Less than a week ago, I was at the HERS Institute, a leadership development program for women in higher education. During the morning session, I got a phone call, but I didn’t answer (because we were in session and I’m a professional like that). I didn’t answer the second time, either. At this point, a little voice in my head reminded me the RITA® finalists were due to be announced. When it rang a third time in under an hour, I left the room to answer, sure that I’d be missing out on critical cover letter wisdom to talk to a telemarketer.
It wasn’t a telemarketer.
I returned to my seat and acted like an assistant dean, using our short breaks to share the news with friends and my publisher. It was a strange feeling to get such a big writer validation thing during a such a big day job development thing, but what a fun problem to have.
It didn’t take long, however, for the full list to post and reality to sink in. The RITAs are so white. So white there’s a hashtag. Like the Oscars, and not in a good way. The ensuing firestorm was riddled with frustration and outrage, excruciating and deeply personal experiences, encouraging allyship, and, of course, a whole crap ton of defensiveness.
Here’s the thing that really got me. I recognized the voices saying “not all white people” and “can’t we be respectful and compassionate” about our “differences of opinion.” I recognized them because they were me for the first twenty or so years of my life. The good Christian girl from the south. The one who was taught that everyone had the same chances for success and recognition if they just worked hard enough. The one who “had black friends.” The one who believed she wasn’t racist. You know, a racist.
Now, I’m not going to say this form of racism is more insidious than the others. But I will say it’s pretty fucking insidious. Because while I can’t presume to understand the experiences of people of color, I do know what it’s like for people to “not have a problem with me” but also prefer I not hold my partner’s hand in public. For people to give my book a one-star review because they didn’t realize it was going to have “homosexual content.” It sucks and it’s demoralizing and it’s really fucking exhausting.
So, I find myself stuck in that weird space between, the noncommittal ambivalence of being thrilled to be a finalist and disheartened to be one of the few (only?) LGBTQ authors to be on the short list. The satisfaction of feeling like a tiny queer step in the right direction and the dismay of knowing that the continued exclusion of talented writers of color is a big step in the wrong direction. Wanting to wear my queerness loud and proud and knowing that my whiteness silences other voices that need to be heard.
The problem with this paradox is that it lends itself to “but” statements. I want to celebrate those recognized, but we have a problem. Or, perhaps more dangerous, we have a problem but I really just want to celebrate and have my moment. The thing with “but” statements, at least for me, is that they tend to be paralyzing.
Cue the “and.” (As you may know, I’ve been working on the both/and a lot these days.) I want to revel in this recognition, congratulate the other finalists, celebrate f/f romance getting some well deserved love. And I need to acknowledge that systematic racism and implicit bias mean that authors of color have been marginalized. Again. It’s uncomfortable to hold both at once but not impossible.
I’m encouraged by the RWA President’s statement and the board’s commitment to do a meaningful overhaul of the judging process and to do so with the input of experts in implicit bias. I am hopeful we can harness this momentum to bring real change to an organization that advocates for a genre and an industry I care deeply about.
In the meantime, I’m sitting in my own discomfort. I’m working on making space for both/and. I’m adding some excellent new authors of color to my to-read list. And I’m going to keep showing up at the table, queer flag flying.