Courtney Milan states in her thread that she has heard stories of Black women that have implemented “buddy systems” because their white peers often stand up from the table as soon as they sit down (Milan). After being mentioned in Courtney Milan’s thread, Kianna Alexander shared her experience sitting in front of an editor at a major publishing house and being called an amateur despite writing twenty books in her career prior to that moment (Kianna). With one look, the editor dismissed her as an author worth their time and resources. This experience is common for Black authors in the romance industry because publishers feel as though readers could not relate to their stories with Black characters, so they assume that they have not been and will not be profitable (Mayer). General disregard for professional and academic qualifications and previous accomplishments is not exclusive to Black authors, it characterizes the Black experience in America overall.
Racism is often thought of as isolated acts of overt and easily identifiable behavior, however it can also be relayed through a series of smaller, less noticeable actions known as microaggressions. A microaggression is defined by Oxford as a “statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority” (OED). Actions such as leaving a table when a Black person arrives and making assumptions about the credentials of a Black professional are microaggressions. Multiple authors came forward after Alyssa Cole’s 2018 RITA snub to address the various microaggressions they faced in their time as authors. The authors knew the incidents of bias they faced to be industry standard, even if they were only being brought to light in 2018. The volume of authors that were so readily able to share biased incidents suggests the universality of micro-aggressive actions by authors, fans, and publishing professionals alike.
In another display of microaggressivity, indie author and blogger Adira August posted a tweet asking if Black authors are interested in writing Black romance and how many romance readers are Black (James). The tweet has since been deleted, but it is representative of a larger ignorance surrounding the mismatch of the amount of Black people consuming romance novels, 12% of all romance readers, and the amount of Black people involved in producing them (Advanced). Authors point to key reasons why they think Black romance stories by Black authors are not being published, but a dearth of Black authors wanting to tell Black stories is not one of them.
One reason for the lack of Black stories was neatly summed up by author Brit Bennet in a tweet that said, “The average book will pass through a white agent, a white editor, a white publicist, a white sales team, a white cover artist, and white booksellers. And this process is considered natural and objective.” (Bennet, 2017). Her tweet was in reference to a 2015 Diversity in Publishing study done by Lee & Low Books that reports 79% of the overall publishing industry to be white (Lee & Low). More specifically, 83% of sales departments, 77% of marketing and publicity departments, and 89% of book reviewers are white (Lee & Low). For authors like Alyssa Cole, these numbers explain more personal experiences of receiving rejection notes that say, “I couldn’t really connect with the characters” when sending a book out to be read by potential publishers (Adewunmi). Having someone that has a shared cultural or lived experience to work with in the process of getting a book published can be deeply reassuring to authors. Alyssa Cole found reprieve in working with a Black editor because it meant she could take a break from having to explain the emotional background of her work with Black characters set in different historical periods (Adewunmi). Although only 7.8% of books by leading romance publishers were written by people of color in 2016, with the number dropping to 6.2% in 2017, the authors of color that are being published are unlikely to see a fellow person of color editing, marketing, or reviewing their book (The State; The State).
Another reason authors point to in order to explain fewer Black stories is the othering and subsequent rejection that resulted from the creation, then closing of Harlequin’s Kimani line. Other Harlequin lines are characterized by how sexually explicit they are, but the Kimani line was based solely on race (Beckett). Fans took to twitter to express their disappointment with the closing of the line expressing grief and hope in statements like, “Fervently hoping Kimani is closing because characters & authors of color are going to be included in other major lines”, but when the line closed down authors were left wondering about their relationship with Harlequin (Brockman; Beckett). The eradication of a specifically Black line of books without offering their authors homes on other lines contributes to the lack of Black stories available because where there used to be authors that were dedicated to writing stories with African American characters, there are now authors that have to seek new places to publish their work. These authors also no longer have the benefit of a steady and built in reader base that a Harlequin line offered.
While Black authors’ tales of racism and systematic oppression were overwhelmingly met with sympathetic apologies and kind comments left by fans and other authors, they were also met with proposed solutions. Adira August wrote a post on her blog suggesting that Romance Writers of America create a category specifically for diversity romance (Alisha). She hypothesized that having an entire category for “diversity” would be far more inclusive than simply looking for Black authors because, in her words, “when you invite people to dinner, you have to make a place for them at the table” (Alisha). Author Alisha Rai took a screenshot of the blog post and posted it to Twitter to add to the ongoing discussion about racism in the industry (Alisha). Rai likened creating a diversity category to creating a category for women in the fact that it would be incredibly exclusionary to a group of people that did not ask to be separated and are fighting for equality inside of the industry and outside of it as well (Alisha). The main difference between the two is that people would “burn the internet down” at the creation of a women category at the RITA awards, but the suggestion of a diversity category did not illicit the same response (Alisha). Rai directly asked the people of Twitter to “burn it down” for people of color, and to “collect [their] own” when they hear of instances in which people of color are being asked to fit into a box (Alisha).
Rai’s comments are incredibly powerful when the history of othering Blackness in the United States is taken into account. Black people have routinely been excluded from the rights, freedoms, and protections that have been afforded to their white counterparts. The same logic that has been used in the past to force Black people into separate accommodations can be readily applied to the idea of creating a separate category for authors of color at the RITA awards. By proposing separateness, Adira August implied that she wants authors of color to have a place at the table, but not the same table as white authors. One Twitter user noticed this implication as well and posted a poignant photo of segregated drinking fountains in the American South under Alisha Rai’s screenshot and many other users agreed that Black people and people of color generally have fought too hard towards equality to be set back in a way that continues to “other” them in such ostentatious ways (Simone).
Despite stereotypes and setbacks, Black people have fought for the right to be considered as much of a viable audience as anyone else. In fact, college educated Black women are the most likely to read a book of any kind (Bump). The dearth of Black authors and Black stories being published in the romance industry does not align with the audience of Black people inclined to read. Alyssa Cole’s RITA award snub and the resulting Twitter storm is indicative of a larger trend of racism and oppression in the romance industry that is perpetuated by Romance Writers of America, but it is also indicative of the ability of people of rally together in times when a particular community is under attack.
When the RITA award finalists were announced, and people began to give voice to their frustrations on Twitter, a community of support was immediately created around those that shared stories of microaggressions and generally biased incidents within the industry. Because of the nature of the online platform, there were also people that criticized and asked critical questions of those that were vulnerable, however those people were not allowed to dominate the largely sympathetic space, and often had what they said critically examined as well. Twitter provided the space to make more people aware of the commonplace exclusion of authors of color in the romance industry, and as Courtney Milan said, “knowledge is the first step to fixing things” (Milan).
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