Guest Post: Writing About Historical Racism is Not “Controversial”

July 13, 2020

 

 

 

There is something fishy in the state of (historical romance) Denmark, and I feel compelled to let people know about it.

 

Scrolling through Instagram the other day, I saw an article by @bellabreenbooks about racism in the Regency era published to the blog Austen Authors, and I saved it so I could go back to read the blog entry when I had more time.

 

A few days later, when I remembered my saved post, I was met with an error 404: page not found. Turns out, the Austen Authors admins had removed Bella’s post because it was a “controversial” “hot button” topic.

 

What was the topic, you ask? Was it about sex or scandal or something else not for polite company?

 

Nope. It was about the presence of people of color in Regency England.

 

Literally the existence of black people was classified as “controversial.”

 

This seemed...problematic, so I reached out to Bella for more information. She shared further details. As a contributor to Austen Authors, she posted her article over the weekend. When the admins saw it, they removed it and sent her a private email explaining why. They then sent a mass email to all contributors summing up their objections. Bella resigned in protest. 

 

She gave me permission to share the original post, the Austen Authors admins’ email notifying her they had removed it, and her follow-up resignation email.

 

The Original Post - “Racism of Erasure in Regency Romance Novels”

Bella posted her article on her own blog, so you can read it for yourself here. Here’s a summary of what she covers:

  • People often think of Regency England as all white

  • In fact, Great Britain had colonized Africa, the Caribbean, India, and China by the 1800s, which means people of color were coming to and fro England a lot

  • She gives several examples of biracial people of note from Regency England, including the speculation that Queen Charlotte may have been biracial

  • At the same time, racism and white supremacy were developing as methods to uphold British superiority

  • Finally, Bella points out that while Regency Romances avoid racism, they rarely include a diverse cast of characters. That means we are erasing the people of color that we know existed, which is itself a form of racism. (Note: this includes my own books to date)

  • She concludes by challenging us all to think critically about whether the Regency/Jane Austen fiction we read can be more diverse.

  • Finally, she lists her sources, which are 63% Wikipedia (this is the only thing I find controversial about her post, since Wikipedia is not a reliable source)

Austen Authors’ Response

Here is what the admins had to say when they informed her they removed her post (Bella gave me permission to share this email):

 

Bella,

 

Regina and I just spoke on the phone about your blog post today. Neither of us saw it early enough to address the topic before there were several comments already made, and I am sorry about that, but the subject matter is simply not acceptable for Austen Authors.

 

Specifically, if you recall from the Austen Authors SOP document (with the rules all authors agree to follow before committing to be an AuAu) under the "topics that are not allowed on the blog":

 

Political or Other “Hot Button” Topics: A reminder to avoid divisive topics of our modern times. If in the context of past, historical issues (for example, slavery during the Regency or the Napoleonic Wars, etc.) this is fine, just do not link or correlate to modern political figures, issues, etc.

 

Considering the tumultuous events happening to this very day, any topic that remotely touches upon race particularly, is as hot button as it gets! Also, perhaps you are unaware if not a member of the Romance Writers of America, but issues of diversity and racism have literally led to the destruction of a once great, forty-year strong organization. If such issues, no matter how well meaning, can ruin the RWA through division, the potential harm to Austen Authors is nothing to take lightly.

 

Regina and I are in complete agreement that Austen Authors should be free of controversy. Our focus should be #1 on the authors and their novels, and #2 on Jane Austen and the Regency period. As stated in the Mission and Goals document, we must remain "neutral and family friendly" while providing a lighthearted and fun website for ALL of our readers no matter their political, social, religious, etc. beliefs.

 

We also feel very strongly that all authors of any genre should be allowed to freely and without censorship write whatever they want. We were very disturbed by the "call to action" which pointedly encompassed "fellow authors" to write of people and topics they simply may not wish to write about.

 

Furthermore, the request for visitors to recommend books by other authors is also against our rules, regardless of the subject matter. In the SOP under the "topics that are not allowed on the blog":

 

To avoid creating strife or hurt feelings in the JAFF community specifically, and in the broader author community, reviewing novels (even if positive) is not acceptable. This includes novel or author recommendations unless the author is deceased or it is a personal reference (inspirations, author encounter, favorites from youth, etc.).

 

After a long discussion, Regina and I believe it is best to remove your post from the blog. I have reset it as a draft so the text and comments are still available if you wish to post onto your own blog.

We do hope you can respect our decision on the matter and that there will be no hard feelings between us.

 

Sincerely, Sharon 

 

This Response is Racist and Unfair

 

Let’s break this down.

 

The “Hot Button Topic” Policy 

First, Austen Authors of course has every right to hold their posts to a certain standard. However, in the policy they’re citing, they specifically say “slavery in Regency era” is an example of an ACCEPTABLE topic. Logic follows that Bella’s post about free people of color would be acceptable, too.

 

I was unfamiliar with Austen Authors before seeing Bella’s post on Instagram, so I dived into some of their most recent posts about the history of Jane Austen/Regency era.

 

In the last two months, they’ve posted 11 articles tagged “History.” One of those posts was about class in Regency England, which was arguably the bigger caste system of the 1800s than race. If you’re going to flag a post about racism as controversial, you should feel the same way about class. 

 

Another post was clarifying how many Regency authors get afternoon tea all wrong. In a similar vein, Bella’s post pointed out that Regency authors generally write a white world, when that is not historically accurate. The only difference here is that Bella was talking about the misrepresentation of black people, not tea.

 

It is clear that Austen Authors are not applying their policy in the same way across all posts. Rather, because Bella’s post touched on the presence of people of color, they deemed it “controversial” and literally erased it.

 

Conveniently, this proves Bella’s point that we white people obsessed with Jane Austen are guilty of racism of erasure.

  

The “No Recommendations” Policy

 

Bella closed her post by trying to start a conversation with readers. Here are her exact words:

“Which Regency romances have you read, JAFF [Jane Austen Fan Fiction] or otherwise, that have rendered non-white, non-cis, or non hetero characters with grace and flair (or at all)? Leave your recommendations in the comments!”

 

According to the admins, this is not allowed because their policy says “reviewing novels (even if positive) is not acceptable.”

 

Look, I don’t have the full Austen Authors rule book, and I’m not a lawyer, but their SOP appears to be an agreement between blog authors and the blog. This policy language sounds like the blog author - aka Bella - shouldn’t review or recommend novels...which she didn’t. It doesn’t say anything about readers of the blog making recommendations. Frankly, I don’t know what kind of reader community doesn’t want to encourage their members to make book recommendations. 

 

My bottom line here: Bella didn’t review a novel or make any author recommendations (unless maybe you count citing her sources?), so they are unfairly accusing her of breaking that rule.

 

Their Accusation of Censorship

 

At one point in her article, Bella calls out to fellow writers: “To be historically accurate, we must include a wide cast of characters in our books.”

 

The Austen Authors admins implied this was censorship:

 

“We also feel very strongly that all authors of any genre should be allowed to freely and without censorship write whatever they want. We were very disturbed by the "call to action" which pointedly encompassed "fellow authors" to write of people and topics they simply may not wish to write about.”

 

This is...a strange accusation. Censorship is only possible if you have power over the author. Bella doesn’t have power over her “fellow authors”; she’s merely encouraging a different train of thought.

 

Austen Authors, however, is exercising censorship, by removing Bella’s post. 

Bella summed it up best in her resignation email:

 

“Censorship is the act of an authority preventing authors from expressing themselves, not asking authors to stretch themselves to write things they may have not considered writing. If authors choose not to accept my call to action, they don't have to. I can't stop anyone from erasing minorities from their fiction. I don't have the authority. I don't claim to. I can't censor anyone.

 

In fact, the only people in this discussion engaging in censorship (colloquially, if not legally) is Austen Authors leadership, who have chosen to remove my post from their website and further, preemptively censor future posts via mass email, for the purpose of banning anyone else from expressing themselves similarly.”

 

Their Mention of RWA

 

It is curious to me that the Austen Authors admins bring up the Romance Writers of America (RWA) and its recent battles with diversity and racism. I’m guessing they’re referring to the episode in December that led to major changes at RWA, which you can catch up on with this Vulture article or this podcast from Bookriot.

 

I’ve never been a member of RWA and watched that debacle from the sidelines, but here’s what I learned from it: many members of RWA who are not straight and/or white have been pushing for the organization to recognize racism in the genre and take actions for writers, publishers, and readers to be more inclusive. When the board instead did the opposite, the organization basically imploded.

 

Austen Authors seems to have a different takeaway. In their opinion, RWA was “a once great, 40-year strong organization,” and I guess they think talking about race (not a completely shady ethics board decision) was what led to all the chaos?

 

First of all, RWA is still around. It was not destroyed, as the Austen Authors admin email implies. Second of all, if it was “great” and “strong,” why was it so weak that one Christmas Eve controversy could bring it to its knees?

 

I am a straight white female. I don’t want to be labeled a racist or homophobic or hurtful or hateful. I have an inclination not to acknowledge other people’s Otherness, for fear that in doing so, it will reveal that I am racist or homophobic. So I can understand the admins’ knee jerk reaction that if you don’t talk about it, you won’t create a stir. 

 

But guess what? I am racist and I am homophobic and I am biased because our culture has taught me to understand the world through those lenses. (This is uncomfortable for our egos to accept. Here’s an article from Psychology Today if you don’t understand this.) For the other person who is proud or curious or simply happy existing in their identity, me ignoring the way their identity differs from mine is not polite. It is not safe. In fact, by not making room for their identity, I am making the space unsafe for them.

 

That’s why the Austen Authors admins’ response is racist. Because they are using their power as a (white) publication about the history of the Jane Austen era to actively exclude basic historical facts about the presence of people of color.

 

But let me clear: I am not calling Austen Authors racist in some sort of warpath of cancel culture. Being racist is not an epithet. It’s a fact of life (one that we should acknowledge and combat, kind of like when cockroaches show up in your kitchen). I am calling attention to this because their response to Bella’s article is overblown, dishonest, problematic, hurtful and ultimately short-sighted.

 

After all, the only reason I’ve heard of Austen Authors is because of that article. I’m their target audience. I wasn’t looking up which literary allusions Jane Austen would have known; I was researching race in Regency England. I bet a lot of writers are right now, given current events. Moreover, the market is hungry for stories about a diverse Regency England, which is why Vanessa Riley’s latest release A Duke, The Lady, and a Baby is currently #48 in Historical Regency Fiction on Amazon; Netflix’s Bridgerton (based on Julia Quinn’s Regency series) will star a Black man as a duke; and oh yeah, Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon featuring a Black West Indian woman was recently brought to TV.

 

Austen Authors would be smart to keep Bella’s post and to encourage further research into how Jane Austen would have experienced race. Instead, they reacted from a place of fear, because to them, the mere presence of people of color in any space of theirs is controversial. That, my friends, is racism.

 

So what can we do about it?

If you share my concerns, there are a few things you can do:

  1. Especially if you’re already a reader of Austen Authors, reach out to them and tell them this topic is appropriate (and necessary). Help educate them on why their response is the controversy.

  2. Read Bella’s post, and keep educating yourself on the presence of people of color in the spaces you occupy (mentally and physically). I’d like to add a few more sources to Bella’s list:

    1. Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain by Peter Freyer

    2. Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833 by Daniel Livesay

    3. Britain and the Slave Trade from the UK National Archives

  3. Think critically about the authors and stories you read and/or tell to understand how race, sexuality, class, or other marginalized identities fit in.

  4. If you’re looking for an inclusive space as a romance writer, especially if you identify with a marginalized group, may I recommend the Inclusive Romance Project?

For my part, I felt compelled to send up the alert that this happened in our community of historical romance and that it is wrong.

 

I wanted to read the original post because I am actively researching the presence of people of color in Regency England, since I am absolutely guilty of the racism of erasure that Bella pointed out. The only way we (white people) can move forward is to acknowledge what we have done wrong and work to be better. I commend Bella Breen for writing her original post. I hope that Austen Authors and the historical romance community at large will commit to being inclusive and honest about both past and present.

 

**Update on July 12, 2020**

 

It is worth noting that in the past week, many contributors to the Austen Authors have resigned in protest of the group’s policies regarding Bella’s post. A Facebook user compiled this list for everyone’s reference:

 

Resigned from Austen Authors (as per their public statements on their Facebook or Twitter profiles, or in the Facebook group Austen Readers)

 

Bella Breen

Catherine Bilson

Don Jacobson

Summer Hanford

Renata McMann

Sophie Turner

Alexa Adams

Jayne Bamber

Allie Cresswell

Nancy Lawrence

 

This article was reprinted with permission of the author.

 

For Katherine Grant’s website, please visit: https://katherinegrantromance.com

 

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