As Black Lives Matters protests continue around the world, I’ve been reflecting on how the RNA can become more inclusive of black authors and supportive of black voices. The RNA is a very white organisation, disproportionately white, by comparison with the demographics of the United Kingdom. In 2017 our membership survey suggested that our membership was 98% white. This is in comparison to a figure of 86% for England and Wales in the 2011 census.
The reasons for that are extensive and complex and relate to bigger problems of lack of representation of black voices in the traditional publishing industry, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also look inward and reflect on whether we, as an organisation, have genuinely provided a welcoming and inclusive space for black authors.
I love the RNA. It has been my village through my own development as an author, and it’s really easy to assume that experience would be shared by everyone. But I know that this hasn’t necessarily been the case, and that the RNA hasn’t always provided a supportive environment for black authors.
I’m sorry for that.
We can’t change our past, but we will work to do better.
We’ve started over the last 2-3 years to make changes within the RNA to ensure that we become more inclusive in many ways, including providing grants for membership and conference places for authors from under-represented groups. This year twenty-five bursaries were allocated to authors, but we can still do more.
So here are two more things that are happening right now. Firstly, we will ensure that anyone who is representing the RNA in any sort of public or official capacity is fully committed to creating an inclusive organisation. In the past we’ve stepped back from engaging with individual members’ views and how they’re shared, and simply said that we don’t get involved in that. Free speech is important and our members are encouraged and supported to discuss and debate freely, both in person and online. However, we expect our members to disagree respectfully and while being mindful of the words they use, particularly online, and we should not allow ourselves to be oblivious to members who have an official role with the organisation sharing racist, sexist, homophobic or other exclusionary content online. If you are going to volunteer with us, being committed to the RNA as an actively inclusive organisation, that welcomes difference in its members and their writing, cannot be negotiable.
Secondly we would like to actively encourage more black authors to become more fully involved in the RNA. If you are a black member of the association and you’ve ever thought that you might like to get more involved but had the feeling that it’s somehow not for you, we want to help break down those barriers. Many roles within the RNA are a lot of work so it’s unfair to expect anyone to take on a role that they don’t have time or headspace for, but having a more diverse range of voices in the room (ok – on the Zoom call) where decisions are made enables us to make better decisions, so we’re open to the possibility of less-time-consuming consultancy-type roles, job shares, or any other models that might be suggested. And we extend that invitation, as well, to other authors from under-represented groups.
I know that some members will feel uncomfortable reading this. They’ll wonder why the Chair of the RNA is discussing racism at all. My answer is that I simply no longer feel that silence is an option. As writers we don’t just observe culture, we create it. Like many members reading this, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without the support that I’ve had from the RNA. I wouldn’t be in a position to tell the stories I’m able to tell without the RNA. It is deeply uncomfortable to acknowledge that an organisation that has been like a comfort blanket for us might be less welcoming and embracing for others, but without acknowledging that we aren’t able to look at where and how we can improve and ensure that the RNA represents, and nurtures, all romantic fiction authors in the future.
Alison May is a novelist and short story writer and current Chair of the Romantic Novelists’ Association.