I usually blog only about writing, but the RWA debacle deserves comment—and it has applications to writing. If you’re not familiar with what’s going on in RWA, there are a dozen or more sources out there, including:
And others, including…
Other writers have also commented upon events—some to say they are leaving RWA, some to pull out o the RITA awards, some to return their RITA awards, and some to bring up past problems of discrimination, some to say they are simply sick of the whole mess, and some who think this is Twitter-bullying.
Basically, the whole thing started when one writer criticized another’s book. Now, that’s nothing new. It goes on all the time, and certainly readers in general are apt to say if they think a book is good or bad, or racist, or whatever else they think of it. Here’s the thing—this was an opinion expressed about a book. A book depicting Chinese and half-Chinese characters in stereotypical ways, which is a racist thing to do. So, calling the writing racist is a valid opinion, particularly when the person expressing that opinion is half-Chinese.
Instead of the author of that book either sucking it up, (let’s face it, all authors get reviews and criticism) or saying “yeah, I did that, I’ll do better,” or pushing back straight to the person who said this is racist with her own reasons behind what she wrote, the author filed a complaint with RWA, and RWA acted on that complaint. Which brings up the next problem—in acting, RWA violated it’s own policies and procedures (there is nothing in the bylaws about slapping down a member for posting on social media or for expressing an opinion about a book—the writing, mind you, not the author, was called racist).
And that brings us to the next problem, and why this is not just a tempest in a teapot. RWA presents itself as an organization of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” which is the exact quote off the RWA website. This statement is undermined by the actions RWA undertook. The response from RWA of a ban for social media comments on a book has the appearance—if not the actual intent—of trying to silence an author who called out racial insensitivity. Meaning it is the exact opposite of supporting diversity.
On the other side are those now fearing that their writing might be also put to the test of are they, too, portray stereotypes. And how is that a bad thing? Getting called out for writing racial stereotypes is going to make anyone a better writer—if that writer is open to critiques. This applies to getting called out for having characters that come across as one-dimensional, for having poor dialogue, and for setting up situations and scenes in a story that smack of discrimination.
All of this to mean means that it is a very, very good thing to have a little fear when facing the blank page. You may have to think more, dig deeper into creating real characters, and you may even have to pull in readers of greater diversity to make sure you’re getting it right and keep from falling into the pit of wrong assumptions.
It is also far too easy to go for the stereotype and think we’ve got an archetype instead. Or to think we’ve avoided anything because we’ve not gone to the extreme of blackface—racial and slights for others different than us can be so minor we don’t even realize we’ve had so much exposure to them that we now believe that is a truth.
It’s also too easy to skip lightly over the research and think you’re okay with what you know. Write what you know applies not just to your personal experience, but also to where you’ve gone looking to find out what it is you don’t know. That is the bigger problem—very often, we don’t know that we don’t know something. We’ve not been made sensitive. Which means getting slapped down can be a great wake-up call.
I love the stories of others pulling in more experience into their writing by pulling in readers who better know that world and that experience. Even more, I love it when writers dig deep into their own lives to bring the truth of what they know to the world. I love it when writers do not go for the common assumption but look for the deeper truth.
I’m also of the opinion that writers need to be a little uncomfortable in general. It’s a good spur to make us want to write about either a better world, or to make us want to write to know what it is we really believe. And if we’re in this for more than a paycheck, our art should make others a little uncomfortable.
Which brings us back to RWA and its problems—it is now a very uncomfortable place for many. Personally, I think this is a good thing. Comfort can breed complacency—as in just let us go on doing what we’ve always done, as in it’s good enough. Well, it’s not good enough, and this is an opportunity to do better. This is a chance to stop smoothing things over. RWA had controversy over the RITAs and the stench of discrimination in the judging and seemed to be making strides to correct that. But this blows the lid off the appearance of doing better and shows there is even more that must be done.
That decision won’t be one I’m making—at least not on my own. But I am hoping the RWA membership demands better. I am an RWA member—have been for many a year—and I am hanging on in the hope of better, so that I can be there to vote for better, and to demand better. (Yes, I signed the recall petition, too.) RWA has put forward brave words. Now it is time to live up to them.
This event has created a split in RWA—but it has also pulled out into the open much that has been wrong in RWA, and to say otherwise is to be aligned with that wrong. This is not about personalities. It is not about Courtney Milan’s personality—it’s not about whether you like her or loath her. It is not about the other personalities involved, and taking sides because you happen to like someone. This is about RWA living up to the principals it has said it upholds, including that the organization is one of diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is about RWA saying policy and procedure was not followed, here’s why, and here’s how it is being fixed. And it is about removing those from leadership who are tainted by the actions undertaken that damaged RWA.
There now must be actions to support that diversity, equity, and inclusion. Words are a great place to start, but as every writer knows, it is in action that character is revealed. So what actions are next?
For me, one of the actions is joining the Cultural, Interracial, Multicultural Special Interest Chapter of Romance Writers of America—CIMRWA.org. This chapter has been leading the petition to have president-elect Damon Suede recalled from office. He put himself in the middle of this mess. For RWA to even begin making a start to clean things up, they’re going to have to start following procedures for this recall. CIMRWA is also following up with a letter to RWA to confirm the petition has been received and is being handled according to RWA procedures.
The other action I’ll be taking is to stay abreast of developments. Things may happen slowly or fast—but one thing must be made clear. This is not going to be forgotten. This is not a minor problem. This is about RWA’s future and if RWA does indeed live up to its brave words.
But can RWA recover from this series of blunders? The organization has lost members, and relationships with other organization. It’s recived more than a little bad press with just about every major new organization covering this story. As RWA has noted, trust has been damaged. Can RWA rebuild and rework it’s future? Is the past but a prologue to even more issues? I would like to think that the more apt quote is, ‘It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.’