Courtney Milan, formerly Chair of Romance Writers of America's Ethics Committee

Editor’s Note: Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has been a producer, reporter and editor at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jones is co-author of “Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete.” She talks politics, sports and culture weekly on Philadelphia’s 900AM WURD. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.

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Who doesn’t appreciate a good love story, especially these days?

Roxanne Jones

In a world unhinged by fear and hate, some days love feels like our only hope. Look no further than how the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle has captivated the globe, giving many of us a brief respite from the chaos of divisive politics and rabid warmongering we hear every day.

Since childhood, reading has been my favorite escape, a safe place to dream when the problems of the world got too heavy. But lately it seems those problems have intruded into my reading refuge.

And I’m not the only bookworm feeling out of sorts.

Romance Writers of America, a trade group with more than 9,000 members, is reeling after recent backlash over accusations of racism and a lack of diversity within the romance publishing world—a billion-dollar industry that has long been criticized for its lack of diversity and inclusion.

Since the scandal, RWA has been forced to cancel its prestigious 2020 RITA awards competition after a large number of writers and judges dropped out, has lost many of its judges and seen multiple resignations from its board of directors. The president, Damon Suede, and the executive director, Carol Ritter, have resigned.

The drama began when the then-Chair of RWA’s Ethics Committee, author Courtney Milan, a Chinese American and a vocal advocate for writers of color in publishing, referred publicly to a book by author Kathryn Lynn Davis titled, “Somewhere Lies the Moon, as a “f***ing racist mess” depicting harmful stereotypes of Chinese women.

The romantic saga, set in the Scottish Highlands, was published in 1999.

Davis, who is white, filed an ethics complaint with RWA against Milan, claiming she had lost a book deal due to Milan’s criticisms. Davis has since backtracked, telling the Guardian that her claim about suffering professional harm was not accurate. Milan was censured by the RWA board, given a one-year suspension from the group, and a lifetime ban from any leadership positions. After two complaints filed, a lengthy investigation and a report delivered to the Board, they dismissed all but one of the infractions against Milan.

Members revolted over Milan’s harsh punishment. A twitter storm ensued: #IStandWithCourtney.

“I’m not surprised by the controversy,” current board member Hanna Rhys Barnes told me, adding, “As a woman of color, I joined the organization to help make a difference and bring questions of equality, diversity and fairness to the forefront, but fairness and equality are not the same to me.” Barnes avoided explaining what she meant by this, or answering direct questions about racism within the group or in the romance book publishing industry. Barnes said she’s “definitely remaining” with the organization after her term ends this summer.

Famed author Nora Roberts has strong feelings about RWA. Roberts jumped into the fray early, supporting Milan’s right to call out racism within RWA and the publishing industry. A longtime LGBTQ ally, Roberts wrote on a recent blog post that she quit RWA back in 2005 when the leadership drafted an edict defining romance as only between one man and one woman. (Since then, the Rainbow Romance Writers, a group for LGBTQ authors in the genre, has become part of RWA, which has also rejected language defining “romance” as heterosexual.) Of the current controversy, she wrote that although she isn’t on Twitter and hasn’t been in RWA since 2005, “it’s been impossible not to be aware of the horrendous situation involving RWA, its leadership and Courtney Milan which, as it escalated, brought to light a long-standing and systemic marginalization of authors of color, of LGBTQ authors, by the organization … I regret all the years I didn’t hear, didn’t see, didn’t listen, remained unaware of all the sad and unfair things that are now coming to light.”

And though Milan’s suspension was quickly revoked, along with all other sanctions against her, it wasn’t fast enough to stop the outrage.

Ironically, RWA was co-founded in 1981 by a black woman, Vivian Stephens, a former editor at Harlequin Books and editor Dell publishing. Stephens was a trailblazer who helped create a lucrative career path for black and brown women who write romantic fiction novels.

“American women went through a sexual revolution,” Stephens told Black Enterprise Magazine in 1982. “Every woman is not a 21-year old virgin”.

Stephens, seeing a lack of representation for black women writers in publishing, wanted all voices to be valued. And she didn’t just focus on black storytellers. While an editor at Dell publishing in the 1970s, Stephens made it her mission to buy romantic stories from Asian, Latino and Native American women writers.

And for readers like myself, Stephens’ work has made a huge difference. Not every love story starts with a blonde-haired beauty with blue eyes and her green-eyed cowboy. And though that may be obvious today, up until the 1980s it was nearly impossible to find a book that told a heartfelt love story about women who looked like me.

Indeed, it wasn’t until best-selling authors such as Zane and Terry McMillan, two black women, who captured my attention nearly 20 years ago with steamy, romantic love stories that authentically captured black culture, that I even bothered to read a romance fiction at all. (Even now, I admit historical fiction and mysteries remain my favorite genres.)

Given a choice, I’d much rather live out my own passion than read about someone else’s romantic fantasies. Yet, I get the cult-like attraction to authors like Zane and the wildly famous “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James.

Shamefully, despite Stephens’ early work to recognize the talents of writers of color, until last year, no black woman in 36 years had ever won the group’s annual RITA award. Finally, in 2019, RITAs were awarded to two black authors, Kennedy Ryan and M. Malone. And Nisha Sharma was the first South Asian winner.

This type of blatant exclusion and discrimination of the very writers that the organization was founded to support is why many black and brown writers shun RWA.

One of them, Brenda L. Thomas, author of several romantic fiction books published by Simon & Schuster, has never been a RWA member but said she’s closely following the fallout. She told me that postponing the RITA contest, the US’s top prize for romance fiction, until next year is not enough to convince her that the organization is serious about standing up against racism in the industry.

“They have to go beyond the typical corporate quick fixes used when racial controversies arise like hiring a diversity expert to step in,” which the group has done.

Thomas, who told me she has also published under boutique firms like Brown Girls Books, wants editors and authors to “take more responsibility” for their work, so no one could deem it a “racist mess.”

She’s urging them to work harder, to do the research needed to create truly diverse characters.

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    “It’s difficult for all of us—no matter what our race or gender—to write with authenticity about characters from outside our own culture and experiences. But it’s about the learning the craft and expanding our creativity. We have to push beyond the stereotypes.”

    Good advice. I hope RWA members are learning and listening to voices like Courtney Milan’s – and Thomas’.