I joined RWA as an associate member (typical for a literary agent) in 2005, and over the last fifteen years have participated in a number of conferences–both local and national–providing content and taking pitches. I could see the benefits offered by the organization to their members, but I also became aware of the downsides of the group. RWA leadership has always felt entrenched in their ways. Reluctant to change, slow to catch up with major shifts in the publishing industry. It took considerable time for the shiny new e-book format to count as a published book, whether members were looking to upgrade their membership status or enter the RITA Awards. When self-published authors sought recognition on par with their traditionally published peers, there was more deliberation over eligibility. But throughout all of these slow-moving changes, one issue has been consistent: RWA remained far too white.
As with other concerns, RWA has been addressing their racism problem. Very slowly. There have been discussions regarding the RITA Awards, the nomination and judging processes. Experts have been called upon to help determine ways to improve the system. To make it more fair, diverse, welcoming. There’s been a lot of talk. For years. And yet. And yet, here we are, with this enormous mess that began, unbeknownst to most, last August, and became very public just days before Christmas.
A brief recap, for those unfamiliar with the situation. Author Courtney Milan, who speaks out frequently against racism and stands up for the rights of all marginalized writers, was accused of breaking the RWA Code of Ethics when she criticized a work by author Kathryn Lynn Davis as being racist in its descriptions of a Chinese character. (Note: Milan herself is half Chinese.) RWA announced they were suspending her membership for a year and banning her from holding future office. Author Alyssa Cole shared the censure announcement on Twitter. She included links to the Code of Ethics and the original Twitter conversation that supposedly spured the complaint against Milan. Over the next few days, a sea of complaints were lodged in reaction to RWA’s handling of the situation and treatment of Milan, united under the hashtag #IStandWithCourtney. News articles began appearing in major outlets. RWA backed off their judgment, but only so far as to state they would turn the situation over for legal advice. Davis herself appeared to backtrack somewhat in an article in The Guardian.
For a thorough and regularly updated timeline of these events, including information about the initial complaint against Milan, I will link to author Claire Ryan’s detailed post: The Implosion of RWA. Huge kudos to her for keeping all of this straight. Also, for a recap that includes the most recent fallout–the cancellation of this year’s RITA Awards–I offer this Entertainment Weekly article.
So, what does all this mean? The reality is that there’s a world of difference between making policy adjustments to keep up with shifts in the industry, and getting to the root of how you treat actual people. Where RWA’s leadership could possibly afford to take their time determining the place e-books held in the world, there should be no such dithering regarding the rights of their membership–all of them–to be treated fairly, equally, and with respect. That means all ethics complaints are reviewed, and that evidence should be included before judgments are passed. It means you maintain transparency. And it certainly means you don’t drop a bombshell of censure right before Christmas and then close up shop for the holidays. RWA’s very handling of the initial complaint suggests that they themselves were aware that they were not behaving in an acceptable fashion.
This situation goes far beyond the need to diversify nominees for a book award; RWA has demonstrated that they need a complete overhaul of staff and culture to address racism at every level of the organization.
I could go on and on about all the things wrong with this situation, but many people, more articulate on the subject than I, have already done an excellent job. I can only comment on my own commitment to continue pushing for diversity and fair treatment in the publishing industry. I joined with a number of other agents to send a letter calling for the resignation of the full RWA leadership, and I will not be participating in any RWA events–providing presentations, taking pitches, etc.–until such time as they have cleaned house from the top and recommitted the organization to fairly representing all of its membership. I don’t know if it’s possible, and I reserve the right to walk away completely if they fail in the task.