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Romance Writers of America Continues to Celebrate Racist Conversion Stories

Warcrimes are apparently okay, if you find Jesus after.

Bloodied cowboy hat representing the RWA (Romance Writers of America) controversy. (Graphic: Alyssa Shotwell)

Before the Romance Writers of America (RWA) announced the winners of this year’s Vivian Awards on Sunday night, there were already concerns. The 2021 awards arrived after several fraught years and public reckonings for the RWA.

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There was the massive controversy over the organization’s treatment of popular author Courtney Milan after she spoke out about racism in the industry and in its books. 2020’s awards were skipped entirely after many judges and entrants withdrew their participation, and the RWA wrote that the contest could “not reflect the breadth and diversity of 2019 romance novels/novellas and thus will not be able to fulfill its purpose of recognizing excellence in the genre.” Everyone was on edge, and many doubted that any amount of promised changes would leave RWA salvageable.

And then, a book won in the “best romance with religious or spiritual elements” category whose “hero” was an active participant in genocide—namely, the massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee in 1890. That’s apparently okay, though, because he found God. The book is At Love’s Command by Karen Witemeyer.

That news alone is disgusting enough, but this feels even worse alongside the recent unearthing of hundreds of bodies at residential schools. It stands as a horrific reminder of how we actively reward and trivialize the trauma we put Indigenous people through.

Some on Twitter are asking that people donate to Indigenous advocacy groups instead of renewing their RWA membership. At least one author, Sara Whitney, has declined her award and is stepping away from the RWA, citing Witemeyer’s win.

The concerns about At Love’s Command are not new. Back when At Love’s Command was a finalist, members of the romance community spoke up about the book.

Calls to end the category

The concept of a “Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements” category has many people fighting back, especially since Witemeyer’s win. 


In 2014, there was outrage when a book was nominated in the “inspirational” category about a Jewish woman who falls in love with her Nazi Kommandant at a concentration camp and converts to Christianity. Now it’s 2021, and we have a “winning” hero who, for over a decade, hunted and killed Native Americans. Do we see a trend?

These are just the most high-profile and extreme cases of rewarding that conversion. And the idea of “redemption” that’s central to these stories leaves some pointing out that the category’s description favors Christianity over other faiths.

Citing the metrics, the Board followed with a statement doubling down on awarding At Love’s Command. They literally chose violence, again. In the statement, they point out that the category’s very requirement is that “the character can’t be redeemed by human means; only through their spiritual/religious awakening can they find redemption for their moral failings and or crimes against humanity.” Yes, they actually wrote out “crimes against humanity” as a qualifier.

Two judges for a separate category told Book Riot they felt like the new process set in place for nominating and awarding books was an improvement from years past. Still, they were disappointed by Witemeyer’s win.

The future of the RWA

This latest blunder comes after a supposed overhaul of the organization in the first half of 2020.

RWA and romance (like most genres) has decades of discriminatory policies and practices that often meant the exclusion of those not straight, white, and able-bodied. Until 2019, no Black writer of any gender won a RITA award (now called a VIVIAN.) When two did win in 2019, many people called them tokens. Despite no Black writer ever winning a RITA, RWA was founded by Black writer Vivian Stephens. Once a high school debate partner with (the) Barbara Jordan, Stephens was largely written out of RWA’s history for decades.

Between the 2019 fallout and #RITAssoWhite, the entire RWA board resigned. Other changes include the name change to the Vivian Awards (after founder Stephens), limiting fees, and new scoring guidelines. In addition to these changes, judges were trained on best DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) practices.

At the exact time two years ago, many had a “time will tell” sentiment on where or not the RWA could adjust to a more equitable world for romance writers and fans. However, the statement made this week and books that continue to be awarded shows that it is unlikely.

(via Twitter, featured image: Alyssa Shotwell)

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Author

Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.

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