Romance Writers of America had a history of racism. It led to its own implosion.

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Romance novelist Nana Malone felt like she was back in high school — surrounded by mean girls.

It was the summer of 2019, and Malone was attending the national conference for Romance Writers of America, romance publishing’s powerful trade organization. Malone, who is black,was there for the reception for the RITAs, the annual awards ceremony for published authors. Her friends Kennedy Ryan and M. Malone (no relation) were winners that year — the first black authors to win RITAs — and all three were celebrating the milestone.

“It was this great culmination of all this work that had been done for authors of color to finally get recognition, especially for these two,” Malone says. She was still basking in that joy when she overheard another group of attendees talking.

“Oh,” she says she heard one of them say. “I didn’t know we needed two token winners.”

It was the kind of small ugliness that would be tempting to brush away as a one-time incident coming from a single bad actor. But six years earlier, fellow RWA member Piper Huguley had experienced something remarkably similar. In 2013, Huguley, an English professor and romance novelist, was up for a Golden Heart Award. The Golden Heart, which is separate from the RITAs,recognizes work by unpublished authors, and Piper was the only black finalist nominated for any of RWA’s awards that year (for her historical romance A Champion’s Heart).

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