The Student of Color in the Typical MFA Program
Apr 21, 2015
Note: In this essay, I am obviously generalizing about MFA programs, and readers no doubt will argue against such generalizing or bring up exceptions; e.g, witness the responses to the New Yorker blog post by Junot Diaz, “POC vs. MFA.” But like Diaz, I’ve talked to hundreds of MFA students of color who have experienced scenarios like the ones I outline below, many of them with writer instructors with considerable literary reputations. As I note below, questions of race always involve an argument over the description of reality. What’s different today is the writers of color have more venues to express their descriptions. Here is mine.
In the landscape of the literary world, one of the most dramatic shifts has been the rise of MFA creative writing programs. There are now more than 300 in the United States and Canada. Back in the late '80s, the Associated Writing Programs annual conference had about 350 attendees; this past year in Boston, the attendance was twelve thousand.
Despite this rise in numbers, if a student of color attends an MFA program, he or she will be in a small racial minority. The director of the program will probably be white, as will most of the professors. Of course, this isn’t a very different situation from most undergraduate colleges. But by its nature, writing is subjective and personal; so is the judgment of writing. This makes it a far different course of study than say math or science where, for the most part, the correct answers are objective and have been objectively proved.
Since writers are generally a liberal lot, the white faculty and students in these institutions profess the most progressive views on race. They see themselves as people who are generally without racial bias. Racism and racial bias can be found in the country, yes, but presumably that would be in the Republican Party or the Tea Party, not in a population of liberal white artists.
Unfortunately, that is not the experience of many MFA students of color. Personally, I have heard dozens of stories from individual MFA students of color that would indicate otherwise. So have other colleagues of mine.
Every year I teach at the VONA (Voices of the Nation Association) writers’ conference; it’s a conference for writers of color taught by writers of color. It was founded in part because of the negative experiences writers of color have gone through in undergraduate and MFA programs. Over and over, our students of color come to VONA and find a very different learning experience than have undergone in white dominated institutions. It’s not just that they and their writing and the experiences that undergird that writing receive a level of understanding that they do not get in a class with a white professor and white students; it’s also that our students receive a level of critique that they cannot receive in white institutions. At VONA the other writers of color and the instructor know the worlds and experiences the student is writing about and are better able to discern when the student is lying or distorting or evading difficult truths or is simplifying the complexities of her experience or her community. At VONA the other writers and the instructor also know the literary traditions that most writers of color write out of, something that is not the case with many white MFA professors.
On a larger level, the student of color in a VONA class doesn’t have to spend time arguing with her classmates about whether racism exists or whether institutions and individuals in our society subscribe to and practice various forms of racial supremacy. Nor does the student have to spend time arguing about the validity of a connection between creative writing and social justice.
Above all, in a VONA class of other writers of color, the student of color feels protected, safe, sane, valued. This is not the case when writers of color enter most creative writing classes and programs.
Although the rest of this essay focuses on MFA creative writing programs, the issues and arguments it depicts occur everywhere in American society, in educational institutions, in businesses, in political institutions. When issues of race come up in these other institutions, the treatment of the person of color and the reaction of whites in that institution are not very different from what happens in an MFA program.
The only difference is that in an MFA program, the unconscious ways whites perceive people of color are more likely to come out, since creative writing arises of the unconscious. In other words, it’s more likely in an MFA program that the issues of race and the presence of racial thinking will come up in student writing (whereas in other classes, racial issues often remain hidden or don’t apply to the subject matter).
Similarly, the divide between the way whites and people of color see the social reality around them is always there in our society. But this divide often remains invisible or obscured, especially in our current climate where the issues of race are avoided rather than discussed. But creative writing involves the very description of that reality, and so the gulf between the vision of whites and people of color is very present right there on the page. Moreover, the judgment of these descriptions again reveals a gulf between whites and people of color. And so, conflict ensues.
In other words, I am arguing that what the MFA student of color experiences in a predominantly white institution is not simply an obscure or numerically insignificant occurrence. Instead, it is symptomatic and revelatory of the ways the voices and consciousness of people of color are suppressed in our society.
The essay below was originally written specifically for student writers of color. It was written to let them know they are not crazy, that both their critiques and their work present challenges to the status quo, that the attempts to silence or ostracize them are responses to those challenges. It was written to let them know that what they experience as an individual is actually a social practice, a political practice that involves a clash of power between two groups, whites and people of color. It was written as a manual for battle and survival.
Here is an all too common scenario MFA students of color face in their mainly all white MFA programs:
Another student, usually white, brings in a piece with racial stereotypes or which presents people of color as the other or in a manner which negates their humanity as three dimensional individuals. In the same class, other students, usually white, also present pieces with similar problematic representations of people of color
Confronted with such a piece--or pieces--the writer of color must decide whether to voice an objection to the stereotypes or two dimensional portraits of people of color or the offensive racial slant of the white student’s piece.
Since such situations have played themselves out for so many MFA students, what we know is this: Invariably, neither the white professor nor the other white students will formulate and express the critique of the piece which is occurring in the mind of the student of color.
In other words, the student of color will be the sole person voicing her critique if she chooses to do so.
If and when the student of color voices her objections to the piece, more often than not, neither the white professor nor the other white students will respond to the actual critique; nor will they inquire further into why the student of color is making that critique.
Instead, the white professor and the other white students will generally first invoke some notion of the freedom of the imagination (perhaps echoing something like James’ donné—you have to grant the writer their starting premises). They will emphasize the subjectivity of all responses both to the reality around us and to a specific text.
At best, the white professor or other white students will argue that the problems with the white student’s piece may be caused by technical deficiencies --i.e., it is not really a racial issue.
At the same time, what will actually be going on in the class is this:
The white professor and the white students start with the assumption that none of the white people in the class are racists or consciously or unconsciously subscribe to any elements from an ideology of white supremacy. To challenge this assumption is treated as blasphemy, as an act of aggression.
In order to maintain this belief in the absence of white racism, what must be defended is the freedom of the white writer to write about people of color without taking into account the critiques of people of color.
In this defense, the student of color is subtly or openly charged with acting as a censor—this despite the fact that the student of color obviously has no or very little power to affect the writing of anyone in the room. If the student of color is designated as a censor, then of course her critique must be suspect, since censorship is always the enemy of any writer.
To help in this defense, the debate will then be formulated as occurring between the individual subjectivities in the class, which means that it is framed as the subjectivity of the one person of color against the seven, ten, twelve white students along with the white professor. Framed in this way, the outcome of such a debate is already predetermined.
Thus, the argument will not be formulated as a struggle between groups—between whites and people of color. It will not be placed within a formulation such as Richard Wright’s remark that blacks and whites are engaged in a struggle over the description of reality. It will not be placed within a history of the racial debate, literary, political and otherwise, over the description of our social reality. It will not remove the focus of the debate from the individual student of color, and place the debate within the context of arguments made by other writers and people of color concerning the depictions of people of color by white artists.
Another tactic the white professor and white students might take is that the argument will be designated as a political argument and thus, beyond the bounds of a literary class.
And yet it's only when the argument is seen as a racial antagonism between whites and people of color that the true nature of the conflict can be revealed.
But of course the debate in the MFA classroom is constructed and guided so that this never happens.
At the same time, on an emotional and often unconscious level, something else is going on in the class.
To entertain that there might be racially problematic or racist elements in the white student’s piece is to entertain the possibility that the work of other white students and even the white professor might contain such elements.
Therefore the white professor and the other white students will feel at some level that they too are being critiqued by the student of color.
Given this feeling of threat and given their investment in the racial status quo, on a conscious and/or an unconscious level, the whites in the class will react to the student of color’s critique of the racial bias in the white student’s piece with fear and anger and outrage.
How does this process occur?
Some white members of the class will feel the student of color’s critique is simply wrong; these members will dismiss the student and her critique without much thought. If the student persists, these white students will feel annoyed, then angry.
But some of white members of class may begin to feel guilty, may find a part of themselves wondering if the student of color is right. They may even sense that by critiquing the racial portrait in a white student’s work the student of color is also challenging the general portrayal of people of color in the society, the negative stereotypes that white student has never had to deal with.
These feelings of guilt will conflict with the white students belief that they are not racist. Rather than explore the possible reasons why they might feel guilty, most whites will cling even harder to the belief that they are not racists and therefore, should not feel guilty. This is unfair, they say to themselves. I am being accused of something I did not do. (Such thoughts can occur even if the student of color never even mentions the word “racist” or makes any such accusation.) The white student will then feel angry at the student of color for treating the white student unfairly, for making the white student feel guilty. The white student—or the white professor--may even begin to feel that he or she is the victim of the student of color.
Thus, the white professor and members of the class will begin to feel antipathy toward the student of color making the critique. The student of color will be deemed, either silently or vocally, as a troublemaker, as someone who is overly sensitive, as paranoid.
The white professor and other white students might possibly admit on a theoretical level that the student of color might have a basis for her critique which the white people in the class may not have sufficient knowledge to understand.
But very rarely will the white professor and other white students take this critique as an occasion to spur them further to understand how the student of color’s critique is connected to a tradition of literature and theory which the white professor and white students are unaware of and have never sufficiently studied.
Very rarely will the white professor and other white students begin to examine the limitations of their own experiences. Very rarely will they begin to inquire what it means for them to be “white”—that is, rarely will they take the student’s color of critique as a call to examine their own ignorance of the way racism and white supremacy function in our society. They will not ask themselves “What does it mean for me to be a white person in this society? How did I learn I was a white person? How did I learn what whiteness means to me and to others?”
Instead, the focus of emotion and discussion will center on the student of color, and this focus will soon begin to spill over into a critique of the student of color’s character and her motives for “disrupting” the class. It will also focus on the student of color’s challenge to the white professor’s authority and superior knowledge. The student’s “attitude” toward her fellow students.
If the student of color persists in making such critiques, she will develop a reputation in the MFA program as a troublemaker, a malcontent, someone with psychological problems. As not supportive of her fellow students. As disrespecting her professors.
If the student of color persists in making such critiques, she will find herself increasingly isolated socially and shunned in various ways by the other students and professors in the department—and this may very well also include other professors of color (who will often feel that their own position in the department is quite precarious and open to challenge).
After two or three years of such treatment, if she persists, the student of color graduates having fought a literary, psychological and political battle that none of her white counterparts have had to face. The price of her ticket is not the same as theirs; the toll she’s paid is far higher.
All this negative focus upon the student of color, all the forces arrayed against her, is rarely seen for what it is:
It is one example in many of how our society fights to maintain the racial status quo, fights to maintain the privileges that whites enjoy by virtue of their whiteness, fights to police any threats to the society’s system of white privilege and white supremacy.
In other words, while each individual in this scenario believes he or she is acting as an individual, the actions of the white professor and white students and the MFA program towards the student color have been pre-programmed.
That is why this scenario takes place over and over in MFA programs all across the country.
At the same time, in most MFA programs, the subject of race and writing about race is never considered a fundamental and essential area of study for all writers in the program regardless of color. It is never a requirement, always an elective.
This is not surprising since the majority of the white faculty do not believe that such a study is essential to their own writing or to their own pedagogical practices.
This ignorance of the lens of race or the works of writers of color does not occur by accident. It is both a result of the racial inequalities of power in our society and a cause of it. This ignorance is one way the system of racial inequality maintains itself.
If all this is preprogrammed, if the events of this scenario inevitably play themselves out in so many MFA programs, what is the student of color to do?
That is, should she voice her criticism or not?
And, if she does voice her criticism, how often and how vocally and to whom should she voice it to?
What are the dangers she puts herself in by making such a critique? What strategies should she employ in dealing with the social and power structures designed to protect white privilege and supremacy?
The answers to these questions in part depend upon the individual and individual choice.
But I cannot emphasize strongly enough that the scenario I’ve described is not an individual scenario but a societal scenario—that is, a scenario which is dictated by the race and racial position of the actors within the scenario, a scenario that is dictated not by individuals but by society’s imperative to defend the racial status quo from any direct challenges. Because of this, I do think there are certain things the student of color should consider.
Among these are The Art of War by Sun Tzu.
Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.
It is the rule in war, if our forces are ten to the enemy's one, to surround him; if five to one, to attack him; if twice as numerous, to divide our army into two.
If equally matched, we can offer battle; if slightly inferior in numbers, we can avoid the enemy; if quite unequal in every way, we can flee from him.
Thus, the student of color might consider whether this is a battle she can win or not. And given the forces and numbers arrayed against her and given the fact that she is a student, she is clearly not in a position of superior numbers or superior power. This is therefore probably a battle that, if she continues to fight, she will inevitably lose.
The problem for the student of color is that she feels if she is silent before a piece of writing which is racially problematic or insensitive or simply racist, she will be condoning such writing.
To be silent, she may tell herself, is to be a coward.
Furthermore, if she persists in her critiques, she will be increasingly attacked and will begin to feel isolated and powerless. She may feel then that to persist with her critiques is a way of trying to maintain or win back her power.
But what Sun Tzu teaches us is that to retreat or lay low in times when we do not have power or sufficient numbers is not weakness; it is wisdom.
What Sun Tzu teaches is that taking time to build allies and gather forces is not weakness but wisdom.
What Sun Tzu teaches is that taking time to obtain information about the enemy and to identify the enemy’s weaknesses is not weakness, but wisdom.
What Sun Tzu teaches is do not fight battles you know you are going to lose. The object is not to win a particular battle but to win the war.
Or as I wrote to one such student, being an activist artist is not a sprint. It is a marathon. You need to plan and strategize and build your forces for the larger battles to come, to fight from strength not weakness.
What I am saying here ought to be clear by now: Students of color, you are not crazy or misperceiving what is before and around you.
You are in hostile territory. You are in a battle. In many MFA programs your presence and mind and creativity represent an alien presence, at odds with the powers that be.
You can learn from the example of other revolutionaries. You must use your wits and not just your heart. You have to strategize, not simply react with your emotions.
You have to recognize you have entered a realm that will protect its powers, the racial status quo, if you challenge it. Which will attack challenges and challengers to its authority.
It shouldn’t have to be this way, but it is.
In the end, though, if you use your wits, you will be stronger because of your struggles. You will find allies. You will not fight the battle alone. You will take time to assess the forces arrayed against you. You will plan for the long haul, for building your own work, your own strength, your own position of power. The fight is not over. It has just begun.
Your time is coming. Your time is coming.