Monday, February 1, 2016

Structural Racism in Romance: Call it out

This is a post about change.

The other day I came across an essay by Courtney Milan, where she laid out her views on a controversial post from the Kirkus Reviews blog. The original Kirkus post (here) celebrated diversity across romance subgenres, with statements from Kwana Jackson and Damon Suede, but it also included the following quote:

As a reviewer, I have very little time to actually read books that I don’t get assigned... 

I rarely get romances to review that are written by or include characters of color. So even when I actually buy a book, or a publisher sends me an author I really want to read, I usually don’t have time—reading that book takes me away from titles I get paid to read. 

You don't even have to read between the lines to see that Kirkus, an organization with substantial clout in the world of publishing, doesn't send diverse books to it's reviewers. As Courtney Milan states, "This is an example of structural racism. Everyone may mean well, but if a publisher knows that a debut author isn't going to get a Kirkus review, that publisher is less likely to buy that author - even if they care about diverse books, they also have to care about the bottom line."

The Kirkus reviewer, Bobbi Dumas, responded to Courtney Milan with a thoughtful post, inviting further conversation, a discussion I hope continues. In contrast, I found the formal statement from Kirkus to be somewhat disingenuous. They said, in part, "The editors of Kirkus are always thinking about diversity - all kinds of diversity - when we make our assignments." 

Nice of them to take that position, but it's contradicted by their editor's statements in the original post. They do say they will be working to improve diversity in their reviews, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with. 

Now, why would I use a video from the 1976 Olympics to begin a discussion of an ongoing controversy in the romance world? Because I hope to make a (potentially clunky) comparison.  

The video is a twelve minute history lesson, primarily because of the conversation between the two broadcasters, Donna de Varona and Curt Gowdy. Here's some background, for those of you who weren't around to watch the '76 Olympics in real time. The East German team, particularly their women, won an astonishing number of medals. Prior to the 4 x 100 relay, their women's swim team had won the gold medal in every event, and they were heavily favored to win the relay.

Here's a snippet of the pre-race conversation between Mr. Gowdy and Ms. de Varona...

CG: "I want to ask you about these amazing East German women. What's been your impression watching them, as a former Olympic swimmer?"

DdV: "Well, I think our main problem, which I've stated before, is that our women are developed in the club system. The men that developed that system are only coaching men on the collegiate level. Young boys have good high school programs and good collegiate programs. Women are just starting to get involved with that. We don't have the coaches available to us, and there's a big gap and we have a long way to go, contrary to East Germany, where the women are brought in equally with the men..."

I absolutely applaud the deftness with which she changes the focus of his question from the East Germans, widely suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs, suspicions which were later confirmed, to the issues being faced by the US women's swim team. Ms. de Varona goes on to say that the only reason US swimmer Shirley Babashoff was able to compete in the '76 Olympics was because Title IX provided her the means to train with her college men's team.

Here's some more backstory for you. The first time she competed in the Olympics, Donna de Varona was 13 years old. The year was 1960, and she was the world record holder in the 400 IM. Four years later, she won two gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics.

And after that? She retired from swimming, because there was no place for her to train. There were no college programs for women swimmers. 

Instead of swimming, she studied broadcasting, another area with few opportunities for women. She was seventeen the first time she appeared on ABCs Wide World of Sports, the youngest broadcaster and one of the only women on the network. She carved out a career in television, and served on the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

I'm going into these details because I didn't know much about Ms. de Varona, and she has had an amazing life. While she was still in her twenties, she worked with the Senate on a number of measures, and was a consultant on the legislation that included "Title IX of the Equal Education Amendments Act which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational institution receiving Federal funding."   (Wikipedia)

Title IX. The 1972 law that said if you were going to spend money on men's sports, you had to spend the same amount on women's sports. Forty years after the law's passage, women's athletics looks a lot different, and not just because of digital photography.  Here's a link to the 4x100m relay final from the 2012 Olympics in London so you can see what I mean.

So what does an ongoing debate among authors and publishers of romance have to do with the problems faced by women athletes in 1976? A big part of my message, I think is that the '76 video gives me hope, because it shows that change is possible. The downstream effects of a single piece of legislation have made a difference in the life of every woman in this country. 

The discouraging part comes from the difficulty in legislating the marketplace. I mean, we've got laws against discrimination, but we still create sub-subgenres for romance novels written by and about all types of people. Labels like m/m romance, African-American romance, interracial romance, and transgender romance create barriers, making books sound like something your average romance reader wouldn't be interested in. But these stories are all built around the same basic template and they pull from the same tropes. They're all romances.

They're more alike than they are different, though a hard-wired, systemic bias makes those similarities difficult to see.

The only way to cure that kind of bias is to call it out when you see it. The discussion engendered by a few blog posts has prompted Kirkus to promise "immediate steps", and maybe they actually will create policies that enable diverse authors to have their work reviewed. If they do, it'd be a smaller-scale Title IX, and their action would have significant potential impact. 

The alternative is to carry on the status quo, though I have to believe that pioneers like Donna de Varona hold us to a higher standard than that.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Charlotte. I took two things I've been pondering and worked them together.

  2. By nature, we are label happy creatures. For good or for ill? That is the question. I'm not a fan of them myself. I find labels limit even as subtly as creating perceived limitations where there weren't any to begin with. Great article.
    In gratitude,
    Marissa xo

    1. Yes! It's impossible to legislate "perceived limitations" - in fact, a lot of the time they fly beneath your awareness. I hope in this case an ongoing discussion will occur, resulting in substantive change.
      Thanks Marissa!

  3. "interracial romance" - how hideous. I had no idea that was even a sub-genre. I've been so much more aware of these issues since my m/m romance reading adventure, and I would love to see "interracial" (god, I feel awkward even typing that) and same-sex romances become "just another romance". The more we read and blog about these things, the more that will happen, right? (Although I, for one, think maybe it doesn't hurt to tag m/m as such, so I don't have to read any pesky heterosexual romances by accident...)

    1. FWIW Secret is tagged as an interracial romance, Ellen, and I absolutely agree that pulling everything under the same umbrella is a goal worth working for. In the annual All About Romance best of the year voting, they had all the standard categories (paranormal romance, contemporary, historical, etc) and then a separate LGBT category - which meant paranormals and historicals and contemporaries - which happened to have queer characters - were competing against each other. I saw a fair amount of discussion on whether it was better to guarantee an LGBT book exposure with the separate category, or to get rid of the category and work toward making them all mainstream. Discussion ongoing...