In 1985 when the miniseries North and South first aired on TV, my mother worked for a lady named Miss Rose Cauthen. North and South, for those previously spared by youth or ignorance, was based on a series of historical novels by John Jakes about two wealthy and heroic white guys who meet at West Point about a decade before the Civil War and become friends for life. And of course the big hook is, one is from the North and one is from the South—South Carolina, to be specific. It’s the vehicle that unleashed the raw sexual power of Patrick Swayze in a pair of tight britches on an unsuspecting world. Mama, my sisters, and I watched it avidly. All the ladies in Mama’s office watched and discussed it daily with breathless enthusiasm. Miss Rose herself declared it to be the best thing she’d seen on TV in an age.
Then came the Great Unpleasantness. The North guy’s abolitionist sister (played by Kirstie Alley) not only helped one of Swayze’s slaves escape the plantation, she had sex with him in the barn on his way out. A Black man and a white woman engaged in consensual sexual relations (or at least 10 full seconds of foreplay on the way to sexual relations) right there on the TV screen. I can only imagine the noises that came out of Miss Rose and her sister, Miss Louise, as this horror unfolded before them. But the next day, Miss Rose declared that she had turned off her television set. She informed her staff that North and South was filth of the worst possible kind, and she would not allow it to be discussed in her office. She even attempted to forbid the rest of them to watch. And when Mama told her she declined to be so censored in her own home, both Miss Rose and Miss Louise made it plain that henceforth they would think less of her as a lady. Bear in mind, please, that these genteel flowers had already absorbed the shock of several extended sequences of half-nekkid Swayze making soft focus whoopie with another man’s half-nekkid wife in scenes hot enough that Mama made Alexandra Christian cover her eyes. But a brief interlude between a single consenting white woman and a single consenting Black man who subsequently married was more than they could bear. And the idea that any other “nice” woman could bear it just fine was more than they could imagine.
I’ve found myself remembering Miss Rose a lot lately as I’ve been watching the RWA implode. It’s a long, complicated, very much on-going kerfuffle, but for the purposes of my point, here are the highlights. (For a more detailed analysis, start here.) In recent years, as romance as a literary genre expands beyond the f*ck fantasies of white ladies of a certain age both in fact and in perception, the Romance Writers of America keeps getting itself in trouble. The actual membership is becoming more diverse, but the ruling spirit of the organization keeps proving over and over again that it just kind of is not. One of the most vocal and effective critics of institutional racism in the RWA and romance as a genre is bestselling romance author Courtney Milan, who is Chinese-American. Back in August 2019, no doubt in response to yet another version of “honestly, Courtney, I don’t see the problem,” Milan called out another writer, Kathryn Lynn Davis, for her portrayal of Asian characters in a book from her backlist. On Twitter, she called the book a “racist mess” and quoted passages to prove her point.
Davis and the RWA attempted to turn off Milan and forbid the rest of us to watch her any more.
Specifically, Davis made a formal complaint to the RWA, saying Milan had cyber-bullied her and cost her a contract. RWA formed a secret squirrel special ethics committee to investigate because, inconveniently, the regular ethics committee at RWA that everybody knew about was chaired by Milan herself. The secret squirrels investigated and voted in secret to suspend Milan’s RWA membership for a year and ban her from holding any office within the organization for life.
And bless their sweet hearts, I swear I think they thought that would be the end of it. When one of Milan’s friends went public with the news, the RWA seemed to be shocked—shocked, I tell you!—to discover that not only would Milan not just go away and hush because they told her to, a big, loud swath of their membership was just as horrified by their attempt to silence her as she was and just as willing to say so.
It’s quite the circus. Since the initial blowup, a lot of complicated issues going back decades have come out. There’s even dispute now as to whose idea it was to spank Milan in the first place. Davis now says she only filed her complaint because the leadership at RWA told her she had to, that she never intended them to punish Milan. Meanwhile, the RWA leadership insists that once Davis filed her complaint, they had no choice but to act.
I call bullshit on both sides of that argument, but whatever. Y’all know me well enough by now to know I #standwithCourtney. I recently recorded a video statement as acquiring editor for Falstaff Crush calling out RWA and supporting diversity in romance in the strongest possible terms—love is love, y’all. That should be up on the Falstaff Books YouTube channel soon if it isn’t already.
But the actions of Davis and the RWA leadership are not mysterious to me. I know those people. As we say here in the Beautiful South, I’ve been knowing them all my life. They’re Miss Rose. Behind all the boilerplate and pearl clutching, all their assertion and defense comes down to this. “I am a nice lady. All my friends (all of whom think like me or don’t dare or care enough to tell me otherwise) tell me all the time what a nice lady I am. Nice ladies are not racists. Therefore, I cannot be a racist. My views on and portrayals of people not like me cannot be racist but are in fact the truth—or at least a perfectly acceptable fantasy that doesn’t hurt a soul. Because I don’t hurt people. I’m nice.”
Sorry, Miss Rose, but you’re not.
The people who think this way are so dependent on this view of themselves they see anything that threatens it as an unforgiveable attack. Out of fear or laziness or some combination of the two, they adamantly refuse to consider for even one moment that their critics might have a point. To question their own attitudes.
To check their privilege.
And until RWA can do that, it’s not going to get any better.
Romance as a genre is so much more than it’s perceived to be. And lord knows, with book stuffers and click farms and copyright crazies, we need a professional organization to defend us now more than we ever have before. But a Miss Rose RWA will never be qualified to do it.