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So You Want To Talk About Race: The RWA Panel On Race

This year’s RWA convention had a number of events focused on issues of race and diversity in publishing and I attended the round table discussion on the topic lead by moderator Courtney Milan.

The seats were positioned in a circle, suggesting an inclusive dialogue between everyone, ensuring you’ll see the faces and identity of the people who are telling their personal stories. The panel was a Discussion Ed based off Ijeoma Oluo’s book So You Want to Talk About Race and was set up so that even if you hadn’t read the book, you could gain insight to perspectives from of all races—white, black, hispanic, Latino, Asian— who discussed the issue of racism and publishing in America on varying scales.

The panel began with the establishment of discussion rules that would create a respectful dialogue between all attendees. These rules established that the marginalized people in the room should not talk over the marginalized people who have experienced racism or forms of prejudice. Moderator Courtney Milan encouraged those experiencing discomfort in what was being discussed, mainly attendees of the panel who were white and straight, to sit with that discomfort, because discomfort often means growth and confronting one’s own privilege.

Milan began with a quote from the book that establishes racism as a systematic issue that has been tacitly maintained in order to exploit and keep people of color at the bottom of a socio-political hierarchy.

The discussion started on a positive note as many of the participants recalled much of the progress that has been made since the beginning of the Civil Rghts movement in 1954 to the present. The attendees of the discussion, specifically the attendees of color, credited the change to a willingness in the public to discuss issues of systematic racism and giving those who have been victimized a platform to speak in politics. But despite such great strides it is important to remember these systematic problems are not completely gone.

Racism as something ingrained in all aspects of life was recently highlighted when Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’s commented on Trump’s policies and blatant racism. To Ocasio-Cortez, and to many marginalized Americans, Trump is not the root of a system, which continues to oppress marginalized people, but a symptom of a great systematic problem that has existed for centuries. The fight against racism and social injustices as a whole is a constant in every day battles for basic human rights.

In the realm of publishing, one attendee of the panel brought up the amount of privilege it takes to work for the publishing industry in New York City while only making 20K a year where one needs family money to successfully make a career out of publishing. The point highlights the kinds of people who are at the top of the publishing industry—people of privilege who may or may not understand the struggle of marginalized peoples in America, people who may not believe those struggles because they do not experience said struggles.

In the terms of marketing of the romance genre, and most likely other genres, another attendee noted that in a bookstore, such as a Barnes & Nobles, and even smaller bookstores, African- American writers are rarely in the same section as books simply labeled “Romance.” Instead, African-American writers are pushed to another section of a bookstore labeled “African-American Romance,” thus creating an unequal marketing presence. As a result, customers looking for romance books will not make a conscious effort to go into the section labeled “African-American Romance,” because they either feel they don’t relate to the stories or they don’t want politics, or the discussion of privilege and race, in stories they use to escape the real world.

But what if African-American writers—or books that are labeled differently due to the marginalized identity of the author—were included in the “Romance” category? Would costumers be more willing to pick up a book by a person of color? Or an LGBTQ+ author? Some believe the segregation of writers is a disadvantage right from the start, dooming marginalized authors to fail.

The issue seems to come down to money, a conclusion many of the attendees of the panel agreed upon. Many people, especially white cis people, argue that publishers are accepting authors writing books with diverse characters more often and making more money than those writing white-bread books—books featuring heterosexual, white couples. But the statistics do not support such a claim.

Additionally, while that claim seems to be favorable to marginalized authors, it holds prejudice and racist thought. It is a call back to how some members of the public believe that because colleges are looking for diversity—affirmative action—that people of color do not need to have quality skills; they just have to apply to these high-end schools and they’ll get in based on the color of their skin. But statistics on the graduating classes of these classes, the same way one can look at the lack of money being made by marginalized authors due to lack of proper marketing, do not support that people of color are actually graduating from these high-end colleges. Which brings up the question: are publishers, and even colleges, not investing enough time in their marginalized students? If they put in as much time as the authors writing white MF books, would marginalized authors make more money? The answer from the room was most definitely.

The myth that diverse books are being accepted and making more money, Milan said, is a myth cis white people tell themselves so that the situation seems better.

Milan proposed a question to the panel, specifically asking the white people in the room: How do you make sure situations like this do not occur in the future? Why are stories with black people considered stories of a different type and not just labeled as stories, i.e. African-American romances being labeled as just romance?

Milan’s question returns to the overall statement from the book about racism being a purposefully exploitative system that purposefully and tacitly keeps marginalized groups at the bottom of a hierarchy. It seems that stories of people of color and LGBTQ+ people are being purposely excluded so that these stories are not given credibility because they are not making enough money. The exclusion of these stories allows for these injustices to be swept under the rug as if they do not exist.

So what exactly can we do to deal with oppression that’s ingrained in the fabric on all macro and even micro scales—economically, socially and culturally? In one participant’s words, while change is happening from the bottom up, there must always be change from the top as well. For example, while it’s important for writers to be demanding change from the publishing industry, publishers must also be willing to change.

Although the participants on the panel discussion of race seemed to veer toward hoping that someone else should push for change, specifically the publishers in the publishing industry, Milan provided a more hopeful and proactive message.

In terms of inciting change, Milan challenged those in the room who are of a marginalized identity to be the change they wish to be; to be that someone else.

With two black women winning a Rita award this year--Kennedy Ryan with her novel Long Shot and M. Malone’s novella Bad Blood--for the first time in the 37 years the Rita Awards have been established, it seems that with enough of an uproar, positive change can—and should—happen. However, this demand for diversity must continue to ensure that everyone has a chance to have their own unique stories told.

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