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In 2019 a well known romance writer began tweeting about other writers in her community and concerns about racism. It led to a huge reckoning within an organization called the Romance Writers of America, which is still unfolding. And although the online debate seemed to be isolated to a specific community of romance writers and their fans, it was really a microcosm of what’s been happening all over the US. In this episode we learn all about romance novels and how newer writers are changing the norms of the genre, and giving it a political power it’s never had before. And, we talk about what it means for organizations to change as they grapple with questions of race, including organizations such as ours, at Making Contact. This is an encore presentation of the second part of a two-part series.
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Featuring Music: Making Contact Team
Making Contact Team
Salima Hamirani: I’m Salima Hamirani and on today’s Making Contact. We have part two of “The Agony and the Ecstasy: Race and the Future of the Love Story.”
So last week we talked to Constance Grady, a Vox reporter who led us through the race debate in 2019, and the romance writers of America basically the RWA got called out. They try to ignore it. Then they got really called out and realized that they had to change. So they called off their award ceremony. They hired a diversity consultant.
Constance Grady: And then finally in February, what is left of the board resigns. An interim board comes in and they say that in the five months they have left before they get a new permanent board, they are going to try to completely overhaul RWA and all of this is going to be happening in the middle of a pandemic.
Salima Hamirani: This week. We want to talk to you about what happened next, but we also want to talk about why this race debate within this seemingly small corner of the writing world is actually very important and why we should care about the RWA if we don’t even read romance.
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And one of the first things to point out is that romance is not a small part of the writing world.
Constance Grady: Basically, if you want to make money through books become a romance novelist. In 2019 more than 40 million romance books were sold through conventional format. So this isn’t counting, like self-publishing people putting things out on Amazon, this is just counting standard like Harlequin romance novels. That made more than $336 million in sales and it represented 18% of total fiction sales in America in 2019.
Salima Hamirani: But because of the gatekeeping we talked about in part one, black and brown authors and queer authors, aren’t getting the kinds of contracts that would allow them to live off of their art, which in of itself, isn’t.
But if we only focus on the value of the market, diversity becomes just something that we’re trying to sell.
Jayashree Kamble: There is a potential for issues like race to be tokenized and to become purely a marketing tag. And so I’ve often tried to get folks to think a little harder about what it is that they’re championing and what it is that they think they’re raising the flag for.
Salima Hamirani: That’s professor Jayashree Kamble who studies romance at LaGuardia community college in New York. And she argues that even within all people of color organizations, there are still problems with colorism cast with class.
Jayashree Kamble: It’s not possible to bring that kind of nuance unless the industry itself has a really granular level of diversity, right? Like you can’t just have, oh yes, I have my, you know, my Indian editor. Like your Indian editor brings a lot of baggage with them.
Salima Hamirani: So why else is the race debate within the RWA important? Well, because the RWA, isn’t the only organization dealing with the aftermath of racism within its ranks. In fact, it’s really a microcosm of what’s happening all over the country, as we grappled with our collective future.
And that’s really, what’s at stake. Shana McDavis Conway studies, social change. And she’s also a romance fan who by the way, really loves Amish romance novels.
Shana McDavis-Conway : I absolutely love them. I will fight for my Amish romance novels. I do prefer gay Amish romance. Which is a very, very tiny sub-genre of a sub-genre, which, you know, I wish more people would write.
Salima Hamirani: So, if you’re listening, please write more gay Amish romance novels for Shana. She’s also a staff reviewer for a podcast called Smart Bitches Trashy Books, which we can’t actually say that word on air, so we had to bleep it out. And Shayna argues that more radical romances have been foreshadowing a possible future for this country
Shana McDavis-Conway : Where different types of families are accepted and, you know, beloved and are central to communities that might not be the present.
Salima Hamirani: And that there’s an ideological battle playing out between the old guard and the newer writers. And you can really see it in two kinds of novels. One:
Shana McDavis-Conway : Are romances that write about marginalized people, about people of color, about queer people, about disabled people and their happiness, which often includes resolving structural conflicts in their lives, community conflicts, overcoming, issues of oppression as part of that. And romances that, uh, more traditionally focus on a kind of white colonialist, imperialist straight Christian perspective.
Salima Hamirani: So the battle over the industry of the love story is also a battle over who gets the control happiness, and who’s worthy of happiness, which is especially interesting in the context of the RWA, because it was actually started by a black woman named Vivian Stevens.
Constance Grady: She was at a publishing conference in 1980 in Houston, and a bunch of romance novelists came to her and they said, listen, we’re trying to get published, but no one here is taking us seriously because we’re romance writers, but are we going to do. You know, you’re the one person who knows about this stuff right now. And Vivian Stephens said, okay, I think you need to band together and get some group solidarity going here. And she convinced her publisher to invest some money in the idea of making a professional group for these women. And that was what became RWA.
Jayashree Kamble: I would say she probably is responsible for American romance as we know it.
Salima Hamirani: Constance, what happened with the RWA? If it was started by black editor, why is it in this position now with race?
Constance Grady: Yeah that’s a big question that I had when I was first reporting on this. And when I talked to a lot of members of RWA, former members, who are members of color, what they said was that. Over time, the institutional memory kind of just faded away. You know, Vivian Stephens eventually steps down from RWA. She’s mostly replaced by white leadership. And this idea that had at the beginning been kind of intrinsic to RWA that this is a place where we support each other and especially support writers of color just became instead – this is a place where we support white ladies writing stories about other nice white ladies falling in love.
Salima Hamirani: But Vivian Steven’s legacy is now being revived. The award ceremony once called the Rita’s is now called the Vivians and the RWA is trying to regain the trust of its members, which isn’t an easy task givenm the racism people encountered over the decades.
Claire: If you look at the romance genre in particular, over the years, it has been predominantly white. Um, you know, nobody can argue that that’s a fact,
Salima Hamirani: That was Claire Brett she’s the current president of the board of the RWA. And Claire Brett along with the current secretary of the board Sierra London, wanted to talk to me about the changes the organization has made since 2019-
Sierra let’s start with you. How did you react to what happened in 2019 as a member of the RWA.
Siera London: Honestly I was like, oh, obviously this is a conversation that we need to have in RWA. Like so many other organizations, you know, across the globe at this point, when you talk about race and, uh, and gender issues, and, um, it really made me want to step up. It was one of the reasons why I elected to run for the interim board, because I wanted to be a part of the conversation and I wanted to add my voice to the conversation.
Salima Hamirani: And Claire, I can see you nodding.? Would you like to add something?
Claire: Yeah, I completely agree with what Sierra said. I’ve always been that person that just rolls up their sleeves and says, okay, what’s the solution? What, what’s the next step? And I think we can look to other organizations. We can look to, um, our culture as a whole…None of these things are things that change overnight. And I think that’s frustrating all the way around because we would like in our culture to have everything be equal and fair and inclusive. But it’s cultural and culture doesn’t change overnight. It’s every single aspect of our organization has to be looked at and considered as we move forward.
Salima Hamirani: So on that point, you know, the award ceremony, even after there were renamed, continues to be a sore point for authors because they felt like racist books kept getting nominated. How was the organization dealing with the award ceremony?
Claire: I was on the board, um, this past year whenr here was an issue with one of the nominees. I will say that the board decided that they needed to have an internal investigation done on the whole contest. And the decision was made, when this all happened to not run our contest this year until the task force was able to finish and do as much of a deep dive as they felt they needed to do. And that report has not come to the board as finished yet. So the board members were not aware that this book was an issue because none of us had anything to do with that side of the contest. So all I can say is we stopped the contest immediately and chose to do a deep dive into how can we make this better before we bring it out again to our members?
Salima Hamirani: And Sierra that’s not the only change that’s been made within the organization. And I wanted to give the organization a chance to talk about those changes. What else has been done?
Siera London: So, um, some of the things we’ve done, we started with our board, like we talked about what types of issues…. And this was before this 2022 board, but the interim board, like we talked about what type of inquiries are we getting from our members? Like, what are our members, what are they saying? What’s happening across the chapters in the organization. Right?
And, um, during that process, not only did we start doing chapter outreach, talking with our chapter leaderships, but we actually started having town hall meetings that our actual members could come to and talk to us about what’s your RWA experience been what’s happening and how are issues being addressed or are they not being addressed? And that’s a conversation that continues
Also, we went through a six-month review process of our own code of ethics. We also hired a DEI professional to come in and develop training modules, not just for the staff. But also, for us in leadership positions, um, positions. Because when you talk about race and gender, it could be so challenging for some folks to even raise the topic.
Salima Hamirani: You know, after 2019, the RWA lost a lot of his membership. And I’m curious to know, do you think the RWA has a future or a role to play at this point in the romance industry or has it become obsolete.
Siera London: Romance is a billion-dollar industry. And what we are learning is doors that were closed to romance before, even in the educational sector, you are seeing now colleges that one romance writers on their staff. They want their students to learn about the genre of romance and the tenants of romance and how to write romance because romance is about intimacy. And if anything, COVID has shown us is that intimacy is more than physical it’s about connection, right? And so, learning how to craft characters that readers can connect with is what you need. It really in every genre.
So is RWA positioned to still be able to. Help writers, whether you’re a new writer or you been in the game a while, to mentor, to educate, to build lasting networks. Absolutely. I would not be where I am right now as a writer, if it were not for all the wonderful people that I met through RWA and the quality education that I received, so yes. Do we need a presence like RWA in the marketplace in the industry? Absolutely.
Salima Hamirani: And that’s sort of the end of the RWA saga. The organization continues to work on diversity. It’s trying to rebuild the membership. And honestly, there’s no clear ending to this story because the path forward after a massive call-out is unclear. Can organizations change? Or should we just scrap an institution entirely and start over with something else?
These questions came up for me a lot during this piece, and it actually brings us to the second half of today’s show. And for that we’re actually bringing in our interim executive director, Jessica Partnow welcome to.
Jessica Partnow: Thank you so much for having me.
Salima Hamirani: So Jessica, you are my editor for this story, and I’m curious to know if you’d heard anything about the race debate within the romance writers.
Jessica Partnow: Yeah, I had not heard anything specifically about what happened in the RWA, but I mean, I thought it was just fascinating and it’s something that so many organizations are going through. I think sometimes we think these things are more mysterious than they really are, you know, it’s about money and power. And when you’re used to having that privilege, having that power, you want to protect it and keep it. So it can be kind of straightforward sometimes
Salima Hamirani: And so you’re joining me to talk about power and money and race in a completely different area – in journalism, because I felt like there was a, another story buried within the one about the RWA and that’s about institutional change. And since so much of what happened at the RWA is also happening within journalism, and at making contacts. I thought maybe discussing our own battle with race might help us gain some clarity. So stay tuned. We’ll be back to talk about race and journalism right after the break.
New Speaker: We’re just jumping in to remind you that you’re listening to part 2 of “the Agony and the Ecstasy Race and the Future of the Love Story.” If you’d like to find out more information, please visit us at radioproject.org. And now, back to the show.
Salima Hamirani: You know, Jessica, before we jump into this topic, you mentioned that while you were excited to talk about race, at Making Contact and in journalism, it also made you kind of nervous. Can you explain why?
Jessica Partnow: Yeah, I, I think part of it is that it’s scary to admit that you don’t have all the answers. I don’t know if there’s a right way to go through a racial reckoning as an organization, but I know there’s a lot of ways to make mistakes. And then also, as I was thinking about this conversation this morning, I feel very responsible also for protecting the safety of the people that are part of this organization. And it can be dangerous to have this conversation. I mean, in journalism organizations all over the place, including Making Contact, we’ve received really negative feedback for having some of these conversations about race. So that’s part of it too. I don’t want to expose us or expose the people who work for Making Contact in a way that’s potentially harmful.
Salima Hamirani: Yeah. And you know, I’m really glad you brought up the safety question because this isn’t the first outlet that I’ve worked at that has received sometimes personally threatening comments from listeners, particularly when we talk about race. But I don’t want that to stop us from having a conversation like this. And also because it was very difficult for me to find organizations that have been going through something similar. To talk about their journey- what had worked, what hasn’t worked- especially because they were worried that they, you know, quote unquote weren’t there yet, and they hadn’t fixed all of their problems. But you know that makes it really hard for us to learn from each other.
And you know, when Shannon was talking in the first half about the battle for the future that’s being played out in romance novels. I think about that a lot because for one side it’s very clear, you know, it’s ban abortion, don’t say the word gay school, ban books, banned discussions about race, but for the other side, the way forward is a little bit more vague and less absolute.
And so, you know, really exploring the imperfections of the way forward is important. And so, in that spirit of openness, let’s jump into it and talk about the big picture for a second. Jessica you’ve been a journalist a lot longer than me.
Could you explain the crisis? Journalism is in right now,
Jessica Partnow: It’s funny in some ways, like, I think that journalism has been in crisis for my entire career for the past 20 years. Um, the first crisis was the internet and journalism, not being ready for what he democratizing of access to publishing would really mean. And I think now, for so many white journalists, there was this moment of realization with the 2016 presidential election that .Oh, we don’t really know what’s happening in this country and that’s because we are in our bubbles. Right. Siloed and I do think the industry is starting to examine like, does it actually matter to have really different experiences, lived experiences and perspectives in the newsroom in terms of how we can responsibly cover and understand what’s going on in the news.
Salima Hamirani: right? Which is very similar to that basic diversity question within the RW.
Jessica Partnow: And there’s also this same sort of power struggle, I think, happening
Salima Hamirani: yeah, I was also thinking while reporting on the RWA, when Shannon was talking about the two competing viewpoints of the world that arise, when you have different kinds of people, writing love stories and some ways that’s also true of journalism.
There’s this ideological battle about what counts as truth.
Jessica Partnow: Yes. And I think in journalism for so long, we’ve been clinging to this idea that objectivity is truth. And this idea that as an objective journalist, I can be outside of the fray and be this sort of omniscient, observer and spectator on the world. but we live in a culture of white supremacy. So.
That’s really what it’s meant by so-called objective journalism. I think it’s, it’s about maintaining the status quo, maintaining the systems of white supremacy and patriarchy and all of that. That is what has to be held constant.
Salima Hamirani: Yeah. And that’s exactly it. I mean, I do feel like journalists, especially being pushed by the influx of people of color and queer people into the field are examining what objectivity even means. And if it’s possible, And whether we want to just let the world run on its course and then report on it, or whether journalism has a place in the world of movement building and healing.
But I do think that idea is still pretty challenging for a lot of traditional older journalists to stomach.
Jessica Partnow: and you know, and it can be taken to such an extreme. Um, and I think it can be kind of ridiculous. I have heard many journalists over the years say like, oh, I don’t vote because I need to maintain my objectivity, which is. To me like bunkers and we’re lying to ourselves. Even if you’re not voting, you have an opinion. You have skin in this game. It’s the world that we all live in and it affects you. it affects the people that you love. Trying to tell yourself that you could be somehow outside of that, I think is inaccurate. And I think that as journalists, we can all agree that accuracy is really, really important to our jobs.
Salima Hamirani: And I guess this is a good place to mention that we’re also struggling with all of this at our own organization here Making Contact, and we’re not even a traditional media organization, and yet we’re also having a race reckoning.
Jessica Partnow: Yeah. Yeah. And you know, I’ve heard you say in other conversations, Salima that we became a majority women of color organization almost by accident that the production team evolved and became all women of color. And then as the long-time executive director was leaving the organization there was a real desire to hire a person of color to lead the organization in its next phase.
And, you know, I think for Sonya who came in as the next executive director and is an incredible leader person in the organization was so glad to have her. Um, but I think, that as an organization, we didn’t fully realize how much more needs to change if you’re going to become a truly black led or a truly person of color led organization.
And I think as an organization, sometimes we’ll sort of, we’ll be in this panic about fixing racism or responding to it or saying like, how can we do this differently? Um, how can we be better? I know we’ll hire a person of color and that’s gonna fix it! Right? We’ll create a DEI department and hire a person of color to run it! And all of those things are good, but there’s also so much more visibilizing of tnvisible stuff that has to happen. And that is really, really hard.
Salima Hamirani: Right. And, and we didn’t really take a step back to think about whether the systems we had in place were equitable, whether we’d had any real conversations or talked about the values or the beliefs of the organization. We kind of just put the burden of race on the new leader, which didn’t go over well. And, I think Sonia decided that the best way forward for the organization was for her to step down and for us to see the seriousness of the problem. And then Jessica, you came in as an interim director. So, I’m curious, you’ve actually been an interim director for organizations before. Can you talk to me about what you think changes in an organization like Making Contact.
Jessica Partnow: I’ve been part of a lot of nonprofits that are. Trying to have the conversation with themselves of like, what does it mean to be an anti-racist organization? What does it mean to be an organization that is trying to create liberating structures, right. And so is painful when organizations first start to have this conversation. The first step is realizing you have a problem. Right?
Salima Hamirani: You know, I, I interviewed somebody about this topic. His name is CJ Broderick and he works for an organization called The Equity Project.
CJ Broderick: Equitable systems and institutions begin with equity conscious individuals. So, if people can change, then the institutions that they control can change, but it is a process. And we try to be supportive in that process.
Salima Hamirani: And here’s what he said about the way racism affects the places that we work and how we work.
CJ Broderick: White people have controlled the institutions, whether it’s our government, whether it’s our legal system, the education system for a long time. The ways in which they have chosen to organize their work, to organize the institutions, the ways they’ve chosen to see themselves the way they’ve chosen to see others that has been replicated in our works
In this case, in what we publish, what we put on TV, right? All these different things have been replicated through the viewpoints of white people. And so we talk about white supremacy culture at institutions. We’re talking about certain attributes, certain characteristics that we ascribe to as, oh, this is the norm. This is what’s valued. This is what should be, this is what’s superior.
Jessica Partnow: It was actually such a relief to me to hear that framing as a white person. I think I had been doing all of this worrying that people would, I don’t know, like discover that I’m white or that I benefit from white supremacy culture. Um, and so maybe if I just try to be a really, really good white person, then you know, I’ll never mess anything up. Um, but so it was a relief to realize, like, that is not a thing it’s not possible.
Salima Hamirani: Yeah. And I guess once you realize that. It does open up some possibilities. Here’s CJ. Again,
CJ Broderick: So the problem with white supremacy culture and the attributes of white supremacy culture, it’s not that they’re all inherently bad or evil or are just wrong.
The point is that we need to consider how to give people in an organization of choice as to what’s norm, what’s the goal and not to say, okay, well, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson felt this way. So this is how we should all feel hundreds of years later. Right? Now, if you’re talking about making organizations diverse, inclusive, equitable, there’s an opportunity for us to choose culture, to create culture, right? But often we inherit culture and pass it down from generation to generation. And so we come into an organization and we say, oh, they’ve always done it this way. This is how it should be.
Jessica Partnow: Yeah. Yeah. I love that. I mean, and then this also speaks to why it’s so valuable to not only have white people in the room, like if you have examples of different cultural practices in the room, we might realize maybe we could try and do it this other way.
Salima Hamirani: You know, I also love that this felt empowering the way he talks about it, that during this painful process, maybe we can end up with more choice and freedom in our workplaces and in our churches and in our political organizations. And I mean, we could have this conversation all day and really, we’re just starting to open up this topic for ourselves and for our listeners. And so my last question for you, Jessica is, do you actually think organizations can change? And if so, how?
Jessica Partnow: All organizations are made up of people. People are imperfect. There’s just, there’s no such thing as a perfect organization, a perfect racial justice transformation, any of that. And I think that organizational change happens exactly the same way that change happens for individuals, right. Um, you have to be able to see what’s going on. You can like understand, process, work through and change your behavior. Right. And organizations can do exactly that. None of us are probably going to be able to fix racism period, full stop. But what we can be doing is, looking at the ways that we’re perpetuating harmful systems and try to change that,
Salima Hamirani: You were just listening to Jessica Partnow, and that does it for today’s show. If you’d like more information please visit our website at radioproject.org Or find us on twitter, at making underscore contact and on instagram we’re makingcontactradioproject. I’m Salima Hamirani, Thanks for listening to Making Contact. .