6.3 “Obstructing the Laws”: Romance Writers of America

In Winslow Adam correctly argues that Ruby “didn’t do anything wrong. You’re infringing on her rights as a United States Citizen, rights she is guaranteed under the fourteenth amendment of the Constitution” (Huguley 148). Unfortunately, in segregated Winslow, it is all too clear that in practice there are many who do not enjoy “the equal protection of the laws” which is promised by that amendment. Sadly, one can find parallels in the treatment Black romance authors have received in the Romance Writers of America (RWA), the national organisation for romance writers.

Although its founders included the groundbreaking Black editor and, later, agent, Vivian Stephens, the RWA appears to have quickly become an institution dominated by white women. When Kecia Ali explored the “RWA archives at BGSU [Bowling Green State University, which] cover the period from RWA’s founding in 1980 through 2008,” she found that

what is most striking for the period the archives at BGSU cover is the organization’s overwhelming whiteness. Passing allusions to the confederacy and Southern belles (and once, a reference to “our Grand Wizard” in committee correspondence) are notable.

On 30 March 2018 the RWA Board made an official statement that they were “committed to RWA being a welcoming and fair professional writing organization, open to all romance authors.” The next day Courtney Milan, then a Director-at-Large on the Board and a “woman of color,” though not Black, used Twitter to give more detail about some of ways in which the RWA had not been welcoming to “all romance authors”:

Did you know that women of color who attend RWA often have what is in effect a buddy system? So they’re not left alone? Did you know that every year, Black women who sit down at lunch tables see white women stand up and move to not sit with them? (qtd. Vivanco 2018)

Piper Huguley herself faced discrimination of a similar kind in 2013, and her experience demonstrated that it could come from staff as well as from fellow authors. She was

up for a Golden Heart Award [...] and [...] was the only black finalist nominated for any of RWA’s awards that year (for her historical romance A Champion’s Heart).

An exclusive reception for award finalists is a staple of RWA’s annual national conference. But when Huguley tried to walk into the Atlanta hotel bar where the reception was being held, she says, an organization staff member stood in her way.

“She sort of stepped across my path and asked me if she could help me,” Huguley recalls.

All finalists send a picture of themselves to the organization. They also have to RSVP for the reception and wear special ribbons with their convention badges. Huguley had done all of that, so she expected to be welcomed into the reception. She did not expect to be treated as though she were an intruder. [...]

Huguley politely showed the staffer her finalist ribbon, and the woman stepped aside without apology or explanation to allow Huguley entry. But Huguley says the message was clear: As a black woman, she didn’t belong at that awards reception.

For years, RWA’s members of color had felt stigma and hostility like that experienced by Huguley [...]; they’d felt unwanted, disrespected, or simply shut out. (Grady)

It is, moreover, strongly suspected that racism has played a part in the judging of RWA contests. In 2018 the Board of the RWA acknowledged that

during the last few years, we’ve taken a hard look at contest issues, including judging, categories and scoring. A recent discussion among our members has highlighted a systemic issue—black authors are significantly underrepresented as finalists [...] from what we could determine, the statistics for black author RITA finalists from 2000 to 2017 are:

• The number of finalist books by black authors is less than half of 1% of the total number of finalist books

• No black romance author has ever won a RITA

In 2019 the then President of the RWA, HelenKay Dimon issued a more trenchant condemnation of the RITA judging procedure: “The Board affirmatively states that there is a serious problem with reader bias in the judging of the RITAs. This is most evident in the preliminary round of the RITAs” (RWA 2019). The same reader bias affected the Golden Heart contest for unpublished writers since the judges were “anonymous, the scoring system [...] vague and wildly subjective” (Waite). As with the RITAs for published writers, there was statistical evidence that it was “much, much harder to final if you’re writing marginalized heroes and heroines” but one anecdote, relating to a somewhat unusual situation, is extremely telling:

Author Nicki Salcedo wrote frankly about entering her manuscript with a black heroine in 2011 and scoring in the bottom 25%; the next year, she removed all references to the character’s race, and the exact same book was named a finalist. (Waite)

The last Golden Heart contest was held in 2019. That year also saw the final RITA contest, in which two Black authors at last won RITAs: Kennedy Ryan for a contemporary novel, Long Shot, and M. Malone for the novella "Bad Blood.” In 2020 the RWA Board “made the decision to retire the annual RITA Awards” and proposed replacing it with a new competition whose rules would minimise bias, and which would be named after Vivian Stephens (RWA 2020a).

The lack of Black authors among the RWA’s award winners has had consequences not just for Black authors who were discriminated against, but also for readers. In particular, it has had consequences for romance scholarship. It seems probable that some novels will have gained more reviews, and been more widely discussed, as a result of winning a RITA, and this could have made them more likely to come to the attention of scholars. Moreover, as A. Dana Ménard explained in 2013, with regards to a study she undertook based on

the 20 most recent winners of the RITA award for best single-title contemporary romance novel [...], by including books selected by [the] community itself as “exemplary,” it was hoped that the sample would reflect a kind of distillation of the best that the community has to offer.

It certainly was “a kind of distillation,” not necessarily of “the best” that romance has had to offer, but of the best which was both entered into the competition and found palatable by all RWA judges. In that sense, at least, it may continue to have historic value for romance scholars: as long as the biases in the selection process are borne in mind, the list of RITA winners may serve as an indication of a particular section of the romance community’s values and preferences.