Through the Looking Glass: Lack of DEI & the RITAs

The prestigious award is losing credibility when it misses the mark on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

As a member of the Romance Writers of America, I haven’t said anything around the RITAs lately, but as I talk to my DEI practitioners and colleagues about the ongoing lack of inclusion in publishing and RWA I can’t “not” say anything about it any longer. For almost two years being a member, I’ve been observing the state of the organization as not just an author and woman of color, but also as someone who works in DEI. Between my corporate life and my author life, it’s sad I cannot escape the blatant lack of diversity and inclusion in both the tech and entertainment sectors.

I know how difficult it is to be a change agent, especially in this environment and it’s tough, but at some point, the band-aids gotta rip off and organizations need to own up and shape up. The balancing act of looking at this through so many perspectives is dizzying and as I write this, RWA’s PAN forum is a full-on dumpster fire, so I’ll try to be as clear as possible. There’s a lot that RWA can learn from the work being done around diversity, equity and inclusion in the corporate world.

For those unfamiliar with how Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) works, Verna Myers broke it down in terms easiest for most to understand:

Diagram courtesy of ImpactDEI

The RITAs is a prestigious award given to a published romance author based on the judging of their peers, and considered the highest honor in Romance publishing. Since I’ve joined RWA last year, it’s been very troubling to learn that a black author has never won this award. Very few even final. In fact, there’s just a clear lack of representation from many marginalized groups. Add in intersectionality (which typically means that representation would be even lower for a POC who also identifies as LGBTQ)and the problem expands. The issue has continued to churn, without much coordinated efforts to resolve this lack of equity. DEI all works together: you can’t really have one without the other. Equity is leveling the playing field realizing that some groups have more privilege than others. It’s giving fair opportunity. I do not see this with how the RITAs are structured. This is part of the problem, since there’s already data that shows lack of visibility and representation of these very same groups in the publishing industry as a whole.

Here’s the rip at the band-aid: RWA must move from talking and data gathering to action.

Don’t get me wrong, talking is good and it’s how we learn about the existing issues and hear each other’s stories. Talking about it makes it real. But, when the problems have existed for a long period of time and all that is happening is just more talk about same issues and more stories which reflect those issues, we all start to encounter fatigue. Alexis Daria, a Latinx Romance author and 2018 RITA winner for “Best First Book,” illustrates such fatigue in her latest tweet.

Yes, Diversity and Inclusion fatigue is real and it can have a huge backlash on resolving the DEI problems within your organization. There’s a sense of hopelessness, anxiety and even anger that can arise from all the talking that leads to no changes. Think about the word I just used…

I said “changes”, not solutions. Why? Because every organization tries to go in and create or search for “the magic solution” as if there’s one magic bullet that can make all this uncomfortableness and morale killing disappear.

Let me tell you this; it doesn’t exist.

And it’s that nonsensical belief that usually keep organizations suspended in trauma until they try to find this miracle solution. Either that, or they get so overwhelmed on where to start that the company just stays still.

Stop treading water and freaking swim!

Every company and org is different in tackling DEI. Every. Single. One. You cannot attack it the same way as every other group and some goals will be harder to hit than others. You’re not gonna ace it right out the gate. But you have to try something and make an impact.

Here’s the basic tactics of starting to improve DEI in your org:

  1. Acknowledge there’s a problem. Validate your members feelings whether you have data or not. How they feel is their data, so don’t discount it. Create a safe place for them to voice their truths. If you don’t have data, now’s the time to go get some.

Soo, as a DEI advocate, an author of color, a RITA judge AND an RWA member, here’s my recommendation:

  1. Move judging to a less bias-friendly system. There’s definitely an illusion of objectivity in the RITAs, where the judging seems anything but. Tasks that are open to interpretation and subjectivity are no good to create a fair judging system. It doesn’t matter who you get to judge; with subjectivity comes problems with bias. Shrink your pool of judges, create clear and concise criteria (like a rubric) is common in awards systems and was disappointed to see that such a thing didn’t exist when I judged this year’s RITAs. This is supposed to be a prestigious award to highlight the very best in Romance; it deserves the fairest, consistent method of judging such works.

There is a lot of work to be done. I hope that the national leadership is ready, but if they don’t run on annual goals for the organization, maybe now’s a great time to start. I hope we see “Creating a bias-resistent RITAs” and “Rebuilding credibility and an inclusive culture in RWA” on the top of that list.

Great Reads to Understand Bias and systemic racism:

Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us & What We Can Do — Author: Claude M. Steele —

Thinking Fast & Slow — Author: Daniel Kahneman —

Why All the Black Kids Sit Together in the Cafeteria? — Author: Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D ,

I'm an #indieauthor of #ParanormalRomance & #UrbanFantasy. Love Coaching, dogs & tacos. DEI Advocate and moderator.