ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A controversy over how people of color are depicted in romance novels reached new levels this week. It has led to mass resignations at the trade group Romance Writers of America. The group even canceled its annual awards contest because it says many in the romance community lost faith in its ability to administer the contest fairly. Today, the group announced that the president and executive director have stepped down. This is a billion-dollar-plus industry. And to explain the controversy, we're joined by NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Start at the beginning. Where did this controversy start?
GRIGSBY BATES: Well, it started when Courtney Milan, who is a bi-racial writer - she's Chinese and white. She's a romance writer who's done very well for herself. She's ended up on The New York Times bestseller list, USA Today. She's been a steadfast advocate for more diversity in RWA, in its leadership and in a way it evaluates and makes its awards. And she's also a frequent presence on social media.
And last summer, she tweeted about a book by a white author, Kathryn Lynn Davis, who had some problematic descriptions of Chinese and half-Chinese women in her romance "Somewhere Lies The Moon." Milan was offended, and she tweeted the offending passages were an effing racist mess. Davis and her publisher took offense because they said it could be professionally harmful to them. And they asked RWA's ethics committee, of which Milan at the time was a chair, to do something about it.
SHAPIRO: And how did that complaint blow up into this massive upheaval at RWA?
GRIGSBY BATES: Well, RWA, in answer to the request that it do something about this, convened an ethics panel that was not comprised of the actual ethics committee. As I said, Milan had stepped down after hearing there was going to be an investigation 'cause she didn't want there to be a conflict of interest. So the committee met and made its decision confidentially. And its conclusion was that Milan should be suspended for a year, sanctioned and not allowed to hold any leadership positions in RWA ever again, which was weird 'cause she'd recently been given a service award for contributions to the organization.
SHAPIRO: So from this investigation and confidential decision, there has been this huge blow-up - leadership turnover, cancellation of awards. How did we get to that point?
GRIGSBY BATES: Well, the conclusion of the ethics committee, or the sub-ethics committee - whatever it was - got leaked. And immediately, there was a huge blow-up on social media. A lot of romance writers of color start a hashtag saying, I stand with Courtney. There were a lot of white romance writers who were allies who said, no, this is ridiculous. This is just unacceptable. How it was done - it wasn't nearly transparent enough. This is - no, no, no.
Many people resigned, including several members of the board, which happened to have been the most diverse board RWA had ever had. And now we've gotten to the point that several big publishers, including the five biggest publishers in romance, have pulled out of the annual convention, which will happen, I guess, in San Francisco in July. They were like, you know, given the controversy, given the way it was handled, given a whole bunch of things, we're not doing that this year. So...
SHAPIRO: Karen, with just 30 seconds left - without leadership, without annual awards, how does this group go forward?
GRIGSBY BATES: That's a really good question. And we're all going to have to watch that because we don't know right now.
SHAPIRO: That is Karen Grigsby Bates. She is a senior correspondent for NPR's Code Switch podcast.
GRIGSBY BATES: You're welcome.
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