The RITA Ceremony: A Cry for Diversity
By Mia Graham (2019)
The romance industry as a whole has long been known for its lack of diversity, both in writers and in the characters within their works. Over the past several years, the RITA Award Ceremony, too, has become recognized for its lack of inclusivity. Despite the RWA being co-founded by a black woman, Vivian Stephens, its RITA Award Ceremony is a divided space between white and non-white authors. What’s more, many white authors seem to be unaware of the extent of exclusivity present—even considering the recent outcries against the RWA and the RITA ceremony. Although not a singular representation, the RITA ceremony is a prominent and powerful representation of the lack of diversity present in the romance industry today, including the lack of representation of LGBTQ authors and characters. However, with increasing calls for inclusion from both members and non-members of the RWA, the organization is beginning to strive for a more representative Ceremony.
History of the RWA and RITA
In 1979, editor Vivian Stephens and a group of romance writers attended a writing conference at the University of Houston and immediately noticed the lack of appreciation for the romance genre. In advocacy of this genre and the needs of romance writers within it, this group of writers initiated the first Romance Writers of America meeting in Houston, Texas in December of 1980. The membership consisted of Stephens and 37 authors, including RWAs first President Rita Clay Estrada (Advanced, 1). Another page on this UNSUITABLE site explains the history of the RWA more extensively.
Today, the RWA plays an important role in the romance industry, made of over 9,000 members with a mission to “Advance the professional and common business interests of career-focused romance writers through networking and advocacy” (Advanced, 1). The RWA holds an annual National Conference, in which authors and non-authors have been brought together in honor of the romance genre since 1981. Additionally, the RWA hosts an annual award ceremony during this conference in which it recognizes those who are making an impact within the romance industry: the RITA ceremony.
Named after the Romance Writers of America’s first president, Rita Clay Estrada, the RITA award is considered the “highest award of distinction in romance fiction” (Advanced, 1). The Award is presented annually to an author of the best published romance in each of thirteen categories on the last day of the RWA national conference (Clay, 1). The RWA also presents other awards to authors during this Ceremony, such as the Golden Heart Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award (Advanced, 1). This Ceremony is overwhelmingly dominated by white authors and has been since its conception in 1982.
The RITA Award Contest is open to non-members of the RWA, but members are given priority. The entrants choose a single category to enter per book. All entrants are required to judge the preliminary round, along with those who are eligible for RWA’s PAN (Published Authors Network). If the book advances, the book will be sent to an additional panel of judges in the final round. The final round judges consist of five judges that are chosen by RWA staff. The judging process follows an honor code in the sense that if judges that are not able to fairly judge a particular category or book, he or she must contact the RWA office immediately (Advanced). See RWA’s judging criteria here.
The Diversity Problem
The percentage of black author RITA finalists from 2000 to 2017 was less than half of the one percent of the number of finalist books total. What’s more, no black romance author had ever won a RITA. In 2016, there were more black RITA finalists than ever before, with the numbers declining again in the years that followed (SB Sarah, 1). One of the black women nominated was contemporary romance novelist Phyllis Bourne, published by Harlequin Kimani (Ailworth, 1). According to a twitter thread by Courtney Milan, a Director-at-Large on the RWA board of directors as well as a RITA award winner herself, Harlequin did not invite Bourne to sign her finalist book, as the publisher usually does for its RITA finalists (Milan 2018). Additionally, Phyllis Bourne did not win the RITA that year. According to Milan, a book written by a white author, Sarah Anderson, won. While this author had a Native heroine, the way the heroine was portrayed (with a family history of alcoholism) was stereotypical and offensive to many women of color. “It felt like a slap in the face… like we had been stabbed through the heart” (Milan 2018). Perhaps the most concerning part of this story is that no one, not the editors, publishers, or judges, saw this as problematic.
With fewer books published by authors of color, there are fewer authors to choose for the RITA Award and other RWA Conference awards. The Ripped Bodice, America’s only bookstore comprised of solely romance novels, has presented yearly results of the state of racial diversity in the romance publishing industry since 2016. In 2016, only 3 out of 20 surveyed published had at least 10% of their books written by people of color. In 2017, half of the publishers surveyed had the same or fewer books written by authors of color than in 2016, despite the romance industry publishing more books in 2016 than in 2017. In 2018, 18 of 20 publishers had 90% or more of their books written by white authors. In total, only one publisher, Avon Romance, increased their black authors consistently from 2016-2018. (The Ripped Bodice). The Ripped Bodice states that their statistics disprove many publisher’s claims that sales aren’t strong enough for romance novels by authors of color, evident by The Ripped Bodice’s 6 out of 10 bestselling titles of 2017 being written by authors of color (Flood, 1). While it is important to note that the RWA isn’t the only factor in this diversity problem, with publishers also playing a role, it is also true that the RITA award ceremony is an important factor.
As of recent years, diversity in the romance industry has become defined by the number of published novels by authors of color and/or that contain characters of color, as well as authors and/or characters who identify as LGBTQ (Horne 1; Sunita 1). It is also important to note that there are many other categories of diversity within the romance industry, such as religious, multicultural, and characters with disabilities (Garwood, 1). However, concerning the RITA ceremony, authors of color and of the LGBTQ community specifically have been rarely acknowledged, hardly finalists, and almost never winners despite entering this award.
2017 RITA Award Ceremony
Many non-white authors have been aware of the racial underrepresentation for a long time. “Every year when these finalists come out, we all just kind of go, ‘Oh, not again’” (Garcia-Navarro). However, it was not until recent years that both white and non-white authors started to speak out against this discrimination in the industry, with the 2017 RITA Award Ceremony being an important motivator. In 2017, the RITA Award finalists, and thus winners, were predominantly white, featuring predominantly white, heterosexual protagonists portrayed within the books (Romancewriters 2017). Out of 85 finalists, four books featured protagonists of color, and three of those four featured the protagonist with a white partner. Four books included homosexual characters, and 4-6 books were written by authors of color (Horne 1). According to statistics calculated by blogger Jackie Horne, the 2017 RITA finalist figures were representative of the U.S. LGBT male population, but lacked any female queer characters, thus still not reflecting the demographics of the country as a whole (Horne, 1).
Although there was not a black RITA winner for 2017, Beverly Jenkins, author of African American historical and contemporary romance, won the Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award, and gave an acceptance speech that had a large impact on the RWA members. She tells of her family’s history of slavery: “You have no idea what it means to be a descendant of a people who, by law, were denied access to the written word, and be here before you” (Romancewriters 2017). This was an emotional speech, and as the camera from the video turns to the audience there are many teary-eyed witnesses. The full speech is available here. Jenkin’s speech was important, telling her journey as a black American author. I believe that, at least in part, her speech led many authors and other online viewers to realize the lack of representation in the Ceremony. This is evidence by the physical impact her speech had on witnesses as well as the increased advocacy for diversity that intensified amongst winners in latter RITA years.
After the 2017 RITA Award Ceremony, the RWA Board of Directors released a statement in response to the lack of diversity evident in their ceremonies. The Board stated that, over the past few years, it has taken particular interest with the issues evident in the judging process. Within the statement, the Board says, “A recent discussion among our members has highlighted a systemic issue—black authors are significantly underrepresented as finalists” (SB Sarah). Although this acknowledgement in itself was a great step forward for the Board, this issue was only acknowledged in 2017 despite RWA’s extensive history of underrepresentation. The statement continues as the Board expresses its concern with this issue and briefly states the steps that are being taken to address it, such as collecting demographic information from its members. In June of 2018, the results from this diversity study conducted in 2017 were published.
The results showed that, of the quarter of RWA’s members that responded, 86% of them were white and 88% were heterosexual. Additionally, over half of the participants agreed or strongly agreed that the RWA had a diverse membership (Rothschild).
The statement also helped to shed additional light on this problem, instead of keeping it in the shadows as in years past. However, discrimination in the distribution of the awards is not the only form of discrimination present. The authors that attend the Conference also play a role in this discrimination, knowingly or not. “Did you know that women of color who attend RWA often have what is in effect a buddy system?” Stated Milan in a Twitter thread. “That black women with 20 books to their name get called aspiring authors?” (Milan). Milan attributes this inherent racism to ignorance as opposed to obliviousness, with other white authors not listening to what their fellow black authors have to say. Milan continues in her thread to explain the discrimination that authors of color experience during the RITAs, and steps that could be taken by other authors to eliminate this bias. Erotic romance author Sasha Devlin also states that, “[In romance] every event, con, meeting is a chance for Who Might Be Racist?” (Vivanco, 1) Black authors feel unwelcome in these RWA events, and not many individuals are making strides to make them feel welcomed. As Milan suggests in her thread, when unacceptable behavior is portrayed at these conferences, those around should stand up and say something (Milan).
2018 RITA Award Ceremony
In 2018, the RITA Award Ceremony portrayed the same, if not worsened, message with the chosen finalists. Perhaps due to the response to the 2017 Ceremony, the 2018 Ceremony featured a few authors who made a statement against the lack of diversity in the Conference. In her RITA acceptance speech, for example, author of contemporary romance and women’s fiction, Kristan Higgins stated, “this year, the absence of a single African-American finalist has shown us, more than ever, that we have a problem in RWA and in our country” (Romancewriters 2018). In this moment she used her public platform to state these facts loud and clear, directly addressing the RWA. She ended her speech with, “The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s judgement” (Romancewriters 2018). But she wasn’t the only one who used her recognition for the benefit of others. Contemporary romance author Alexis Daria won the 2018 RITA for best first book, and in her acceptance speech she described what it felt like as a young girl growing up reading books about characters that did not represent her: “really, we do just want to be seen and heard” (Romancewriters 2018).
One speaker in particular has gathered responses from writers around the globe. Suzanne Brockman gained widespread feedback, both positive and negative, after her speech following her acceptance of the 2018 Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award (Romancewriters 2018). In her speech, Brockman speaks of her personal experiences with the lack of diversity in the RWA. She begins her story in 1992, when she was advised to change one of her gay characters to straight. To which she responded, “you can’t be serious. It’s 1992. The real world is filled with gay people.” She continues her timeline in 2008, when Brockman was asked to speak at the RWA National Conference. “I was asked to practice reading the statement I’d prepared. That seemed a little strange, but okay, I had it with me, so I did.” After hearing her words about California’s gay marriage laws in relation to the characters in her new book, she states, “I was told that the issue was divisive and some RWA members would be offended.” Brockman does not go into detail as to exactly who told her this, she only addresses the RWA as a whole, “RWA, you were an obstacle.” (Romance Writers 2018) Suzanne Brockman did not speak up before, but in 2018 she did. She used her voice, her privilege as a white author in the industry, to advocate for inclusion and diversity in the genre.
After hearing Brockman’s speech, author Nicki Salcedo wrote a response on her blog concerning her own experiences with discrimination in the industry (Salcedo, 1). She describes her own interactions with the RWA and her manuscript, “All Beautiful Things.” This story featured a Black heroine and a White hero, “but not the white savior trope” (Salcedo, 1). Salcedo states that the publishing process of this manuscript “left me feeling unwanted,” however she decided to enter the 2011 RWA’s Golden Heart Contest. When the scores for the contest came in, she found her manuscript scored in the bottom 25%. In 2012, Salcedo again entered this manuscript in the Contest, using her original story but with all references to the race of the characters removed. This manuscript became a Golden Heart Finalist. For the final round of judging that year, Salcedo recreated her original Black characters to present at the RWA National Conference. Days before the final Ceremony, she sat in an appointment with an editor from a Big five publisher, who was also a final round judge for the Golden Heart Contest that year. “I read your manuscript… I hated it,” a direct quote from the editor and judge (Salcedo 1). Salcedo says that she did not report this interaction to the RWA at the time, and she also did not win the Golden Heart award. Salcedo’s story is disheartening, but not a solitary encounter.
2019 RITA Finalists
Despite the previous statements released by the RWA board in recent years, the 2019 RITA Award Finalists has just been released as of March, showing no improvement in diversity. Alana Albertson, Latina romance author and former President of three RWA chapters, broke down the statistics of the 2019 results on twitter. After evaluating each category, Albertson has concluded that 100% of finalists for best first book are not authors of color, and 96% of the finalists in the overall contemporary categories are not authors of color (Albertson). To put that into numbers, of the 78 RITA award finalists, three individuals are authors of color (Albertson). “The list is also painfully, painfully white. And straight. And Christian. And cis,” states Bree Bridges, a writer of dystopian and post-apocalyptic romance, on twitter about the 2019 results. After the RITA finalists were announced, RWAs president HelenKay Dimon released a statement on behalf of the RWA board addressing “the lack of representation on the finalist list” and how this reflects on the RWA (Advanced 2019). In this message, the board makes five points in which it identifies “reader bias in the judging of the RITAs” to be a serious factor in the diversity problem. Additionally, the board states that it is “currently investigating options and reviewing member feedback” in order to change the judging process for the RITA contest, beginning in 2020. The full statement can be read here. “We are aware that, for some members, this may be the last chance they give RWA and we hope to rise to that challenge” (Advanced 2019).
Although there are no current demographic statistics on the RWA board, my own research has shown that 62.5% of the 2019 board is comprised of White authors, including the President, President-Elect, Secretary, and Treasurer. Additionally, the remaining 37.5% of the board consists of one Asian author, one Hispanic author, and four Black authors, all who hold the title of Director-at-Large. The current RWA board members are viewable here. The RWA website does not have past information for the RWA board members (to my findings) and I was unable to find demographic information for board members in years prior.
The RWA also continues to advocate for diversity in more ways than the RITA award, found on the advocacy page on their website. This includes subtle advocacies, such as featuring their members, including those of color, who hit the best-seller lists weekly. It also includes larger advocacies for minority groups in the community with the “Readers for Life” Literacy Autographing that raises funds for ProLiteracy and the Literacy Coalition of Colorado (Advanced, 1). Much of these funds go towards supporting low-income and other minority groups to “improve the quality of life for adults worldwide” (Advanced).
Additionally, the RWA has “Diversity and Inclusion Resources” as a tab on their website, where there is a diversity incident or complaint form as well as locations to read and submit diversity and inclusion resources. RWA also provides a “Beverly Jenkins Diverse Voices Sponsorship” to encourage writers of diverse backgrounds to be represented at the RWA annual conference. This sponsorship is only available to those of “diverse background” and covers the cost of the conference, lodging, and special offers from Avon Books. It is evident that the RWA is making strides within the organization that will hopefully have an impact on the romance industry as a whole.
While the RWA and the RITA Award Ceremony are only a part of the racism and lack of diversity portrayed in the Romance Industry, they are no doubt an integral cog. By not giving credit to work of deserving authors of color, the RITA Ceremony, or more specifically, the judging membership that comprises it, is participating in the industry’s bias. It is evident that the RITA ceremony and the RWA is respected enough by authors to make a positive influence of inclusivity in the romance industry. The RWA board acknowledging the problem is an imperative first step, however a systemic change is necessary for permanent and meaningful change. By being more inclusive in the RITA award, judging books by their content and not the color of the characters or authors, the RWA board and membership is able to make a broader statement about diversity and inclusivity.
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